6: The background to the war against Gaza
After the election victory in 2006, Hamas controlled the Palestinian parliament. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party, was elected in 2005 and without a counter-candidate from Hamas, following the death of Yassir Arafat in 2004. Leading representatives of the international community had demanded that power in the Palestinian Territories remain with parliament and not with the president. The demand was based on the fact that this was the most democratic way of governing, but it was also a way of undermining Yassir Arafat’s power.
According to nexticle, The Palestinians changed their laws and complied with international requirements. In particular, it would have been important for the Interior Ministry, which was responsible for police forces and the security of the area, to be controlled by a prime minister approved by parliament – and not by President Arafat.
But after Hamas’ election victory, Fatah / PLO and President Abbas refused to relinquish power over the Interior Ministry to Hamas. This created an unsustainable power situation. Israel, the United States and the international community now supported the Fatah / PLO in this conflict and thus broke with their previous principles on how the distribution of power should be in the Palestinian territory.
Following Hamas’ election victory, Israel imposed an economic boycott of Gaza , for which it received international support. The reason was that Hamas’ program (charter) from 1987 stated that their goal was to “invalidate” Israel. Hamas was required to amend its charter in order to lift the boycott of Hamas and Gaza. But for many, the international boycott tasted of double standards , especially in light of declared goals of democratization of the Middle East. Did not democracy apply if the people elected representatives other than supporters of the West?
The clashes between Fatah / PLO peaked in the summer of 2007. After a period of increased chaos and the emergence of a forest of various militias – semi-military groups – which made life difficult for the civilian population, including kidnappings of Western hostages, Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007 in an armed action. Fatah / PLO was expelled to the West Bank.
Following the takeover, Hamas succeeded in bringing the long-awaited peace and security to the streets of Gaza. The problem for Hamas was that Israel now had the Fatah / PLO on board to carry out a strict economic blockade of the area. Public employees in Gaza were not paid, and imports of goods from outside were kept to a minimum. Goods, but also rocket weapons, were smuggled in through tunnels on the border with Egypt.
Rockets were fired at Israel. For Hamas, the rocket launches symbolized their enduring ability to fight , but as the rockets got longer and longer range, the concern increased in Israel . Several thousand rockets were fired at Israel, and from 2002 until Israel’s military attack in 2008, 15 Israelis were killed by such rockets fired from Gaza.
In the summer of 2008, a six-month ceasefire was signed between Hamas and Israel. At the end of the ceasefire period, Hamas declared that it did not want to extend the ceasefire as long as the economic blockade was not lifted. On the other hand, the Israelis announced that they would take action against Hamas if they were attacked with rockets. They did, but only after Israel – before the end of the ceasefire – had killed six Hamas members in November. But few had foreseen the violent scale of the Israeli attack.
7: War crimes?
During the first three weeks of the military operation, four UN schools for Palestinian refugees, where civilians had sought refuge, were hit. On January 6, 40 Palestinian civilians were killed in such an attack on a school. On January 17, two children were killed in an attack on another school that allegedly used phosphorus grenades , banned under international law.
On January 5, according to the Red Cross, Palestinian civilians were ordered by Israeli soldiers into a building in the Zeitoun area on the outskirts of Gaza City. The next day, the building was bombed, and 30 civilians were killed. The Red Cross criticized the attack and the fact that the organization had to wait four days before it received permission from Israeli soldiers to evacuate injured people from the building.
Acts of war that lead to the loss of civilian lives are not necessarily war crimes. For the killing of civilians in war to be defined as war crimes, the killings must have been the intent of the act of war. The Israeli side said that the army was attacking Hamas, and that when Hamas forces operated near UN and other civilian buildings, they had to be attacked there. Furthermore, the Israelis claimed that they had to protect their own soldiers, which increased the risk of civilian casualties when weapons and rockets were placed in mosques and civilian buildings.
The question, however, was whether Israel’s definition of what was a military target was in accordance with international law. Did a Hamas soldier on the outskirts of a school where refugees had sought refuge legitimize the fact that the entire refuge – with women and children – was bombed? Was it legitimate to define all civilian infrastructure related to Hamas as a military target?
Both the Red Cross and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have called for an international inquiry in which independent legal experts will assess whether war crimes took place during the war. In a possible criminal case, Hamas and Palestinian resistance groups could also be held responsible for rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.
To the extent that the Israeli military action in Gaza is followed by an international court settlement, this will mean a new turn in the international community’s way of dealing with the Middle East conflict. After the end of the Cold War, there has been a growing international consensus that war crimes must be punished, regardless of who committed the crimes.