Problems of the west’s extreme casualty aversion, Afghanistan and Gaza

The extreme aversion of the US and Israeli armies to own-soldier casualties has huge and often unintended consequences in the realms of both strategic effectiveness and ethics. This is now being amply demonstrated with regard both to Israel’s practices in Gaza (and the West Bank), and US military’s practices in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Joshua Foust of the generally excellent Registan blog has a ‘guest writer’ gig on the Reuters Pakistan blog, summing up the most important things he learned during his just-completed ten-week military embed with the US forces in Afghanistan.
His main point, well illustrated in the Reuters post, is that the culture of extreme casualty aversion that’s dominant in the US military hobbles it from waging effective “counter-insurgency” in Afghanistan.
Writing that, “It is a cliché that, in counterinsurgency, one must be among ‘the people’,” Foust then shows some of the many ways in which the own-soldier casualty aversion of the US forces in Afghanistan means that that is not happening:

    A rural insurgency is a devil’s game. It is difficult for a foreign counterinsurgent force to concentrate itself to maximize effectiveness, in part because the insurgency itself is not concentrated. When there are no obvious population clusters, there are no obvious choices for bases. Bagram Air Base, the country’s largest military base, is in the middle of nowhere, comparatively speaking – dozens of miles north of Kabul, and a 45-minute drive from Charikar, the nearest city in Parwan Province. FOB Salerno, a large base in Khost Province, is miles away from Khost City, the province’s capital-and the road in between is riddled with IEDs.
    The many smaller bases strung in between are surrounded by enormous Hesco barriers, concertina wire, and guard towers. No one is allowed on the base without being badged and interviewed by base security, and in many places delivery trucks are forced to wait in the open for 24 hours before completing their trips to the dining halls, clinics, or technology offices.
    There are other ways in which Coalition Forces are separated from the people of Afghanistan beyond their heavily fortified bases. Most transit – on patrol, on delivery runs, or on humanitarian missions – is performed through Mine Resistance Ambush Protection, or MRAP vehicles. These enormous trucks, thickly plated with metal blast shields on the bottom with tiny blue-tinted ballistic glass, make it near-impossible to even see the surrounding countryside from another other than the front seat.
    On the narrow mountain roads that sometimes collapse under the mutli-ton trucks, soldiers drive, too, in up-armored Humvees, which are similarly coated in thick plates of armor and heavy glass windows they aren’t allowed to open.
    When soldiers emerge from their imposing vehicles, they are covered from head to groin in various forms of shielding: thick ceramic plates on the torso, the ubiquitous Kevlar helmets, tinted ballistic eye glasses, neck and nape guards, heavy shrapnel-resistant flaps of fabric about the shoulders and groin, and fire-resistant uniforms. A common sentiment among Afghans who see these men and women wandering in their midst is that they look like aliens, or, if they know of them, robots.
    There is no doubt that MRAPs, up-armored Humvees, and the seventy pounds or so of bullet and blast shielding has saved the lives of countless soldiers. But counterinsurgency is counterintuitive: in the relentless quest to ensure a casualty-free war, it seems the West has begun to engineer its own defeat.
    By separating itself so completely from the population it claims to be trying to win-even at Bagram, where there is almost no combat, ever, it is almost impossible for a soldier or civilian to walk outside the gates to purchase something in the nearby bazaar-there remain precious few opportunities to do the gritty work of actually trying to “win hearts and minds”.
    The end result is stark: in a war that is desperately short of the troops needed to provide security to increasingly less remote communities, 93% of the soldiers stationed at the Coalition’s primary base never walk outside the gates. Instead of a focus on separating the insurgents from the population – another clichéd pillar of counterinsurgency – the focus seems instead to be simply killing as many of the enemy as can be identified.

I would just amend what he writes in one way, what “the west” is trying to fight in Afghanistan is not entirely a “casualty-free war”, but rather one in which the casualties among its own soldiers are reduced as far as possible toward zero. Casualties among the identified “enemy” may indeed, as he writes, tend to get maximized. But intense aversion to own-soldier casualties also– in both Afghanistan and Gaza– leads to far greater casualties than would otherwise be the case among the civilian population.
In Gaza, as many testimonies from the IDF soldiers themselves have now made clear, the general ROEs were that own-soldier casualties should be avoided even if that meant opening fire on Palestinian civilians. That, despite the fact that even the IDF’s own code of ethical conduct reminds soldiers that a soldier has a duty under international law to avoid civilian casualties even at the cost of some additional risk to his own troops.
In Gaza, many of the killings of civilians were fairly up-close affairs, but others were inflicted from drones or from aircraft flying at very high altitude– just like the way the US forces operate in Afghanistan (and Pakistan.)
This does not, as Foust notes, help win “hearts and minds” in a counter-insurgency context in Afghanistan.
And nor did it succeed, in Gaza, in inflicting a paralyzing dose of “shock and awe” to the Gazan population, where that seemed to be more of the intention than any form of, um, winning “hearts and minds.”
In today’s Haaretz, Amos Harel writes that before the latest Gaza war:

