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Democracy Now! Interview with Raji Sourani and Richard Falk on Gaza Assault and International Humanitarian Law
President Obama has announced his full support for Israel’s ongoing assault on the Gaza Strip even as dozens of Palestinians, including many civilians, continue to be killed by U.S.-supplied weaponry. At least ninety-five Palestinians have been killed in air strikes by warplanes and drones. More than seven hundred have been wounded, including two hundred children. On Sunday, a massive air strike leveled a home in Gaza City killing twelve people, including ten members of the same family. Over the past week, rockets fired from Gaza have killed three Israelis. We go to Gaza to speak with Raji Sourani, an award-winning human rights lawyer and director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza. We also speak with Richard Falk, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, and the author of more than fifty books on war, human rights and international law. He now teaches at University of California at Santa Barbara.
AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli attack on Gaza has entered its sixth day with few signs of letting up. At least ninety-five Palestinians have been killed in air strikes by warplanes and drones. More than seven hundred have been wounded, including two hundred children. Earlier today, an Israeli strike near the Bureij refugee camp killed at least three children, including an eighteen-month-old infant, and two women. On Sunday, a massive air strike leveled a home in Gaza City killing twelve people, including ten members of the same family. Over the past week, rockets fired from Gaza have killed three Israelis.
Speaking in Bangkok Sunday, President Obama supported Israel’s attack on Gaza.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So, we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now from Gaza is Raji Sourani, an award-winning human rights lawyer, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza. He is on the executive board of the International Federation for Human Rights. In 1991, he won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Prize.
Raji, can you tell us where you are right now and describe what’s happening in Gaza?
RAJI SOURANI: I’m in Gaza City in the western part of the city, just near the beach. And the situation for the last twenty-four hours has been escalated in a very, very drastic way, meaning—I mean more and more aerial bombardment coming for the Gaza. Gunships have been bombing all over the place. And the number of killings and injuries, especially among civilians, raised in a very unique way. In the last five days, we lost twenty-seven civilians, women and children. But in the last twenty-four hours, we lost thirty civilians, including al-Dalo family where ten family members has been killed during this air raid on their three-stories home.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know who this family was? And who were the ten members of this family?
RAJI SOURANI: We are talking about six children, four women. And this family good—I mean, nice, good, working family, a successful businessman who’s doing well, I mean, in Gaza. And they have nothing to do with politics. I mean, like any ordinary, standard Gazans. I think this wasn’t, I mean, the first, you know, house to be targeted. And the eye of the storm, Gaza civilians. An overwhelming majority so far among the killings and injuries are civilians. More than seventy percent are civilians. We know them, we count them, we document them, and we are aware about that. Even, I mean, the targets are very, very civilian targets. You are talking about private houses. You are talking about police stations. You are talking about soccer fields. You are talking about water wells. I mean, it’s amazing. I think the Israelis very intentionally targeting civilians. They are the one in the eye of the storm.
I’ll share with you a very personal story. My family house, located in the heart of the Gaza City, is just near a police station. And this police station, since first hour, no one in it. It’s entirely empty. But last night, three o’clock in the morning, my aunt—she is eighty-seven—and I have two brothers who passed through open-heart surgeries, and many of the children rounded the house, and ten to three o’clock in the early morning, maybe one-ton bomb hit the first time, and second bomb exploded. And the entire neighborhood, I mean, was just insane. I mean, it’s like earthquake hit to place, tsunami hit the place.
I’m wondering, Amy, what’s the added security value of bombing a civilian police station? And this police station is empty. And what’s the added value of causing damage for something around ten houses around that police station? And what’s the added value of terrorizing more than twenty to thirty thousand people who live around that place? It’s incredible what’s going on here. We don’t feel entirely hostage to this Israeli belligerent occupation and their practice. Civilians are the target. They are exactly the same thing which had happened four years ago, when Cast Lead operation has been carried by Israel, and again, civilians were in the eye of the storm. If these things—Dalo family killed, bombing these places, terrorizing civilians—are not war crimes, what are war crimes?
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you a comment by Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister. He thanked the Obama administration for its support.
EHUD BARAK: This effort could not have been concluded without the generous and consistent support of the American administration, led by President Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering if you can comment on what the Israeli defense minister said and President Obama’s own words, saying that any country has the right to defend its own population, talking about the Hamas missiles that are being shot out of Gaza.
