Committing War Crimes in Gaza
By George Bisharat
Israel's current assault on the Gaza Strip cannot be justified by
self-defense. Rather, it involves serious violations of international law,
including war crimes. Senior Israeli political and military leaders may
bear personal liability for their offenses, and they could be prosecuted
by an international tribunal, or by nations practicing universal
jurisdiction over grave international crimes. Hamas fighters have also
violated the laws of warfare, but their misdeeds do not justify Israel's
The United Nations charter preserved the customary right of a state to
retaliate against an "armed attack" from another state. The right has
evolved to cover nonstate actors operating beyond the borders of the state
claiming self-defense, and arguably would apply to Hamas. However, an
armed attack involves serious violations of the peace. Minor border
skirmishes are common, and if all were considered armed attacks, states
could easily exploit them -- as surrounding facts are often murky and
unverifiable -- to launch wars of aggression. That is exactly what Israel
seems to be currently attempting.
Israel had not suffered an "armed attack" immediately prior to its
bombardment of the Gaza Strip. Since firing the first Kassam rocket into
Israel in 2002, Hamas and other Palestinian groups have loosed thousands
of rockets and mortar shells into Israel, causing about two dozen Israeli
deaths and widespread fear. As indiscriminate attacks on civilians, these
were war crimes. During roughly the same period, Israeli forces killed
about 2,700 Palestinians in Gaza by targeted killings, aerial bombings, in
raids, etc., according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
But on June 19, 2008, Hamas and Israel commenced a six-month truce.
Neither side complied perfectly. Israel refused to substantially ease the
suffocating siege of Gaza imposed in June 2007. Hamas permitted sporadic
rocket fire -- typically after Israel killed or seized Hamas members in
the West Bank, where the truce did not apply. Either one or no Israelis
were killed (reports differ) by rockets in the half year leading up to the
Israel then broke the truce on Nov. 4, raiding the Gaza Strip and killing
a Palestinian. Hamas retaliated with rocket fire; Israel then killed five
more Palestinians. In the following days, Hamas continued rocket fire --
yet still no Israelis died. Israel cannot claim self-defense against this
escalation, because it was provoked by Israel's own violation.
An armed attack that is not justified by self-defense is a war of
aggression. Under the Nuremberg Principles affirmed by U.N. Resolution 95,
aggression is a crime against peace.
Israel has also failed to adequately discriminate between military and
nonmilitary targets. Israel's American-made F-16s and Apache helicopters
have destroyed mosques, the education and justice ministries, a
university, prisons, courts and police stations. These institutions were
part of Gaza's civilian infrastructure. And when nonmilitary institutions
are targeted, civilians die. Many killed in the last week were young
police recruits with no military roles. Civilian employees in the
Hamas-led government deserve the protections of international law like all
others. Hamas's ideology -- which employees may or may not share -- is
abhorrent, but civilized nadtions do not kill people merely for what they
Deliberate attacks on civilians that lack strict military necessity are
war crimes. Israel's current violations of international law extend a long
pattern of abuse of the rights of Gaza Palestinians. Eighty percent of
Gaza's 1.5 million residents are Palestinian refugees who were forced from
their homes or fled in fear of Jewish terrorist attacks in 1948. For 60
years, Israel has denied the internationally recognized rights of
Palestinian refugees to return to their homes -- because they are not
Although Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, it
continues to tightly regulate Gaza's coast, airspace and borders. Thus,
Israel remains an occupying power with a legal duty to protect Gaza's
civilian population. But Israel's 18-month siege of the Gaza Strip
preceding the current crisis violated this obligation egregiously. It
brought economic activity to a near standstill, left children hungry and
malnourished, and denied Palestinian students opportunities to study
Israel should be held accountable for its crimes, and the U.S. should stop
abetting it with unconditional military and diplomatic support.
- George Bisharat is a professor at Hastings College of the Law in San
Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.
This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal and is
republished by PalestineChronicle.com with the author's permission.
Is Gaza Testing
Ground for Experimental Weapons?
By Jonathan Cook – Nazareth
Concerns about Israel's use of non-conventional and experimental weapons
in the Gaza Strip are growing, with evasive comments from spokesmen and
reluctance to allow independent journalists inside the tiny enclave only
The most prominent controversy is over the use of shells containing white
phosphorus, which causes horrific burns when it comes into contact with
skin. Under international law, phosphorus is allowed as a smokescreen to
protect soldiers but treated as a chemical weapon when used against
The Israeli army maintains that it is using only weapons authorised in
international law, though human rights groups have severely criticised
Israel for firing phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of Gaza.
But there might be other unconventional weapons Israel is using out of
sight of the watching world.
One such munition may be Dime, or dense inert metal explosive, a weapon
recently developed by the US army to create a powerful and lethal blast
over a small area.