    The General Staff expected that Israelis would have trouble accepting heavy Israel Defense Forces losses.
    The army chose to overcome this problem with an aggressive plan that included overwhelming firepower. The forces, it was decided, would advance into the urban areas behind a “rolling curtain” of aerial and artillery fire, backed up by intelligence from unmanned aircraft and the Shin Bet. The lives of our soldiers take precedence, the commanders were told in briefings. Before the operation, [GOC Southern Command Yoav] Galant and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi painted a bleak picture for the cabinet ministers. “Unlike in Lebanon, the civilians in Gaza won’t have many places to escape to,” Ashkenazi warned. “When an armored force enters the city, shells will fly, because we’ll have to protect our people.”
    A large part of the operation was conducted by remote control. “The Palestinians are completely transparent to us,” says A., a reservist whose brigade was posted in the Gaza Strip. “The Shin Bet has people everywhere. We observe the whole area from the air and usually the Shin Bet coordinator can also tell you who lives in what house.” The Shin Bet defines the enemy and, for the most part, someone who belongs to Hamas’ civilian welfare organizations (the da’awa) is treated the same way as a member of its military wing, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam.
    Essentially, a person only needs to be in a “problematic” location, in circumstances that can broadly be seen as suspicious, for him to be “incriminated” and in effect sentenced to death. Often, there is no need for him to be identified as carrying a weapon. Three people in the home of a known Hamas operative, someone out on a roof at 2 A.M. about a kilometer away from an Israeli post, a person walking down the wrong street before dawn – all are legitimate targets for attack.
    “It feels like hunting season has begun,” says A. “Sometimes it reminds me of a Play Station [computer] game. You hear cheers in the war room after you see on the screens that the missile hit a target, as if it were a soccer game.”
    …There is a discrepancy between the official military response, of denial and horrified disapproval, the testimonies of the Rabin pre-military preparatory course graduates, and the response to those reports by key officers, unwilling to be identified.
    “What did you think would happen?” a senior officer wondered this week. “We sent 10,000 troops into Gaza, more than 200 tanks and armored personnel carriers, 100 bulldozers. What were 100 bulldozers going to do there?”
    The IDF estimates that approximately 2,000 houses were destroyed in the fighting. The Palestinians say the figure is twice that. IDF officers, who were not surprised by the testimonies, recalled that during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, military courts convicted soldiers for killing civilians, including the British peace activist Tom Hurndall, who was killed in Gaza in 2003.

Harel also reminds us that it was not until the Second Intifada, which started in 2000, that the IDF judge advocate general “annulled the practice of opening an investigation into every killed Palestinian.”
Wow, that would be how many investigations they would have to launch into what went on in Gaza?
What Harel writes about the IDF’s targeting doctrine indicates very clearly indeed that the IDF was not trying to make the distinction, deemed essential under international humanitarian law, between combatant (legal) and noncombatant (illegal) targets.
I don’t have time to write more about this important topic now. I’ll just note that the lethal and destructive consequences of the decision that both the IDF and apparently also the US military have made, to work to avoid own-soldier casualties even where this can clearly be expected to increase the casualties inflicted on noncombatants are first and foremost quite tragic for the civilian residents of the war-zone.
Making this decision to value the lives of one’s own soldiers above that of civilian residents of the war-zone is racist and, quite simply, illegal under international humanitarian law.
Also, at the end of the day these decisions are strategically either ineffective in these kinds of wars or even actively counter-productive.
All of Foust’s post there on the Reuters blog bears close reading. He points out that the extreme own-soldier casualty aversion of the US troops in Afghanistan has resulted in huge areas of the country simply being ceded to the effective control of insurgent forces.
He concludes with these wise words:

    It is that mentality – severe risk aversion, coupled with attention paid to process rather than outcome – that risks ultimately undoing the Western mission in Afghanistan. As an institution, the U.S. Army seems unwilling to make the difficult choices necessary to create the conditions for peace: a population that is adequately protected from the crime, drug, and war lords, and therefore no longer contributing to the desperate regional instability.
    It is also a mentality that can be challenged in small doses from below, but demands concerted action from above. Command at the highest levels is vital in changing course, and admitting that war is actually a terrible and ghastly thing that requires your own people dying to win. It is a choice not many at the top seem willing to consider.

I should note that I disagree strongly with Foust in his assessment that for the US “winning” in Afghanistan is even possible. But he is a realist; and he’s right to note that the idea that the US can ever “win” in Afghanistan without taking very many casualties among its own soldiers is quite wrongheaded.
He’s equally right to remind everyone that “war is actually a terrible and ghastly thing.”
Because of that, international customary law lays upon every international actor that has a deep conflict with another party a very strong responsibility to find non-military ways to resolve that conflict.
Do such non-military ways exist in the case of Israel, with the Palestinians, or the US, in Afghanistan?
Of course they do.

Those revelations of IDF violations in Gaza

Kudos to Haaretz for publishing the first English-language accounts of the “spill the beans” session held at Oranim Academic College February 13 in which dozens of IOF soldiers who had served in Gaza talked openly about many of the laws-of-war violations they saw their fellow soldiers committing there.
Yesterday Haaretz followed up, with the fullest English-language version to date of the session. This is an important text that bears close reading.
Especially this portion, from the testimony of a soldier codenamed Aviv:

    At first the specified action was to go into a house. We were supposed to go in with an armored personnel carrier called an Achzarit [literally, Cruel] to burst through the lower door, to start shooting inside and then … I call this murder … in effect, we were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified – we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself: Where is the logic in this?
    From above they said it was permissible, because anyone who remained in the sector and inside Gaza City was in effect condemned, a terrorist, because they hadn’t fled. I didn’t really understand: On the one hand they don’t really have anywhere to flee to, but on the other hand they’re telling us they hadn’t fled so it’s their fault … This also scared me a bit. I tried to exert some influence, insofar as is possible from within my subordinate position, to change this…

