THE ISRAELI STATE has continued to kill, injure and displace civilians on a major scale. Its international military backers, primarily the US government but also that of the UK and others, kept calling for restraint. Yet – long after it was clear such calls would not be heeded – these continued to supply resources and diplomatic backing which made possible potentially genocidal actions.
This is despite the International Court of Justice (ICJ) finding that there was a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza
US and UK leaders brushed off this interim ruling. Worse still, they and others suspended funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA , after Israeli ministers alleged that a dozen of its employees were complicit in the appalling 7 October attack, though all were instantly dismissed and an investigation launched. This was almost certain to lead to sizeable numbers of Palestinians being left without desperately-needed supplies and support.
Even if the allegations were correct and there was misconduct by a tiny proportion of staff, while others might have relatives or friends, or themselves hold, unacceptable views, this appeared an act of collective punishment. It was also a snub to the UN and the notion of universally binding law, especially after an ICJ plea to step up humanitarian aid. Adding to the preventable suffering brought no obvious benefit to Israeli survivors, hostages or victims’ families.
This drastic response was in stark contrast to the material and diplomatic support lavished on Israeli leaders, despite their openly making inflammatory statements and protecting perpetrators of atrocities. There has been occasional rhetoric about abiding by international law, for instance after ITV News caught on camera Israeli troops shooting dead a civilian among several bearing a white flag But UK and US ministers are hardly naïve enough to believe that Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates will suddenly develop a respect for the rule of law.
Days after the ICJ judgement, many Israeli cabinet ministers made it clear that they did want to re-settle Gaza, driving Palestinians out, though this is not the official position. When the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, was asked if such measures would lead the USA to withhold aid to Israel, she refused to say.
Yet thousands of protesters in the UK, USA and beyond have taken to the streets urging an end to the attacks on Gaza. Obviously those most immediately affected are Palestinians, while the chances of a lasting peace for people in Israel too, are undermined by the regime’s ruthless militarism. However the US president, Joe Biden, UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak and their colleagues – as well as the people they govern and the wider world – also face certain risks, especially if violence continues to escalate.
To begin with, countries militarily assisting an ally committing genocide might well be breaching their own legal obligations. And individuals playing a key part in enabling this might, at some point, be found guilty of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity.
More immediately, the conflict has already spread to other parts in the Middle East, which is proving costly. One need not romanticise those Houthis whose attacks on commercial as well as war ships are affecting trade and movement of goods, pro-Iran militias in Syria or Iraq, or any regional powers seeking their own ends, to recognise that the onslaught on Gaza has opened the door to further violence and destabilised the region. If matters get out of hand, the results could be catastrophic. Even ongoing conflict on a more contained scale could have a grave impact on the world economy, including that of Western powers paying for arms as well as paying more for goods and so forth.
And appearing to disregard international rules of conduct which hold people and nations back from the most horrific atrocities causes serious damage, socially and spiritually. When basic compassion and justice are overridden, as history has shown, the consequences are often grave.
What can be done
People of goodwill of all faiths and none have been striving in a range of ways to prevent further devastation, as well as helping victims.
Supporters of human rights in some countries, most notably South Africa, have encouraged their governments to defend principles of international law, with sometimes groundbreaking results. Though states backing Netanyahu have largely disregarded, or sought to vilify, dissidents at home, calls for a ceasefire and longer-term solution based on international law are probably making a difference.
The notion that strongly criticising Israel’s rulers is necessarily antisemitic, even if the critics are Jewish (as indeed, are some of the most courageous and thoughtful), should be firmly resisted. No politician, party or movement can speak for a whole people, nor avoid responsibility for their own actions. And it is insulting to the victims of the Holocaust and other acts of genocide, when their memory is exploited by ambitious leaders seeking to inflict extreme violence yet again. At the same time, in addressing the Middle Eastern situation, it is important to attempt to avoid antisemitism, even if indirect and unintentional.
And a durable solution, without loss of tens of thousands more lives, is more likely if it takes account of the needs and concerns, not only of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank or who are refugees, but also of Israelis, Jewish as well as Arab. While the Nakba was an historical injustice, the past cannot simply be undone and people be blamed because, say, their grandparents bought land from someone who acquired it in a dodgy way. This has happened in other countries too. Complex problems may require complex solutions.
A response sensitive to the hopes and fears of different communities is also more likely to persuade more people to oppose the violence against Gaza civilians, along with trying to understand and address the reasons they are hesitant to act. Using social and community networks to raise awareness and encourage action, drawing on shared values and experiences where relevant, is hugely important, especially when powerful states act as if they, or their allies, should be able to act as they please, whatever harm results.
Consistently upholding international law and rights for all also bolsters credibility. In December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Genocide Convention, shortly before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By 1949, the Geneva Conventions were in place. Since then, codes of conduct on how states and sometimes, other armed bodies should treat those in their power, have developed further, along with structures. Yet the foundations laid three-quarters of a century ago are still highly relevant, if often not adequately known or respected. And recent events in Gaza have underlined the fact that preventing genocide is everyone’s business.
* See also Ekklesia’s regularly updated Gaza news and truth-sourcing page.
© 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.