Response

11.16.12

No To Collective Punishment In Gaza

As an Israeli human rights lawyer promoting the right to freedom of movement for residents of Gaza, I often find myself in disagreement with representatives of my government regarding the appropriate policy toward Gaza. Yet even representatives of the Israeli defense and foreign ministries would likely conclude, as I do, that Gil Troy's suggestion is one of the most ill-conceived plans proposed for Gaza in a long time.

Troy suggests that Israel has just two options for Gaza—the current escalation of violence that has sent civilians in both Gaza and southern Israel huddled in their homes or what he calls a "humane and progressive approach": to close Gaza's crossings for 12 hours and to seize a fixed amount of territory inside Gaza in response to each rocket fired onto towns in southern Israel, in order to persuade people in Gaza to pressure their leaders to stop the rocket fire.

That plan is neither humane nor progressive. It was tried between June 2007 and June 2010, when Israel imposed severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza as part of what it called "economic warfare," designed to change the behavior of militants and political leaders by making civilians suffer, including by paralyzing their economy. The policy indeed crippled Gaza's economy—unemployment rose to 45 percent as factories and farmlands were idle, unable to bring in raw materials or to send out finished produce and products—but Israeli security experts agreed that the shortages only strengthened the central government in Gaza, to whom the unemployed looked for jobs and financial assistance.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor acknowledged that: "You are right to point out that Hamas was not taken down by the people of Gaza… Hamas remains in place today as strong as it was then and yes, in this respect it [the closure policy] was a failure." Col. Yuval Bazak, former head of the Israeli army's tactics department, put it more bluntly. "The attempt to pressure civilians to exert pressure on their governments," he said, "not only fails to promote the objectives of war but also creates an excuse to accuse Israel of causing humanitarian harm."

International humanitarian law or the law of war and occupation are called customary laws and become binding because so many nations follow them. Why do so many armies see themselves as barred from engaging in collective punishment? Because it doesn’t advance any military goals. It doesn't enhance Israeli security. It only makes civilians suffer.

Despite Israel's withdrawal of settlers and permanent ground military positions from Gaza in 2005, it continues to exercise control over Gaza's crossings. That control creates obligations, under the law of occupation, to allow people in Gaza the kind of access necessary for normal life, including the ability to market goods in the West Bank and Israel and to travel to the West Bank. International law allows combatants to fight combatants. It does not allow armies to punish civilians in retaliation for the acts of militants.

Some voices in Israel have also called for drastic and morally bereft measures to respond to rocket fire from Gaza, such as Member of Knesset Michael Ben Ari, on the far-right side of the ruling Likud party, who said, “Instead of providing electricity to Gaza residents, we should electrocute them.” Member of Knesset Danny Danon is currently circulating a petition calling to cut electricity supply to Gaza. These are difficult times, and anger is rife on all sides. Being part of the global community as well as being good neighbors in the region requires responsible, measured and lawful responses to the threats that we face.

If we remove collective punishment as an option, does that mean, as Troy implies, that terrible violence like the kind we are witnessing this week is the only alternative? I don’t think so. Creative, responsible leaders know that soldiers and guns will not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and cannot bring lasting security to the Israelis and Palestinians living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.  Only when we stop recycling policies that repeatedly fail, at great expense to civilians, can we open space to find a different way. Israelis and Palestinians deserve that.