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‘I’m telling you that this massacre will happen again’: Lessons from the 2014 Russell Tribunal for the new intifada

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We are putting the world on notice, with very heavy hearts, that we believe that something [terrible] will happen.

– Abdaf Soueif

Every time the operations are getting worse, the massacres are getting worse – I’m telling you that this massacre will happen again.

– Eran Efrati

There is no reason that [we] can say we don’t know. We know.

– Dr. Mads Gilbert

As we face the looming possibility of a Third Intifada and renewed Israeli military operations in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, this may be a good time to recall the findings of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) almost exactly one year ago and their implications for a future Israeli military action against the Palestinian population.

The RToP Extraordinary Session in Brussels

Founded by Bertrand Russell in 1966 as a “Tribunal of conscience,” the Russell Tribunal has investigated injustices and violations of international law that the international community fails to adequately address in Vietnam, headed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Tribunals have been formed to examined human rights violations in Argentina and Brazil (1973), Chile (1974-76) and Iraq (2004), and Palestine (2009-2012). The RToP held five sessions and delivered its Final Report. Yet, due to the gravity of last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, the Tribunal decided to hold an Extraordinary Session in Brussels last September 24th.

The breadth and depth of knowledge and expertise on display was certainly extraordinary, as Jurors Michael Mansfield QC, John Dugard, Vandana Shiva, Christiane Hessel, Richard Falk, Ahdaf Soueif, Ken Loach, Paul Laverty, Roger Waters, Ronnie Kasrils, Radhia Nasraoui  and Miguel Angel Estrella heard testimonies from Paul Behrens, Desmond Travers, David Sheen, Max Blumenthal, Eran Efrati, Mads Gilbert, Mohammed Abou-Arab, Mads Gilbert, Paul Mason, Martin Lejeune, Mohammed Omer, Raji Sourani, Ashraf Mashharawi, Ivan Karakashian, Agnes Bertrand and Michael Deas. Not surprisingly, the event received little coverage by the mainstream press, and its facts and conclusions remain largely unknown to the general public.

Three of the four Gazan witnesses invited by the Tribunal were prevented from leaving Gaza, due to such restrictions as having to physically obtain Israeli approval for their Belgian visas in Jerusalem, while simultaneously being denied access to Jerusalem (the very fact that this requirement held even though the witnesses were attempting to exit via Egypt itself suggests that Israel is indeed the Occupying Power, effectively controlling all access to Gaza by land sea and air). The only one who was succeeding in leaving, Palestinian journalist Mohamed Omar, was only able to do so with his Dutch passport, after having first had his Gazan passport refused. The European Parliament Members who had attempted to enter Gaza two weeks earlier were also denied entry. The Israeli government was invited to attend, but declined.

The testimonies were detailed, comprehensive and chilling, and together made a compelling case for systematic and deliberate war crimes committed in a broader context of racism, impunity and genocidal discourse. While the legal definition of the “G-word” sets a high bar, the Tribunal concluded that the situation was already extremely close and getting closer to the willful mass extermination of a people on ethno-religious grounds.

Massive Firepower and Systematic Destruction

The sheer scope of the assault and the destruction it wrought are clearly suggest a policy to wage war, not on only on Hamas, but on the entire civilian population of Gaza. The 51-day assault dropped an estimated 700 tons of explosives – 2 tons per square kilometer – equal to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The sheer scope of the damage – including the deaths of at least 1658 civilians, the wounding of 11,231, and the destruction of 18,000 housing units (or 13% of available housing), 110,000 homeless, etc. – is itself evidence of systematic and willful policy decisions. The use of such armaments as white phosphorous, depleted uranium, DIME, flechettes, fuel-air and thermobaric munitions, and cluster bombs suggested a deliberate antipersonnel strategy against a trapped civilian population in one of the most densely populated places on earth, denied their basic right to flee a conflict zone.

The destruction of businesses, food production infrastructure, 220 factories (including a soap factory and a candy factory), 68% of the arable land, fishing equipment that had been stored for protection, and 130 cows on a single farm (“none of the cows were Hamas,” their owner was quoted as saying, “they were secular cows”), coming as it did on the heels of an eight-year embargo and four major previous attacks, amounted to the effective destruction of a once healthy economy.

The destruction of 50% of hospitals and 63% of medical clinics, refusal to allow ambulances in and direct targeting of ambulances and medics (with a total of 144 healthcare workers, doctors, nurses, medics, firefighters killed or injured), all suggest intentionality. One medic was shot in the hip and chest and bled to death. When his colleagues tried to help him, they too were shot.

The destruction of basic civilian infrastructure was massive and systematic. The bombing of water facilities for 450,000 people and destruction of Gaza’s only power plant affected water treatment, sanitation, food and medical facilities. Even UN-sponsored and controlled infrastructure was bombed, including three UNRWA schools being used as refugee shelters.

