Friday, January 23, 2009

Palestine News Update: Gaza Conflict 'Remains Unsettled'; United Nations Releases Pictures of Chemical Weapons Usage in Gaza

Friday, January 23, 2009
02:59 Mecca time, 23:59 GMT

Gaza conflict 'remains unsettled'

Crooke warns that conflict in the region could grow "more bitter and more uncompromising"

Hamas and Israel are observing separate ceasefires after a 22-day Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.

Alastair Crooke, founder of the Conflicts Forum think-tank, shares his thoughts on the conflict, the region and what Obama might bring to the mix.

Al Jazeera: Can Israel be said to have achieved its aims through its offensive on Gaza?

As time goes on, it will become more and more clear that Israel has not achieved the aims that it set for itself. The intended aim - that by an overwhelming show of force it would make people both docile and deterred - has not been achieved.

The core of the conflict itself – the rockets and the issue of the opening of the crossings [into Gaza] – remains completely unsettled. And Israel has not defeated Hamas in a military sense, despite massive destruction of property and people's lives.

Inside Israel, there was enormous support for this operation. It wasn't the same with the Jewish community outside Israel, where we have seen very clear differences of opinion about it, but in Israel there was a strong sense of the righteousness of what was being done in Gaza.

There was a desire to see Hamas emerge defeated and humbled, and there is some sense among the public that this is what has been achieved, but, I think, as they observe the anger and they see how much the recent Israeli successes in the Arab world – handshakes and meetings and attempts to widen their support base and their legitimacy within the region - have been swept away, I think they will re-assess it in a very different light.

Was Israel likely to defeat Hamas militarily?

I think you could see different voices emerging in Israel. Many of them would have said it was impossible because Hamas is not a Western military structure. It doesn't really have command centres and military formations in the conventional sense.

Equally, there were others who were arguing very strongly to take this forward to a "complete victory", and that envisaged going house-to-house through places like Gaza City and Rafah, clearing every house room by room.

That is laborious and it would have taken far longer than a week or two. I think, in the end, the cabinet declined to go down that route - probably realising it wouldn't be able to inflict this kind of damage on Hamas's military formations - which is probably why they decided to withdraw and claim a political victory.

Qatar and Syria have called for Arab states to take a firm stance on Israel over the conflict and suspend the 2002 Arab peace initiative, while Saudi Arabia and Egypt want to take a softer line. How has the Gaza conflict changed relations in the region?

I think relations have become extremely polarised by this conflict.

Egypt has, to some extent, used this conflict, certainly seen it, as a means to weaken Hamas and bring Mahmoud Abbas [the Palestinian president, also known as Abu Mazen] back to a position in Gaza. At least two Arab states have been seen, whether fairly or unfairly, as taking a contrary view [to Egypt].

We've also seen many states and countries supporting the resistance – not just Hamas.

If you like, it has reignited the Palestinian issue as an Arab cause across the region - which it hasn't been for some time. Hence the division we are seeing in the Arab world.

How will this affect regional relationships in the future?

We're moving into a new era in the region. What we see is that the United States and Europe are ebbing out of the region and there is going to be no colonial power that is going to step in. Russia and China may play a role in a trade sense, but they are not stepping in to play a political role.

What is being revealed by Gaza is the skeleton of the internal struggle over the future of this region – of those who are committed to the status quo and those who are committed to change. And it is a struggle that may become more bitter and more uncompromising as time goes on.

Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas political leader, has called for Hamas to be engaged in the political process. Do you see the West engaging with Hamas in the future?

Well I don't think there is a conference room in Washington with a chair 'Hamas' written on it. I think it will be a slow process.

Clearly all of the Europeans are operating on the old mode - they haven't pressed the re-set button on their policies. They are perhaps waiting to see which way the [new] US administration will go.

They're trying to re-launch Abu Mazen, almost holding reconstruction and humanitarian assistance as hostage, almost trying to force Hamas to re-mandate Abu Mazen [whose term of office expired on January 9]. Not surprisingly, Hamas has expressed great anger at that.

If the Europeans try to hold the opening of the crossings hostage to Hamas re-legitimising Abu Mazen, I fear we might end up with another round of conflict in Gaza.

Meshaal also said that Hamas 'gained legitimacy' as a result of the conflict. With ceasefires in place, how has Hamas emerged in a stronger position subsequent to the conflict?

Yes it is. It's stronger because of this.

You can look at it through a Western empirical frame and say 'there have been so many houses destroyed and so many people killed, so it must be a victory', but if you look at it in terms of a narrative of images and symbols - particularly coming against the backdrop of Ashura [the Islamic festival commemorating the events of the battle of Karbala] - it is the image of a small Muslim stand against overwhelming odds pursued in the interests of justice. That's an image which will bring out huge emotional and religious sentiment - a sense of re-establishing dignity.

I think what we're seeing is a strengthening in two ways. Symbolically Hamas sat in the Palestinian chair at the informal summit in Doha [held on January 16 and boycotted by Egypt and Saudi Arabia].