According to Aviv he changed the orders he had gotten from “above” by using loudspeakers to give the residents of the houses five minutes to get out of them before the killing squads would go in.
“Above”, though: Where did those orders come from?
It seems that the problem of IDF violations in Gaza was not only (and perhaps not mainly) one of poor training and disorganization at the NCO level, as Pat Lang had earlier surmised, but one of fundamentally inhumane and possibly criminal orders being issued from the higher echelons.
After the Oranim revelations were published– they came out in Maariv, as well, though not I think in English there– the IDF promised it would launch an investigation and Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the IDF was still “the most ethical army in the world.” In light of the facts that have also been emerging– in the soldiers’ testmonies at Oranim, and elsewhere including here— about the incendiary and criminal tracts distributed to troops in Gaza by the IDF’s own rabbis, and about the widespread commissioning by IDF units of extremely hateful and anti-humane T-shirts, Barak’s bleating is outrageous and the idea that the IDF itself can ever satisfactorily “investigate” its own deep culture of supporting and condoning laws-of-war violations (= war crimes) is completely non-credible.
By the way, the whole of Uri Blau’s piece there about the inciteful T-shirts is worth reading. The soldiers he interviews there who’ve been involved in commissioning, selling and/or designing some of the many designs of these T-shirts make quite clear that the designs receive advance approval from officers or NCOs before they are distributed within the units.
A few final notes:
1. Palestinian survivors of the atrocities in Gaza and local and international human rights groups had earlier produced numerous reports, since almost the first days of the war, about the IDF’s widespread commission of law-of-war violations in Gaza. Asked about those reports, IDF spokesmen nearly always issued strong denials, though where the evidence was incontrovertible they said they would investigate what had happened themselves. (No signs, though, that they ever did so.) These spokesmen should be held accountable for their lies. They include reserve officer Michael Oren, now back to his day-job teaching students at Georgetown University in Washington DC.
2. At a broader level, Israel as a state, the IDF as an army, and the responsible officials within the IDF should all be held completely accountable for these reported violations which– as now described by numerous IDF soldiers themselves– certainly mount to the level of war crimes. The ROEs or standing orders mandating this behavior, these soldiers say, came “from above.” Everyone in the world concerned about the commission of atrocities, and most especially those of us who are US taxpayers and thereby also morally responsible for IDF actions, need to gain a complete understanding of what the ROEs were and who signed off on them; and we need to see the responsible levels within the IDF or the Israeli government punished and excluded from the future exercise of power. Until this happens, all officers in the higher echelons of the IDF should be considered possibly culpable.
3. As clearly described by the soldiers in the Oranim meeting, and as previously revealed in any number of reports, one of the highest priorities of the IDF in the Gaza operation was to avoid IDF casualties to the highest degree possible– even where this would involve increasing the risk of harm to civilians. This was because of the effects of Israeli war dead on domestic Israeli politics both during the lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful IDF campaign in Lebanon 1982-2000 and the effects of Israeli war dead during the 2006 debacle in Lebanon: Inflicting a lot of damage on Gaza, and being seen by everyone in the world as being quite ready to do so, was an important part of what was meant when Israeli leaders described the war’s goal as being to “increase the credibility of Israel’s deterrence.”
International humanitarian law, by contrast, requires that members of military units be prepared to take additional casualties among their own numbers in order to avoid harm to civilians; and the IDF’s own “permanent” ethics code states

    IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or [who are] prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.

During the Gaza war, that ethical norm clearly got over-ridden at some level. At what level, and by whom?
4. The tendency of many Israelis to engage in hand-wringing self-referentialism continues. Jeffrey Goldberg comments on his blog,

    the Jewish people didn’t struggle for national equality, justice and freedom so that some of its sons could behave like Cossacks. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not equating the morality of the IDF to that of Hamas. The goal of Hamas is to murder innocent people; the goal of the IDF is to avoid murdering innocent people. But when the IDF fails to achieve its goal, and ends up inflicting needless destruction and suffering, it sullies not only its own name, but the name of the Jewish state…

His post there is titled “How far has the IDF fallen?” Um, Jeffrey, how about if the IDF, in which you once served, apparently with pride, has always or very often been like this in the past… ?
5. Some Israelis and pro-Israelis just love to wax poetic about how sensitive the IDF’s soldiers are… how they not only shoot but they engage much more sensitively in the activity known as “shooting and crying.” Possibly the most mendacious and nauseating version of this sentiment is the one piously intoned by Golda Meir in 1969:

    When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.

Ah, well, it is not just the “sons” of the Arabs who are getting killed by the IDF these days… It is also their babies, their grandmothers, their sick, their halt, and their lame.
But here’s a memo to the ghost of Mrs. Meir and to all other Israelis who try to appear oh-so-“sensitive” as they go about, or try to condone from afar, the IDF’s murderous and criminal actions: No-one is “forcing” you to act this way. The Israeli government as a body, and individual Israelis who serve in their nation’s army, all have a choice. One choice is to end occupation; end the attempt to dominate and oppress your neighbors, the Palestinians; and make real peace. The other is to carry on with the murderous business as usual. It’s up to you to choose.
But please, if your choice is to carry on with the killing and destruction, don’t come to us to expect any sympathy for the choice you made.

“Gaza first” on the horizon?

