Grave concern for the safety of Palestinian civilians - a call for the universal application of international law

The following remarks were made on behalf of The Electronic Intifada at a press conference organised by the Minnesota branch of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, in Minneapolis on 15 March 2002.


I want to provide an overview of recent events on the ground and some background to this press conference.

In the week 7-13 March 2002, a period for which I have reliable statistics, Israel has conducted massive artillery bombardments and large-scale invasions of Palestinian cities, villages, and refugee camps with literally hundreds of tanks, naval gunboats, and combat helicopters, and thousands of ground forces.

During this period, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza noted the killing of 87 Palestinians, including 70 civilians, by Israeli occupying forces, and the wounding of hundreds more.

This death total falls within the highest four weekly totals of the 17 months of the Intifada, exceeded only by the first two weeks of the Intifada, and the week of January 28th-February 3rd.

The Palestinian Red Crescent Society, the local affiliate of the International Red Cross, estimates that the total number of Palestinian deaths in the West Bank and Gaza, since the beginning of the Intifada on 29th September 2000 is 1,205, with 18,473 injuries (figures inclusive to midnight, 14 March 2002).

Over 60 percent of the injuries are in the upper body, with 2,000 permanent disabilities. UNICEF notes that 7,000 of the injured are children.

According to the Health Development Information and Policy Group, of this total number killed, 84.1 percent were civilians, 12.4 percent were under 15 years of age, and another 11.6 percent were 18 years or under. In other words, approximately one quarter of those killed were children.

61 percent of the dead were killed by live ammunition and 22.7 percent by shelling. Of those killed by live ammunition and shelling, site of the injury for over 60 percent of the dead is the upper body.

Perhaps most shockingly, of those killed, only 5 percent happened in clashes where any Palestinian present had a weapon. 36 percent were killed in unarmed clashes, and 59 percent were killed in areas where no clashes were happening.

The targeting of journalists and medical personnel

This last week saw journalists again targeted -Raffaele Ciriello, an Italian journalist was killed and two other journalists were wounded by Israeli occupying forces. One ABC camera filming a refugee camp from across the road in a Ramallah hotel received 5 bullets, a clear sign of targeting. At least 150 journalists have been shot and beaten by Israeli soldiers and settlers, and at least 14 press centers have been shelled during the Intifada.

This last week, four Palestinian medical personnel were killed by Israeli forces.

In one incident at 6pm on 7 March, an Israeli tank at the western entrance to Tulkarm opened fire at an UNRWA ambulance, which was approximately 100m away. Ambulance officer, Kamal ‘Abdel-Rahman Salem, 35, from Tulkarem refugee camp, was killed by a heavy caliber bullet to the abdomen.

At approximately 7:50pm, an Israeli tank opened fire at an ambulance of the Palestine Red Crescent Society in the east of Tulkarm. The ambulance driver, Ibrahim Mohammed As’ad, 38, from Nour Ash-Shams refugee camp, was killed by a heavy caliber bullet to the head. In addition, Dr. Nabhan Al-Jallad, director of emergency at the hospital of Palestine Red Crescent Society in Tulkarm, was wounded by two live bullets in the feet.

In the morning of March 8th, a Palestinian paramedic was killed in Sudania area, west of Jabalya Refugee Camp, when Israeli gunboats shelled a police station.

At approximately 2:00am, Israeli occupying forces that invaded Khuza’a village, east of Khan Yunis, fired at an ambulance of the Palestine Red Crescent Society, which was moving towards the village to evacuate the wounded. The ambulance was hit by a live bullet, but no casualties were reported. The ambulance sought shelter behind a mosque.

At noon, an Israeli tank shot dead at close range Dr. Ahmed Nu’man ‘Othman Subeyyeh, 42, from Al-Khader village in Bethlehem, director of Al-Yamama Hospital. Dr. Subeih had just exited the hospital after advance coordination with Israeli authorities to bring medicines and medical personnel.

Up to this week in the Intifada, 3 other doctors and one ambulance driver had been killed, 116 Red Crescent EMTs injured, and 70 percent of the Red Crescent ambulance fleet damaged in Israeli attacks. Hospitals have been repeatedly targeted.

Other violations of human rights

In a continuation of the policy of assassination and extra-judicial killing formally adopted by the Israeli cabinet, Israeli forces carried out four extra-judicial assassinations in Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem, and Beit Hanina, killing five Palestinians.

Hundreds of Palestinian civilians were arrested during the violent incursions into Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps and a total siege imposed on the OPT and many areas subjected to curfew. Several Palestinians died as a result of Israel obstructing their passage to medical treatment.

Many houses demolished and large areas of Palestinian agricultural land have been razed this last week. Amnesty International reports:

During the current intifada there has been large-scale demolition of Palestinian homes. A minimum of 3,000 Palestinians have thus been made homeless over the past 18 months, the vast majority of them children. Over the past 18 months, Israel has also intensified their policy of closures of towns and villages inhabited by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. These closures constitute a grave human rights violation and a collective punishment targeted against all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories for killings committed by a few.

