The Politics of Murder
(Chicago, 24 July 2002) -- The images of torn and shattered bodies, the piles of human remains of Israelis and Palestinians look exactly the same to the naked eye. The screams of the injured and the cries of the bereaved issue neither in Hebrew nor in Arabic, but in the universal language of human anguish and the incalculable pain that accompanies the death of babies, young children, women, old men, and other innocents.
Politically, however, the two phenomena are a world apart, at least if the view is from the White House. While the killing of Israelis never fails to elicit the strongest and most vitriolic condemnations from Washington, as well as expressions of condolences for the families of the lost individuals, the latest Israeli atrocity in Gaza was termed "heavy handed" by President Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer. This sounds more like a reproach to a mother who disciplined her child a little too forcefully, than an appropriate reaction to the deliberate dropping of a one-ton bomb into the middle of a crowded residential area with the predictable result that fifteen people, nine of them children, were killed and more than one hundred injured.
Yet while the cold absence of sympathy for Palestinian civilians from the Bush White House cannot surprise anyone, other comments by Fleischer were somewhat more revealing. Fleischer vigorously contested Israel's claims that the killing of innocents in Gaza was comparable to the deaths of civilians from U.S. bombing in Afghanistan.
"It is inaccurate to compare the two, " Fleischer said, "because the United States, because of an errant bomb, a mistake in a mission, has occasionally engaged in military action that we very regrettably included losses of innocent lives. [sic]"
In the case of the deadly Israeli strike on Gaza City Fleischer affirmed, "This was a deliberate attack on the site, knowing that innocents would be lost in the consequences of the attack."
Hence, the White House admitted for the first time a fact that has been apparent to any observer of the conflict since September 29, 2000: Israel uses brutal military force against civilian areas with the full knowledge that civilians will be killed. This has been made plain by every independent investigation from groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights USA, B'Tselem and others, that have examined the high number of civilian dead, hundreds of them children, the enormous number of people with injuries to their heads and upper bodies from live ammunition, as well as the phenomenon of firing tank shells into crowded neighborhoods, homes and marketplaces.
Such wanton disregard for innocent life, is the exact moral equivalent of the killing of Israeli innocents in bars, restaurants, buses and shopping malls, and it violates international law. It also violates U.S. law. While Fleischer's criticism of Israel was widely reported in the U.S. media, the comments of State Department spokesman Richard Boucher a few kilometers away gained less attention.
Boucher was asked if Israel's use of an American-built F-16 fighter jet in the Gaza attack violated the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, which prevents recipients of U.S. weapons from using them for human rights abuses and conquest. Boucher replied:
"As you know, the Arms Export Control Act requires us to do a report if we believe that US weaponry was not used -- or if there's a substantial violation of the terms of an agreement governing the use of US-origin defense articles; that is, if they're not being used for legitimate self-defense or internal security. As we've said before, we've not made such a report regarding Israel's actions."
Pressed as to why the U.S. has not done so after twenty two months in which barely a day has passed without U.S. weapons being used to add to the mounting list of Palestinian victims in the Occupied Territories, Boucher said:
"All we've ever really answered in response to these questions is to note that we have not made such a report, and should we do so we'll tell you. At this point we haven't."
Why not? The answer of course is painfully obvious if rarely recognized by American commentators. If the United States examines Israel's use of American weapons, there can be only two results. The first would be that in order to give Israel a clean bill of health the State Department investigators would have to ignore a mountain of evidence that has not escaped the notice of any one else in the world and now not even the White House, that Israel shoots always with the knowledge and sometimes the intent that civilians will be killed. This would make the United States look utterly ridiculous and make a nonsense of the law.
Alternatively, the U.S. would have to recognize that indeed U.S. weapons are being used not only to violate human rights, but to enforce and advance an Israeli project of colonization and conquest in the Occupied Territories that is the very antithesis of "self-defence." This would entail legal sanctions under the law that could result in cutting aid to Israel bringing about a political backlash from Israel's powerful and intransigent U.S. lobby that few politicians are brave enough to withstand.
The result is a toothless and contrived outrage in which the White House occasionally expresses annoyance with Israeli actions--along with the assurance that President Bush remains Israel's staunchest backer--while the U.S. ensures that its own laws that could rein in the very actions it condemns remain dead letters. If Washington's declarations ever had the intended effect of pacifying the "Arab street" and international public opinion, their value as a palliative has now surely worn off completely. With all hope lost in any international, especially American intervention to end the conflict, the way is now open for a cycle of revenge and murder that will make all before it seem tame.
In Israel, meanwhile, even if Sharon continues to crow that the massacre in Gaza was one of his "greatest successes," some of the top echelons are embarrassed and worried enough by the international reaction that they are beginning to advance the most ridiculous theses to absolve Israel's leaders from their personal responsibility for a murderous, calculated and deliberate operation which was certainly intended to set the tone for the tenure of Israel's new chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, and restore to Sharon his flagging credentials in the wake of his utter failure to stop attacks by Palestinian militants on Israeli civilians and settlers.
On July 24, Haaretz reported that "the IDF and the Shin Bet security service opened investigations into the failures of the Air Force raid. Army Radio said Wednesday that the investigations would focus on the process that led intelligence officers to conclude that Shehadeh was alone in the building."
Israeli deputy prime minister Silvan Shalom, surely mindful of the newly functioning International Criminal Court in the Hague, added "Anyone who thinks or imagines that the prime minister, the defense minister, or the army chief of staff would have decided on and approved carrying out this attack in this place knowing that this would harm innocent people simply has no idea what he is talking about."
In recent years the mythic reputation of Israeli intelligence has been somewhat tarnished. But it does not take world class spies to know that nowhere, ever, in teeming Gaza City, one of the most densely overpopulated places on earth is any one alone in an apartment building. And there is nowhere in Gaza City, except perhaps on the abandoned and ruined headquarters of Yasir Arafat that you can drop a 1,000 kg bomb without hitting and killing innocent people.