With respect to the Egyptian-Palestinian-Israeli triangle as it manifests regarding Gaza, I’d add the following general notes:
1. Egypt and Hamas share a strong interest in preventing Gaza’s 1.5 million people from spilling out in any lasting way into Egypt. Gaza is very constrained for so many people, certainly– especially since, under current circumstances, they also need to be growing a lot of their own food there. But the 75% of Gaza’s people who are refugees from inside Israel still have live claims on homes, farms, and arable land inside Israel. Hamas works to keep those claims alive. For its part, the Egyptian regime simply doesn’t want to have additional Palestinians inside Egypt; while a large segment of the Egyptian population actively supports Hamas’s campaign to keep the Palestinian refugees’ claims alive.
2. The Egyptian and Israeli governments share an interest in reducing Hamas’s political power and influence as much as possible. (Hence their collaboration in maintaining the siege.) However, the Egyptian government faces significant constraints from its own citizens that prevent it from going too far to oppress/crush/exterminate Hamas. No foreseeable Israeli government– either the present one, the incoming one, or a Livny government that might replace Netanyahu after a period– will face any such constraints from its own citizens. The dynamic in Israeli society has been shifting rapidly toward support for more and more hardline policies toward the Palestinians in general, and particularly toward those pesky Gazans who refused to bow to the IDF’s will during the recent assault on their communities. Would there be effective international constraints on an attempt by Netanyahu to send the military in to “finish the job” in Gaza? At this point, I do not know.
3. However, just to further complicate matters a bit, I’d note there is also a potential for shared Hamas and Israeli interests with respect to Gaza, including– or perhaps especially– under Likud. Netanyahu has talked about trying to offer the Palestinians an “economic peace”, rather than a real peace. This proposal is far from new; and every time the Israeli occupiers of the West Bank and Gaza have attempted it in the past it has been either a complete sham or a miserable failure, or both. And I still think that, regarding the West Bank, it is a completely useless, actively fraudulent, and dangerously diversionary proposal that should be completely spurned. How on earth can the highly atomized Palestinian enclaves of the West Bank ever be expected to mount anything like a viable economy so long as the Palestinian heartland continues to be quadrillaged by the literally hundreds of IDF-controlled internal checkpoints that choke off every hope of economic opportunity or normal human life? However, in the present circumstances in Gaza, Gaza might provide a focus for something similar to the kind of “economic peace” that Netanyahu talks about. It could do this most easily if Israel simply and sincerely abandoned all its remaining claims to control all the access points into and out of the Strip, and the complete control it currently operates over the Strip’s population register, and allowed Gaza to reconnect to the world economy through Egypt and through Gaza’s own air and sea access points. This, incidentally, is what Mahmoud Zahhar and other strong currents in the Hamas leadership have talked about for several years now. (See e.g. by March 2006 interview with Zahhar.) Egypt is not so enthusiastic about this, seeing a risk that the Palestine Question might bleed more deeply into Egyptian politics under this scenario than Mubarak feels happy about. However, if Netanyahu should prove motivated and able to persuade Washington of the virtues of what would be (effectively) a “Gaza-first option” for the Palestinians– would Mubarak’s agreement to it be far behind? I think not.
… I’ve been thinking aloud, really, in this post so far. “Gaza first” proposals have, of course, been offered to the Palestinians many times over the years, and the main response of the PLO Palestinian leaders has always been to worry that “Gaza first” might all too easily become “Gaza only”… That is, that the “Palestinian state” they sought would be established not in the 22% of historic (Mandate) Palestine that they claimed in the 1988 “Declaration of Independence”, but just in the 1.27% of historic Palestine that lies within the Gaza Strip.
However, there is no way whatsoever that Hamas or any other Gaza-based leadership would sign off on any “final peace” with Israel that would involve giving up on the longstanding Palestinian claims to Jerusalem and to satisfaction on the refugee issue. No way. So if a Palestinian administration did emerge in Gaza that would have control over its internal affairs and over economic affairs including economic and other forms of (non-military) links to the outside world, and would undertake to abide by a reciprocal armistice/ceasefire with Israel for some presumably pre-agreed duration that would not be a final resolution and ending of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
But it could provide some important relief to the people of Gaza (and to the residents of southern Israel, though can say based on my recent visit to Sderot that their lives seem outstandingly good right now, in comparison with those of their fellow-humans right across the border with Gaza)
Meantime, the campaign would obviously continue for a speedy and durable resolution of the whole broader conflict including its important dimensions regarding Jerusalem and the refugees.
Would a new form of “Palestinian Authority” based in Gaza be any less able to negotiate a final peace agreement with Israel’s leaders than the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallastan has been over the past 15 years? We might note that during the 15-year life of the Ramallastan PA it completely failed to hold its Israeli interlocutor to the important, Oslo-based commitment that the terms of a final peace would be completely agreed within five years. It completely failed to halt Israel’s settlement-building project. (Indeed, Arafat gave the whole settling project a completely new lease on life when he agreed that Israel could carve a whole new settlers-only road system deep into the West Bank under the guise of so-called “bypass roads”.) And the Ramallastan PA completely failed to provide any meaningful protection at all to the chronically embattled Palestinian population of occupied Jerusalem…
Actually the list of the failures of the Ramallastan PA’s failures, from a Palestinian-nationalist perspective, goes on and on and on.
Anyway, I’m not trying to second-guess or predict Hamas’s decisionmaking on this point. Just to note that one version of a “Gaza first” option may be on the table under Netanyahu, and that Hamas’s response to it may be surprisingly positive. But who knows? Netanyahu might instead just succumb to the still-high popular pressure to go back in to Gaza to “finish the job.”

Cassese, Goldstone, Ntsebeza, Robinson call for international investigation of Gaza atrocities

A very high-octane group of 16 prosecutors and judges associated with various recent international atrocity investigations and prosecutions has now called for for a full international investigation into alleged abuses of international law during the recent Gaza conflict.
The letter’s signatories include Antonio Cassese, who is undoubtedly the dean of international criminal jurisprudence and was also the first President of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, Richard Goldstone, first chief prosecutor of ICTY, Dumisa Ntsebeza, a member of South Africa’s TRC, and Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Oh, and Archbishop Tutu, chair of South Africa’s TRC.
In a letter the group sent to UN Sec-Gen Ban Ki-moon and the members of the Security Council, the group wrote,

    We urge world leaders to send an unfaltering signal that the targeting of civilians during conflict is unacceptable by any party on any count. We call on them to support the establishment of a United Nations commission of inquiry into the Gaza conflict. The commission should have the greatest possible expertise and authority and: a mandate to carry out a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation of all allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict; it should not be limited only to attacks on UN facilities; act in accordance with the strictest international standards governing such investigations; if it finds sufficient evidence, it should provide recommendations as to the appropriate prosecution of those responsible for gross violations of the law by the relevant authorities.
    The events in Gaza have shocked us to the core. Relief and reconstruction are desperately needed but, for the real wounds to heal, we must also establish the truth about crimes perpetuated against civilians on both sides.