RAJI SOURANI: First thing I have to say that, I swear, one day we will hold accountable all these Israeli leaders because of the war crimes and crimes against humanity they are perpetrating against children and women, against civilians in this part of the world. We are people who believe in rule of law and accountability. And Obama administration provided full legal, political immunity for those who are criminals, when Cast Lead operation had happened few years ago. And they used a veto in the Security Council not to pass Goldstone Report and being tried through the ICC.
Now, that makes us—when I do hear this statement of Mr. Obama and Mr. Barak, that Mr. Obama is a real partner of Israel and the crimes they are doing against civilians. If there are a lack of facts—and I am sure there are not—we can provide them with very first-class, legal-documented files showing, I mean, all these war crimes and crimes against humanity, I mean, Israel do perpetrate. We are civilians under occupation. We are entitled for protection. International law, international humanitarian law give us that. Geneva Conventions are not for intellect or academics; it’s for civilians to have it on their skin, to be protected at the time of war, not peace. We are the targets of this Israeli belligerent occupation offensive. We are the target of this war. We are the one whom we face state terrorism on our skin. We are the ones who are counting the corpses and injuries of the children, women and civilians. This is shame, because—this is not, I mean, really what we say; this is what Human Rights Watch says. This is what ICJ, International Commission of Jurists; FIDH; [inaudible] the Euro-Med Human Rights Network; even Israeli human rights organization talk about what’s going on here. It’s Kafka, when we are the people who are entitled for protection, and we’re called in law that protected civilian under the occupation, being exposed as the victimizers of this Israeli belligerent occupation, reminding everybody that we are the only country on earth who have this belligerent occupation for the last forty-five years.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. We are with Raji Sourani, a well-known Palestinian human rights attorney, winner of the RFK Memorial Prize for his human rights work. And we’re also going to be joined by the U.N. rapporteur, Richard Falk. So, stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on the attack on Gaza, we’re joined by Richard Falk, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories. He’s a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author of more than fifty books on war, human rights, international law. He now teaches at University of California at Santa Barbara. We’re also joined by Raji Sourani, joining us from Gaza City, the director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
I wanted to go to Richard Falk right now. Can you talk about international law in relation to what has happened so far? The latest numbers we have, at least ninety-five Palestinians have been killed, at least half of them believed to be civilians, since the Israeli assault began last week. The number of Palestinians wounded, over six hundred. At the same time, Palestinian rocket firings were about seventy-five on Sunday after a two-day average of 230 rockets. According to Israeli government statistics, Israel has carried out over 1,350 attacks since launching the offensive last week. The number of Israelis that have been killed is three. Your response to what is taking place?
RICHARD FALK: I share very much the legal assessment that Raji Sourani has been offering a few minutes ago. There is no question in my mind that to launch this kind of all-out attack on a defenseless civilian society is something that must be viewed with the greatest alarm by those that take international law and international humanitarian law seriously as a way of governing the behavior of sovereign states.
And in this setting, it’s particularly shocking because there existed a diplomatic alternative. It was clear that Hamas had agreed to an informal truce and had proposed, through its Israeli interlocutor, a long-term truce, and there’s no question that this was a choice made by Israel to assassinate a Hamas leader—in fact, the person that had endorsed the truce—a few days after it had been established. So one has to question any kind of recourse to this kind of violence in a setting where a peaceful alternative seems to have existed and was rebuffed. And that’s—that’s a very serious element that’s been almost totally ignored in the media reaction in the West, particularly the United States, and certainly in the Obama misleading presentation of the issue as the right of a country to defend itself. There’s—no one questions that right. The question is: When and how is it appropriate?
And here, as before in 2008, when Israel launched a similar devastating attack on the population and people of Gaza, there were alternatives, and this kind of approach to security ends up with a new cycle of violence at higher levels of intensity. So it’s time, it seems to me, for the international community to take some responsibility for protecting the people of Gaza. The responsibility to protect norm was very self-righteously invoked in relation to Gaddafi’s Libya, but there’s utter silence when it comes to the people of Gaza.
AMY GOODMAN: Gilad Sharon, the son of the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who remains in a coma, wrote in an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post over the weekend, quote, "We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.
"There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing."
Richard Falk, that’s—those are the words of the son of Ariel Sharon.
RICHARD FALK: And those words have also been repeated in more or less those same terms by the deputy prime minister of Israel, and it is a shocking embrace of criminality, of crimes against humanity of the most severe kind. Indeed it has a genocidal edge to it, when you talk about depriving a population of its entire infrastructure, as if that’s the way to produce security. It’s a very perverse notion, and, as I say, in a setting where it is clear that if Israel were prepared to lift the blockade and to—which is unlawful form of collective punishment that is prohibited by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention—and was willing to deal with the governing authorities in Gaza as if they’re a political actor, this would produce real security, at least as a foundation for the relations between this portion of the Palestinian people and the state of Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Raji Sourani back into the conversation to respond to Israeli President Shimon Peres saying that the country is being pushed to fight against its will, talking about Israel.
PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES: This strange war, we don’t have any ambitions or any claims of this war. We don’t want to get rid of—by war with Hamas, we don’t want to change the state of Gaza. We don’t want to fire at all. But we were left without a choice.
AMY GOODMAN: That is the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, saying "We [were] left without a choice." Raji Sourani, three Israelis have been killed by the rocket fire, about eighty wounded. Your response?
RAJI SOURANI: Well, I mean, it’s very interesting what Mr. Peres is saying. Even he blames the victim. I mean, we are criminals because we push them to kill us, to bomb us, to destroy us, to launch a war against us. That’s obscene. That’s the absurd. I mean, it’s too much.
Regarding Gilad Sharon, a Dahiya doctrine, it’s not a theory; it’s a practice. And this practice had happened during the Lebanon war. And I’m sure, with all the introductions we have for Gaza for the last six days, that the worst is yet to come. In the last five days, things were going really—I mean, every day worse than the other. But in the last twenty-four hours, things are escalating in a very drastic way. Just half an hour ago, ambulance with a doctor and nurse has been targeted and killed. These are the last victims, I mean, we are having in Gaza. And all over Gaza, there is no safe haven.
What triggered this war really? What triggered it? The assassination of one of Hamas leaders who was negotiating with the Egyptian and the Israelis the truce. And that’s what triggered, Amy, everything. Mr. Peres is forgetting that Gaza, for the last seven years, suffer a criminal siege, suffocating socially and economically 1.7 million people, unable to move in or out, and no movement for goods whatsoever. And they shifted Gaza to be a first-class, human-disaster-made, de-developed place. And, you know, they are practicing all kinds of suffocation on it through that criminal siege, which all international human rights organizations said this is illegal, inhumane, as Mr. Falk rightly said.
AMY GOODMAN: Raji Sourani, President Obama, the Israeli government, the U.S. media, overall, says what’s triggered this Israeli military assault on Gaza are the missiles, the rocket attacks that are coming from Gaza.
RAJI SOURANI: It’s not true at all. It’s not true at all. There was assassination, and there was bombing immediately after assassination all over Gaza Strip. And this you can—being asked by any local observer, whether local, international, neutral or—I mean, these are given facts. But obviously, U.S. and Mr. Obama try to provide Israel with full excuse, with full legal, political immunity to do whatever they want to do against Gazans. This is—this is unjust. This is unfair. This makes U.S. on the same foot, I mean, equal to Israel and real partner of what they are doing, of war crimes or crimes against humanity, against Gazan civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has announced plans to travel to Egypt to seek a ceasefire, but many residents of Gaza say they’re skeptical of Ban’s trip to the Middle East. This is one resident of Gaza named Yousif.
YOUSIF: [translated] I do not welcome him, because he came here during the last war, 2008-2009, and did nothing for us. He will come again for the second war but will never do anything for us. He will speak about taking action but will not do anything.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you share that view, Raji Sourani?
RAJI SOURANI: I want him to come, and I want him to be the real international conscience of the most important system on earth, the U.N., in order to bring rule of law, not the rule of jungle, to this part of the world. Gaza is not part of his visit. He’s going to Israel, and he’s going to the West Bank. But those who need his visit, Gazans, he’s not going to visit them. And he, in advance, once and again, blamed the victim. He says, you know, Gaza deserve what had happened, for simple reason: They are bombarding Israel. Once again, Amy, it’s Kafka. It’s absurd. How can occupied people, those who are entitled by law, by international humanitarian law, to protection, can be victimizers for belligerent, criminal occupation practicing war crime, not this time, but just in Cast Lead operation, as well, and wasn’t held accountable?
AMY GOODMAN: The latest news around the attack on the media center: On Sunday, six Palestinian journalists wounded when Israeli missiles slammed into the offices of the Hamas TV station, Al Aqsa, and the Lebanon-based Al Quds TV, a number of international media outlets, including Fox, CBS, Sky, have used the studios in targeted buildings. One of the victims lost his leg. And I’m looking at a tweet from the Netanyahu spokesperson, Ofir Gendelman, who said, "No Western journalists were hurt during the IAF operation aimed to destroy Hamas’ military comm. situated on the roof of a media building." And I’d like to get the U.N. rapporteur Richard Falk’s response.
