Israel Gives War Crimes a New Face
By Joharah Baker for MIFTAH
January 14, 2009

It is literally mindboggling for Palestinians to see how some people still need convincing that what Israel is perpetrating in the Gaza Strip is nothing short of war crimes. What more needs to happen for this to be an indisputable fact? It can't be the death and injury of more civilians – dead mothers and children, young girls with their legs blown off, babies with bandaged heads and little boys with no eyes. No, the sheer number of civilian casualties over the past 19 days in Gaza cannot possibly need upping in order for the picture to be clearer than it already is. What seems inconceivable to many, this writer included, is why the term "war crimes" is not being used at every turn in describing Israel's actions in the Gaza Strip.

Just so there is no confusion, a brief recap on what constitutes a war crime may be in order here.

"According to the International Criminal Court, war crimes include grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other serious violations of the laws and customs that can be applied in international armed conflict…when they are committed as part of a plan or policy or on a large scale."

Looking at the list of violations that constitute war crimes, it is disturbingly obvious that Israel's actions in the Gaza Strip are a perfect fit. "…Violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular murder; collective punishments; acts of terrorism; the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples; threats to commit any of the foregoing acts."

If applied to the Gaza situation, these have all been carried out, practically to the letter, by Israeli army forces. The bombing of entire neighborhoods in Gaza City, Jabalya and Rafah, not to mention the deliberate targeting of clearly marked civilian targets such as an UNRWA-run school are undeniably crimes against innocent civilians. The horrific death toll in Gaza is testimony in and of itself. According to Palestinian medical sources, which have been supported by international agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and UNRWA, the civilian death toll constitutes the majority of those killed in the aggression. Most disturbing is the number of women and children killed or injured in the ongoing assault. According to the Palestinian medical sources, as of January 14, 311 children and nearly 100 women have been killed so far in the aggression that has taken over 1,000 lives. Almost 4,000 people have been injured, some gravely, due to the sinister nature of the weapons being used against them.

For example, Gaza hospitals have recently reported incoming patients with severe burns on their bodies, sometimes down to the bone. Concomitantly, there have been media reports backed by video footage of Israeli helicopters dropping bombs that burst in mid-air and emit a white trail of smoke, otherwise known as white phosphorous. This highly-incendiary substance is permitted for military use only in open areas where armies want to create a smokescreen to disguise their troops' movements. According to Protocol III of the Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons, the use of white phosphorus is strictly forbidden in densely populated areas. The Jabaliya Refugee camp, population 100,000, undoubtedly falls in this category.

That is where Israel dropped the white phosphorus bombs, resulting in at least 10 serious burn injuries, patients rushed to hospital with skin peeling off their faces and bodies. Phosphorus shells are particularly grotesque because they ignite upon contact with oxygen and can only be extinguished when completely deprived of it. In other words, they can burn through the skin for an unimaginable and excruciating period of time.

While Israel is not a signatory to the abovementioned convention, it is still obligated under international law to take all necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties. "What we're saying is the use of white phosphorus in densely populated areas like a refugee camp is showing that the Israelis are not taking all feasible precautions," said Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst for Human Rights Watch. "It's just an unnecessary risk to the civilian population, not only in the potential for wounds but also for burning homes and infrastructure."

The list can go on. Israel's forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes or their homes’ destruction, the suffocating blockade in place for over a year that has kept the entire Gaza Strip on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, and the withholding of basic life-necessary goods such as fuel and medicine from the populace, all constitute grave violations of international humanitarian law. It is not only the Palestinians who claim this, even though they are the best judges given that they are the unfortunate party at the receiving end of this brutality. Representatives of international organizations have also expressed their outrage at Israel's actions, including Chris Gunness of UNRWA following the deaths of 45 Palestinians in the Israeli bombing of an UNRWA school sheltering displaced Palestinians, and ICRC spokesperson Pierre Wettach after discovering that Israel had not only shelled homes in the Zeitun quarter but had left the injured there to die.

So why has Israel not been stopped in its tracks? For one, Israel has one of the most powerful propaganda machines in history churning out inconsistencies and fabrications in a bid to pull world opinion to its side. It has, unfortunately, done an exemplary job, with many feeding into Israel's proclaimed justification for its war on Gaza - the Palestinian rockets fired at Israel.

The rockets, which have killed less than 20 Israelis over the past five years, are arguably a thorn in Israel's side. However, no logical reasoning could possibly justify Israel's brutal assault against an entire people because of them. It is also unreasonable to equate Hamas (the primary rocket launcher) with the almighty Israeli army/government. For one, Israel is a sovereign state, fully independent and responsible for its borders. Hamas, on the other hand, is one segment of an occupied people. While they may purport that they are a governing body in Gaza, there is nothing independent or sovereign about the overcrowded and impoverished area they say they rule. In all aspects, Gaza, much like the West Bank and east Jerusalem, remain occupied territory and the Palestinians, an occupied people seeking liberation and independence.

Hence, Israel, and not Hamas, is obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, and it is Israel which should be held accountable for the obvious war crimes it is now committing in Gaza.

This is easier said than done. Besides Israel's obvious advantage in being the US's closest ally and having its blind support, at the popular level, war crimes have already been associated with certain images, thanks to war criminals such as Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Rwandan leaders linked to the brutal genocides in their respective countries. The images of Hutu warriors hacking their Tutsi opponents with machetes and the testimonies of door to door rapes and mass graves in the former Yugoslovia have formed a certain prejudice as to what war crimes look like. What needs to be understood is that a "smart" bomb dropped on a civilian area or a tank shell shot directly at homes, which results in the death, maiming and traumatizing of innocent civilians, is just as much a war crime as one-on-one murder.

There are hopeful signs that perhaps Israel may finally have to answer for its brutalities. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged an investigation into "possible Israeli violations of international humanitarian law", citing the deaths of 30 people in the shelling of the Zeitun Quarter, which she described as "appearing to have all the elements of war crimes."

Needless to say, Israel's leaders should bear the consequences of their actions. The Israeli "troika", consisting of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who ordered this atrocity in Gaza, are just as worthy of a trial in The Hague as Mr. Milosevic ever was.

Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at