In general, Amnesty International states that:

Israel’s repression of the Palestinian intifada since 29 September 2000 has been marked by systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

[Source: Background briefing for the 58th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International, IOR 41/004/2002, 11 March 2002.]

The events of the last week represent not just systematic but also grave infractions of international law and clear violations of Israel’s responsibility, as an Occupying power, under the Fourth Geneva Conventions.

The realities of the military occupation vs. media coverage

In terms of the realities on the ground for Palestinians -which is the core reason for this press conference -the US media bears no small responsibility for failing to communicate the severity of life at Palestinian ground zero for Joe or Jane Palestinian.

Having lived in the Palestinian West Bank from 1994-1998, I witnessed at first hand the harsh realities of the Israeli military occupation and the peace process that failed to remove that occupation.

A military occupation is just that. A foreign army ruling a civilian population. Violence is part of that rule. It is unavoidable. Oslo’s handing over of Palestinian towns representing 5 percent of the land but containing 95 percent of the Palestinian population, was a hand over of Israel’s crowd control problems. It’s no benefit to control your town if you don’t control the road between it and the next town.

There was a notable absence of outrage in the media this last week, as Israel underlined its continued total control of the Palestinian population, when it surrounded refugee camps with tanks to demand a roll call of all men between the ages of 14 and 45.

17 people that resisted were killed, and a larger number -60 people like you and me who were just trying to survive the experience with their families - were also killed. Overcrowded civilian areas and weapons more suited for full scale war with another army don’t mix. This is the essence of military occupation. Military occupation is -by definition - a form of violence.

It is therefore a sad sign of the times that in almost all print and broadcast media reports you will never see mention of the Israeli occupation. This is tantamount to reporting on Black violence in 1980s South Africa without mentioning Apartheid. The context is removed.

The headlines and words that appear in reports of events on the ground are similarly loaded. Palestinians attack, Israel only retaliates. Suicide bombings are often the reason cited for the ‘retaliation’. Of course, there can be no justification for attacks on civilians. Surely that also applies if the ‘retaliation’ is against an entire civilian population?

Innocent civilians should not have to pay for the acts of a few extremists. If America acted like Israel, Timothy McVeigh’s family home would have been bulldozed, and Florida - home to 16 of the 19 September 11th hijackers - would have been the first target for high altitude bombing in the War Against Terrorism.

Reading some of the headlines this last week, one would think that there was a fair fight going on between two armies rather than between a few Palestinian gunmen (with breach-loading rifles, the odd automatic weapon, and occasional homemade mortar) and the second most powerful army in the world.

If no Israelis are dying, the situation is described as a ‘lull’ in the violence or ‘calm’. NPR has refined this to a fine art, mainly through the help of its veteran correspondent Linda Gradstein. On January 3rd, Gradstein told host Bob Edwards that:

“you know, there’s been actually three weeks of relative quiet. Only one Israeli has been killed in those three weeks, as opposed to 44 Israelis who were killed when Zinni was here last time in November and early December.”
In fact, between December 13 and Gradstein’s statement, at least 28 Palestinians, most of them unarmed civilians, and 11 of them children, were killed by Israeli forces.

Gradstein, it was discovered last month, is a reporter who has for years been accepting thousands of dollars in unethical payments from Zionist groups.

Even the University of Minnesota’s journalism department -entrusted with raising the next generation of journalists with a sound academic and ethical foundation - together with Minnesota Public Radio saw no shame in co-sponsoring a February event that hosted Gradstein along with Friends of Israel and Hillel, the pro-Israeli student organisation.

We are not getting the information we need - as citizens of free countries - necessary to make informed democratic decisions.

Ariel Sharon and the great unspoken fear

The great unspoken fear that Palestinians around the world - and in this press conference - are living with in the current period, is the fear of ethnic cleansing.

In the process of creating the Israeli state, at least 700-800,000 Palestinians were driven out from their homes. 415 villages were destroyed. Current Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s record gives plenty of legitimate reasons for concern.

As commander of the notorious Unit 101 during the early 1950s, Sharon led attacks on Palestinian villages in which women and children were killed. The massacre in the West Bank village of Qibya, on October 14, 1953, was perhaps the most notorious. His troops blew up 45 houses and 69 Palestinian civilians - about half of them women and children - were killed.

During Israel’s Sinai campaign captured 273 Egyptian prisoners of war, some of them Sudanese civilian road workers, were killed in three separate incidents involving Israeli paratroopers under Sharon’s command.

