What happens when chronic violence and brutal aggression go unchecked for decades on end? We see an example of this in the release this week of the findings of a United Nations internal investigation of events during last summer’s war in Gaza. The report concluded that Israeli attacks killed 44 Palestinian civilians who had sheltered in seven United Nations schools. It also concluded that no weapons had been found inside those facilities, but rather in three other vacant United Nations-run schools that Hamas used to store arms, and from where it “probably” fired rockets at Israel.
So what good are these investigations and findings, if they recur with the same frequency as the killings and have no impact on the warfare? This report will trigger a familiar set of accusations and responses by Israelis and Palestinians, and by others around the world who remain perplexed and frustrated with the inability to curtail the cycle of violence that has engulfed Israelis and Palestinians for nearly a century now.
Perhaps it is time that protagonists in the region and other interested parties should consider using this report in a different way. It can become a jumping off point to create a larger, more emphatic mechanism of accountability, one anchored in the rule of law, that could foster a slow shift away from unchecked militarism and towards a serious quest for a negotiated resolution of the conflict. This may be wishful thinking, I understand, but achieving some sort of credible accountability for the illegal and unethical use of force by all parties in the region strikes me as an urgent and important underlying goal we should strive to achieve.
If Israeli, Arab, American and other political actors across the region can kill, invade, launch wars, blockade, colonize, steal, imprison, torture, rape and use chemical weapons with impunity, they will continue to do so for a very long time. The result will be more of the same prevalent violence, barbarism and state collapse we see across many parts of the Arab world.
Aiming high and aspiring to create meaningful accountability mechanisms could offer us a chance to define the problems from which we suffer and explore small steps toward creating solutions that are fair to all concerned. Israel-Palestine is a good place to start, for many reasons. It is the oldest and most destabilizing and radicalizing conflict in the region. It has also fed into many of the other tensions that plague the Middle East. This includes Arab dictatorship and the corruption and state mismanagement they foster; erratic Turkish and Iranian relations with Israel; regionwide sectarian stresses and violence, terrorism, and turbulent relations between Arabs and Western powers, especially the United States.
Achieving accountability in Israel-Palestine is more possible now than ever before, for two main reasons: Palestine is a non-state member of the United Nations system, which means it can use available mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court; and, public opinion around the world, including in the U.S., has become much more balanced in seeking the legitimate rights of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
The Gaza war last year resulted in the deaths of over 2,200 Palestinians and 72 Israelis, and the mass destruction of tens of thousands of homes and other civilian facilities in Gaza. The U.N. had repeatedly informed the Israelis of the coordinates of schools that sheltered civilians, so the attacks clearly were not the result of ignorance. The U.N. secretary-general, in a letter to the Security Council, criticized Israel for attacking “inviolable” U.N. facilities, and also criticized Hamas for its “unacceptable” misuse of similar U.N. facilities.
The investigation found that the seven schools received a barrage of Israeli “high-explosive projectiles,” mortar rounds, and a precision-guided missile. It also noted that Hamas militants had endangered U.N. facilities by storing weapons in empty schools and probably launching missiles from them.
There is a valid argument that it is unfair to judge Israelis and Palestinians by the same standards, given the preponderance of Israeli might and its disproportionate military attacks against Palestinians. It is also true that Israel has occupied, colonized, deprived of water, and blockaded Gaza, which generated the Palestinian response in the form of armed resistance.
Yet the power and the validity of the rule of law, and its handmaiden, accountability, derive from their applicability equally to both parties. The Palestinians have said they are prepared to have their own acts investigated in a process that also holds Israel accountable to the same standards of behavior. They are confident that the gains of applying the rules of law and war could finally provide some constraints to Israel’s unchecked aggressions against Palestinians since the 1940s.
This U.N. report on the actions of Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza war is an opportunity to dare to move toward holding chronic killers accountable. It should not be missed.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.