Actually, as longtime readers of JWN are probably aware I am fairly skeptical about the value of international criminal prosecutions and international criminal investigations in general. I believe what the beleaguered people of Gaza and the also harmed (but far less armed) people of southern Israel need above everything else is a speedy and sustainable end to the conflict between their two peoples.
Absent such a final peace settlement, the institutionalized violence of Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza will continue; resistance to that occupation will obviously continue, in ways that may include violence (and properly regulated violence is a quite legal way to end military occupation); and Israeli military actions of a frequently lethal and very harmful nature can also be expected to continue.
The most urgent goal is to end all that violence, the commission of which continues to this day. Once the direct violence of occupation and all the violence that flows from that situation, has ended: That will be, I think, the best time to start examining the “truth” about the past.
Some of my Black friends in South Africa used to say: “We already knew so many things about the violence that was been committed against us by the White colonial regimes. We didn’t need the TRC to ‘gain’ that knowledge. What we needed it for was to gain acknowledgment from our former tormenters about their past abuses.” The same may well be true of the Palestinians. But what they need, most urgently of all, is an end to the violence that continues to plague their every waking minute.
Still, these international-lawyer types like to have a job, and they like to be “relevant.”
Perhaps, too, in a context in which “international” courts are now pursuing a criminal indictment against one Arab president (Sudan’s Pres. Bashir) and a criminal investigation that might well get close to another (Syria’s Pres. Asad), while no-one is even considering any authoritative form of criminal investigation into the abuses the Bush administration committed in Iraq, in Guantanamo, and elsewhere, these jurists realize that the whole machinery of “international criminal justice” now looks very lopsided… a little bit too much like judicial colonialism?
Anyway, in Gaza as in Darfur, I still strongly believe that what’s needed above all is full support for effective peacemaking, rather than criminal prosecutions. Investigations and possible prosecutions can come later. But first, these conflicts need to be resolved.
(On Gaza, I think Amnesty’s recent call for an international embargo on the shipment of all arms into the theater of the recent war– that is, to Israel as well as to Hamas– makes a lot more sense than this call for an international investigation.)

Congratulations, George Galloway and friends!

Five thousand miles and 23 days later, the large aid convoy spearheaded by British MP George Galloway yesterday arrived in Gaza.
The main problem that Galloway and his group encountered occurred in El-Arish, Egypt, where they were pelted with stones by thugs after Galloway criticized the Egyptian government for its role in helping to maintain the Israeli-ordained siege of Gaza. (He also, according to some reports had called for the Egyptian army to overthrow the regime. If that is true, it was not only impolitic and tactically unwise but actually an outrageous thing to advocate. Can anyone help me ascertain whether he did or not?)
AFP reports this from Gaza today:

    George Galloway on Tuesday donated thousands of dollars and dozens of vehicles to the Hamas-run government in the Gaza Strip after arriving in an aid convoy.
    “We are giving you now 100 vehicles and all of their contents, and we make no apology for what I am about to say. We are giving them to the elected government of Palestine,” Galloway said at a press conference in Gaza City.
    Galloway said he personally would be donating three cars and 25,000 pounds to Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya as he dared the West to try to prosecute him for aiding what it considers a terror group.
    “I say now to the British and European governments, if you want to take me to court, I promise you there is no jury in all of Britain who will convict me. They will convict you.”
    Galloway made the announcement at an outdoor conference in the presence of several senior Hamas officials, and his words were greeted by shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great).
    … The convoy included 12 ambulances and a fire engine and carried aid worth more than one million pounds.

Reconstruct Gaza? A Likud adviser says ‘No’

Egypt is today hosting a big conference in Sharm al-Sheikh to rally (mainly pro-western) donors to the task of rebuilding the large amounts of housing and public infrastructure in Gaza that were destroyed by Israel during the recent war.
Ramallah-based Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayad is requesting $2.5 billion for the task. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reportedly carrying with her to Sharm a pledge of $900 million of US funds. Different governments and groups around the world are even competing to give (or be seen to give) money for this reconstruction effort. In some cases, like that of the US, this intention of giving reconstruction aid now seems bizarre and hypocritical, given that Washington could have stopped Israel’s assault on Gaza in its very first hours, and thereby prevented just about all of the horrendous damage Gazans have suffered; but under Pres. Bush it chose not to do so.
But there is one party that might well be strongly opposed to the rebuilding of Gaza: the Likud Party, which is shortly going to take over power in Israel. In a telling op-ed published in The Jerusalem Post in early February, Prof. Efraim Inbar, an adviser to Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, argued that,

    The developing international campaign to reconstruct Gaza is strategic folly. It is also unlikely to be effective. And, under current circumstances, it is also immoral.

