Collective punishment is a war crime

Above: Daoud Kuttab

The long line at the Qalandia checkpoint last week was one of the first signs of the added collective punishment that the Israeli army was now instructed to impose on the Palestinian population. When my turn finally arrived, I drove up to the soldiers, hoping finally to be allowed into Ramallah.

A woman soldier was preparing some sandwich and her colleague ordered me to return. I tried to plead with him that my papers were in order, but he kept insisting that I return. I backed my car up and after some wait I decided to walk by foot with my Israeli-issued press card and my travel documents in hand. The young Israeli soldier again screamed at me to return. When I insisted to know why, he pointed to his female partner eating away at her sandwich. “Wait till she is done with her breakfast,” he replied.

The answer surprised me because in 35 years of living under Israeli occupation I don’t remember ever being delayed because a soldier was munching on a sandwich. I know many other places were you might be asked to wait in line while staffers had their tea or breakfast, but this was a first for me.

Israeli soldiers at the Qalandia checkpoint were clearly fulfilling new orders coming from the Sharon administration: to hurt Palestinians in any way, shape or form.

A delegation that was invited to London was not allowed to travel to the United Kingdom. A PLO Central Council meeting that was supposed to discuss the Palestinian constitution was not allowed to convene. Even Palestinians invited to an Israeli-Palestinian conference about Palestinian elections in Jerusalem, sponsored by the American University, were told that their permits had been rescinded.

Of all the decisions, the one that upset many Palestinians was the decision to bar Palestinians aged 16-35 from travelling within the Palestinian territories, as well as from Palestine to any part of the world. This collective punishment has literally made Palestinian cities a major prison for a large chunk of the population. After all, why should the student, the worker, the man, the woman, the supporter of the peace process or the opponent of it be deprived of the inalienable right of freedom of movement?

The Fourth Geneva Convention, which details what an occupying power is or is not allowed to do to the civilian population under its control, clearly stipulates that collective punishment is forbidden. If there were a war crimes tribunal, the Israeli officials that take such a decision, as well as those who carry it out, could be convicted of committing a crime of war.

Even more cruel than the crime of restricting the travel of individuals is the crime of demolishing the houses of the families of militant Palestinians. In a span of 24 hours two weeks ago, Israel demolished more than 30 houses in the Rafah area. These were homes to hundreds of Palestinian men women and children. Some of them are houses that the families have waited a lifetime to build. They were destroyed as a punishment and in the Israeli hope that the act would deter Palestinians from carrying out suicide attacks.

The statement by Al Aqsa Brigades taking responsibility for the double suicide attack in Tel Aviv was rather interesting. It stated that the attacks were in part a response to the Israeli policy of house demolition. House demolitions, therefore, are not only useless as a deterrent, they also seem to have been instigators of more attacks against Israelis.

That attack was odd on another front. While the Fateh leadership has been busy trying to convince Hamas and other radical groups not to carry out attacks against civilians, this attack clearly carried out by Fateh cadres embarrassed the leadership which tried unsuccessfully to claim that the perpetrators had nothing to do with Fateh. It turns out that this most deadly attack by Fateh in over 25 years seem to have more than one target. While it was carried out against Israeli civilians, analysts believe that it was directed at certain segments of the Fateh movement itself.

One source has said that the attack was meant to send a message to the Palestinian Minister of Interior Hani Al Hassan who has been given the difficult responsibility of trying to pacify radical elements within the mainstream Palestinian movement.