The munition is supposed to still be in the development stage and is not
yet regulated. There are fears, however, that Israel may have received a
green light from the US military to treat Gaza as a testing ground.
“We have seen Gaza used as a laboratory for testing what I call weapons
from hell,” said David Halpin, a retired British surgeon and trauma
specialist who has visited Gaza on several occasions to investigate
unusual injuries suffered by Gazans.
“I fear the thinking in Israel is that it is in its interests to create as
much mutilation as possible to terrorise the civilian population in the
hope they will turn against Hamas.”
Gaza’s doctors, including one of the few foreigners there, Mads Gilbert, a
Norwegian specialist in emergency medicine working at Al Shifa hospital in
Gaza City, report that many of the injuries they see are consistent with
the use of Dime.
Wounds from the weapon are said to be distinctive. Those exposed to the
blast have severed or melted limbs, or internal ruptures, especially to
soft tissue such as the abdomen, that often lead to death.
There is said to be no shrapnel apart from a fine “dusting” of minute
metal particles on damaged organs visible when autopsies are carried out.
Survivors of a Dime blast are at increased risk of developing cancer,
according to research carried out in the United States.
Traditional munitions, by contrast, cause large wounds wherever shrapnel
penetrates the body.
“The power of the explosion dissipates very quickly and the strength does
not travel long, maybe 10 metres, but those humans who are hit by this
explosion, this pressure wave, are cut in pieces,” Dr Gilbert said in a
This is not the first time concerns about Israel’s use of Dime have
surfaced in Gaza. Doctors there reported strange injuries they could not
treat, and from which patients died unexpectedly days later, during a
prolonged wave of Israeli air strikes in 2006.
A subsequent Italian investigation found Israel was using a prototype
weapon similar to Dime. Samples from victims in Gaza showed concentrations
of unusual metals in their bodies.
Yitzhak Ben-Israel, the former head of the Israeli military’s weapons
development programme, appeared familiar with the weapon, telling Italian
TV that the short radius of the explosion helped avoid injuries to
bystanders, allowing “the striking of very small targets”.
Israeli denials about using weapons banned by international law would not
cover Dime because it is not yet officially licensed.
It will be difficult to investigate claims that non-conventional weapons
have been used in Gaza until a ceasefire is agreed, but previous inquiries
have shown that Israel resorts to such munitions.
The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has recorded numerous occasions
when the Israeli army has fired flechette shells, both in Lebanon and
Gaza. The shell releases thousands of tiny metal darts that cause horrible
injuries to anyone out in the open.
A Reuters cameraman, Fadel Shana, filmed the firing of such a shell from
an Israeli tank in Gaza in April, moments before its flechettes killed
Miri Weingarten, a spokeswoman for Physicians for Human Rights, said they
were watching out for use of a new flechette-type weapon the Israeli army
has developed called kalanit (anemone). An anti-personnel munition, the
shell sends out hundreds of small discs.
Israel appears to have used a range of controversial weapons during its
attack on Lebanon in 2006. After initial denials, an Israeli government
minister admitted that the army had fired phosphorus shells, and the
Israeli media widely reported millions of cluster bombs being dropped over
There are also suspicions that Israel may have used uranium-based
warheads. A subsequent inquiry by a British newspaper found elevated
levels of radiation at two Israeli missile craters.
Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem, said her organisation had not
yet been able to confirm which weapons were being used in Gaza in the
current attacks. She added, however, that Israel’s denials about using
non-conventional munitions should not be relied on.
“It is true, as the army spokespeople say, that weapons such as phosphorus
and flechette shells are not expressly prohibited. But our view is that
such weapons, which do not distinguish between combatants and
non-combatants, cannot be used legally in a densely populated area like
Reports this month revealed that the United States has been organising
massive shipments of arms to Israel, though a Pentagon spokesman denied
they were for use in Gaza.
- Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His
latest book is “Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human
Despair” (Zed Books). He contributed this article to
PalestineChronicle.com. Visit his website at: www.jkcook.net. (A version
of this article originally appeared in The National, www.thenational.ae,
published in Abu Dhabi.)
500 Citizens of Sderot
Contradict the Israeli Government
By Janine Roberts
Much has been made of Hamas' reported failure to honour last year's truce.
But, an extraordinary correspondence between Jewish residents of the
much-rocketed town of Sderot, nearby kibbutz, and the Palestinians living
within sight in the Gaza strip paints a very different picture of that
truce from that repeatedly given by the Israeli government.
Barrack Obama was taken to Sderot last year to show him the effects of
rocketing. He remarked on how Israeli towns looked like American from the
air and offered his full support to the town’s citizens, promising to
invite its representatives to the White House soon after taking office. At
the time in mid-July Sderot was safe to visit. There had been no
casualties from rockets since the ceasefire started 4 weeks earlier.
