On Tuesday lunchtime the Australian Human Rights Centre and the UNSW International Law and Policy Group (with assistance from the Israeli embassy) hosted a seminar on “The Fight against Terror: Practical Dilemmas in applying the Laws of War.” The two speakers were Professor Abraham Bell of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and Colonel Sharon Afek, Deputy Military Advocate General for the Israel Defence Forces.
In light of the recent Gaza flotilla disaster, the Goldstone report and ongoing global attempts to hold Israeli officials to account for alleged war crimes, the event was timely and occurred without an interruption or boycott call.
Five police stood guard outside the small lecture theatre, anticipating any possible trouble or public protest, an option I heard by pro-Palestinian activists was briefly discussed when the event was announced but eventually dismissed.
Bell, who has spoken extensively on the legality of Israel’s so-called security barrier than runs directly into Palestinian land in the West Bank, outlined his personal views that corresponded with the official, Israeli government position.
He condemned the limitations of international criminal law and wished that “armed terrorist groups be neutralised before they attacked Israel”. He lamented that international humanitarian law was not being enforced against non-state actors (despite the UN-backed Goldstone report directly condemning alleged breaches of humanitarian law by both Israel and Hamas, something Human Rights Watch says neither side has properly addressed).
But Israel still maintains a control over the land, sea and air borders around Gaza and this week announced it would once again allow building materials like cement and steel and more food items into Gaza (including the now-infamous ketchup and mayonnaise items), objects that have been officially banned for years.
Bell said during his UNSW talk that after the flotilla incident, “Israel has essentially given up economic sanctions against Hamas in Gaza”, contradicting the official Israel position that the blockade was designed to provide security for Israel and stop Hamas rocket fire.
Bell used visual aides like photos of Muslim suicide bombers in Israel, fact sheets provided by UN Watch and the Anti-Defamation League and recounted the story of losing friends in terror attacks inside Israel. It wasn’t a dispassionate legal talk but a call to understand Israel’s isolation in the international community because of the abundance of Islamic nations in the UN.
The most revealing talk, however, was by Colonel Afek, a former legal adviser for the West Bank. A softly-spoken man, he played numerous IDF videos shot by pilotless drones over southern Lebanon and Gaza and asked the audience to understand the moral and legal dilemma over whether Israel should attack homes where militants were allegedly hiding or warehousing weapons. “We are forced to make split-second decisions”, he said.
Afek said that many commanders in the field resented having to receive legal advice before launching attacks on “terrorists”. He explained how the IDF made thousands of phone calls to residents in Gaza before launching attacks on their homes in late 2008/early 2009.
The IDF lawyer acknowledged that many in the world today see Israeli officers as war criminals and threaten to arrest and prosecute them in foreign courts. “The problem isn’t with international law”, he told a questioner who asked his opinion on the Israeli government wanting to amend humanitarian law to better support Israeli war aims. “The problem is with fighting terrorism.”
Both Bell and Afek articulated the frustration that the world didn’t understand Israeli actions. Afek said that he had shown one of the IDF videos to a US commander who couldn’t see any issues with dropping munitions on civilian areas that contain “terrorists”. It was a revealing statement. One of the reasons Washington and a number of other Western states have been equally against the Goldstone report was that its recommendations could be turned against Western actions in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere.
I asked why neither man had explained the context for Palestinian “terrorism”, the fact that the occupation of the West Bank was illegal and the Palestinian legal right to resist it within legal means. Afek acknowledged that he had not discussed the wider issues in Palestine but “these are political questions, not legal ones”.
One questioner wondered why Israel had “hijacked language” by claiming Palestinians defending their land were terrorists while Israel always acted in “self-defence”, no matter the Palestinian death toll.
Bell responded that Palestinians “have no right to commit terrorism to defend their own land” (though he claimed the rights to the land were contested) and showed pictures of buses and cafes destroyed by Palestinian suicide bombers.
*Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.