The risks of de-contextualizing Gaza war crimes

“By drawing attention to one short but bloody outburst of violence, an outburst that is cast and investigated as unusual, other periods may implicitly be rendered normal.” (MaanImages)


The recent release of a report by the United Nations fact-finding mission chaired by jurist Richard Goldstone concerning the Israeli onslaught on Gaza in late December 2008 through January 2009 sheds important light on human rights violations in Israel/Palestine. One would hope that upon reading this report (or indeed any other from the long list of reports concerning the Occupied Palestinian Territories released by various human rights organizations) readers will be outraged by the ongoing atrocities committed in the region.

Despite expressly claiming to take into account the historical background to the Gaza events, the report, by its very nature, singles out a particular set of facts, and a limited period of time as the primary locus for investigation. In part this is justified. The conflict in Gaza involved levels of violence that are more or less exceptional. Yet, we fear that such a high-profile report, crafted specifically to address what is perceived to be an extreme or peculiar period of time in the lives of Palestinians under occupation, might have significant negative consequences. Particularly, we maintain that such a report, by focusing on one “drastic” period in the Israeli occupation, might in fact have the effect of overshadowing or downplaying the harsh and ongoing reality of the last 43 years of Israeli occupation.

By drawing attention to one short but bloody outburst of violence, an outburst that is cast and investigated as unusual, other periods may implicitly be rendered normal. But these “normal” periods involve Palestinian suffering and hardship that are well beyond the pale of decency. These periods — which involve low-level Palestinian resistance to occupation and low-level Israeli oppression — are the deeply implicated historical and contextual backdrop for all of the events that follow. While many tragically lose their lives in conflict, the less dramatic but longstanding and profoundly soul-crushing policies pursued by the Israeli state hinder not only Palestinians’ freedom, but also warp and truncate their life prospects.

There is a risk, we claim, associated with narrowly focused reports such as that of the Goldstone committee, that the misery of these periods will be forgotten, or at the very least, pushed to the margins and rendered less objectionable. Through myopic attention on the symptom of the problem — the Gaza onslaught — the root cause is obscured, and the Israeli occupation is stripped of its true context and gravity. Thus, the manifold and interconnected ways in which oppression works to subjugate normal people in their daily lives are left unexamined. In other words, the report describes and evaluates human rights violations without paying attention to the larger factual and moral context within which they occurred.

Indeed, defenders of Israel having been using such de-contextualizing arguments to divert the discussion. Their argument maintains that had Palestinians not resorted to violence against the Israeli people and army, Israel would not have been forced to attack them, and consequently their lives would not be miserable. Such an argument, however, fails to recognize the possibility that occupation itself is already making Palestinians’ lives so miserable that they are willing to sacrifice those lives to win back their homeland, freedom and dignity. This amounts to picking an arbitrary — and indeed self-serving — starting point to begin moral and political condemnation.

The natural tendency of those who are busy reporting human rights violations is to refrain from making moral or political judgments concerning the participants of violence and their pasts, so as to be able to claim neutrality. As a result, the parties to the conflict are seen as identically situated agents of violence.
This is a distortion of reality, particularly when coupled with the arbitrary de-contextualization that comes with specifying a limited and “exceptional” temporal and factual frame for investigation. Most conflicts involve parties with different means at their disposal and pursuing different ends. Even if it is always wrong to violate human rights, it is certainly the case that moral and political condemnation for such violations is not only a matter of quality, but also of degree. Surely the Palestinians can choose from a much more limited set of means to fight than the State of Israel. It follows that human rights violations by the latter should be seen as especially grave, given all of the circumstances.

Does this mean that we should do away with reports and leave the history of human rights violations untold? Obviously not — that question involves a false choice. Rather, what human rights reports (and the mandates upon which they rely) should attempt to do is stretch beyond the confines of a period of extreme violence. Human rights violations have to be placed in a larger factual and moral context. Doing so may, of course, come at the cost of political controversy and the hostility of those who are content with half-truths. That, it seems to us, is a moderate price to pay when so much is at stake.

Goncalo de Almeida Ribeiro is a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School, working in the fields of Private Law Theory, Jurisprudence and Political Philosophy. He holds an LL.B. from the Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Portugal).

Vishaal Kishore is a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School, working in the fields of International Economic Relations, Political Economy and Legal and Social Theory. He holds degrees from the University of Melbourne (Australia).

Nimer Sultany is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and currently a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School. He has worked as a human rights lawyer in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and as the head of the political monitoring project at Mada al-Carmel (the Arab center for applied social research).