On 21 January 2001, British journalist Phil Reeves, writing in an Independent article titled, “Sharon’s return puts Wreckage Street in fear,” reported:

‘In August 1971 alone, troops under Mr Sharon’s command [note: he was Head of the IDF Southern Command] destroyed some 2,000 homes in the Gaza Strip, uprooting 12,000 people [Palestinian refugees] for the second time in their lives. Hundreds of young Palestinian men were arrested and deported to Jordan and Lebanon. Six hundred relatives of suspected guerrillas were exiled to Sinai. In the second half of 1971, 104 guerrillas were assassinated.’
As minister of defense in 1982, Sharon orchestrated Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, a military operation that killed tens of thousands of civilians as Israeli forces sought to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s infrastructure in the region. According to the statistics published in the Third World Quarterly (Volume 6, Issue 4, October 1984, pp. 934-949), over 29,500 Palestinians and Lebanese were either killed or wounded from 4 July 1982 through to 15 August 1982, 40 percent were children.

Ariel Sharon is responsible for the massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, on the southern outskirts of Beirut. The slaughter in the two contiguous camps at Sabra and Shatila took place from the evening of September 16, 1982 until the morning of September 18, 1982, in an area under the control of the Israeli armed forces.

For over 60 hours - aided by an Israeli siege around the camps and guided by the light of Israeli flares - forces belonging to the Israeli-allied Phalangist militia went through the camps, killing Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.

The precise number of victims of the massacre may never be exactly determined. The International Committee of the Red Cross counted 1,500 at the time of the massacre but by September 22 this count had risen to 2,400. On the following day 350 bodies were uncovered so that the total then ascertained had reached 2,750.

An official Israeli commission of inquiry - chaired by Yitzhak Kahan, president of Israel’s Supreme Court -investigated the massacre, and in February 1983 publicly released its findings. The Kahan Commission found that Ariel Sharon, among other Israelis, had responsibility for the massacre, although it carefully sidestepped any accusation of direct involvement in the massacre and chose not to attempt to reconcile much of the contradictory testimony.

Since the announcement of the case lodged in Belgium against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Israelis and Lebanese responsible for the massacre, killing, rape and disappearance of civilians that took place in Beirut, three key witnesses have already been killed.

Elie Hobeika, who commanded the Lebanese Phalangist forces that perpetrated the massacres, was the first to be killed in a car bomb. Fortunately, before he did, he left taped testimony with lawyers. His after death revelations allegedly include the presence of an Israeli special unit inside the camps during the massacre and will surface in due time, assuming the court case ultimately takes place, something we will not know for several months. This -of course - would directly contradict the Israeli version of events.

Sharon was a key player in the settlement explosion throughout the 1977-1992 Likud-era of Israeli government. This period was characterised by more land confiscation and more settlement activity than had ever been seen before in Israeli history. The number of settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories increased by over two thousand percent during this period, to approximately 110,000 people.

In 1996, Ariel Sharon was appointed Minister of National Infrastructure, in charge of settlement construction. In the post-Oslo period, Israel established 30 new settlements and thus nearly doubled the settler population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from 109,000 in 1993 to nearly 200,000 in 1999. According to an Agence France Presse report of 15 November 1998, while addressing a meeting of militants from the extreme right-wing Tsomet Party, Foreign Minister Sharon stated:

“Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours… Everything we don’t grab will go to them.”
And finally, only four months before his election as Prime Minister, Sharon sparked off the Second Palestinian Intifada with his visit to the Muslim-controlled Haram ash-Sharif in Jerusalem, second holiest site to Islam, with 2,000 armed Israeli police.

When Sharon gets near to Palestinian refugee camps Palestinians rightly fear the consequences.

A discourse excusing or rationalising ethnic cleansing

The climate in some parts of the US media is disturbing. In a February 22nd commentary, Emanuel A. Winston writing in America’s largest circulation newspaper, USA Today, described Arabs in the most racist language that would rightly never be tolerated in mainstream discourse if Blacks or Jews were the subject:

Regrettably, there is no ready solution for deprogramming the Arab culture that has taught its youth to hate and kill with such ferocity that nothing, including a state of their own, will change their minds or cure their murderous behavior.
He concluded:
The simple answer, instead, would be to create a vast separation from Israel, resettling the Palestinians in Jordan, where 80 percent of the population already is Palestinian.
When you can read calls for ethnic cleansing in the national press, it is a cause for concern.

Would we stand for this sort of discourse excusing or rationalising ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, Bosnia? No.

In those instances, we saw clear UN resolutions, decisive action, and international criminal tribunals - measures that are continually ignored or excused when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

You will hear no extremism at this press conference today. What you will hear are Palestinians, Americans, and others calling for something that should be uncontroversial in this post-Holocaust, post Cambodia, post-Bosnia world:

International protection for civilians. One yardstick for human rights. And the universal application of international law, with no exceptions.

Nigel Parry is one of the four founders of The Electronic Intifada, and spent 1994-1998 living in the Palestinian West Bank and working at Birzeit University. He is author of Making Education Illegal – Students from the Gaza Strip: Israeli restrictions and international reactions (Birzeit, 1995) and the web-based A Personal Diary of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.