Secondly, they have achieved enormous depth in terms of public opinion. Millions have mobilised – in Europe too – in support of the concept of resistance against occupation. These things may seem a little intangible but they are nonetheless real assets.

To what extent do you think Barack Obama's presidency will affect the peace process and developments in the Middle East?

It's still quite early, but I think generally we will see Obama being quite cautious. From his perspective, at the top of his list is going to be Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.

There will be advisers who will be saying to him, 'just be careful of your political capital'.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is one where you can expend your political capital very quickly and there are elections in Israel coming up. I think he'll be cautious and things will take some time.

Obama looks set to appoint Senator George Mitchell, a man you've worked with in the past, to be the US special envoy for the Middle East. How would his appointment advance the peace process?

I think Senator Mitchell is one of the few Americans who has credibility in the region and in the West. He's probably now almost the only one, which is a reflection of the scorched-earth diplomacy of the past eight years.

What's important is to see who he is a special envoy for. Only when we see the confirmation of his appointment will it be clear if he is a presidential envoy or if he is a super-envoy or a delimited envoy - in other words, whether he will stay within certain limits.

He does depend on what is the mandate that is given to him. He's a good listener and he actually hears. He will change the language and he will introduce changes, but unless he has a mandate, he can do nothing.

You also have to ask if he is being appointed too late. One of the signals that can be seen in Gaza - where there was almost a suspension of certain moral considerations in terms of civilians - is the suggestion that we are not entering an era of politics and compromise. Gaza was a message of uncompromising military absolutism, not of openness.

Source: Al Jazeera

Thursday, January 22, 2009
14:06 Mecca time, 11:06 GMT

UN releases Gaza attack photos

UN pictures show what appears to white phosphorus 'wedges' raining down on one of its compounds in Gaza

The United Nations has released images of what it believes are white phosphorus munitions raining down on one of its compounds during Israel's war on Gaza.

The pictures, broadcast by Al Jazeera on Thursday, show what appears to be flame-generating munitons, thought to be white phosphorus "wedges", falling into a UN compound in Gaza where hundreds of people were sheltering.

Two Palestinian boys, aged five and seven, were killed in the attack on January 17.

Israel has said it will investigate the issue, but has not publicly acknowledged using the controversial chemical.

Al Jazeera has learnt that a total of 53 installations used by the United Nations Relief and Works agency, Unrwa, were damaged or destroyed during Israel's Gaza campaign including 37 schools - six of which are being used as emergency shelters - six health centres, and two warehouses.

White phosphorus - a high-incendiary substance that burns brightly and for long periods on contact with the air - is often used to produce smoke screens.

But it can also be used as a weapon producing extreme burns when it makes contact with human skin.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported a brigade of paratroop reservists fired about 20 white phosphorus shells into the built-up area of Beit Lahiya on January 17, which landed in the UN-run compound where the two Palestinian children were killed and severe burns were inflicted on 14 other people.

Amnesty International, the London-based rights group, has accused Israel of war crimes over its use of the munitions in heavily populated areas.

Children killed

International law forbids white phosphorus use against military targets within areas where civilians are concentrated, except when the targets are clearly separated and "all feasible precautions" are taken to avoid casualties among non-combatants.

If the claims are proved, Israel's use of the chemical could form the basis of war crimes charges.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, on Wednesday repeated his demand for a full explanation of Israel's attacks on UN facilities in the Gaza Strip.

With the UN secretary general unable to speak due to a sore throat, Lynn Pascoe, the UN under secretary-general for political affairs, read out a statement on his behalf saying Ban wanted "a thorough investigation by Israel into every single one of these incidents".

The attacks, which Ban described as "outrageous", included strikes on a compound of the UN agency providing aid for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa) and on a UN school last week during Israel's three-week war on Gaza.

"I expect a full explanation of each incident and that those responsible will be held accountable for their actions," the statement quoted Ban as saying.

Deadly weapons

The Israeli military has also been accused of using Dense Inert Metal Explosive (Dime) weapons in urban areas, causing horrific abdominal and leg injuries.

When detonated, a Dime device expels a blade of charged tungsten dust that burns and destroys everything within a four-metre radius.

Israel has been criticised by human rights groups and foreign officials over its suspected use of a number of weapons during its aerial, naval and ground assault on the Palestinian territory in which over 1,300 Palestinians were killed.

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Wednesday it will open an investigation into whether Israel used depleted uranium, which is added to munitions as its density allows them to penetrate armour more easily, during the conflict.

It is thought that the dust left at blast sites after the weapons have hit also pose a health risk, but a definitive link has not yet been proven.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Thursday, January 22, 2009
22:07 Mecca time, 19:07 GMT

War crimes convictions after Gaza?

By Anita Rice

Demonstrators in Belgium accused Israel of war crimes, as the Israeli foreign minister visited the headquarters of the European Union

As the UN and human rights groups demand independent investigations into the conduct of Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip, the world’s attention is focusing on whether Israeli or Hamas officials could face prosecution for war crimes.

Whatever the inquiries find, bringing suspected war criminals to court will be far from straightforward.

There is a world of difference between establishing that war crimes have been committed, and then holding those responsible to account, says Mark S Ellis, the executive director of the International Bar Association (IBA).

