TIME Gaza

Egyptian Cease-Fire Efforts Collapse

Mideast Israel Palestinians
Smoke and debris rise after an Israeli strike hit Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014. Adel Hana—AP

(GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip) — Egyptian attempts to broker an end to a monthlong war between Israel and Hamas militants collapsed in heavy fighting Tuesday, with Palestinian militants firing dozens of rockets and Israel responding with airstrikes across the Gaza Strip. At least two Palestinians were killed.

The burst of violence erupted in the hours before a temporary truce was set to expire. It left the Egyptian mediation efforts in tatters, and raised the likelihood of a new round of violence.

Israel withdrew its delegation from the Cairo cease-fire talks following a sudden burst of rocket fire on Tuesday afternoon, and quickly resumed its campaign of airstrikes.

Palestinian officials reported Israeli airstrikes throughout Gaza that gained intensity throughout the evening.

Palestinian medical official Ashraf al-Kidra said two people — a 40-year-old woman and a 2-year-old girl — were killed in an airstrike in Gaza City. A total of 21 people were wounded in a separate airstrike that hit a building that houses offices of Hamas’ Al Aqsa TV station, he said.

The fatalities were the first since a temporary truce was reached last Wednesday.

Israeli officials reported at least 20 rockets fired late Tuesday, including one that set off air raid sirens in the metropolis of Tel Aviv. There were no reports of injuries.

Israel’s civil defense authority, the Home Front Command, ordered authorities to reopen public bomb shelters within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of Gaza.

In announcing the withdrawal of the Israeli team, government spokesman Mark Regev said the rocket fire violated the terms of the negotiations.

“The Cairo talks were based on an agreed premise of a total cessation of hostilities,” he said. “When Hamas breaks the cease-fire, they also break the premise for the Cairo talks. Accordingly, the Israeli team has been called back as a result of today’s rocket fire.”

He would not say whether the team would return to Cairo, or whether Israel would resume cease-fire talks.

Egyptian security officials said Egypt was still pressing the two sides to agree on a cease-fire. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The breakdown dealt a tough blow to nearly a week of Egyptian-led diplomacy meant to end the heaviest fighting between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007.

More than 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed, according to Palestinian and U.N. officials, and tens of thousands of people are homeless. Israel has claimed the number of militants killed was much higher, and it blames Hamas for causing civilian casualties by staging attacks from residential areas. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a guest worker have also been killed.

Hamas is seeking an end to a seven-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has ravaged Gaza’s economy, while Israel wants guarantees that Hamas will disarm.

In nearly a week of indirect talks, Egypt appears to have made little headway in resolving the differences. Late Monday, it secured a 24-hour extension to a temporary truce to allow more time for a last-ditch attempt to reach a longer-term deal.

An Egyptian compromise proposal calls for easing the blockade, but not lifting it altogether and opening the territory’s air and seaports as Hamas has demanded.

While the plan does not require Hamas to give up its weapons, it would give Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were ousted by Hamas in 2007, a foothold back in Gaza running border crossings and overseeing internationally-backed reconstruction. Abbas’ presence would minimize friction with Israel and allow large amounts of international aid to flow into Gaza for reconstruction.

In Cairo, members of the Palestinian delegation, which is comprised of various factions, said no progress had been made in Tuesday’s talks. Yet some held out hope that the Egyptians would still succeed.

“Israel insisted during the talks on disarming the factions in Gaza, and that created huge difficulties during the talks,” said Kais Abdelkarim, a Palestinian negotiator.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Azzam al-Ahmad, said the Palestinians had submitted a final proposal in hopes of reaching a breakthrough. “We gave the Egyptians our final position. We are waiting for them to come back with a response,” he said.

However, Khaled al-Batsch, a representative of the Islamic Jihad militant group, said the talks had collapsed and the Palestinian delegation would leave “starting tomorrow.” He blamed “Israel stubbornness” for failure of the talks but added: “Egypt is still trying to bring back the negotiators and we hope it succeeds.”

Hamas’ chief negotiator, Izzat Risheq, was pessimistic.

“Egyptian mediators are waiting for an answer from the enemy delegation to the response of the Palestinian delegation,” he wrote on Twitter. “Even at 12 o’clock, the end of the deadline for the truce … I do not think there will be an answer.”

Hamas finds itself pressured by both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to accept a less than perfect deal with Israel, but needs to show the people of Gaza that the enormous sacrifices they endured in the fighting were not in vain.

In an apparent attempt to pressure Hamas, Egypt said early Monday it would co-host an international fundraising conference for Gaza — but only if a deal is reached first.

That appears to play into the hands of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, which is eager to regain control of Gaza.

The disagreements have focused around the lifting of the blockade, with Hamas pushing for far more dramatic concessions than Israel is willing to offer.

The Gaza blockade has greatly limited the movement of Palestinians in and out of the territory of 1.8 million people, restricted the flow of goods into Gaza and blocked virtually all exports.

Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent arms smuggling, but critics say the measures have amounted to collective punishment.

The latest round of Gaza fighting was precipitated by massive Israeli arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank in the aftermath of the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in June. Their deaths were followed by the slaying of a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem in what was a likely revenge attack.

TIME Middle East

No Easy Answers to Charges of War Crimes in Gaza

A Palestinian man enters his destroyed home in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, August 5, 2014.
A Palestinian man enters his destroyed home in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, August 5, 2014. Oliver Weiken—EPA

Experts on both sides say there were, but proving it will be hard and prosecuting even harder

A three-day cease-fire began in Gaza Tuesday, while Israeli and Palestinian delegations traveled to Cairo to negotiate peace.

But looming over negotiations to end the conflict is the ugly specter of war crimes, which both Israel and Hamas have been accused of committing. On July 23, Navi Pillay, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, suggested that attacks on civilians by both Israel and Hamas may have violated international law “in a manner that could amount to war crimes.”

That’s no idle charge — war crimes are breaches of international humanitarian law defined by the Geneva Conventions as:

“Wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including… wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile power, or wilfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial, …taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.”

Investigating and proving this is a lengthy and complex process that could take many months. Nevertheless, experts on both sides of the conflict have already drawn their own conclusions.

“It is fairly clear that Hamas has committed war crimes as a matter of systematic [authorized] policy,” says Abraham Bell, Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. “Hamas has used child soldiers, human shields, indiscriminate firing and weaponry incapable of discriminate firing during the conflict. It has also committed perfidy – using protective objects in an attempt to shield combatants – such as storing rockets in schools,” he adds.

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A picture taken from the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip shows the trail of a missile launched by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system as it intercepts and destroys a rocket launched from Gaza into Israel on August 4, 2014. Jack Guez—AFP/Getty Images

Though aware Israel has been similarly accused of war crimes, Bell is unconvinced. “It’s hard to argue that there are significant war crimes going on from the Israeli point of view,” he comments. “The IDF has lawyers who accompany and advise commanders on missions.”

Israel’s detractors might argue that these legal experts could be more effective: The U.N. places the most recent death toll in Gaza at over 1,200, most of them civilians. Bell says civilian deaths are not necessarily war crimes. “You could end up with a lot of civilian casualties and have acted in accordance with the law,” he says. “It’s expected that there are going to be a lot of civilian deaths in urban warfare.”

Not on this scale, says Simon Natas, partner at ITN solicitors, who has worked with the UK-based organization Palestine Solidarity Campaign.”There are two enormously powerful inferences to draw from the extraordinarily high number of civilian casualties caused by Israel. Either it’s targeting civilians or its attempts to distinguish them from combatants is wholly inadequate,” Natas says. “Both constitute war crimes.”

“We know that Israel has directly targeted non-combatants… I don’t think there is any doubt that they deliberately attacked civilian targets such as mosques, hospitals and the Islamic University in Gaza,” he says.

Natas further claims that the extensive shelling — which, he says, “has characterized this conflict” — is the real “indiscriminate firing” Bell accuses Hamas of carrying out. “There are vast areas where all houses have been flattened,” Natas says. “It’s simply not possible to repeatedly fire these types of shells and not risk disproportionate civilian casualties.”

Though Israel says it warns civilians of attacks by dropping leaflets, leaving pre-recorded messages, and firing warning missiles, Natas is unimpressed. “A civilian is entitled to say ‘I want to remain in my home’ and it doesn’t mean they can be killed for exercising that right.”

Natas concedes that Hamas, too, fires indiscriminately at Israeli civilian areas but adds: “They don’t have the sophisticated technology to only hit military targets… they use extremely primitive weapons.” That lack of discrimination is not deliberate, he says, but due to a technical lack of control when retaliating against a more powerful, national military. That militant organizations can be accused of war crimes when they’re forced to resort to crude weaponry for self-defense, he says, is “an issue that international law needs to get to grips with.”

Accusations of war crimes are easy to come by, but prosecutions of them are not. While the UN Human Rights Council conducted a war crimes inquiry into a three-week conflict in Gaza in 2008-9 that concluded there had been serious violations on both sides, it had no powers of enforcement. For prosecution to actually go ahead, the domestic country must first have investigated its own conduct.

Natas says that Israel’s analysis of its own actions during war has never been carried out with sufficient rigor or impartiality, and believes it will be much the same after Operation Protective Edge. So, he says, “two NGOs in Gaza – al-Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights – will be impartially collecting evidence of war crimes along with the U.N.”

Though Natas says the Gazan NGOs will also report on any crimes committed by Hamas, Bell says the militant group won’t carry out an internal investigation into its own conduct either. “A terrorist organization is not going to investigate its own war crimes,” he says.

PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-GAZA
Palestinians remove pieces of rubble from a house hit by an Israeli airstrike in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, on August 4, 2014. Marco Longari—AFP/Getty Images

Once the internal process has been completed, the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) can intervene if it thinks the process has been unsatisfactory. However, the court doesn’t have jurisdiction in Israel or in Palestine, meaning that it can’t prosecute them without U.N. Security Council referral.

Israel refused to ratify the I.C.C.’s treaty, the Rome Statute, in 1998, and though Palestine is keen to join the treaty after being declared a non-member state by the U.N. General Assembly in 2012, Natas says it’s under pressure from Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. to stay away lest it tries to prosecute Israeli officials. The U.S. also voted against making Palestine a non-member state.

Two other options remain. The U.N.’s Security Council can request an I.C.C. investigation or an independent country that has universal jurisdiction can prosecute individuals for war crimes. Universal jurisdiction is possessed by 166 states, who, according to Amnesty International, “have defined one or more of four crimes under international law (war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture) as crimes in their national law.”

Both Natas and Bell agree that the former looks unlikely. Bell thinks the U.N. Security Council won’t target a Palestinian military group whilst Natas says that the U.S., Israel’s strongest ally and a permanent member of the council, would veto any attempt to take Israeli officials to the I.C.C.

However, prosecution of Israel or Hamas could still happen in one of those 166 states. “It remains a distinct possibility that the prosecutions could happen in another country,” says Natas. “It’s just a question of them having the will and the political power.”

Any attempt to prosecute either party would cause huge international ramifications, but it likely wouldn’t come any time soon. Any war crimes inquiry would need to come after the conflict has drawn to a lasting halt, and a domestic investigation has been carried out — and right now, less than a day into a shaky cease-fire, what everyone is hoping for is peace.

TIME foreign affairs

The Bizarre Moral Criticism Against Israel

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Israeli soldiers rest beside shells for a 155mm M109 Dores self-propelled howitzer at a position in Southern Israel near the border with Gaza, on the seventh day of Operation Protective Edge, on July 14, 2014. Li Rui—Xinhua/Sipa

What does it mean to say that casualties are “disproportionate”?

On “NBC Nightly News” on July 12, David Gregory spoke of growing pressure from the United Nations for a ceasefire in Gaza. He noted that the United States and many other nations believed that Israel had a right to self-defense. Nonetheless, Gregory reported, these countries were likely to be sympathetic to calls for a ceasefire because of the “disproportionate” number of casualties between the two sides. Among the residents of Gaza, the death toll then exceeded 100, while Israel had suffered dozens of injuries but no casualties.

Mr. Gregory was simply reporting the news, but I found his comments disturbing, nonetheless. What does it mean to say that the casualties are “disproportionate”? And is that really the moral issue that we need to be concerned about?

The implication of the “disproportionality” claim is that, given their losses, the people of Gaza are the real victims. But morally and politically, this is an intolerable and distorted interpretation of the realities in the region.

The reason that Hamas has not killed more Israelis is not because they haven’t tried. In the seven years during which it has controlled Gaza, Hamas and its proxies have fired more than 5000 rockets into Israel; almost 800 have been launched just this past week. Each one has been aimed at civilians and intended to murder and maim. The reason that more Israelis have not died is that the weapons are mostly crude and inaccurate and that, over time, Israel has prepared herself with shelters, warning sirens and an anti-missile system. In addition, Israelis have been just plain lucky.

But that luck could change at any moment. If a single rocket were to hit a school or a mall, the number of dead could balance out in a flash. Then, to be sure, you would have “proportionality,” but there is no moral calculus by which additional dead civilians is a preferable outcome.

For Israel, the fundamental issue is the responsibility of its government to protect its citizens. As missiles have fallen on her cities over the years, the government has not succeeded in providing that protection. The reasons are many, including sensitivity to American wishes and a concern for world opinion; but the desire not to hurt the innocent is the most important. Now, however, as children in the south continue to live in terror and civilians throughout Israel flee to shelters several times daily, Israel’s leaders have concluded that they must act.

There is something bizarre, in fact, about the idea of “proportionality” being used as a moral criticism against Israel. A proportional response by Israel to the attacks of the last seven years would mean that every time a rocket is fired by Hamas at an Israeli civilian center, Israel would respond by firing a rocket at a civilian center in Gaza. Israel, of course, rejected that, then and now. Still, when Hamas violated the ceasefire yet again and got its hands on longer-range rockets, something had to be done.

The best way to evaluate Israel’s action is to imagine how we as Americans would respond to similar provocations. Assume the following: a terrorist group embedded in Mexico that the Mexican government refused to disarm is firing missiles into Houston night after night, endangering American lives. Our government would not wait a week or a month; indeed, it would not wait a single day before taking action to assure the well-being of her citizens. In fact, we need only remember how American forces flew half way around the world to engage in a war in Afghanistan against terrorists who carried out an attack on American soil. The talk then was not of proportionality, but of providing security for our country and stopping those who wished to do us harm.

Of course, let us not think for a moment, God forbid, that we can be indifferent to the death of innocents. The death of any child, Israeli or Arab, Muslim or Jew, is an unspeakable tragedy that rends the heart. Israel must do everything humanly possible to avoid the civilian casualties; already she issues warnings and calls for evacuation of areas about to be attacked, and must do more. Still, for any country, morality begins with a reasonable measure of security for her own citizens, and it is not right to say that Israel must protect Palestinian civilians at the cost of abandoning her own.

The issue was never “proportionality”; it is the suffering and dying of too many Arabs and Jews. And while there is much that is complicated about the Middle East, ending the violence in Gaza is not complicated. Hamas needs to halt the missile attacks and provide credible assurances to Israel and the world that they will not be resumed. If the rockets stop, quiet can come tomorrow. And tomorrow is not soon enough.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

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