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Barack Obama's presidency

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Is Israel's Gaza War a New War Crime?

By Dennis Bernstein
January 17, 2009

The use of the internationally banned substance white phosphorus in highly densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip gives new meaning to the phrase "white power." White western supremacy enforced by latest advanced weaponry.

And not only white phosphorus, but also the latest in bunker buster bombs, unmanned drones, not to mention U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, etc.

Journalists, human rights officials, international aid workers, and many doctors and field medics, including high officials of the Red Cross and the UN, have accused the Israelis of using white phosphorus illegally against civilian populations, as well as other advanced weaponry. They have repeatedly witnessed burns on civilians, including women and children, consistent with the use of white phosphorous.

Meanwhile, Richard Falk, internationally respected legal scholar, and Special Reporter for the UN on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine, stated in a recent interview that Israel has potentially committed a new kind of war crime, by making it impossible for endangered civilians to flee a war zone.

Israel “has basically locked the population into this war zone and as far as I know, that hasn't really happened before in such a systematic way and it probably should be considered a new kind of war crime,” said Falk.

On Jan. 15, Israeli forces bombed several hospitals and a UN compound. As many as 500 people were sheltering in the Al-Quds Hospital in the city's southwestern Tal Al-Hawa district when it was bombed multiple times by Israel and set on fire.

A hospital spokesman said the fire was sparked by phosphorus shells. "We have been able to control the fire in the hospital,” the spokesman told reporters, “but not in the administrative building. We hope that the flames don't spread again to the wings of the hospital."

Sharon Lock is an independent journalist and human rights activist from Australia. For the past two weeks, Lock has been riding in a Red Crescent ambulance in Gaza, documenting attacks on medics and ambulances, as they try to reach hundreds of victims of the bombings, people cut down in the streets or caught under the rubble of hundreds of destroyed buildings.

According to Lock, who was in Al-Quds Hospital when it was struck multiple times, 80 percent of the calls for help have gone unanswered, because Israeli forces “attack the medics” when they try to retrieve the wounded and the dead, “even after they have been given permission to move in.”

In an interview on Jan. 16, Lock described the attack on Al-Quds Hospital, in a densely populated part of Gaza City, one of three medical centers bombed by Israel in a single day.

“During the night we had quite a lot of attacks, about 50 strikes people counted in our immediate area,“ she told me, “and about 4 or 5 had actually hit our building. The two that did involve major damage happened in the morning …

“One was a rocket that went through the wall of the hospital, into the pharmacy building, and we retrieved the rocket shell. The other went through the roof of the social center, which was a part of the hospital complex, and that started the fire on the roof which the medics were fighting.

“We did manage to put it out eventually but it was quite difficult. And then, actually, we were only in the middle of getting the last bits of the fire out, when we heard shouting from upstairs and went up to the main steps and I saw my medical colleague covered in blood.

“He said that he'd just picked up a little girl who was part of a family fleeing their house, and who had come to the hospital to take shelter. He heard screaming and had gone out and saw she had been shot by a sniper, and had gunshot wounds to her face and also to her abdomen and so he swept her off and brought her in for surgery. “

Later the central building at Al-Quds was bombed and also set ablaze. Lock and other medical staff had to walk hundreds of Palestinians, who had fled to the hospital for safety, through the darkened streets to another location in front of Israeli snipers who had taken positions on the roofs of various building near the hospital.

Overflowing Morgues

Caoimhe Butterly is an Irish human rights activist working in Gaza City as a volunteer with ambulance services and as co-coordinator for the Free Gaza Movement. Butterly describes in troubling detail what life was like at Shifa Hospital, another key medical center attacked by Israel with U.S.-made weaponry.

“The morgues of Gaza's hospitals are overflowing. The bodies in their blood-soaked white shrouds cover the entire floor space of the Shifa Hospital's morgue. Some are intact, most horribly deformed, limbs twisted into unnatural positions, chest cavities exposed, heads blown off, skulls crushed in.

“Family members wait outside to identify and claim a brother, husband, father, mother, wife, child. Many of those who wait their turn have lost numerous family members and loved ones. … Blood is everywhere. Hospital orderlies hose down the floors of operating rooms, bloodied bandages lie discarded in corners, and the injured continue to pour in – bodies lacerated by shrapnel, burns, bullet wounds. Medical workers, exhausted and under siege, work day and night and each life saved is seen as a victory over the predominance of death.”

On the same day, Israeli shells rained down on a UN compound in Gaza City, setting fire to its warehouses and reducing to ashes tons of sorely needed food and medical aid. Some 700 Palestinians had fled to the UN complex at the time of the bombings and a number of them were wounded.

John Ging, director of United Nations Relief and Works Agency in the Gaza Strip, accused the Israelis of bombing the UN Food Complex with phosphorus shells."They are phosphorus fires so they are extremely difficult to put out because, if you put water on, it will just generate toxic fumes and do nothing to stop the burning," he said.

On Jan. 17, two Palestinian young boys, brothers aged five and seven, were killed when Israeli tank fire hit a UN school in Gaza. Twenty-five other Gazans were wounded in the shelling at the school run by the UN relief agency in Beit Lahiya, The school was the third UN shelter to be hit by Israeli fire in its 22-day war on the tiny Gaza strip. 

Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the UN-run school, said several tank rounds hit the school. The third floor of the school took a direct hit after a short pause, killing the pair of brothers and injuring another 14 people.

Gunness said about 1,600 civilians had sought refuge from the fighting inside the building when it was hit. And he made it clear that Israel knew what it was hitting.

"The Israeli army knew exactly our GPS coordinates and they would have known that hundreds of people had taken shelter there," he told Arab-run news services. "When you have a direct hit into the third floor of a UN school, there has to be an investigation to see if a war crime has been committed."

John Ging added "People today are alleging war crimes here in Gaza. Let’s have it properly accounted for. Let’s have the legal process which will establish exactly what has happened here. It is another failure for our humanity and it is exposing the impotence of our [the international community's] inability to protect civilians in conflict."

The statistics through the 20th day of the war – over 1,100 Palestinians dead, of which 300 are children, and 5,400 more wounded, some critically. So far the Israeli strikes have claimed over 15 mosques, many schools, at least three hospitals, several UN facilities, more than six field medics, and hundreds of private homes and civilian apartment buildings.

Tutu’s Concern

In 2006, Nobel Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu, one of the leaders of the South African anti-apartheid movement, was prevented from entering Israel and the Gaza Strip to investigate another potential massacre of innocent Palestinian civilians. 

It took him two years to finally get in. Tutu has been quoted many times in regards to the similarities between the former apartheid system in South Africa and the current treatment of occupied Palestinians.

Tutu wrote in 2003, “Yesterday's South African township dwellers can tell you about today's life in the Occupied Territories. To travel only blocks in his own homeland, a (Palestinian) grandfather waits on the whim of a teenage soldier.

“More than an emergency is needed to get to a hospital; less than a crime earns a trip to jail. The lucky ones have a permit to leave their squalor to work in Israel's cities, but their luck runs out when security closes all checkpoints, paralyzing an entire people. The indignities, dependence and anger are all too familiar. Many South Africans are beginning to recognize the parallels to what we went through.”

Last month, just before Israel's air war started, Richard Falk, the current UN special reporter for human rights in the occupied territories, was also turned away from Israel. In a recent interview, Falk told me that while he couldn't prove that Israel's pre-planned war against Hamas was a part of the reason, he was convinced it was.

Falk characterized Israel’s attacks on Gaza as nothing short of a humanitarian disaster and stated that Israel may be guilty of a series of war crimes, including a new kind of war crime characterized by heavy bombing attacks on civilian populations who have no possibility of fleeing.

“I think that one needs to recognize that this is a devastating series of attacks on a civilian population that was already greatly weakened by 18 months of a blockade that restricted the entry of food medicine and fuel in such a way that international civil servants on the ground in Gaza and journalists were anticipating the possible collapse of Gazan society,” said Falk.

“So, it’s important to recognize that these attacks came on top of this prior situation that had already driven the civilian society to the point of near desperation. … In my view it is already an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. The legal implications of that situation are more complex. I think there is no doubt that the Israeli attacks since Dec. 27th constitute massive violations of international humanitarian law and of the UN Charter that prohibits the non-defensive use of force. Whether these violations add up to crimes against humanity is something that needs to be validated.”

Falk also talked about a new kind of potential war crime.

“The overall tactics that have been employed by Israel have one feature that has been not very well articulated in the media, and that’s the entrapment of a civilian population in a war zone. The Gazans have been denied the option of becoming refugees, which is not a pleasant option to choose, but if you're seeking safety from a war zone that is threatening your life and the life of your family and children and so on, the refugee option is the least terrible option available to a civilian society, particularly in a place like Gaza where the density of population is so great and the area is so small.

“But Israel has closed the exit and has basically locked the population into this war zone and as far as I know, that hasn't really happened before in such a systematic way and it probably should be considered a new kind of war crime.”

Reporting Blackout

Meanwhile, Israel has attempted to impose a total blackout on reporting about its current land, air and sea war against Gaza. It has not only forbidden journalists from going into the Gaza Strip, but has also bombed them if they managed to get in.

In Israel, over 800 Israelis, most of them Palestinians, have been arrested protesting the attacks in Gaza. The secret police inside Israel have made it particularly difficult to protest and have rounded up entire protests that were peaceful in nature, accusing the protesters of endangering the morale of the state.

On the political front, the Israeli Knesset has taken actions to ban duly elected Arab members of the Israeli parliament, calling them in essence traitors and enemies of the Jewish state.

Are these the actions of the democratic state that Hillary Clinton and President-Elect Obama have vowed to stand side-by-side with? Are these the policies we can expect to be supported by the new administration?

I have to wonder what goes through Obama’s mind when he goes on the Internet and sees how the country he has sworn to support is using advanced U.S. weaponry to bomb a locked-down population of 1.5 million, half children, already on the brink of starvation.

Dennis Bernstein is an award-winning investigative reporter and public radio producer. He is co-host and executive producer of the daily radio news magazine, Flashpoints, on Pacifica Radio, and a contributing editor to the Pacific News Service.


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