It has been more than three months since Israel halted its latest massacre in the Gaza Strip. The destruction wrought by Israel’s onslaught was nothing short of apocalyptic. “The destruction which I have seen coming here is beyond description”, said the UN Secretary General during his visit to Gaza. In a similar vein, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, stated, “I’ve never seen such massive destruction ever before.”
While many of the world’s crimes remain unknown and unacknowledged, the systematic and deliberate nature of Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians are both carefully documented and, by now, starting to enter the mainstream. Although the lofty rhetoric of the Israel Defense Force would have it that its most important mission is “saving human lives, both Israeli and Palestinian”, the human rights record and military doctrine of the Israeli army are too well-established for such slogans to be taken seriously.
According to UN figures, 2,192 Palestinians, including 1,523 civilians and 519 children, were killed during this summer’s operation. By the time the ceasefire was announced, there were “110,000 internally displaced persons living in emergency shelter and with host families. The UN estimated that about 18,000 housing units were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, leaving approximately 108,000 people homeless. A further 37,650 housing units were damaged.”
There is little doubt about the reason for this colossal death and destruction. The UN fact finding mission, headed by Richard Goldstone, concluded, that the Israeli offensive in 2008-2009 (Cast Lead) was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population”. According to the mission, Israel’s military doctrine involved the “application of disproportionate force and the causing of great damage and destruction to civilian property and infrastructure, and suffering to civilian populations.”
Significantly, the mission placed primary responsibility for the commission of these crimes, not on the individual soldiers that carried them out, but instead, on the political and military leadership of Israel. And as Israel, yet again in July-August 2014, in Operation Protective Edge, wielded its sledgehammer on the civilian population of Gaza, there’s no doubt that the mission’s conclusion is applicable this time around as well.
Indeed, UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay condemned Israel for its, as she put it, apparently deliberate violations of international law. Pillay referred to the findings of the previous UN mission of inquiry and noted, that “[t]he same pattern of attacks is occurring now on homes, schools, hospitals, UN premises.”
Although the death and destruction has ended for now, similar crimes are likely to continue, unless Israel’s impunity is properly challenged. As the Goldstone report noted, referring to crimes on both sides, “long-standing impunity has been a key factor in the perpetuation of violence in the region and in the reoccurrence of violations, as well as in the erosion of confidence among Palestinians and many Israelis concerning prospects for justice and a peaceful solution to the conflict”.
With an abundance of evidence of Israeli war crimes, the issue of criminal accountability for the Israeli leadership comes down to the political will of the international community to enforce the law.
Universal jurisdiction – a path towards accountability?
The prospects for the prosecution of Israel’s leadership in the International Criminal Court (ICC), however, appear bleak. The US is likely to veto any UN Security Council action on the matter. In addition, the Palestinian Authority is under pressure from the US and its allies not to invoke the jurisdiction of the ICC in order to prosecute crimes committed on Palestinian territory. The ICC’s prosecutor’s office has also been pressured not to open the case. However, even if the ICC fails to act, this need not be a nail in the coffin for efforts to pursue war crimes charges against the Israeli political and military leadership.
Many individual states have adopted the principle of universal jurisdiction and thus enabled their national courts to investigate and prosecute persons suspected of committing serious crimes regardless of their nationality, or where the crime was committed. This means that national authorities can step in to prosecute serious human rights violations anywhere in the world.
There are important precedents of how universal jurisdiction has been put into practice in the past. One of the major cases was against Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006). In October 1998, a Spanish judge, Baltazar Garsón, issued an international arrest warrant for Pinochet for his responsibility for human rights violations during his years in office. Within a week, Pinochet was arrested in London.
In 2008, ten years after the indictment of Pinochet, a case against Alfredo Cristiani, the former president of El Salvador, and members of his military, was brought before a Spanish court. They were charged with the murder of six priests and human rights workers, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989. The assassinations were carried out by the Atlacatl Battalion, a US-trained elite unit of the Salvadoran army.
Eventually, 20 Salvadoran soldiers were indicted for the murders.
There are other cases, including charges of genocide against Guatemalan strongman Rios Montt – also a US-ally, who president Ronald Reagan commended as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment”, and who, Reagan assured, wants to “improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.” Montt’s commitment to social justice was on display when his security and paramilitary forces slaughtered 166,000 Maya indians during the country’s 36-year-long civil war.
Israel has not remained immune from this practice either. In 2009, an arrest warrant for Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni was issued in London. Livni was acting foreign minister during Cast Lead in which Israeli forces killed roughly 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 400 children.
During Cast Lead, Livni boasted, that “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded”. She also praised the army for “going wild” in Gaza. The British authorities, however, obstructed her arrest by granting her diplomatic immunity during her visit to the UK in 2011.
As Israel, during this summer, for the third time in five years, committed a massacre in Gaza, prompting worldwide condemnation, and with public opinion in Europe critical of Israel’s actions, it’s time for EU member states to heed the recommendation of the Goldstone report, and open “criminal investigations in national courts, using universal jurisdiction, where there is sufficient evidence of the commission of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Where so warranted following investigation, alleged perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted in accordance with internationally recognized standards of justice.”