The article strongly supported a policy of punishing all the people of Gaza for the actions of Hamas.
I interviewed Inbar here in Jerusalem yesterday. Referring to his article and to today’s donors’ conference, he admitted that the international community might (misguidedly) insist on rebuilding Gaza– “but we can always slow the process down.”
Indeed until now Israel, which is the “occupying power” in the Gaza Strip, has complete control over the passage of all freight into or out of the Strip. Since the Gaza war it has used that power to prevent the entry of just about all the basic materials required for physical rebuilding: cement, rebar, glass, piping, etc. So it seems that the outgoing Olmert government has already been working hard to prevent or slow down the rebuilding of Gaza.
Inbar is the Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. In another part of yesterday’s interview he talked about the need to maintain the extensive series of roadblocks and other movement-control mechanisms deep inside the West Bank with which Israel controls its 2.3 million Palestinians. Those roadblocks currently number more than 600, and have completely paralyzed the ability of West Bankers to build anything like a functioning economy.
Inbar described the West Bank roadblocks as another part of the effort to punish, or “train”, the Palestinians. The US and other governments have urged Israel to reduce their number. But Inbar told me, “The Americans may push us on this, and we may remove one or two roadblocks. We’ll just play with the Americans!”
He expressed a lot of confidence that, despite the different “tone” he now hears coming out of Obama’s Washington, the new president will not end up doing anything very different on the Palestinian issue than his predecessor. “Time is on our side,” he said a number of times.

Arab League war crimes investigators in Gaza

The Arab League has shown a surprising burst of initiative and has been deploying a fact-finding mission to Gaza to investigate Israeli war crimes, according to this news release from the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
The news release tells us that the mission started its work February 22 and will wrap it up today. PCHR has hosted the mission during its time in the field.
The members of the missions are:

    John Dughard, Former UN Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories; Finn Lenghjem, a judge and legal expert; Paul De Waart, an international legal expert; Gonzalo Boye, a lawyer and representative of PCHR in Spanish courts; Raeleene Sharp, an international lawyer; and Francisco Corte Real, an expert in forensic medicine. The mission is also accompanied by 3 members of the secretariat general of the League of Arab Nations: Radwan Ben Khader, Legal Advisor of the Secretary General; ‘Aliaa Al-Ghussain, Director of Palestinian Affairs Department; and Ilham al-Shajani, First Secretary of Demography and Immigration Policies Department.

The heavy representation of Spanish experts in the team is not surprising, considering that the Spanish courts claim “universal jurisdiction” for a range of war crimes and other atrocities– as Pinochet earlier learned to his dismay– and that the National Court of Spain anyway has a case outstanding against seven former senior Israeli military officials in connection with the IAF’s 2002 dropping of a 2,000-pound bomb on the home of Salah Shehadeh in Gaza, an act that killed 17 civilians along with Shehadeh, injured 70 other civilians, and completely destroyed eleven homes.
So who knows how the Arab League or prosecutors in Spain or elsewhere might end up using the report of this fact-finding commission?

Amnesty’s great campaign for Israel-Hamas arms embargo

Huge kudos to Amnesty International for having pulled together a well-researched and intelligent report on the international arms suppliers who were complicit in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the recent Israel-Gaza war, and for concluding it with a forthright call to all there arms suppliers to cease their arms shipments to the belligerents forthwith.
The news release about the report is here, and the PDF of the report’s full text is here.
(Astute readers of JWN will recall that one of the first things I called for when the recent Gaza war broke out was a complete embargo on all arms shipments to the warring parties.)
Of course, the lethal and destructive capabilities of the arsenals of the two sides are completely asymmetrical. And regarding the shipments of arms to each sides by outside arms suppliers, we can recall Kathy Kelly’s poignant recent speculation regarding the sheer size of the “tunnels” that would be required if all Israel’s arms imports had to be brought in in such a way.
The Amnesty report does three things particularly well:

    1. It pulls together a lot of details about the size, nature, and provenance of the arms transfers made to each side– and, too, of the effects some of these transferred arms had on the communities targeted. And while it is careful to do this for both sides, the report makes quite clear the stark disparity between the level and lethality of the arms level on each side. In particular, though the report is careful to list all the suppliers of significant amounts of arms to srael, the figures it provides show that the overwhelming majority of these outside-supplied arms– $7.9 billion-worth in the four years 2004-2007– came from the United States. The second place was occupied by France, which provided only $59 million-worth.
    2. It provides a very clear explanation (p. 19 of the full report) of the duty all states have under international law to avoid aiding or assisting other states in the commission of unlawful acts. This duty is spelled out in Article 16 of the International Law Commission’s Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (2001), which states: “A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State.” After the way the Israelis used their foreign-supplied weapons in and against Lebanon in 2006, surely no state officials elsewhere could thereafter argue that “they did not know” that Israel had a propensity to use such weapons in ways that were grossly disproportionate to the military task at hand and often grossly indiscriminate… Also, in addition to the duties states have under international law, most states– including the US– also have their own domestic legislation governing the end use of weapons it supplies to others. In the case of the US, such arms can be used only for defensive purposes.
    3. Finally, the Amnesty report is quite clear on the policies it advocates. It calls for the immediate imposition of a “comprehensive UN Security Council arms embargo on Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups until effective mechanisms are in place to ensure that weapons or munitions and other military equipment will not be used to commit serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and the establishment of a ” thorough, independent and impartial investigation of violations and abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including the Israeli attacks which have been directed at civilians or civilian buildings in the Gaza Strip, or which are disproportionate, and Palestinian armed groups’ indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilian centres in southern Israel.”

