In search of a true humanity

Palestinian children gather near the ‘Al-Nada Towers’ in the northern Gaza Strip after it was shelled by Israeli forces, 24 July 2006. (MaanImages/Wesam Saleh)

As Lebanon and Gaza burn and the laws of war are violated with impunity, the terrible erosion of international law represents a critical challenge for the international community. Reflecting on the South African apartheid regime’s efforts to gain supremacy in South Africa and the Southern African region, we argue it is imperative that we continually raise our voices against Israel’s brazen impunity until a real and lasting ceasefire is in place, war criminals are brought to justice and the Israeli regime is held accountable for decades of repression, dispossession and regional destabilisation. In doing so, we will surely find a true humanity.

Israel’s war of attrition

At the very beginning of this latest bloody conflict, Israel responded with overwhelming and disproportionate force to Hezbollah’s attacks and the capture of two Israeli soldiers in return for hundreds of Lebanese captives. Israel’s military forces then proceeded to systematically destroy Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure. Since day one, Israel has committed countless violations of international law. In legal terms, Israel’s initial, disproportionate response was an act of aggression against a sovereign nation, which is expressly forbidden by the United Nations Charter, and as we have so tragically seen, is forbidden for very good reasons.

It seems clear to us that this illegal first response, which precipitated a brutal military campaign in Lebanon was something Israel planned at least a year in advance.1 Indeed, it is part of a decades-long effort on the part of Israel to gain supremacy in its own territory and, indeed, the region, whatever the cost.

For the last few weeks, Israel has been accused by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and a string of senior United Nations officials, including the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Louise Arbour and UN Head of Humanitarian Operations Jan Egeland, of engaging in further disproportionate and indiscriminate force that has recklessly led to hundreds of civilian deaths and has hindered access to desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Hizbollah too has been criticised for hindering access to humanitarian agencies and for engaging in indiscriminate force, although their launching of rockets appears to be more imprecise than indiscriminate.2 According to the UK Charity Save the Children, 45% of those killed in Israel’s brutal war of attrition have been children.3

Policy of Denial

The policy of Israel’s government in response to all of these allegations is simply to deny any wrongdoing. The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, when questioned by reporters on the morning of the 10th of August, brazenly refused to acknowledge its military was using cluster bombs, targeting civilian areas or destroying civilian infrastructure. At the same time, Ayalon ruthlessly accused Hezbollah of targeting civilians.

Ayalon shamelessly stated what the United States and other members of the Security Council have implicitly acknowledged since Israel began this conflict. Namely, that while Israeli civilians should be entitled to protection under international law, the same standards don’t seem to apply to Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.

Israel’s blatant lies and hypocritical justifications are reminiscent of efforts by the apartheid regime in South Africa to try and justify its oppression of its own people and destabilisation of the Southern African region. In 1989, a report by the Commonwealth described these efforts at regional destabilisation as having reached ‘holocaust proportions’ with a human cost of 1,500,000 dead through military and economic actions. Most of the dead were children, while a further four million had been displaced.

In denying the impact of its destabilisation policy, the South African apartheid regime portrayed its armed interventions and support to right-wing armed militias in neighbouring countries as “civil wars”. For example, its support to right-wing Renamo militias fighting the armed forces of the Frelimo government in Mozambique was described as legitimate support to an indigenous “anti-communist resistance movement.”4 While it provided weapons and fought alongside right-wing Unita militias in Angola, which greatly escalated the country’s civil war, South Africa simply denied that any of its soldiers were in Angola.

It is therefore of little surprise that, plagued with such denial and hypocrisy, the current Security Council continues its endless search for half-hearted diplomatic solutions that serve no one’s interests other than Israel’s. The latest diluted Security Council Resolution that refuses to call for an immediate ceasefire, and to which Israel responded by broadening its military offensive in Lebanon, is stark evidence of this.

Meanwhile, Palestinian, Lebanese and Israeli civilians continue to die in ever greater numbers, due to Israel’s flagrant violations of international law and Hezbollah’s desperate, but so far successful efforts to resist Israel’s invasion.

Courage to refuse

In the midst of this carnage, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that a few Israeli soldiers, having received orders to attack civilian targets, have refused to carry them out. They have stated that to do so would be not only a war crime, but utterly immoral.5

Soldiers who refuse to carry out these orders are supported by organisations such as Yesh Gvul, (which means “there is a limit”) but the organisation cannot protect them from Israel’s military courts. The soldiers face a likely jail sentence and other, possible repercussions, risking rejection from their family and potentially losing their job.

The work done by Yesh Gvul can be compared to that of the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) that was formed in South Africa in 1983 in protest against compulsory military service for young white men.6 Conscripts in apartheid South Africa provided the major component of the South African “Defence Force” (South Africa’s national army) as well as the repressive South African Police. Many conscripts were sent to Angola.

While conscientious objection is a serious dilemma as the consequences are often severe, the consequences of not objecting can mean prosecution for war crimes. Just like the South Africans in Angola in the 1980s, young Israeli soldiers are fighting a brutal war that they seem unable to understand, yet naively believe they are capable of winning.

A matter of conscience and self-interest

In the face of such atrocities, it scarcely seems necessary to repeat the obligations of the International Court of Justice that the international community has a duty to hold Israel accountable. The founders of the United Nations and Geneva Conventions will no doubt be turning in their graves.

As we continue to watch the wasteful images of empire-building gone mad, it seems almost impossible to imagine world leaders for a moment not realising the dangers of saying nothing. Such silence about Israel’s war crimes not only breeds impunity, but as Karma Nabulsi put it so eloquently, it also fuels the angry sentiments of people, particularly Palestinian refugees, who have suffered so much they have become filled with fury.7

As Israel seems determined to continue its oppression of Palestinians, to subvert the entire region and embroil the entire international community in its arrogant quest for power, to boycott and sanction Israel is becoming not only a matter of law or conscience, but for those yet to wake up and see what is happening; of enlightened self-interest.

Quest for a true humanity

We all have a role to play in the search for a more dignified world and in our solidarity with those who have been brutalised, who have lost their homes, their friends and their family.

One doesn’t pretend that all situations are directly comparable, although it can be a source of inspiration to reflect on other regimes that have been held accountable and their brutality contained. In this respect, surely, the search for accountability and a sense of dignity and humanity is something universal.

In the 1970s and 80s, South Africa was embroiled in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and repression, which the world was unwilling to acknowledge, even as children were shot in their backs by the apartheid security forces. However, as the freedom fighter Stephen Biko wrote at the time, it was still possible to find hope in the midst of desperate circumstances.

“We have set on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and brotherhood. In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible - a more human face.”

The authors are both human rights advocates, based respectively in The Netherlands and in South Africa.


[1] Israel set war plan more than a year ago, Matthew Kalman, San Francisco Chronicle (21 July 2006)

[2] Jonathan Cook, Hypocrisy and the Clamor Against Hizbullah, Jonathan Cook (9 August 2006)

[3] Children are paying the price in Lebanon, The Guardian (2 August 2006)

[4] ANC Statement to the TRC

[5] Yesh Gvul

[6] Kairos

[7] The refugees’ fury will be felt for generations to come, Karma Nabulsi (7 August 2006)

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