As the IDF claimed a 90% success rate for its bombing campaign, one can only conclude, with the Tribunal, that this destruction was willful. “There was no justification at all,” said journalist Martin Lejeune of the bombing of factories: “I think it was really to harm the civilians and to harm the population of Gaza. That was the reason they committed these attacks.”

Possible War Crimes

The deliberate targeting of civilians, prisoners and wounded, abductions, beatings, humiliation and torture, use of children as human shields, systematic attacks on journalists and medics, massive destruction of property, homes, mosques, churches, cemeteries, farms, factories, businesses and basic infrastructure (including water, food, sanitation and electricity), deliberate revenge attacks on whole neighborhoods and other possible war crimes were confirmed by testimony after testimony.

89 families were completely liquidated – one having order ordered to stay in their home or be shot, the house bombed several hours later with them inside.  Handcuffed bodies were found with bullets to the head and chest and bullet casings by their heads, in classic “shoot to kill” fashion. Video footage was shown of the murder of a man searching accompanied by international solidarity workers for a family member in the ruins of their home, with a coup de grace as he lay wounded on the rubble. Groups of civilians were asked who spoke Hebrew and those who raised their hands promptly shot in the chest. One man was told to step forward and hold up his lighter and, when he did so, shot. A 17-year-old boy was held by the IDF for 5 days, stripped, beaten, tortured and used as a human shield (one of several such cases). A 55 year-old Imam was ordered to strip naked in front of women and tell people over the mosque’s PA to leave their homes. The men were then taken at gunpoint, also forced to strip and marched away, while the Imam himself was placed against a bulldozer, a bottle placed at his neck, and used for target practice. One family sheltering in their basement from an F-16 attack when IDF soldiers broke in and held them captive were refused use of the toilet and told to “do it on yourself.” A 65-year-old man was shot at close range in front of his family by an IDF soldier while pleading in English. His last words: “Please don’t shoot me.”

Enabling Policies

Evidence was further presented that such cases were not isolated, but consistent with broader policies, attitudes and practices, starting with the low level of convictions and light sentences for such crimes, when they were investigated, being one (“systemic impunity is the status quo,” said Yvan Karakashian).

When 13 IDF soldiers were killed during the four-day occupation by Golani Brigade on July 19th-23rd, the “Dahiya Doctrine,” an established military protocol for disproportionate revenge attacks on local populations (including a policy of shooting anything that moves in designated zones) was invoked and more than 600 shells (most containing depleted uranium) and 120 1-ton bombs, were dropped in the neighborhood of Shuja’iyya in a seven-hour period. The infantry entered the area on foot with orders to break windows and destroy property and houses.

IDF veteran-turned-journalist Eran Efrati described a policy of drawing a “red imaginary line” around the houses in which the IDF set up its temporary field posts, beyond which anyone would be immediately killed. He claimed that, unlike in earlier campaigns, these lines were drawn hundreds of meters from the posts and neither the locations nor the presence of the lines communicated to locals. He concluded that it was not loss of life that caused the IDF to launch the Shuja’iyya bombing so much as the humiliation of sustaining losses: “What we are doing here is trying to revenge and trying to kill people for an insult.”

The “Hannibal Directive,” an IDF protocol for killing its own soldiers to avoid their capture and eventual use in prisoner exchanges was reportedly invoked when an Israeli raid on a tunnel in Rafa went awry minutes before the start of a ceasefire. The IDF immediately blamed Hamas for the soldier’s death and launched an assault on Rafa along the lines proscribed by the Dahiya Doctrine.

Genocidal Discourse

As horrifying as the many individual stories of violence detailed by the witnesses were with their details of humiliation, torture and sadism, the most chilling testimony was arguably Israeli journalist David Sheen’s panoramic depiction of public hate speech, anti-Arab racism, and incitement to genocide in contemporary Israeli society. Sheen’s examples were drawn from top political leaders, religious leaders and other influential figures, and were so numerous that there was not enough time to show all the slides. This evidence contextualized the violence and destruction described by other witnesses within a broader social environment of rising nationalist extremism, the collapse of the political center, and growing messianic nationalist influence within the Israeli military (now comprising nearly a third of the officer corps). As the Tribunal concluded:

…the Israeli state is implementing an apartheid system based on the dominance of Israeli Jews over Palestinians. Beyond the prolonged siege and collective punishment of the Palestinians of Gaza, the ongoing settlement project in the West Bank, and the now regular massive military assaults on the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, one must add the increase in aggravated racist hate speech (Russell Tribunal on Palestine 2014:10).