So now, let’s see what the AI organization in the US, and the US Campaign to End the Israeli occupation can do with this information and this campaign.
Addendum, at 2:00 p.m., EST:
I see that Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum has “slammed” Amnesty for its report, which he described as “unbalanced and unfair because it equates the criminal with the victim.” Doubtless the government of Israel won’t be far behind in denouncing the report.
Regarding Barhoum’s criticism, I would note that the provisions of international humanitarian law on which Amnesty bases its argument deal overwhelmingly with questions of how belligerent parties fight their wars rather than why they fight them. International law does, certainly, give a general right to people living under foreign military occupation to resist their occupiers, including by using military force to do so. (And also, by inviting other states to come and join them in doing so– as the Kuwaitis did, in 1990-91.) So any actions that Hamas takes that can be seen as constituting direct resistance to Israel’s military occupation of Gaza or the West Bank would be considered legitimate.
Thus, for example, just about all the military operations Hamas and others undertook against IOF forces who invaded Gaza during the war– or any actions they might have taken to defend against air or naval assaults against Gaza– would be completely legal.
You could certainly argue that if, during the recent war or in the immediate and quite evident run-up to it, the Palestinian resistance groups had sent rockets or against valid military targets inside Israel, that would have been legal too. What’s illegal as a way of war-fighting is to send out rockets or other ordnance that is not targeted as carefully as possible onto valid military targets.
One important point is that there is good evidence that in the past Hamas has tried to target military targets– mainly, military bases– inside Israel. But the Israeli censorship system forbids any reporting or mention of that. Another is that the targetability of the rockets used by Hamas and other groups is pretty darn poor in many cases. And another is that groups other than Hamas– including, as the Amnesty report notes, groups affiliated with Fateh– are also militarily active inside Gaza; and they may have targeting philosophies that are different from Hamas’s. (However, Hamas, as the predominant authority in the Gaza Strip, has a responsibility to try to curb the actions of any other groups that are committing war-crimes through the indiscriminate firing of missiles into Israel.)
… All in all, Barhoum has something of an argument, but not I think a 100% watertight argument.
Meanwhile, for myself, as a US citizen, I am most concerned with the involvement of my government in this whole business. If the US government were supplying any weapons to Hamas or other Palestinian factions, I would probably want to examine their practices and targeting philosophies much more rigorously. But it is not. It is massively supplying arms to a country that has used many of them to commit war crimes. I shall therefore focus centrally on the responsibilities that that entails.

Syria’s position strengthening internationally, regionally

Syria’s place in the world community– which the ideologues in the Bush White House did so much to attack and delegitimize– has been strengthening noticeably in the past few days/weeks.
Later this week, Sen. John Kerry, the new chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will visit Syria. Ahead of the visit, he said the Obama administration is eager to talk to Syria. The US has not had an ambassador there since 2005, though it does have an embassy.
From a domestic US perspective, it is extremely important that this rapprochement win solid support in both houses of Congress, since under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby– as well as the Bush administration– Congress has itself been another major driver of the “isolate and attack Syria” campaign.
At a regional level, Syria has won some new influence, too. Yesterday, the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz, visited Syria where he met President Bashar al-Asad and conveyed from King Abdullah (his older half-brother), a message about “bilateral ties and the importance of consultation and coordination between the two sides”, according to the Syrian official news agency.
A rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia– which have been at loggerheads since the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri in February 2005– would be extremely significant for the politics of the entire region.
Western spinmeisters and MSM have made a huge point about the depth and alleged intractability of the rift between the alleged “moderates” and “extremists” in the Arab world, a rift that seemed particularly evident during the most recent Gaza crisis.
But most western commentators often have little idea about the depth and complexity of the regional dynamics that continue to underlie regional– and in particular, inter-Arab– relations. I find it interesting that these two regimes, in particular, now apparently see it in their interest to move towards some degree of rapprochement.
The political fallout from the Gaza crisis continues. Egypt has been, I think, somewhat strengthened in its role in the region– as I wrote last week. But so, too, has Syria. So the whole regional system remains dynamic, and certainly not easily reducible to some form of a zero-sum “moderates versus extremists” template.

Israel-Hamas prisoner talks, intra-Palestinian reconciliation, etc

Ha’aretz, Reuters, and others are now reporting that Israel seems close to presenting a prisoner-exchange proposal involving Hamas-held Israeli POW Gideon Shalit and a large number of Palestinian prisoners and detainees that might (imho) win acceptance from Hamas. Conclusion of this prisoner-exchange agreement could then in some way accompany conclusion of the Gaza ceasefire-stabilization agreement between the two parties, the terms of which seem to be just about agreed upon.
Notable among the names mentioned of Palestinians to be released is that of Marwan Barghouthi, a veteran Fateh activist who has often challenged Fateh’s ossified political leadership in the past and who has worked since his imprisonment in an Israeli jail in 2002 to help improve relations between Fateh and Hamas.
Israel’s still-PM Ehud Olmert has insisted that the ceasefire-stabilization agreement can’t be concluded without Hamas freeing Israeli POW Gideon Shalit. Hamas has resisted linking the two issues and has its own very compelling demands for the release of political prisoners and detainees in exchange for Shalit. Indeed, negotiations over that prisoner release have continued, in an on-again-off-again way ever since Shalit, an IDF corporal, was captured by Gaza-based militants back in early summer 2006.
(One further note: Several Hamas leaders have been trying to spread uncertainty about whether Shalit actually survived Israel’s recent assault on Gaza. It is at least possible that he didn’t; but somehow my gut-instinct judgment is that he would have been given as much protection during the war as the top Hamas leaders.)
As I have written before, Egypt, which is now mediating both these parallel negotiations, should be able to find a neat “diplomatic” formula on linking them in an acceptable way, even if only temporally. And indeed, the Haaretz writers write today,

    Egyptian officials are now busy on a formula that would allow both sides to claim that their stance [on linking or not linking the two negotiations] was accepted.

