ON MARCH 6, 1988, Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann, all members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), were gunned down by a British Army undercover squad on a street in Gibraltar, the British colony at the southern tip of Spain. The two men and a woman were felled with a hail of 29 bullets, 16 pumped into Savage alone.
The British government, then led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, maintained that the three had been en route to plant a massive car bomb targeting a changing of the guard ceremony. Thatcher herself had narrowly escaped death in an IRA bombing of her hotel in Brighton in 1984, an attack that struck at the heart of her government, killing five people and injuring many more.
Yet even with the background of IRA violence, the Gibraltar killings set off a debate that raged for years in the UK, as to whether the Thatcher government operated an illegal “shoot to kill” policy — a policy of extrajudicial killings — against IRA activists. The families of the Gibraltar Three took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in September 1995 that although there was no evidence that the UK had operated such a policy, the killings in Gibraltar were unnecessary, even though the British soldiers honestly believed they had to act to prevent a bombing. The court found that the lethal shooting violated Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to life and outlaws extrajudicial executions. The court ruled that the IRA members could and should have been arrested rather than gunned down in cold blood.
Spanish Magistrate Baltasar Garzon, who gained international fame for his pursuit of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, is also engaged in investigations much less well-known and much closer to home.
Throughout the 1980s, the Spanish government, led by former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez conducted a “dirty war” against the Basque separatist group ETA, which had itself carried out many indiscriminate killings and bombings targeting Spanish civilians, police and politicians. Gonzalez, who led Spain for most of the period following the post-Franco restoration of democracy, has seen his reputation badly damaged by allegations and speculation about how much he knew or was involved in the Spanish government’s own campaign of kidnappings, bombings and extrajudicial executions.
In April 2000, General Enrique Rodriguez Galindo, Spain’s most highly-decorated police officer, was sentenced to 71 years in prison by a Madrid court for ordering the kidnapping, torture and killing of two ETA members in 1983. The civil governor of the province of Guipuzcoa, who merely visited the kidnapped men while General Galindo was personally interrogating them, received an identical sentence. If Judge Garzon has his way, these convictions will not be the last.
What these examples demonstrate is that in a real democracy, the methods employed by gangsters and criminals, such as murder, are impermissible for the state, even against its worst enemies. Few are the leaders in a democracy who even if they were involved in such horrors would boast about them. And the mere suspicion that a democratically-elected leader might have behaved in such a way is enough to set off a public outcry.
Then there is Israel. At a recent meeting of the central committee of the Likud Party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, addressing hundreds of delegates, boasted about the extrajudicial killings his government has ordered. He read off a list of names of Palestinians assassinated by Israeli army death squads, or helicopter gunships, and after each name shouted “he’s gone!” (“Bibi’s back in town,” Peretz Kidron, Middle East International, July 27, 2001) Sharon’s boasting was supposed to mollify the delegates who were accusing him of being too soft and demanding even more brutality.
Such a bloodcurdling spectacle is difficult to imagine even in the worst dictatorship, let alone in a country calling itself a democracy, as Israel does. What also distinguishes Israel from countries like the UK and Spain is the near total absence of any dissent or outrage among politicians and journalists, almost all of whom justify Israel’s assassination policy on the grounds of “self defence.”
Of course it escapes their notice, when making such arguments, that a country with an invasion army tens of thousands strong, belligerently occupying millions of people and their land in violation of international law and forcibly settling that land, is in an inherently aggressive posture and cannot claim to be defending itself.
Yet the Israeli death campaign continues unabated. Global outrage and strong condemnation from the United States followed the July 31 missile attack on Nablus which killed eight Palestinians, including Ashraf and Bilal Khader, aged five and eight. Despite these protests, and despite a widely publicised call from the Palestinian Authority for an end to attacks within Israel, an assassination — which Israel claims was aimed at someone else — very nearly killed West Bank Fateh leader Marwan Barghouthi on August 4.
The following day, Israeli missiles were more “successful,” killing 20-year-old Amer Hudire as he was driving in his car near Tulkarem.
Although it would scarcely provide a justification, Israel does not even bother to claim that all of its extrajudicial killings are intended to prevent future Palestinian “attacks.” Rather, Israel has boasted that many of them are to punish the victims for attacks Israel claims they planned or carried out in the past. Thus, Israel is admitting openly that it is acting as judge, jury and executioner in a manner that is wholly illegal under international law.
The cases in Spain and the UK on the one hand, and Israel on the other, are not entirely analogous. The expectation of countries like the former, is that when they are engaged in a domestic conflict, nothing can justify abandoning the rule of law. The expectation from Israel, however, is not that its occupation should be more just, but that it should end. As long as it persists, however, Israel and its leaders must be held accountable for their abuses under international law.
The Fourth Geneva Convention, which the UN Security Council has repeatedly reaffirmed applies to the Israeli-occupied territories, states that all signatories (of which Israel is one)
“specifically agree that each of them is prohibited from taking any measure of such a character as to cause the physical suffering or extermination of protected persons in their hands. This prohibition applies not only to murder, torture, corporal punishments, mutilation and medical or scientific experiments not necessitated by the medical treatment of a protected person, but also to any other measures of brutality whether applied by civilian or military agents.” (Article 32).
The convention also explicitly bans “collective penalties” and “all measures of intimidation or of terrorism” by the occupying power, and affirms that “reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited” (Article 33).
Violations of these and other provisions of international law are war crimes. Much public attention has been focused on proceedings being brought against Sharon in Belgium for his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacres. And human rights groups in Denmark are attempting to pursue Israel’s ambassador-designate Carmi Gillon for allegations he was involved in torture when he worked for Israel’s secret police. These developments have worried Israel’s foreign ministry enough that it has warned senior Israeli officials to be careful when travelling abroad.
But it is not only for crimes past that Sharon, his fellow ministers and Israel’s senior army officers should beware when they venture out of their fortified redoubt. With each new extrajudicial execution, they are adding to the potential list of charges against them. It is highly doubtful that Israel has a Judge Garzon, or a judiciary that could bring such charges against its own leaders. So it is up to the international community to ensure that Israel’s crimes do not go unpunished.
The question remains, though, what it would take for those countries that crow loudest about human rights to be up to the challenge of holding Israel and its leaders accountable.
Ali Abunimah is vice-president of the Arab-American Action Network and a well-known media analyst, Abunimah regularly writes public letters to the media, coordinates campaigns, and appears on a variety of national and international news programs as a commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is one of the founders of The Electronic Intifada. This article first appeared in the Jordan Times on 8 August 2001, titled ‘Israel’s rule of lawlessness’.