Current Implications

The Palestinian cause has often been framed as a human rights struggle, along the lines of the Civil Rights and anti-Apartheid Movements. Yet the case presented last year in Brussels with such comprehensiveness and clarity, challenges us to reframe it as nothing less than the struggle to avert an impending genocide that, if left unchecked, will only express itself in ever-mounting numbers of murdered Palestinian men, women and children. The Tribunal worried about the difficulty of getting its message out before the next, potentially more deadly attack:

The jury has listened to alarming evidence over the course of this extraordinary session; we have a genuine fear that in an environment of impunity and an absence of sanction for serious and repeated criminality, the lessons from Rwanda and other mass atrocities may once again go unheeded (Russell Tribunal on Palestine 2014:10).

The mood of the Tribunal was grave and apprehensive and its warning clear: the Israeli occupation appears to be on a genocidal trajectory that only the outside intervention can prevent. As we enter the uncharted territory of a new Israeli operation, it is worth bearing this information in mind, including an awareness of the kinds of excesses and abuses that were identified last year, and the broader arc of escalation described by the Tribunal. The addition of heavily armed extremist settler militias with support from and links to the Israeli military is a wildcard that was not present in Protective Edge and eerily reminiscent of 1948. Now is the time to heed the Tribunal’s warnings and put the world on notice as loudly and clearly as possible to the grave risk the Palestinian people face in this uncertain hour.

About Peter F. Cohen

Peter F. Cohen holds a Ph.D. in Applied Anthropology from Columbia University. He has taught, lectured, authored several publications and worked in International Development on four continents. During the 2014 Operation Protective Edge attack on Gaza, he started the organization Humanity for Palestine from his Facebook Page. A US Citizen, he currently lives in Brazil.

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5 Responses

  1. inbound39
    inbound39 on October 12, 2015, 10:08 pm

    I read the Russell Report when it came out….very sober reading and as a former serviceman I found the IDF actions to be absolutely disgusting. I have been on active service and the force I served with was fully aware of the correct rules of engagement and the Laws of War as per the Geneva Convention. Had we acted like the IDF we certainly would have been court martialled. I have served alongside American Military forces and I find it unacceptable that the American Government supports Israel and even worse supplies them with the weapons to commit these crimes. I know the American servicepersons I served alongside and socialised with ashore would not condone what the IDF does nor would they find it honourable. It is blatant murder and killing for the sake of it. I have often wondered since Cast Lead how the IDF would fair on a real battlefield against a genuine,well equipped foe. I have a strong suspicion they would not cope and their strategies would be found wanting. I have no respect for the IDF at all…..cowardly actions to say the least.

  2. Pretext
    Pretext on October 13, 2015, 2:47 am

    Something about the Shuja’iyya bombing and depleted uranium is fishy. From what I’ve read, Shuja’iyya was overwhelmingly an artillery bombardment. Depleted uranium is used for armor penetration in very heavy direct fire weapons, and then only when fired at very heavily armored targets (i.e. other tanks). Artillery uses high explosive and fragmentation in indirect fire – generally speaking it would not be expensive and inefficient to use DU in artillery shells that way.

    While I suppose it’s not technically impossible to use depleted uranium in artillery, it’s more likely that someone is making a mistaken claim, kind of like the way people tend to call everything with a turret or tracks a “tank”.

    • inbound39
      inbound39 on October 13, 2015, 9:13 pm

      The vessel I was on had surface to air missiles….that was the missiles intended purpose….we did however on some occassions use them surface to surface. When our five inch shells were depleted and we were due to go out and re ammo we could finish a target with a couple of surface to air missiles fired surface to surface. Warheads can be whatever you want…mix and match.

  3. Kay24
    Kay24 on October 13, 2015, 7:43 am

    There is a limit to pain and suffering, and these poor Palestinians have endured so much. There is rage coming out of despair and frustration, and we see it now happening in Jerusalem.

    Of course, predictably it will be the victims of oppression that will suffer most, being the underdogs, no weapons like their abusers, and no trained military that seems to have no mercy.

    Netanyahu can point fingers at everyone else in the world and blame them for this carnage, but anyone with half a brain can see that ever since he became PM, he has rejected peace talks, refused bribes to sit down and talk peace, kept building illegal settlements, protects Jewish terrorists, ignores the destruction of homes, olive trees, and the endless attacks on helpless Palestinians even as they slept. It was in HIS power to end this all, to negotiate and set the Palestinians FREE. He chose not to. He has made things WORSE.

    There is enough of blame to go around, but Israel and Netanyahu are the only ones in power.
    Now will come the whining and complaining typical of the zionists. Oy vey.

  4. Elizabeth Block
    Elizabeth Block on October 13, 2015, 10:20 am

    A thought-experiment:
    What would Hitler think of Israeli Jews? He probably would think they weren’t Jews at all, but a new (and by his lights praiseworthy) race.

    And another:
    Suppose the British had treated French Canadians (whose land they had conquered) the way Israel has treated Palestinians. (The Durham Report , 1839, described them as a people with no literature and no history, and recommended that the English dominate them and indeed assimilate them.) Oy vey indeed.

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