RICHARD FALK: It is clear that any kind of deliberate attack on journalists is itself a deliberate, intentional war crime. The U.N. has clearly declared that journalists are civilians. And this isn’t as if there is an attack on a communications system that manipulates the weapons that Hamas has been using. It is an attack on journalists that are doing their professional job, and it represents an attempt by Israel, I suppose, to avoid any kind of effort to tell the story of what is really happening. And we’re thankful to media personalities such as yourself that are at least trying to get at the truth of what is going on and the terrible ordeal that the people of Gaza are once again subjected to without the kind of protection that international law and international morality should be according them.
AMY GOODMAN: Raji Sourani, what is life like on the ground right now? You are in your office. How are Gazans dealing with the attacks right now?
RAJI SOURANI: Well, I mean, if you are sitting in my office, I mean, you will hear the bombs, I mean, all over the place. Every minute or two passes, I mean, you will hear, you know, one bomb from Apache or a drone or F-16 hitting, bombing. And just half an hour ago, the Shoroq Tower, where these journalists were targeted at dawn yesterday, have been bombed again, under fire right now at this tower. For the second consecutive time in less than thirty hours, this tower has been targeted. And this tower, I mean, full of media people—yesterday, six has been injured, one have leg amputated. And again, I mean, they are doing this once and again. And yesterday, another building full of journalists were actually threatened to evacuate. And they sent message to international journalists—not Gazan journalists, international—to evacuate and leave the place. And we went there, all the human rights organization leaders, in solidarity, I mean, with them, and we held a press conference at that building, in front of that building, and in solidarity with them.
Once and again, Israel feel immune: they are not going to be held accountable. They count too much in U.S., and they count too much in Europe, and they know that, you know, they are not going to be criticized or blamed, as far, I mean, all these superpowers giving them that protection. And that’s why they feel almost having a free hand to do whatever they want to do.
And by the way, yesterday, when they bombarded al-Dalo three-stories house, and they killed these twelve people, ten from one family, they said, "Well, we committed minor mistake. We just didn’t pick the right house. We think the house which was supposed to be targeted, the one next to it." So they mean, I mean, even choosing houses, choosing inhabited houses, choosing houses full of civilians, it’s very legitimate target for one reason, because the owner of that house is in Hamas or Fatah or belong to this or that group. This is a clear policy, again Israel putting in the eye of the storm civilians, and they are doing a Dahiya doctrine. And I believe all introductions, especially in the last twenty-four hours, indicates in a very clear way that the worst is yet to come. And I’m anticipating and expecting soon, I mean, drastic change and much more killings and injuries and destruction going to happen in this part of the world, as if what had happened so far is not enough.
AMY GOODMAN: As you were saying, Raji Sourani, this is a tweet from the BBC: "Tower block gaza housing offices Arab TV channels & Al Aqsa TV of Hamas hit three times. Reports seven injured." And we are showing live on Democracy Now! right now the tower where the—where the Palestinian media is. And for our radio listeners, you can go to our website at democracynow.org to see those images. As we wrap up, what you feel needs to be done now? Raji Sourani, you wrote a piece called "History is Repeated as the International Community Turns Its Back on Gaza," referring to what happened four years ago soon after President Obama was elected the first time in that interim before he was inaugurated, similar to what we’re seeing now, with Operation Cast Lead. What about the world community? What about Egypt now with a president from the Muslim Brotherhood? Who are you looking to to help? And I want to put that question also to Richard Falk after.
RAJI SOURANI: I want a free, committed people across the globe break this conspiratorial silence and to ask for rule of law and justice for this part of the world. All what we want, rule of law, not the rule of jungle. And Israel is effectively doing the rule of jungle in this part of the world. I think and I’m sure if Israel were held accountable in Cast Lead operation, wouldn’t dare to do this. As a citizen of the world who believes in the world of law, asking individuals, groups, states, to do something effective to have an end for this criminal offensive by Israel. Egypt and other states, they are good, but I don’t believe, I mean, they are in capacity to stop that. I think what we need, something very simple: very strong intervention to have an end for this crime and to bring peace to this part of the world, which only can it be brought by one thing: have an end for this Israeli belligerent occupation.
AMY GOODMAN: Raji Sourani, do you also call on Hamas to stop hitting Israel with their missiles?
RAJI SOURANI: Well, right of self-determination and right of self-defense, it’s a very basic fundamental right for any occupied people, but that should be abide with the rule of law, as well. And I think, you know, we should be on higher moral ground than this Israeli belligerent occupation.
[This interview was originally posted on Democracy Now!]
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