On July 12th 2008, a Gaza resident, using the pseudonym of “Peaceman,”
emailed friends in Sderot to say. “The situation is calm … and this make
people happy a lot, because there are no dead and wounded [but] the border
is still closed… I myself have been waiting two years to go to Europe to
study.’ Nevertheless ‘we have now a golden opportunity to try to build a
new world without violence.’
His friends replied to say how much better it was now the rockets had
stopped. They told how they cycled along the Gaza borders and were greeted
with waves by Gaza residents. They revelled in the freedom from danger. A
joint children’s holiday was planned and greetings cards exchanged. (See
samples at end)
One such message read “I live with my family in Kibbutz Beeri, close
enough to Gaza to see the houses and the sea. On weekends I ride my bike
with my husband through the fields along the border … I hope the violence
will come to an end and the Palestinian State will be established with
peace between our peoples and peace within each of our countries between
the extremists on each side. ”
Sderot is built on the lands of Najd, a Palestinian village ethnically
cleansed by Jewish militia in 1948. Its residents probably fled into the
Gaza strip. Most of Gaza’s population is descended from such refugees.
However, this history was not allowed to prevent this growing friendship –
nor were the deaths of people from both towns in the months preceding the
The ceasefire was still intact months after Obama’s visit. In October 2008
an Israeli in Sderot, using the pseudonym “Hopeman,” emailed his friend in
Gaza to say: “We have lived for almost 5 months in a ceasefire situation.
On my side of the border, things returned to normal and we once again felt
safe. Kids played freely outdoors, streets filled once again with people,
and the constant fear of the rocket alerts disappeared. My kids went to
sleep in their room again, instead of the safe room, and I could walk out
to the fields surrounding the town without the fear of being out in the
open with nowhere to hide.”
On October 9th an Israeli newspaper, the Star, headlined: ‘Israeli town
celebrates end to daily rocket fire. It reported: “Besieged residents of
Sderot were relieved by the quiet start to Yom Kippur, thanks to the
ceasefire with Hamas …Young boys horsed around on their bicycles, families
hurried to make last-minute purchases at the downtown supermarket, and
food stands did a steady business in shawarma and beer.”
“Everything is different," exulted Jasmine Aboukrat, 25, sales clerk at
the Cochovit Dress Shop near Hagofer St, "People go out more." “Now you
see all the children outdoors, playing," said David Coyne, 38, who owns a
candy shop in the centre of town. "It's secure.”
The paper explained: “For seven years, local residents barely went out at
all. But, late last June, under Egyptian mediation, the Israeli government
reached a ceasefire agreement with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Since then, with only a few violations, the rocket salvoes from Gaza have
Sderot is “a rambling community of boxy bungalows and low-rise apartment
blocks. interspersed by palm, cypress and eucalyptus trees” with a library
with nearly as many books in Russian as Hebrew, reflecting its recent
arrivals. Its people “say they are hugely pleased with the new air of
tranquillity that now permeates their town.”
The newspaper also reported that there were no more “punitive Israeli
military incursions into the neighbouring strip – attacks that had been a
frequent and deadly feature of Palestinian existence prior to the laying
down of arms in June.”
But Hopeman emailed from Sderok: “During this time I have been in touch
with many friends of mine in Gaza, and from them I heard a very dark and
troubling reality…The siege Israel had imposed on them continues. They
have many power shortages and very little fuel and cooking gas.”
On the 4th November, the day when Americans were watching the results of
the Presidential election, the Israeli army broke the ceasefire by raiding
the strip. Six Palestinians were killed. Next day the Palestinians reacted
as could be expected by sending a shower of rockets and Israel immediately
slashed supplies of medicine, fuel, food, cooking gas for the 1.5 million
people of Gaza. The number of truckloads fell from October’s daily average
of 123 trucks to less than 5 trucks. Some families were reduced to easting
bread made from animal feed. Others were reduced to eating grass.
An email was sent: “Peace Man and I talk every day. We support each other
and worry for each other’s well being. I am in contact with others in Gaza
and share my situation while hearing of theirs. Much fear and pain on both
sides. Once again we should all call to end the violence, open the siege,
start talking and bring back hope to us, civilians on both sides, pawns in
the unbearable senseless political game.”
Then Hamas told Israel that a renewed ceasefire must be accompanied by an
end to the increasingly cruel siege, but Israel refused to accept this.
The friends “realized that the situation was about to deteriorate into
total chaos” said Arik Yalin, 43, of Sderot, the spokesman for this
Israeli-Arab group. They put up a website that stated: “Up until now we
have cried, called, demonstrated, and asked our leaders to do something
about this insane reality in which we live. The leaders have tried every
possible idea that involves violence and military force – with no success
“We shoot at them and they shoot at us. We retaliate and they strike back.
