After Rafah, Europe, Arabs have no excuse for inaction

19 May 2004. In the wake of an Israeli missile attack on peaceful demonstrators, a relative of one of those kiilled weeps in Al-Najjar Hospital, Rafah. (Johannes Abeling)


Things must be bad in Palestine when the United States allows a resolution to pass in the UN Security Council, as it did late on 19 May condemning Israeli actions. By 14-0, with the United States abstaining, the Council adopted Resolution 1544 “expressing its grave concern at the continued deterioration of the situation on the ground in the territory occupied by Israel since 1967,” and “condemning the killing of Palestinian civilians that took place in the Rafah area.” The resolution also “calls on Israel to respect its obligations under international humanitarian law, and insists, in particular, on its obligation not to undertake demolition of homes contrary to that law.”

The resolution is a moral victory for Palestinians, but there is no reason to take comfort from it. The morning after the resolution passed, the BBC reported, “Israeli forces have pushed deeper into southern Gaza, a day after the United Nations condemned Israel for killing at least eight Palestinian protesters.” Between May 17-20, Israel had killed more than 40 Palestinians. Despite an announced “pullback” by Israel, the killing and destruction continues.

The Bush administration stands out for its complicity in the Israeli crimes, though it is not alone. For days, Israel carried out war crimes in southern Gaza with the Bush administration effectively egging it on. On May 18, as Israel killed more than 20 Palestinians in Gaza, Bush gave a triumphal electioneering speech to the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in which he affirmed Israel’s “right to self-defense” and uttered not a word of protest about its action in Gaza. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s mealy-mouthed expressions of disapproval for the Israeli action were drowned out by Bush’s speech and statements from the White House spokesman expressing “understanding” for the Israeli offensive.

Until the massacre of unarmed civilian demonstrators by Israeli forces near Tel as-Sultan on 19 May the word was that the US would veto any resolution critical of Israel. After the atrocity, it seems that the United States calculated that allowing the resolution to pass would be less damaging to its nearly non-existent credibility. In one respect the situation is reminiscent of the 1996 Israeli assault on Lebanon, which the Clinton administration tolerated and refused to condemn for weeks, until the massacre of refugees at the UN base in Qana forced it to act and rein Israel in. After Tel as-Sultan, the US escalated its criticism of Israel publicly. Whether Israel’s continued assault reflected open defiance of the US, or a secret understanding is unknown. But there is little reason to believe that in the midst of the election battle where Bush and Democratic opponent John Kerry are competing to be not only more pro-Israeli, but pro-Sharon, there will be anything more than words.

Unless the other members of the Security Council and the wider international community act immediately to halt Israel’s assault, we can conclude that the UN Resolution was designed to serve only one purpose, to absolve them from any further responsibility. Resolution 1544 contains no mechanism for enforcement. Israel’s escalation of the violence after the UN vote makes clear that it fears no consequences.

The 14 Security Council members who voted for the resolution can say that this text was the strongest possible without drawing a US veto. That is certainly true, but this is no excuse for inaction. The United Kingdom which reportedly worked hard to get the resolution passed, proved that it does not need UN approval even to invade Iraq. NATO attacked Yugoslavia in 1999 without UN approval to stop atrocities against Kosovar Albanians. In these cases, armed action was involved and should have had UN approval. But states require no UN approval to take actions short of military intervention such as diplomatic and economic sanctions. Such non-violent political measures have never been tried with Israel, and they are past due.

If there were any seriousness at all behind the UN vote, we ought to see at the very least some of the following measures:

The European Union should suspend its Association Agreement with Israel. This agreement is explictly contingent on Israel’s observing basic human rights laws, yet these clauses have never been invoked. The EU should also announce an immediate arms embargo . It would be better if the EU could agree on these measures as a whole, but if it cannot its members should take these steps individually.

Because of the moribund state of Arab governments, little can be asked or expected of them. But they should not be let off the hook. It is time for Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab states with peace treaties with Israel to announce the full or partial suspension of these treaties until Israel at a minimum withdraws completely from Gaza, ends all settlement construction and commits to a total and rapid end to occupation as part of a full and comprehensive peace. Both states signed their treaties claiming they were elements of a comprehensive peace. They should demonstrate that now by making it clear to the Israeli people that they face total isolation unless they change their country’s course, but that if they change, they will be warmly embraced as full partners in the region, as post-apartheid South Africa has been embraced by its neighbors. The Arab states offered the carrot of full and normal relations at the Beirut summit, but Israelis need to see there is also a stick.

Even if there is no hope for a change in US policy any time soon, Americans too have a responsibility. They should besiege their elected representatives with calls demanding an end to US arms shipments to Israel. Americans need not care about Palestinians and Israelis to understand that limitless support for Israel is fuelling hostility to America like never before. They simply cannot afford this with their current predicament in Iraq.

Palestinians need the world’s help and support. The fact that they have a failed and paralyzed leadership does not strip the people of their right to international protection and assistance under the 1949 Geneva Conventions. But they are tired of lectures about what they — in the face of a ruthless and immensely powerful occupier — ought to do to make life safe and tolerable for Israel, while Israel continues to destroy their lives and land with total impunity. So often we are told that if only the Palestinians followed the non-violent precepts of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. they would find much greater sympathy and support. Such arguments can only be tendered by those who choose to be unaware that the vast majority of Palestinian dead are unarmed civilians who never took up arms against anyone. But who dares make such arguments now to those who gathered to march peacefully to the besieged quarter of Tel as-Sultan, and found that Israeli crowd control equipment now officially includes helicopter-fired missiles and tank shells?

If the international community does not want to see violence in Palestine, it must do more than issue condemnations and appeals for the parties to return to endless “negotiations” between radically unequal parties. It must make conflict much more costly for both parties than a genuine peace based on equality and law. And right now that means confronting and sanctioning an out of control Israel.

Related Links

  • BY TOPIC: Israel’s “Operation Rainbow” in Rafah, Gaza
  • Photostory: Israel’s Rafah operation and its May 19th attack on a peaceful march (graphic content) (21 May 2004)

    Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. A version of this article first appeared in The Daily Star on 22 May 2004.