Rachel Corrie, Nuha Sweidan and Israeli War Crimes

The Israeli bulldozer that ran over and killed American peace activist Rachel Corrie, 23, in the Gaza Strip today had killed before. A few weeks ago, on March 3, an Israeli bulldozer killed a nine-month pregnant Palestinian woman, Nuha Sweidan, while destroying the house next door in a dilapidated Gaza refugee camp. Palestinian witnesses said that Mrs. Sweidan, 33, bled to death under the rubble as she cradled her 18-month-old daughter. Her unborn baby also died.

Rachel Corrie and Nuha Sweidan probably never met, but they will forever be linked as victims of Israel’s 35-year occupation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

They are both victims of Israeli war crimes. The Geneva Conventions stipulate that civilian populations are to be respected and protected during hostilities. Civilians are not to be attacked directly, regardless of the motivation, even in retaliation for attacks on other civilians. To attack civilian populations intentionally is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and thus a war crime. Both Rachel Corrie and Nuha Sweidan were killed during military actions against a civilian population, in Rachel’s case, during a house demolition.

Since June 2002, the Israeli army has destroyed more than 150 houses belonging to Palestinians allegedly involved in attacks, a policy that human rights groups have described as collective punishment, and which the US government has criticized in the past.

This past month, Israel nearly set a new record for killing Palestinians, mostly civilians, in a single month. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Israeli assaults killed 82 Palestinians, of them 50 in the Gaza Strip and 32 in the West Bank, wounding an additional 616 persons.

Israeli soldiers also killed several Palestinian children and three medical staff as they sought to attend to wounded. Now, they have killed an American peace activist.

Why so many civilian casualties?

These killings are the product of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s escalation of Israeli Army assaults on Palestinian population centers following his re-election on January 28, 2003. In the last two months, Israeli forces have largely focused their wrath on Gaza. They have conducted unprecedented armored military operations in Gaza city centers, pursued suspected militants deep into refugee camps and deployed bulldozers to destroy dozens of building and homes. This latter type of operation led to Rachel Corrie’s and Nuha Sweidan’s deaths.

Although Israeli sympathizers may contend that such IDF assaults and the resulting killings of civilians are justified in response to Palestinian suicide bombings, international law, as codified in the Geneva Conventions, states that intentional attacks on civilians are prohibited under any circumstance.

Palestinian suicide bombings are clearly war crimes, even though some Palestinians claim they are justified responses to Israeli massacres and the illegal occupation of Palestinian land. However, Israeli military assaults that systematically and purposefully kill civilians are also war crimes, regardless of their justification. Both are reprehensible and must be condemned.

Moreover, few independent observers accept Israeli claims that assaults on Palestinian civilian centers in the past two months are responses to suicide bombings. These operations began nearly a month after the January 5 suicide bomb that killed over 20 Israelis in Tel Aviv. The only other suicide bomb this year occured on March 5, long after the current Israeli campaign on Gaza was underway. Furthermore, in both the aforementioned cases, the suicide bombers came from the West Bank, not Gaza.

Rachel Corrie and Nuha Sweidan will be forever linked as victims of the extremist Israeli leader Ariel Sharon’s relentless war on Palestinians, which is a war on behalf of Israeli settlements and in defense of Sharon’s vision of a Greater Israel in complete control of all of historic Palestine.

The escalating assaults on Gaza over the past month indicate that Ariel Sharon is preparing the way for an invasion and reconquest of the Gaza Strip to complement his reconquest of the West Bank last April. With the West Bank now firmly under Israeli control, Gaza has become the sole remaining area of armed Palestinian resistance to Israel. It thus stands in the way of Sharon’s imposition of a settlement on the Palestinians that will assign them small, disconnected Bantustans surrounded by hundreds of Israeli settlements. Ariel Sharon was the original architect of the massive expansion of settlements after 1978 and continues to be their main patron and advocate.

Sharon is well known for his cold and calculating tactical acumen, both as a military commander and as a politician. He is also known as a ruthless fighter who has been accused of crimes against humanity for his role in the massacre of at least a thousand Palestinian women, children and elderly people in Beirut in 1982.

Sharon is well aware of the sympathy Israel has received in response to the brutal suicide bomb attacks over the past few years. He knows that the world is focused on the impending war in Iraq. Thus, he has calculated that the time is ripe to set in motion the reoccupation of Gaza, even if it provokes further suicide bombings, which his government can use as a pretext for even larger actions.

“Live” rehearsals on real people

Menachem Klein, an Israeli political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, outlined the logic of Sharon’s actions in a recent Christian Science Monitor article (March 13, 2003).

“These raids can be a kind of rehearsal, with the idea to arrest someone, but also to see how to get in and out, what tactics to use. A rehearsal on live people. And the thinking is that if the world gets used to these short-term reoccupations, it will digest the long-term one.”

Since his return to power two years ago, Ariel Sharon has systematically escalated Israeli military assaults and assassinations in search of a military solution, despite ceaseless waves of suicide bombings, in order to achieve a clear set of political objectives. At the top of the list has been the destruction of any base of Palestinian political and military resistance to Israeli settlements and permanent control of the land Israel occupied in 1967. Gaza is his last objective.

Rachel Corrie, Nuha Sweidan, and more than 100 Palestinians and scores of Israeli civilians are just some of the latest victims of Sharon’s “live rehearsal” in pursuit of this final objective.

It is true that Palestinian suicide bombers have helped contribute to this cycle of violence through their own vicious acts. Indeed, they have murdered women, children, and innocent civilians as well.

That does not change the fact that this is not a symmetrical conflict. Israel dominates the lives and land of over 3 million Palestinians through massive military assaults, imprisonment of thousands, torture and systematic starvation policies that have lead to a major humanitarian crisis in many areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Concerned about the negative impact on Palestinian children’s health as a result of deteriorating water quality in Gaza, Rachel had been working with other members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to defend a newly-dug well from Israeli attempts to destroy it before she was killed.

There is no “balance” in this conflict. It is time to call Israel into account for its war crimes and time to stop Ariel Sharon from imposing his violent dream of Greater Israel on Palestinians. It is time to stop the needless deaths of Rachel Corrie, Nuha Sweidan and others, whether Palestinian, Israeli, or now, American.

Steve Niva is a Member of the Faculty, The Evergreen State College. He teaches international politics and Middle East studies. He met with Rachel Corrie before she left for Gaza in January and is deeply saddened by her tragic and unnecessary death.