In a special session of the Russell Tribunal held in Brussels on September 24, Israel’s military operation “Protective Edge” was critically scrutinized from the perspective of international law, including the core allegation of genocide. The process featured a series of testimonies by legal and weapons experts, health workers, journalists and others most of whom had experienced the 50 days of military assault.
A jury composed of prominent individuals from around the world, known for their moral engagement with issues of the day that concerned their societies, and also the wellbeing of humanity, assessed the evidence with the help of an expert legal team of volunteers that helped with the preparation of the findings and analysis for consideration by the jury, which deliberated and debated all relevant issues of fact and law, above all the question of how to respond to the charge of genocide.
It should be acknowledged that this undertaking was never intended to be a neutral inquiry without any predispositions. It was brought into being because of the enormity of the devastation caused by Protective Edge and the spectacle of horror associated with deploying a high technology weaponry to attack a vulnerable civilian population of Gaza locked into the combat zone that left no place to hide. It also responded to the failures of the international community to do more to stop the carnage, and condemn Israel’s disproportionate uses of force against this essentially helpless and beleaguered civilian population. Israel’s contested military operations targeted many legally forbidden targets, including UN buildings used as shelters, residential neighborhoods, hospitals and clinics, and mosques. In defense of these tactics, Israel claimed that rockets and ammunition were stored in these buildings and that Hamas rocket launchers were deliberately placed in the structures that had been singled out for attack. The evidence presented did not confirm these Israeli claims.
Although the Russell Tribunal proceeded from the presumed sense that Israel was responsible for severe wrongdoing, it made every effort to be scrupulous in the presentation of evidence and the interpretation of applicable international law, and relied on testimony from individuals with established reputations as persons of integrity and conscience. Among the highlights of the testimony were a report on damage to hospitals and clinics given by Dr. Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor serving in a Gaza hospital during the attacks; Mohammed Omer, a widely respected journalist who daily reported from the combat zone; Max Blumenthal, the prize winning journalist who was in Gaza throughout Protective Edge and analyzed for the jury the overall political design that appeared to explain the civilian targeting patterns; and David Sheen, who reported in agonizing detail on the racist hatred exhibited by prominent Israelis during the period of combat, widely echoed by Israelis in the social media, and never repudiated by the leadership or public in Tel Aviv.
The jury had little difficulty concluding that the pattern of attack, as well as the targeting, amounted to a series of war crimes that were aggravated by the commission of crimes against humanity, most centrally the imposition of a multi-faceted regime of collective punishment upon the entire civilian population of Gaza in flagrant and sustained violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. A further notable legal finding was the rejection of the central Israel claim of acting in self-defense against rocket attacks directed at Israel.
There were several reasons given for reaching this conclusion: the claim of self-defense does not exist in relation to resistance mounted by an occupied people, and Gaza from the perspective of international law remains occupied due to Israeli persisting effective control despite Israel’s purported disengagement in 2005 (more properly characterized as a military redeployment); the rockets fired from Gaza were partly at least in response to prior Israeli unlawful provocations, including the mass detention of several hundred persons loosely associated with Hamas in the West Bank and incitement to violence against Palestinians as revenge for the murder of the three kidnapped Israeli settler children; and finally, the minimal damage done by the rockets, seven civilian deaths over the entire period, is too small a security threat to qualify as “an armed attack” as is required by the UN Charter to uphold a claim of self-defense. At the same time, despite these mitigating factors, the jury did not doubt the unlawfulness of firing of numerous rockets into Israel that were incapable of distinguishing between military and civilian targets. This form of unlawful resistance was attributed to both Hamas and independent Palestinian militias operating within the Gaza Strip.
A focus of concern in the jury deliberations before and after the proceedings themselves was how to address the allegation of ‘genocide,’ which has been described as ‘the crimes of crimes.’ The jury was sensitive to the differences between the journalistic and political uses of the word ‘genocide’ to describe various forms of collective violence directed at ethnic and religious minorities, and the more demanding legal definition of genocide that requires compelling and unambiguous evidence of a specific ‘intent to destroy’.
The testimony made this issue complex and sensitive. It produced a consensus on the jury that the evidence of genocide was sufficient to make it appropriate and responsible to give careful consideration as to whether the crime of genocide had actually been committed by Israel in the course of carrying out Protective Edge. This was itself an acknowledgement that there was a genocidal atmosphere in Israel in which high officials made statements supporting the destruction, elimination, and subjugation of Gazans as a people, and such inflammatory assertions were at no time repudiated by the Netanyahu leadership or subject to criminal investigation, let alone any legal proceedings. Furthermore, the sustained bombardment of Gaza under circumstances where the population had no opportunity to leave or to seek sanctuary within the Gaza Strip lent further credibility to the charge of genocide. The fact that Protective Edge was the third large-scale, sustained military assault on this unlawfully blockaded, impoverished, and endangered population, also formed part of the larger genocidal context.
Further in the background, yet perhaps most relevant consideration of all, Israel failed to exhaust diplomatic remedies before its recourse to force, as required by international law and the UN Charter. Israel had the option of lifting the blockade and exploring the prospects for long-term arrangements for peaceful co-existence that Hamas had proposed numerous times in recent years. Such initiatives were spurned by Israel on the ground that it would not deal with a terrorist organization.
