Throughout the world, Israel’s extrajudicial killing of Hamas leader Saleh Shehadeh, which “accidentally” resulted in the deaths of 15 others, many of them children, has elicited official expressions of shock and outrage. Even Israel’s bankrollers and diplomatic guardians in Washington, DC had to admit that this act was wrong and “heavy-handed,” in the words of President Bush. A visitor from another planet, watching the downward spiral of politics in Israel and Palestine over the last two years, might imagine that this event will galvanize the world, mark a turning point, and shock all parties into the overdue realization that violence is not the answer.
Our extraterrestrial guest would, alas, be wrong.
Israel’s long history of getting away with murder suggests that it will probably get away with Monday’s brutal attack on an apartment building in Gaza—the most crowded residential area on the face of this planet—just as it got away with the murders of nearly 16,000 civilians in Lebanon in the summer of 1982, the murder of over 100 civilians (most of them children) sheltering in a UNIFIL base in Qana in 1996, and the more recent carnage in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron, not to mention the many Palestinians massacred in 1948 at Israel’s birth.
Continuing impunity for these and other crimes against humanity allows Ariel Sharon to crow that the murderous act of 22 July was “a great success,” without any noticeable shame or fear of censure. Impunity also allows the supposedly liberal and peace-loving Shimon Peres, who bears ultimate responsibility for the murders at Qana, to intone, in a strangely hollow moral commentary, that the deaths of innocents in Gaza constitute “a tragedy.”
In actual fact, these deaths—along with all the others referenced above—constitute war crimes. As such, they must be investigated and prosecuted by the international community.
By the same logic and according to the same principles, killings of Israeli civilians orchestrated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad must also be investigated and prosecuted. But we must be clear that these killings are a direct result of the impunity Israel has enjoyed for its killings for the last 54 years. In the absence of justice, the effective application of international humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions, and a host of UN resolutions, Israelis and Palestinians have slid down into the dark, malodorous depths of vengeance. The usual exit from this bloody cycle is death.
Happily, there is another way, and some are beginning to pursue it, such as the Gush Shalom initiative launched by Israeli citizens to compile war crimes charges against their own government; such as the attempt, still ongoing, to bring Ariel Sharon, Amos Yaron and others to justice for their significant role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres; such as last week’s announcement of a civil suit brought against Israel by Palestinian-Americans
As both the Qur’an and the Torah emphasize, to save a single life is to save the entire world. To take a single life is thus to destroy the entire world. The only way to short circuit the cycle of revenge and counter-revenge that is destroying worlds day by day in Israel and Palestine is to reach for the “circuit-breaker” of International Humanitarian Law right now, before Hamas makes good on its promises to exact revenge and Sharon realizes his ultimate goal—one he has been hoping for since taking his provocative walk-about on the grounds of the Haram Ash-Sharif/Temple Mount on September 29, 2000: To goad Palestinians into doing something so dramatic that Israel will be excused for its subsequent large-scale massacre/population transfer of tens of thousands of Palestinians.
It does not take a rocket scientist to see where Sharon wants to go, and where, with the compliance of the intellectually challenged George W. Bush, he may be allowed to go, taking the entire region to the edges of hell.
Who has to reach for that circuit breaker? All of us. Governments won’t do it, and as the UN demonstrated with its shocking cave-in to Israel’s limitation of its role after the IDF destroyed much of the Jenin refugee camp last April, Kofi Annan won’t do it. This is a job for global citizen. That’s you and me. International Humanitarian Law is our law.
Let’s use it now. It is still not too late.