Article 6(b) of the 1945 Charter of the International Military Tribunal, later enshrined in the Fourth Geneva Convention, classifies the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian targets as a war crime. For 11 days in May, the Israel Defence Forces carried out such a bombardment, launching hundreds of air strikes on residential areas in Gaza, whose two million inhabitants were already trapped in a humanitarian crisis even before the missiles fell.
More than 250 people were killed, all but 13 of them Palestinian, during the mini-war that ended on 21st May with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. The Palestinian dead included 96 women and children. (Twelve Israelis, including two children, were killed by Hamas rocket fire.)
On 26th May, Israel’s then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Boris Johnson for his ‘staunch and unwavering’ support during this murderous fortnight, while US President Joe Biden offered the usual tepid remarks.
It goes without saying, and was unsaid by Johnson and Biden, that the Israeli attacks on Gaza were war crimes. The barbaric treatment of the people of Palestine is a crime against humanity that dates back to the founding of the state of Israel, in 1948, when three quarters of a million Palestinians were expelled from their homes.
Over the decades Arab dispossession has been a constant theme. Indeed the spark for the latest fighting was a Palestinian demonstration, in early May, against the eviction of six families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. As the unrest escalated, Israeli police stormed the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest place in Islam, using tear gas and stun grenades.
Israel claims Jerusalem as its ‘eternal and undivided capital’ but the eastern part of the city, which it captured in 1967, remains largely Palestinian. The Sheikh Jarrah homes sit on land that was owned by Jews before Jordan occupied East Jerusalem in 1948. Israeli law allows the heirs of the original owners to reclaim such property, but Palestinians cannot claim their former homes in West Jerusalem. Moreover they have watched Israel confiscate land and build settlements on occupied territory in the West Bank, which is illegal under international law. At the same time, the Gaza Strip has been cut off from the rest of Palestine by an Israeli blockade since 2007, when Hamas grabbed control of the enclave.
Israel’s allies in London and Washington have always been complicit in the dispossession of the Palestinian people because they have provided the state of Israel with advanced weaponry and ‘staunch and unwavering’ political support. The United States has even moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a provocative act against the Palestinian people. Yet such is the political and military imbalance between the two sides – reinforced by security barriers and anti-missile defences – that, for most Israelis, most of the time, the conflict is out of sight and out of mind.
As Toby Abse notes in his analysis of Israel’s latest political upheaval (Green Socialist, Summer 2021), relations with Palestinians barely featured as an issue in the four general elections held over the past two years.
For Netanyahu, who struggled unsuccessfully to hold on to power in the face of corruption charges, a short victorious war against the defenceless population of Gaza might have seemed a way to bolster his reputation as a nationalist hero in the eyes of his extremist right-wing allies.
Yet it is instructive that a ceasefire was agreed only after the Palestinian people displayed their formidable solidarity. As the protests in Jerusalem unfolded, Palestinians in Lydd, the Naqab, Haifa, Umm al Fahem and Nazareth – all areas that are ‘Israeli’ by the logic of partition – erupted in support of Sheikh Jarrah, as they did in Nablus, Hebron and throughout the West Bank and the diaspora.
The international outcry over the plight of Palestinians is unlikely to change anything. It won’t yield a comprehensive peace agreement or help Palestinian people to repossess their stolen homes and lands. But at least the depth and solidarity of the Palestinian resistance has shattered Netanyahu’s illusion that Israel can ever be at peace without resolving the Palestinian conflict.
The peace process set up in the Oslo accords in 1993 aims to create two states that agree to disagree, giving Palestinians self-rule and a limited ‘right of return’. It was meant to happen within five years, but little progress has been made in almost three decades and, as the fighting in May showed, the peace ‘process’ itself is now in ruins, partly because Netanyahu spent most of his career working to sabotage it.
As a result of his ‘anti-solutionism’ and embrace of the Jewish far right, 450,000 Israelis now live in West Bank settlements, as opposed to just over 100,000 in 1993. Nowadays these settlements encircle Jerusalem, obstructing the Oslo vision of a contiguous and sovereign Palestine by making it almost impossible to connect the northern and southern halves of the West Bank.
Nevertheless the Palestinian people have displayed great courage and resilience in standing up for their individual and collective rights, and we support them.