The Haaretz article reports that the “troika” that’s still in charge of Israel’s security policy (Olmert, Barak, and Livni) would present a concrete proposal regarding the prisoner-exchange deal to the full cabinet on Wednesday.
The Haaretz writers report,

    Another key issue is the identity of the Palestinians that each side is willing to see freed. Hamas has demanded a large proportion of the prisoners on its list of 350 to 450 names. Significant progress has been made, and Israel now opposes only several dozen names.
    A spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, Abu Obeida, said Sunday that the group insists on the release of three senior figures: Ibrahim Hamed, the leader of the military wing in the West Bank; Abdullah Barghouti, responsible among others for the bombings at the Sbarro pizzeria and Cafe Moment in Jerusalem; and Abbas al-Sayed, mastermind of the Park Hotel massacre in Netanya.
    On the other hand, there seems to be support in Israel for the release of Marwan Barghouti, the jailed leader of Fatah’s more militant Tanzim faction.
    Hader Shkirat, attorney for Barghouti, told Haaretz on Sunday that there will be no deal for Shalit without the release of Barghouti.

Of course, it is not Shkirat but the Hamas leadership that is responsible for the Palestinian side of the negotiation. But if Shkirat seems to have that degree of confidence that Barghouthi will be involved, he must have gotten it from somewhere.
Many Palestinian analysts believe that a released Barghouthi could help to save the political fortunes of Fateh, which have been extremely badly battered by the recent Gaza war. If the Hamas leadership is indeed insisting that Barghouthi be part of the present prisoner-exchange deal that indicates to me that they actually want to see the emergence within Fateh of a new kind of leadership with which they could have a functional working relationship, and that that is worth more to them now than the possible downside risk that a re-energized Fateh might win back some support from Hamas.
Certainly, Hamas’s relationship with Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), the current head of Fateh, the PA, and the PLO, has been extremely difficult over the past three years.
Meanwhile, moves toward a new reconciliation between Fateh and Hamas are proceeding, albeit still slowly. At the end of last week high-level (but not top-level) delegations from the two parties had preliminary discussions in– again– Egypt; and more formal and substantive reconciliation talks are scheduled to open there February 22.
The participants in last week’s talks were, from Fateh, former PM Ahmed Quei (Abu Alaa’) and Nabil Shaath, and from Hamas Dr. Mahmoud Zahhar and politburo member Mousa Abu Marzook.
That Al-Manar report linked to there said this about the talks:

    Fatah and Hamas sources said that the Egyptians presented the two sides with a plan aimed at ending the power struggle. The plan, the sources added, calls for the formation of a Fatah-Hamas government, the release of all “political” detainees held by the two parties, holding parliamentary and presidential elections, reforming the PLO and reconstructing the Palestinian security forces.
    According to the sources, the two parties have already reached an agreement in principle to form a joint government that would serve for two years. The proposed government, which would be headed by current PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and would include several Hamas ministers, would be entrusted with preparing for new elections and solving all problems between the two sides ahead of the vote.

Al-Manar is run by Lebanon’s Hizbullah and can therefore be judged somewhat slanted toward the Hamas side. However, the website also has some very solid news reporting, so this piece may be part of that.
(Update at 12:34 p.m.: I just realized the whole Manar report was lifted verbatim off the Jerusalem Post website— though without attribution. Mnar does often do this with news reports its editors think are valuable. I guess the fact that both they and the J. Post stand behind this report gives it added credibility.)
… As a broader observation, I would simply note that it is possible to view the role Fateh has played in recent years as in many ways equivalent to that played in the dying days of South Africa’s apartheid by Buthelezi’s ethnic-Zulu-based “Inkatha Freedom Party”. During the “last throes” of the apartheid regime, the IFP became majorly co-opted by the state security forces in a campaign to terrorize and oppose the ANC at many levels. Despite the enormous numbers of deaths and the the amount of suffering and pain that the IFP inflicted on ANC supporters– especially, I should note, on those ANC supporters who were closest to it, that is, who were themselves ethnic Zulus– the ANC leadership worked hard to always hold out a hand of friendship to Buthelezi and, while criticizing many of the IFP’s actions, never sought to delegitimize his political role.
Many people have described the role Fateh’s security forces have played in recent years as analogous to that of the Nicaraguan Contras– a force that was almost entirely created from outside through US funding and arming. However, I think that viewing Fateh’s role as closer to that of the IFP is more helpful. Buthelezi did have some indigenous political credibility before he became involved with the apartheid regime’s nefarious anti-ANC campaigns. Plus, at the political level, he played one crucial step that helped to stymie the aparheid regime’s big push to solve its problems through the creation of a string of tightly controlled “Bantustans”, or nominally independent Black African “homelands.”
(We can note that Israel was one of the very, very few governments around the world that ever gave formal recognition to the six or seven Bantustans that were established. No other significant government ever did that.)
But Buthelezi– who had many supporters and admirers in the west, including Margaret Thatcher and Ronald reagan– crucially never gave in to the Pretoria regime’s pressures that he declare Kwa-Zulu to be a Bantustan. That political position that he held to really helped the national struggle.
Within Fateh, we can also see that it has significant, pre-existing political legitimacy. Plus, despite Abu Mazen’s lengthy participation in the never-ending tragicomedy of “peace negotiations” with Israel and the many harsh actions he has taken against Hamas, we can see that thus far he has never signed off on any of the extremely humiliating political deals the Israelis have waved before him (though never even finally offered.) And indeed, on February 7, even his very, very pro-US “prime minister”, Salam Fayyad, said he saw no hope that any Israeli leader could come up with a reasonable peace proposal.
Bottom line: closer to the IFP than to the Contras?