AMIDST an alarming escalation of violence in the Middle East, the legality and morality of actions by governments or quasi-governmental bodies has been a key issue. This includes Western states, especially the USA but also the UK. With deepening tragedy and intensifying danger, there is an urgent need to address tricky questions.
The United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution on the Gaza crisis, calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities”; and the humane treatment and “immediate and unconditional release” of all civilians being illegally held captive. Yet violence is worsening.
On 7 October, Hamas fighters had entered Israel, murdered 1,400 people and abducted hostages. Israeli forces in turn bombarded Gaza from the air, killing thousands of people, largely children, and declared a siege in which food, water and electricity were cut off, with predictably damaging results. Both actions were contrary to international law and, according to many belief systems, gravely immoral. Even people who are not pacifists often balk at large-scale harm to the defenceless. Israeli ground forces are now intensifying attacks alongside ongoing bombing and not nearly enough water, food and electricity is available to meet the most basic needs.
The US government, a firm backer of Israel’s regime over the decades, which has provided military backing to the onslaught alongside some aid to victims, voted against the UN resolution. President Joe Biden is clearly unhappy with aspects of the approach taken by Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, if largely because of US self-interest, given the risk of regional escalation. The US president has nevertheless assisted hostilities and cast doubt on Palestinian health officials’ casualty figures, though humanitarian agencies believe these are broadly correct .
The UK government is also supporting Israel’s forces militarily, on a smaller scale, but sounded a note of caution too. It abstained during the UN vote.
Labour Party and key UK opposition leader, Keir Starmer, who has also backed Israel’s leaders when they defied international law in the past, came under heavy criticism in his own party after claiming that Israel has the right to withhold water and electricity from Palestinian civilians. He retreated from this position and now seems to acknowledge that collective punishment is unlawful, though he is being urged to go further in seeking peace.
However a Labour MP, Andy McDonald, was suspended yesterday after condemning the “terrible crimes” of Hamas, Israeli government “war crimes” against Palestinians and the longer-term withholding of equality and freedom from the people of Palestine. He altered a popular chant sometimes interpreted as a call for an end to the state of Israel, instead holding out a vision of Israelis and Palestinians dwelling together in peace. “We won’t rest until we have justice,” he said, until “all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea can live in peaceful liberty.” This was regarded as too extreme by his party’s leadership.
Scotland’s first minister, Humza Yousaf, has called for a ceasefire, while strongly condemning Hamas murders and hostage-taking. Some of his own in-laws are trapped in Gaza and he has drawn on this to highlight the plight of all civilians affected. The first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, who leads the Welsh Labour party, is under pressure from many Senedd members, of different parties, to back a ceasefire.
Growing numbers of people in the UK are taking to the streets to call for an end to the attacks affecting Palestinian citizens. The response by the UK home secretary, Suella Braverman, seems largely focused on interfering in police operational matters and trying to change the law to crack down on pro-Palestinian protestors in ways that dangerously threaten human rights for all UK citizens, while continuing herself to promote extremism in ways which have benefited the far right, some of whom are neo-Nazi. Across the world, there is serious concern about the Middle Eastern situation, including among human rights and peace campaigners who have been strongly critical of Hamas’ prejudices, militarism and authoritarian treatment of Palestinians as well as its unwillingness to abide by laws governing armed conflict.
A sizeable number of Jewish people – including relatives and friends of those murdered or taken hostage on 7 October – are opposed to the infliction of mass violence in Gaza and terrorisation of Palestinians in the West Bank. Some are concerned because this puts hostages at greater risk, others because ordinary people from other communities have already suffered too much as well. For those inside Israel, where democracy has largely been eroded, this requires considerable courage. The shadow of the Holocaust inevitably influences reactions in Jewish communities, though for some, it increases commitment to human rights for all. And the harsh material and psychological harm meted out to Palestinians over decades has wide-ranging effects, again with sharply differing responses.
Might and right amidst suffering
Many protestors worldwide are driven by compassion and concern for justice. This is intensified in some instances by faith-based or other belief systems based on the view that all human lives are equally precious. For instance, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem (in Hebrew ‘in the image of’) derives its name from Genesis 1.27, which indicates that all humans are made in God’s image. Valuing human life and dignity is also central to many Christians, Muslims, people of other religions and humanists who believe that no-one matters less than anyone else, even if local and global differences in power and status often undermine this in practice.
International law governing the exercise of force, state responsibility and armed conflict is also based on this fundamental equality. For instance, it is not lawful take revenge against whole communities or unleash massive violence against civilians on the grounds that a few military targets are hit too. It is also unlawful to seize the homes and farms of people of other nations or marginalised communities or treat them in a demeaning way, whether or not some look down on them as less ‘civilised’.
This is also wise, in preventing perpetuation and escalation of humiliation, fear, anger and cycles of violence. Even if the latest unleashing of Israeli armed might, with Western support, were to result in the deaths of many key Hamas leaders, alongside tens of thousands of other Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, and permanent displacement of hundreds of thousands more, with millions traumatised, some of the survivors and those who identify with them will fight back.
Many will have grown up in conditions which have been described as a vast open-air prison, only to lose their homes, livelihoods and loved ones, while others will be born into this situation and somehow survive. For people who are grief-stricken, traumatised and living precariously, responding in a reasoned and morally consistent manner may not be easy, though some will do so and will perhaps be the peacemakers of the future. The task of people and groups promoting non-violent resistance to injustice, or at least restraints on the use of force, will be all the harder.
It is understandable that people in countries caught up in violent conflict, on different sides, might be swept away by emotion or group pressure to dehumanise ‘the enemy’, at least in the heat of the moment. The question arises of why overseas governments might do so. That some leaders, because of ideology and the economic, social and military might of the ruling class in their countries, believe that the laws which govern lesser mortals need not apply to them, would seem a likely explanation.
Over decades, the UN has sought a two-state solution, which many Palestinians regarded as wholly inadequate but which gradually won acceptance. However, US leaders convinced that its superpower status gave them rights over people across the world (as well as the actions of imperial powers with waning influence such as the UK state), have helped to undermine chances for peace. Huge sums were spent boosting Israel’s military might, giving the hawks in that country the whip hand over the doves.
In addition to pursuing Western economic and other strategic interests and profiting arms companies, support for Israel has been driven in part by guilt at allowing antisemitism in the West to take such a deadly toll. Yet those leaders who cared least about Palestinians’ lives and feelings have often been soft on extreme-right groups in their own countries which are openly neo-Nazi and sometimes very dangerous. Much of the ‘Christian right’ (which many Christians regard as deeply wrong, though all too influential in the USA) is both pro-Israel and antisemitic, as well as racist towards Arabs and other people of global majority heritage.
Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is illegal under international law as well as causing appalling suffering in Gaza and the West Bank even before this crisis, yet this did not deter global leaders who knew that, for instance, inconvenient resolutions brought to the UN Security Council could be vetoed. The result is that Israelis as well as Palestinians are less secure – and the rest of the region and wider world are also affected. That heads of other powerful countries have also been undermining peace makes things even worse.
Governments providing military backing for Israeli forces’ actions in Gaza may have made pleas for humanitarian law to be observed, yet are aware this will not happen. In time, they may be called to account for complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity (possibly also genocide though this is harder to prove). Meanwhile it is more important than ever that people of goodwill across the world insist that – in Israel, Palestine and beyond, even if feelings are running high – ordinary people’s rights must be protected.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016) and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (DLT, 2017). Her latest articles can be found here. Archived articles (pre-2020) are here.