"Often, people view these as the same, but they are not under international law. There is a gap ... regarding the issue of accountability," Ellis says.

Even if independent inquiries do establish that gross violations of the laws of armed conflict have taken place during the war in Gaza, the mechanisms to ensure those responsible on either side are brought to justice "simply don’t exist".

Four options

There are four main options open to states, groups or individuals seeking to launch legal proceedings against suspects should investigators find war crimes have been committed during the 22-day assault on the Strip, Ellis says.

All four routes are fraught with complexities, particularly in relation to the Gaza conflict.

First, individual war crime cases would ordinarily be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

"The ICC simply doesn’t have jurisdiction over this conflict," says Ellis, "because Israel has not signed up to the Rome Statute [that enshrined the ICC]."

As the ICC requires states to adopt the court’s jurisdiction, it is unable to bring any actions against non-signatories itself, unless the UN Security Council votes to refer specific cases for potential prosecution.

While that happened when ICC prosecutors accused Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan - another non-signatory state - of committing war crimes in Darfur, it is unlikely to occur in relation to the Israel-Gaza conflict.

Gaza is not formally recognised as a state by the UN and "the US, and perhaps other [security council] member states, would veto any resolution that would ask for the ICC to investigate Israel," says Ellis.

"The ICC option is effectively closed."

The second route would be for the UN General Assembly to request an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), also based in The Hague, on the legality of specific actions taken by states.

However, the ICJ has no enforcement powers, as was witnessed by its inability to act following its ruling that Israel’s construction of a separation barrier breached aspects of international law.

The ICJ requested Israel rectify elements of the construction, which Tel Aviv ignored - something any state can choose to do, Ellis notes.

Geneva conventions

The third option involves states trying their own citizens or soldiers for war crimes – a requirement under the Geneva Conventions.

"That’s unlikely to happen on both sides, but that is still a responsibility of the state, body, or entity that’s responsible for, or has authority over, the individuals who have committed these crimes," says Ellis.

Geneva Conventions

Convention I
Conduct in relation to sick and wounded combatants in the field

Convention II
Treatment of wounded, sick and shipwrecked members of naval forces at sea

Convention III
Conduct in relation to prisoners of war

Convention IV
The protection of civilian populations in times of war

Finally, Ellis points to a legal concept referred to as "universal jurisdiction", where any state can choose to launch legal proceedings against any person, anywhere in the world, who is suspected of committing crimes such as genocide, torture, and other grave breaches of international law.

But states have already proven themselves reluctant to take responsibility for holding individuals to account for crimes committed in other countries and Ellis believes it is "highly unlikely that a third party is going to step up and bring actions against Israeli or Palestinian individuals".

Despite this, lawyers across the globe, and particularly in the Arab world, are seeking ways to take legal action in relation to events they believe constitute war crimes.

Dr Abdullah Al-Ashal, a professor of international law at the American University in Cairo and a former Egyptian foreign minister, belongs to both the Arab Bar Association and the Arab Federation of Lawyers (AFL).

He believes that Israel has breached all four Geneva Conventions that cover conduct during armed conflict with relation to civilians, prisoners of war, sick and injured combatants, weapons used and how troops engaged in fighting.

Al-Ashal claims that Jordan, the Comoros Islands and Djibouti – all signatories to the Rome Statute – have committed themselves to bringing war crimes cases against Israel to the ICC if needs be, following the recent Kuwait-hosted Arab summit on Gaza.

'Pursuing all options'

In addition, members of the AFL are set to meet in Tunis on Thursday, January 29, to "discuss how to progress the prosecution of Israel for war crimes", and Al-Ashal said that Arab lawyers are "seriously pursuing" all options to put Israelis on trial.

Meanwhile, both sides say they acted in self-defence and within the confines of international law.

Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, insists Israel takes "extremely seriously any allegation of either improper or illegal behaviour by servicemen in combat" and carries out its own investigations.

On Israel’s refusal to sign up to the Rome Statute, he cites Israeli concern over "the politisation of the international human rights mechanisms in the international judicial system", a reference to resolutions that Israel regards as hostile and were passed by UN bodies without the backing of western states.

Asked if Israel intends to indict any Hamas leaders on charges of war crimes, Regev says Hamas is "recognised legally as a terrorist organisation" by the European Union, Japan, Australia, Canada and the US, adding: "I don’t think anyone has expectations as to the behaviour of a terrorist organisation."

While Hamas is regarded as a "terrorist group" by many western governments, the Palestinian faction came to power after democratic elections in 2006 that were deemed fair and free by international observers.

Hamas says not only are Palestinians the victims of war crimes perpetrated by Israelis, but they are left without recourse to international justice.

Going back to Ellis' "accountability gap", the IBA chief puts the blame squarely on nation states - including the US- for failing to accept the legitimacy of the ICC.

"The ICC is probably the most important body with regard to individual responsibility for these crimes ... it is the responsibility of all civilised nations to agree that if these types of crimes have been committed, they should be brought to justice.

"Ultimately, that’s where we want to be and we are a long way from that today," he says.

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