Silence breeds impunity – investigations are needed
23 August 2006
First there were allegations of illegal tactics. Now it is the illegal use of certain weapons. Such allegations are hardly new. Israel has for years been accused of both in its systematic dispossession, oppression and killing of Palestinians. However, the continued silence on the part of the international community has sent a dangerous message to Israel that it need not feel restrained in either the methods or weapons it uses in its military operations, and so it has set the bar of violence ever higher.
Following repeated allegations of Israel’s disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force, reprisals and collective punishment against civilians in Lebanon and Gaza, all of which are grave violations of international law, one could only have expected outrage from the international community.
And the outrage came, though slowly.
It first came from citizens all over Europe, Canada, United States and South Africa, who took to the streets to express their anger at Israel’s attacks against Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. Demonstrations are still taking place, including at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and Scotland’s Prestwick airport in protest at the transit through these airports of weapons from the United States, destined for Israel’s military.
Top UN officials Louise Arbour and Jan Egeland also came out early with strong statements criticising the behaviour of both sides. However, given Israel’s complete disregard for international law and apparently deliberate attacks on UN installations, it was unavoidable that their criticisms mostly focussed on Israel’s violations. The latest Resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council confirms this.
Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice simply dismissed Hezbollah as a “terrorist organisation”, while Israel was politely urged to “exercise restraint in exercising its right to self-defence”. Such arguments came across as hollow as the US continued to pound Iraq, ignoring the UN Security Council if it didn’t “co-operate”, exercising little restraint itself either in its choice of weapons or tactics and dismissing the Geneva Conventions as “inapplicable”.
Supported by its benefactor, a confident Olmert smiled before the cameras, not being asked to justify Israel’s justifications for its continued military aggression in Lebanon and Gaza. The final reckoning, however, may yet come, including from Israel’s increasingly mutinous military.
The new level of disregard for international law displayed by the Israeli leadership not only prompted a massive escalation in its hostilities against Lebanon and Occupied Gaza, it also granted tacit permission to Israel’s war commanders to experiment with a vast and sophisticated arsenal of deadly weaponry. An arsenal, it must be noted, that is supplied through United States and European arms companies, paid for with billions of dollars provided each year by the American taxpayer.
The New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch has come out strongly against Israel’s use of cluster bombs, which it argued were indiscriminate weapons. The bombs released multiple “bomblets”, which did not distinguish between soldiers or resistance fighters (or “combatants”) and civilians.
Although cluster bombs are not (yet) banned under international law, it is illegal for any military to use weapons or tactics that do not make such a distinction. It is therefore not the weapon itself, but Israel’s use of these weapons in such an indiscriminate way, in civilian areas, which have amounted to potential war crimes.
Towards the end of July, Human Rights Watch also began investigating gruesome reports by medical doctors of bodies that had been blackened, but had not been burnt. According to a medical doctor in Beirut, such injuries were consistent with the use of unconventional weapons, such as white phosphorous.
These were confirmed by Italian scientists of the International Peace Bureau, who on the 9th of August issued an urgent appeal. Referring to these and other “countless” reports from hospitals and journalists, the appeal claimed that “new and strange symptoms are reported” that are consistent with the use of banned weapons, including “chemical and/or biological agents”. Similar allegations were reported by doctors in Gaza.
Allegations of the use of white phosphorous by Israel came in the wake of earlier allegations of its use by US armed forces in Iraq. The US military had also notoriously used this substance as a weapon in Vietnam, referring to it as “WP” or “Willy Pete”.
Similar to cluster bombs, while white phosphorous as a substance is itself not (yet) banned in international law, the way in which it is used is heavily restricted. Like other incendiary devices, such as napalm, the use of any offensive weapon against civilians, or in circumstances where civilians are likely to be the victims of an attack is banned in international law.
As reported by the American Society of International Law, its renewed use in Iraq has generated a worldwide debate, not only because of the indiscriminate (i.e. illegal) way in which it is used, but because of the particularly nasty nature of the injuries that it causes. As such, there is currently a debate as to whether white phosphorous ought specifically to be banned as a chemical weapon in international law.