On 9 July Harvard University’s Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) invited Colonel Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, former Israeli military legal adviser, to their online Humanitarian Law and Policy Forum. The stated aim was to bring “objective” discussion to the principle of distinction in international humanitarian law, or what the forum organizers called “combat in civilian population centers and the failure of fighters to distinguish themselves from the civilian population.”
Although billed as a lecturer in the Law Faculty at Tel Aviv University — and therefore as a detached humanitarian law analyst — Colonel Sharvit-Baruch was in fact deeply involved in Israel’s three-week onslaught in Gaza in December and January, that counted its 1,505th victim found under rubble earlier this month. With the devastating operation condemned and mourned worldwide, many asked why a ranking member of an occupying army that flouts its legal obligations should herself receive safe havens at two major universities.
What troubled many of the 200 or so participants who “attended” the talk via a virtual chatroom was that Sharvit-Baruch was cut off from public or legal scrutiny as she relayed her PowerPoint presentation. Questions were posed by the moderators, sanitized of any critical content. Yet the indisputable fact is that the army for which Sharvit-Baruch worked has been accused by all major human rights organizations of committing war crimes in Gaza. Some wondered why Sharvit-Baruch was being given the opportunity to offer a carefully prepared presentation unchallenged in an academic setting, rather than giving testimony to a tribunal or inquiry such as that being conducted Judge Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist heading an independent fact-finding mission into human rights violations during Israel’s attack at the request of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Since the event organizers did not ask pointed questions about Colonel Sharvit-Baruch’s actual role in Gaza, it is worth doing so here. As head of the International Law department (ILD) at the Israeli Military Advocate General’s office, Sharvit-Baruch is known for green-lighting the bombing of a police graduation ceremony in Gaza that killed dozens of civil policemen. This was no ordinary airstrike. It was premised on a legal sleight-of-hand: that even traffic cops in Gaza could be considered “legitimate targets” under international law. In a conversation with conscripts at a military prep academy in Israel, school director Danny Zamir noted, “I was terribly surprised by the enthusiasm surrounding the killing of the Gaza traffic police on the first day of the operation. They took out 180 traffic cops. As a pilot, I would have questioned that.”
Further, the Israeli army used heavy artillery and white phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas of Gaza, against the UNRWA’s headquarters and a UN school in Beit Lahiya. As reported by Judge Goldstone, Gazans trying to relay their civilian status were also hit. Even though the Israeli military tried several times to deny its use, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on white phosphorous use in Gaza quotes an unnamed Israeli official: “at least one month before [white phosphorus] was used a legal team had been consulted on the implications.” HRW found that “in violation of the laws of war, the [Israeli army] generally failed to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm” and “used white phosphorus in an indiscriminate manner causing civilian death and injury.”
Such reckless disregard for the lives of civilians and pathological cover-ups of military operations are recognized by many Israelis within the system itself. According to one Israeli jurist speaking to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the ILD is considered “more militant than any other legal agency in Israel, and willing to adopt the most flexible interpretations of the law in order to justify the [Israel army’s] actions.” Although the ILD personnel “are now very proud of their influence upon the combat” in Gaza, human rights groups have stated that “residents weren’t advised then as to which places were safe, and the roads by which they fled were bombed and turned into death traps.”
One of the most indelible perspectives about Israel’s legal gymnastics to justify its actions comes from Colonel Sharvit-Baruch’s predecessor, Daniel Reisner. “What is being done today is a revision of international law,” Reisner has said, “and if you do something long enough, the world will accept it. All of international law is built on that an act which is forbidden today can become permissible, if enough states do it.” In expressing how the ILD moves forward by turning back the pages of legal jurisdiction, Reisner says, “We invented the doctrine of the preemptive pinpoint strike, we had to promote it, and in the beginning there were protrusions which made it difficult to fit it easily into the mold of legality. Eight years later, it’s in the middle of the realm of legitimacy.”
Sharvit-Baruch herself explained her vision of international law at a presentation for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: “International law is developed according to practices. It changes based on what is happening in the field. These laws must be based on precedents, what already exists. There is flexibility in every law.” By this law of flexibility, the more aberrations of international law a state can legitimize, the more hoary actions it can continue to execute and justify.
Since the attack on Gaza, numerous testimonies of Israeli soldiers published in Israel, have corroborated the accounts of Palestinian witnesses and human rights organizations that serious war crimes were endemic.
Despite the blunt admissions of Israeli soldiers widely published in the Israeli press, it was clear from her calm presentation that Sharvit-Baruch and her cohort live in their own rhetorical universe where even language is assaulted. In the Colonel’s own terminology, non-existent vocabulary in international law such as “capacity builders” and “revolving doors” is coined to pass over accepted terms such as “civilians” and “non-combatants.” Like the US government’s “torture memo” authors — who in contrast to Israel’s were not uniformed ranking members of the army — the Israeli military attempted to reclassify a “civilian” in a manner making it easier to strip them of protections provided by international humanitarian law. “Architecture of words,” said one participant
Despite all this, by her own standards, Sharvit-Baruch and her team could not be faulted for their efficiency: in Gaza, banning all media from entering; assaulting the population with air missiles, sniper ground troops, and white phosphorus; condemning all criticism of military actions as contrary to state security; keeping a chin above the law; attaining a teaching position at Tel Aviv University and finally a prestigious opportunity to address Harvard students and faculty.
Maryam Monalisa Gharavi is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature with a Secondary Field in Film and Visual Studies at Harvard University. Her three-part film Inessential (2008) about the siege of Gaza screened at the Townhouse Gallery of Art in Cairo, Boston Palestine Film Festival, and Providence Palestine Film Festival.
Dr. Anat Matar is a senior lecturer of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and head of the Israeli Association for the Palestinian Prisoners.