The Gaza war, Congress and international humanitarian law

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Author: Stephen Zunes
Date: Spring 2010
From: Middle East Policy(Vol. 17, Issue 1)
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,538 words
Lexile Measure: 1840L

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The large-scale killing of civilians during Israel's three-week assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008-09 received widespread condemnation from human-rights advocates and international legal scholars the world over. In both Europe and North America, public reaction to the grossly disproportionate Israeli response to Hamas rocket attacks was the most negative ever expressed against an Israeli military action. In Israel itself, soldiers who had witnesses some of the atrocities joined Israeli peace activists in exposing war crimes committed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). However, the U.S. Congress, under the leadership of the Democratic Party, overwhelmingly defended the Israeli offensive, even to the point of attacking leading defenders of international humanitarian law.

Support for the impending war began months earlier, in June 2008, when 77 senators--including future Secretary of State Hillary Clinton--signed a letter put together by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to President George W. Bush defending Israeli air strikes on the heavily populated Gaza Strip. The letter also urged the Bush administration to block any UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel, claiming that UN opposition to Israeli attacks against crowded urban areas constituted a refusal to "acknowledge Israel's right to self-defense." An almost identical letter in the House, drafted by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA), House Minority Leader Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Representative Ilana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) received 268 signatures. Americans for Peace Now (APN), a liberal Zionist group, warned that these letters were designed to build "a defense, in advance, for a large Israeli military offensive in Gaza." (1) APN, among others, also noted that such an Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip would likely result in large-scale civilian casualties. In apparent anticipation of such a scenario, the House of Representatives had passed a resolution that March, during an upsurge of fighting between Hamas militiamen and Israeli forces, which claimed, "Those responsible for launching rocket attacks against Israel routinely embed their production facilities and launch sites amongst the Palestinian civilian population, utilizing them as human shields." The resolution goes on to specifically condemn "the use of innocent Palestinian civilians as human shields by those who carry out rocket and other attacks" and yet again makes note of Palestinians who "continue to be utilized as human shields by terrorist organizations." (2) However, human-rights groups monitoring the situation at that time noted that, while Hamas had failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians in the densely populated Gaza Strip, they found no instances of the use of human shields by Hamas. (3)

Amnesty International condemned Israel's "reckless disregard for civilian life" in its bombing and shelling of civilian population centers that spring. Its report also noted that the attacks by Palestinians against civilian-populated areas in Israel, which the report also roundly condemned, "[do] not make it legitimate for the Israeli authorities to launch reckless air and artillery strikes which wreak such death and destruction among Palestinian civilians." (4) The goal of the supporters of the House...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A224775156