Despite the incriminating weight of these factors, there were legal doubts as to the crime of genocide. The political and military leaders of Israel never explicitly endorsed the pursuit of genocidal goals, and purported to seek a ceasefire during the military campaign. There was absent a clear official expression of intent to commit genocide as distinct from the intensification of the regime of collective punishment that was convincingly documented. The presence of genocidal behavior and language even if used in government circles is not by itself sufficient to conclude that Protective Edge, despite its scale and fury, amounted to the commission of the crime of genocide.
What the jury did agree upon, however, was that Israeli citizens, including officials, appear to have been guilty in several instances of the separate crime of Incitement to Genocide that is specified in Article 3(c) of the Genocide Convention. It also agreed that the additional duty of Israel and others, especially the United States and Europe, to act to prevent genocide was definitely engaged by Israeli behavior. In this regard the Tribunal is sending an urgent message of warning to Israel and an appeal to the UN and the international community to uphold the Genocide Convention, and act to prevent any further behavior by Israel that would cross the line, and satisfy the difficult burden of proof that must be met if the conclusion is to be reached that the crime of genocide is being committed. At some point, the accumulation of genocidal acts will be reasonably understood as satisfying the high evidentiary bar that must be reached so as to conclude that Israel had committed genocide.
Many will react to this assessment of Protective Edge as lacking legal authority and dismiss the finding of the jury as merely recording the predictable views of a biased ‘kangaroo court.’ Such allegations have been directed at the Russell Tribunal ever since its establishment in the mid-1960s by the great English philosopher, Bertrand Russell, in the midst of the Vietnam War. These first sessions of the Russell Tribunal similarly assessed charges of war crimes associated with U.S. tactics in Vietnam, and in Russell’s words, represented a stand of citizens of conscience ‘against the crime of silence.’ This latest venture of the tribunal has a similar mission in relation to Israel’s actions in Gaza, although less against silence than the crime of indifference.
It is my view that such tribunals, created almost always in exceptional circumstances of defiance of the most elemental constraints of international law, make crucial contributions to public awareness in situations of moral and legal outrage where geopolitical realities preclude established institutional procedures such as recourse to the International Criminal Court and the UN Security Council and General Assembly. That is, these kind of self-constituted tribunals only come into being when two conditions exist: first, a circumstance of extreme and sustained violation of fundamental norms of morality and international law and secondly, a political setting in which governmental procedures and UN procedures are inoperative.
When the interests of the West are at stake, as in the Ukraine, there is no need to activate unofficial international law initiatives through the agency of civil society. However in circumstances involving Israel and Palestine, with the United States Government and most of Western Europe standing fully behind whatever Israel chooses to do, the need for a legal and moral accounting is particularly compelling even if the prospects for accountability are virtually nil. The long suffering people of Gaza have endured three criminal assaults in the past six years, and it has left virtually the whole of the population, especially young children, traumatized by the experience of such sustained military operations.
It should be acknowledged that the UN Human Rights Council has appointed a Commission of Inquiry to investigate allegations of war crimes associated with Protective Edge, but its report is not due for several months, Israel has indicated its unwillingness to cooperate with this official UN initiative, and it is almost certain that any findings of criminality and related recommendations will not be implemented due to the exercise of a geopolitical veto by the United States, and perhaps, other members of the Security Council. In view of these circumstances, the argument for convening the Russell Tribunal remains strong, especially if one recalls the fate of the Goldstone Report prepared in analogous conditions after the 2008-09 Israeli attacks on Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead.
The Russell Tribunal is filling a normative vacuum in the world. It does not pretend to be a court. In fact, among its recommendations is a call on the Palestinian Authority to join the International Criminal Court, and present Palestinian grievances to the authorities in The Hague for their investigation and possible indictments. Even then the realities of the world are such that prosecution will be impossible as Israel is not a party to the treaty establishing the ICC and would certainly refuse to honor any arrest warrants issued in The Hague, and no trial could be held without the physical presence of those accused. The value of an ICC proceeding would be symbolic and psychological, which in a legitimacy war would amount to a major ‘battlefield’ victory. It is notable that Hamas has joined in urging recourse to the ICC despite facing the distinct possibility that allegations against its launch of rockets would also be investigated and its officials indicted for its alleged war crimes.
As with the Nuremberg Judgment that documented the criminality of the Nazi experience, the process was flawed, especially by the exclusion of any consideration of the crimes committed by the victors in World War II, the Russell Tribunal can be criticized as one-sided in its undertaking. At the same time it seems virtually certain that on balance this assessment of Israel’s behavior toward the people of Gaza will be viewed as supportive of the long struggle to make the rule of law applicable to the strong as well as the weak. It is also reflective in the disparity of responsibility for the harm done by the two sides.
I recall some illuminating words of Edward Said uttered in the course of an interview with Bruce Robbins, published in Social Text (1998): “The major task of the American or the Palestinian or the Israeli intellectual of the left is to reveal the disparity between the so-called two sides, which appear to be rhetorically and ideologically to be in perfect balance, but are not in fact. To reveal that there is an oppressed and an oppressor, a victim and a victimizer, and unless we recognize that, we’re nowhere.”
The author was a member of the jury during the proceedings in Brussels under the auspices of the Russell Tribunal. A version of this article was published in The Nation.