“This is an endless and vicious cycle.
“Today we say: ENOUGH! It is our turn to take our destiny into our own
hands and to ACT to stop the cycle of bloodshed.”
They sent a petition to the Israeli Government in the name of their group;
‘Kol Acher’ (The Other Voice). Five hundred citizens of Sderot signed it
as well as another 1300 Israeli and Palestinian citizens. It read:
“Kol Acher from Sderot and the communities around Gaza calls on the Prime
Minister and the Defence Minister to act urgently to restore calm in the
“The ceasefire changed the lives of the people of Sderot, Ashkelon and the
region beyond recognition, allowing all of us to experience again a life
that is more normal and sane. The continuation of this calm is essential
and critical to the residents of the region from every possible aspect:
physical, mental, spiritual and economic.
“Another round of escalation may break our already brittle spirit, and
take us all to another round of self-destruction and pointless bloodshed.
It is not certain that we will survive. And you must be aware of that, if
you indeed care about the residents of this area. We’ve been through this
movie too many years–and results speak for themselves: feeling trapped,
abandonment, and hopelessness for our children and us!
“On the other side of the border live a million and a half Palestinians
under unbearable conditions, and most of them want, like we do, calm and
the opportunity of a future for themselves and their families.
“We live in the feeling that you have wasted that period of calm, instead
of using it to advance understandings and begin negotiations, as well as
for fortifying the houses of residents as promised.
“We call on the Prime Minister and the Defence minister not to listen to
the voices of incitement and do everything they can to avoid another round
of escalation, to secure the continuation of the calm and to
work...towards direct or indirect negotiations with the Palestinian
leadership in Gaza in order to reach long term understandings.
“We prefer a cold war without a single rocket to a hot war with dozens of
victims and innocent fatalities on both sides.
“We ask you to offer us the possibility of political arrangement and hope
and not an endless cycle of blood.”
Their petition had no effect. On December 27th, while politicians in the
West were on holiday and the US had a lame duck President in his final
weeks of office, Israel launched a savage assault.
That same day the Israeli Foreign Ministry changed its website, removing
charts giving the numbers of rockets and mortars fired every month from
the Gaza strip, perhaps because they revealed the near-total cessation of
fire during the truce. These charts were based on statistics supplied by
the Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center and provide
striking evidence of Hamas’ good faith. Contrary to government statements
made repeatedly since then, Israeli government statistics show Hamas kept
Together with a similar graph for mortar fire, these reveal that the total
number of rocket and mortar attacks launched from Gaza fell from over a
hundred a month to just 12 in all from the start of July to the end of
October. The Ministry has replaced these graphs with one that is harder to
interpret. It claims ‘227 rockets were fired during the lull in the
fighting’ but notes that 203 of these were fired after November 4th, the
date when Israel broke the ceasefire. This is still on the Government
Credit for the 12 rockets fired during the ceasefire were reportedly
claimed by Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Islamic Jihad or the "Badr
Forces.’ Hamas condemned them.
It is worth going back to what else Obama said in Sderot: “I will not wait
until a few years into my term or my second term if I'm elected, in order
to get the process moving. I think we have a window right now that needs
to be taken advantage of. I think you've got a set of moderate Palestinian
leaders who are interested. I think the Israeli people are interested in
moving this process along. But I also think there's a population on both
sides that is becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress.
And where there's hopelessness and despair that can often turn in a bad
Obama on January 11th said he would be ready to do all he can to bring
peace from the day he takes office. But – has Obama heard these voices of
Sderot? I doubt he did when he went to their town, but, if he did, then he
will know that the Israeli government is wrong to claim that the only way
they can stop the rockets is by physically destroying Hamas with all the
slaughter this entails.
Perhaps Obama should also take advice, not already doing so, from the
former UK Ambassador to Israel, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. January 9, 2009 he
unhesitatingly said during a BBC interview: “Hamas is not a terrorist
organisation,” adding he knows from talking to them that they are focussed
on ending the decades of military occupation. He also affirmed; “Israel
broke the truce by its actions on 4th November.”'
Perhaps Obama should also listen to the Catholic priest, Fr. Latham, who
preached in Bethlehem on Sunday 4th January, saying the Palestinians are
being “crucified everyday.”
Find two examples of the post cards sent from Sderot to Gaza Strip. Click
- Janine Roberts has written for many major Australian newspapers and both
the Independent and Financial Times in the UK. Her investigative films
have appeared on the PBS network in the USA and on the BBC and Australian
television. She was invited to testify at a US Congressional Hearing on
Human rights in Africa and the blood diamond trade. Her latest
investigative books are “Glitter and Greed” and the “Fear of the
Invisible.” She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.
Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her blog: