Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gaza begins to count the cost of war

UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon arrived in the Gaza strip today to assess the damage inflicted upon the region in 22 days of war. During his tour he visited United Nations buildings, several of which were struck during the conflict. After visiting a UN compound which was struck last week, the UN Secretary General said he was appalled at the damage. “This in an outrageous totally unacceptable attack against the United Nations. I have protested a number of times and am protesting again today in the strongest terms and condemning it. I have asked for a full investigation and make those responsible people accountable” [BBC / CNN]

Meanwhile troops have continued to pull out their troops from Gaza. The move started after Hamas agreed to observe the ceasefire if the IDF withdrew.

But the damage left behind has concerned aid agencies who say that a humanitarian crisis is looming. Over 100,000 people have been displaced and over 20,000 homes have been destroyed. The cost of rebuilding the region could run into billions of dollars and is likely to be paid for by the international community though millions of dollars have already been pledged by the Saudis and other members of the Arab League [al-Jazeera].

But there were heated exchanges during an Arab League session and there was no agreement as to how the money might be distributed. There were also strong condemnations of Israel’s operation. Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s Secretary General, called for investigations into any war crimes committed and called the Israeli incursion a “barbarian war”.
It is a war that seems not to have left Hamas in the tatters hoped by Israel. As the tanks rolled out, armed members of Hamas could be seen on the streets standing defiantly in the rubble. In that rubble there may be yet more bodies waiting to be found adding to a death toll already exceeding 1,300. Over 5,000 other are injured, many horribly mutilated or burned. It remains to be seen whether the population will blame Hamas for Israel’s onslaught or stand in defiance with the group labelled by Israel, the US and others as being a terrorist organisation. But most media reports are focusing on Israel’s perceived disproportionate response to Hamas rockets and the possible war crimes committed.
While the BBC, Sky and CNN are measured in their descriptions, some Arabic station are far less reserved. Press TV’s Akram el-Sattari described the damage in Gaza as like Stalingrad after the assault in 1942 by Nazi Germany in WWII. But it wasn’t just Press TV that liked the destruction to that of Stalingrad. Douglas Hamilton, writing for Reuters, also makes a comparison with the Russian battle. “Drive up into the suburb that once sat proudly on the ridge, and it's as if one had turned a corner of Stalingrad, a dark scene from some World War Two battle of annihilation” he says. The scenes may be reminiscent of those seen following the Battle of Stalingrad but the losses do not compare. In the Russian battle more than a million died and the comparison seems only to make an attempt to liken the actions of the IDF to that of the Nazis.

The question as to whether Israel was guilty of perpetrating war crimes is an issue that is weighing heavily upon the UN Secretary General. The conditions set out in Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention are specific [ICRC]. But with few observers and press on the ground during the conflict, any alleged crimes will be difficult to prosecute. Israel’s use of white phosphorus has been of particular concern [BBC]. However, any breach of the Geneva Convention would need to be proved as being a deliberate act enacted upon the civilian population. Even if all the criteria were met to prove such a breach, it would be extremely unlikely that any prosecution could follow since Israel has not signed up to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Israel voted against the adoption of the Rome Statute but later signed it. But in 2002 Israel submitted a letter to the United Nations declaring that it did not intend to ratify the treaty, using the same wording as a similar letter from the United States. The US also objects to ratification of the treaty saying it violates international law. The US claim it is a political court without appeal, which would deny fundamental American human rights, denies the authority of the United Nations, and would violate US national sovereignty.

The International Criminal Court was established in order to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, but it ios seen by many as being as impotent as the United Nations.

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