What Exactly is an “Existential” Threat, Mr. Olmert?

A Palestinian woman demonstrating against the attack on Lebanon in the center of the West Bank city of Ramallah, July 29, 2006. (MaanImages/Mushir Abdelrahman)


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, by declaring the attack on Lebanon as an “existential” one, set forth a dangerous series of events which will only serve to do long-term damage to Israel. It was an overstep and overreaction which will have profound and deep consequences in the years to come.

It will also bolster the case of churches, labour unions and human rights organizations which are calling for a divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel in an attempt to force the state to change its policies related to the occupation.

“Existential” threats do not absolve Israel of the responsibility to comply with international law. Carrying out these kinds of policies is clearly an ‘existential’ threat to innocent civilians.

Israel has normalized its behaviour patterns and has created a mainstream public which passively supports these policies in the name of security. This disconnection between citizens and state is one of the reasons Israel can justify violations of human rights and international law to a domestic audience. The Israeli public, by not speaking out against the state’s policies, are passively sanctioning the actions of the state’s institutions including the military.

There are myriad examples of the misuses of state power. According to Reporters Without Borders, “Israel has for years pursued a policy of assassinating its political opponents. Because extrajudicial executions are universally condemned, most governments who practice assassinations surround such actions in secrecy and deny carrying out the killings they may have ordered. Although the Israeli government prefers to talk about ‘targeted killings’ and ‘preventive actions’ (or ‘pinpointed preventive actions’) rather than ‘extrajudicial executions’, members of the Israeli government have confirmed that such killings are a deliberate government policy carried out under government orders.(…).”

Reporters Without Borders has added that “the extrajudicial killings carried out by Israel constitute ‘wilful killings’ which constitute a ‘grave breach’ of the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 147) to which Israel is a High Contracting Party. The comprehensive list of war crimes set out in article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court includes grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.” Additionally, through the process of carrying out assassinations, Israel has also killed innocent civilians.

Only a few months ago, Israeli political leaders were openly talking about killing Ismail Haniyeh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, in the mainstream Israeli press without any criticism by established political leaders. Where else in the world is this normal public discourse?

Certainly, Hamas should also be investigated for war crimes for its role in violence which crossed the line of resistance activities and resulted in the loss of life of innocent civilians since the nineties related to suicide bombings. In short, people deserve the rule of law to be established even within the context of a conflict environment.

Israeli political messaging and public relations which justify such actions as the bombardment of Lebanon is an act of violence. “Existential” threats do not absolve Israel of the responsibility they must bear for their actions. Israeli citizens who don’t hold their government to account for such violations of international law are inadvertently supporting collaboration with illegitimate forms of violence which are clearly documented.

The European Union, by not utilizing the human rights components of their trading relationship with Israel, is passively endorsing Israeli policy. The US, by funding and resourcing Israel’s military, is partially responsible for the actions of the state and the harm it does to innocent civilians.

Israel is a rogue, Frankenstein state supported and maintained by the US and Europe. By supporting Israeli policies for the purposes of achieving regional objectives, the US and the European Union support the war crimes of its Israeli ally. It is in the Western orbit, and as such, needs to be reined in by its supporters. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be a destabilizing force in the Middle East, but denying the horrible effects of the Israeli state is highly disengenuous.

The Israeli government has also consistently followed the principles of collective punishment not only during the present conflict, but throughout the occupation. Under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, it reads, “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited (…). Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.”

The principle of proportionality in international law is complex. Determining excessive injury and damage in relation to the ‘military advantage anticipated’ is something that needs to be investigated by the UN.

Public statements from Louise Arbour are good, but not good enough. The hypocrisy and complicity of the UN since the signing of the Oslo Accords and its failure to respond effectively to violations of human rights is a profoundly embarrassing example of the ineffectiveness, arbitrariness and bias of the present configuration of the international system.

International law also has language distinguishing between legitimate targets and civilians who are not participating in the battlefield. Dropping leaflets is not sufficient warning to justify the use of force in civilian areas. This too must be investigated as quickly as possible.

The failure to call and implement a ceasefire for the purposes of giving Israel strategic and tactical advantages in the current conflict was also emblematic of the racist lens by which Western countries view international relations. They essentially gave Israel the green light to continue bombardment in Lebanon knowing full well that innocent civilians would inordinately pay the highest price.

The use of official language, how things are said, how they are interpreted, has the power to kill, maim, destroy and illegitimately sanction immoral acts – every day in Israel is a grave act of distortion.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in article 6(1) states, “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”

Unfortunately, government spokespeople and mainstream media create a language which justifies actions of militaries and militia groups and assigns the principles of proportionality for us. By broadcasting this view of the conflict, they dehumanize the victims and render the principles of international law illegitimate. War becomes a game. We all become barbarians.

It is important to note, however, that the law of armed conflict does not override other aspects of international law.

Israel has in the past and is still currently utilizing interrogation techniques including the use of sleep deprivation, prolonged tying, shackling to a chair in painful positions, the use of beating, slapping and kicking during an interrogation, forcing detainees in to a the ‘qambaz’ position, exposure to articial light and by not allowing communication with family members.

The Palestinian Authority and groups connected with it, have also utilized similar means and methods to execute collaborators. The Public Committee Against Torture estimates that dozens of Palestinians are mistreated every month by Israeli security officials.

Socio-economic discrimination and differential treatment of Arab citizens of Israel is also well-documented.

The chill which has entered Israeli life has also now even immersed deeper in to domestic dissent. The past few weeks have seen dozens of non-violent protestors arrested, aggressively pushed and detained for simply questioning Israeli policy in Lebanon. Security officials have attacked protestors without provocation. Israel is the clearest example of a state where security matters precede the importance of human rights.

The Israeli state is letting its critics know that they will pay a high price for raising important questions and attempting to exercise their basic, democratic rights. Criminalizing legitimate dissent is a dangerous road for any state to put in to practise.

It induces a kind of trauma where people spend their whole lives getting even.

Am Johal is a freelance writer from Vancouver, Canada who worked during 2004 in international advocacy with the Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel

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