Despite heavy criticism, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) remained co-sponsor of a controversial conference last week which was planned with an Israeli military strategy think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
Called the “Challenges of Warfare in Densely Populated Areas,” the conference took place on 2 December and is reported to have presented arguments that indemnified Israel from allegations of war crimes.
INSS, a fulcrum in Israel’s security and military establishment, is frequently a source of hawkish propaganda and legalistic rationale for Israeli actions. In August, Giora Eiland, the former head of the INSS, argued in a Ynetnews piece, titled “In Gaza, there is no such thing as ‘innocent civilians,’” against the “artificial, wrong and dangerous distinction” between Hamas fighters and the civilian population of Gaza.
The ICRC usually maintains neutrality on armed and political conflicts so as to enable a higher degree of access than is afforded to more charged organizations and institutions. What the public sees is ICRC’s humanitarian work: its medical relief, infrastructure assistance and monitoring of prison conditions. Away from the gaze of the media, IRCR delegates meet with leaders of state and guerrilla armed forces to urge compliance with international standards to reduce civilian casualties.
For instance, during a press conference at the height of the war, Jacques de Maio, the head of the ICRC’s delegation to Israel and Palestine, said, “We are pressuring the Israelis in a confidential fashion to improve and to ensure that there are no women and children and innocent civilians that are shedding their blood.”
But it appears that publicly, the ICRC and de Maio were very happy to come to Israel’s defense at a conference dedicated chiefly to defending Israel’s actions. The Jerusalem Post, the only paper to report on the conference in English, wrote that Tel Aviv University professor Eyal Gross was the lone participant at the conference to condemn the Israeli army’s conduct during the war.
ICRC gives Israel a pass
At last week’s conference, de Maio was a keynote speaker, providing both opening and closing remarks to a day packed with army affiliates: former and current military personnel from the Israeli military, the US and British armies and Israeli military lawyers.
The Jerusalem Post quoted de Maio as having rebuffed critics of the co-sponsorship on Tuesday, saying: “We don’t endorse Israel, and when we talk to Hamas, the Taliban and other terrorists, we don’t endorse them, either.”
However, as de Maio indicated at his press conference, those meetings occur confidentially. A former employee with the the American Red Cross told The Electronic Intifada that the co-sponsorship was needless: “The ICRC already has a seat at the table, they don’t need to sponsor a forum to discuss humanitarian concerns.”
Going even further, de Maio echoed some of Israel’s most ardent defenders by chastising critics of Israel for not paying more attention to who he suggests are worse regional actors.
“Why is there so much more focus on Israel than on Syria [and] other places where many more civilians are dying?” de Maio asked, according to The Jerusalem Post. “In other ongoing wars, more civilians die in one week than in Israeli wars in a full year.”
Israel’s targeting of civilian spaces
During Israel’s fifty-day attack on Gaza from 8 July to 26 August, at least 2,131 Palestinians were killed, 1,473 of which were recorded as civilians by the United Nations. Throughout the seven weeks, Israel flagrantly attacked civilian infrastructure and places of civilian congregation.
Israel destroyed 18,000 housing units and on seven separate occasions, bombed UN schools serving as makeshift shelters for the displaced and fleeing. Israel destroyed or badly damaged two dozen medical facilities, leading Amnesty International to call for an immediate investigation into what appeared to be the Israeli military’s “deliberate attacks” on hospitals and healthcare workers.
While the conference was planned before Israel’s bombing campaign on Gaza began in July, it began to garner attention and condemnation amid the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza over the summer. The premise of the conference was particularly troublesome given Israel’s repeated targeting of civilian infrastructure during the assault.
An online petition was started by a Tel Aviv University graduate student demanding the ICRC to withdraw its sponsorship, alleging that ICRC was implicitly endorsing INSS through the co-sponsorship: “By co-organizing this conference, the ICRC will be giving those key figures a venue to proudly brag about their latest military technologies they claim is [sic] being used in wars against “terrorists” and cause no harm to civilians [—] only that in Gaza few hundred kilometers away, this is proven to be a lie.”
Justifying war crimes
Despite the abundance of evidence that Israel knowingly targeted areas packed with civilians, in some cases seeking shelter and refuge, de Maio criticized what he described as distorted attention paid to these violations and urged equivalent criticism of Israel’s and Hamas’ conduct during the seven weeks of fighting.
Other panelists that presented at the conference included Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, who served as the head of the Israeli military’s International Law Department during Israel’s 2008-2009 assault on Gaza. According to The Jerusalem Post, Sharvit-Baruch argued at the conference that the principle of proportionality could allow the Israeli military to bomb “controversial potential targets” like hospitals.
Speaking on the same panel as Sharvit-Baruch was Laurie Blank, a professor of law at Emory University. Blank had the distinction of being the only participant unaffiliated with a military. Two weeks into Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” Blank weighed in on the war in the op-ed pages of The Hill, urging readers to use the principle of proportionality — not the appearance of asymmetry — to judge the morality of the mounting carnage in Gaza:
News reports of civilians killed or wounded in the course of combat in Gaza tell us of tragedy and loss. They tell us of the horrors of urban warfare and the challenges of fighting against a terrorist group bent on using the civilian population as a shield for its operatives, rocket launchers and weapons caches. They tell us that we must be more vigilant in condemning and holding accountable those who exploit civilians for tactical and strategic advantage.
Taken with this argument, Israel defenders seized Blank’s article: the conservative law blog Volokh Conspiracy at The Washington Post asked Blank to extend her analysis on their forum and the Mossad-linked Israeli group Shurat HaDin praised her piece and reposted it on their website.
Countering this common method to exonerate Israel, human rights attorney Noura Erekat wrote in the wake of the ceasefire: “A belligerent’s violation of the laws of war does not release an adversary belligerent from its obligations to observe them. Doing so would render the entire corpus of law futile and create a no-holds-barred situation in conflict.” Erekat goes on to emphasize that Israel’s direct attack on civilians “unequivocally violate the principle of distinction and constitute war crimes.”
On 30 July, de Maio wrote an imploring piece in Haaretz calling on people to “stop the killing, stop the destruction” while placing no blame on any one actor. In the piece, de Maio vividly tells how one man’s entire family was decimated — his young son, his wife and his mother — after being in close proximity to a military target. De Maio wonders woefully if the death of this innocent family will be reduced to a statistic.
But judging by his remarks to the audience gathered at the posh headquarters of the INSS, more innocent Palestinian families need to die, and with increasing frequency, before Israel can be rightfully indicted.