Gaza: terror without mercy, in the shadow of the law

“The underlying meaning of the attack on the Gaza Strip, or at least its final consequence, appears to be one of creating terror without mercy to anyone.” That is the conclusion of an independent study jointly commissioned by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Palestinian Medical Relief Society.

It chimes with The Guardian’s investigation into possible war crimes committed by Israeli forces (this being a good example of investigative, multimedia journalism), as well the testimony of Israeli soldiers gathered by the veteran’s organization Breaking the Silence. Medical personnel, hospitals and civilians were all targeted, despite the Israeli Defence Force’s surveillance technology giving them the capacity to see individuals and targets clearly from some distance. Not only was the death toll high, but the destruction wreaked on Palestinian infrastructure – some 15% of all buildings in the Gaza Strip were destroyed, and half of all hospitals attacked – made this a clear case of urbicide, meaning the destruction was a goal of the offensive rather than a by-product of the fighting.

Israeli authorities have defended their actions claiming that their forces act within the rules of war. And they may be right about that. International humanitarian law does not prevent war; it tells combatants how to conduct war. In the attack on Gaza the IDF employed international legal experts in great numbers to work out how to prosecute the offensive by establishing when, where and how they were “entitled” to attack civilians and their infrastructure. This means the assault on Gaza was a case of “lawfare.”

Hamas, through its indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians, is also guilty of acting illegally, and deserves prosecution along with those Israeli forces that targeted medics, civilians and urban infrastructure. But there are limits to what a discourse of legality can achieve in this context. As Eyal Weizman has concluded, “rather than moderation or restraint, the violence and destruction of Gaza might be the true face of international law.”

As such opposing the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands and the perpetual blockade of Palestinian society – note the on-going control of PA funds by the Israeli government as evidence of the continuing strangulation that makes a mockery of the idea Israel has “withdrawn” from Gaza – might be better opposed in terms of colonial power rather than legal rights.

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