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October 17, 2014

Congressional defense of war crimes in Gaza

 By Stephen Zunes

Israel's seven weeks of attacks on heavily populated civilian neighborhoods in the besieged Gaza Strip this summer has led to unprecedented concern among Americans who, while still broadly supportive of Israel, found the attacks to be disproportionate and unnecessary. Close to 1,500 Palestinian civilians in Gaza were killed in the Israeli attacks, more of 500 of whom were children, and 18,000 homes were destroyed, leaving 100,000 homeless.

Despite this, leading Democrats in Washington have joined Republicans in claiming that the people killed and the dwellings destroyed from Israeli bombing and shelling were legitimate acts of self-defense against military targets and dismissing reports by reputable Israeli and international human rights groups saying otherwise. In July and August, both houses of Congress passed a series of resolutions and forwarded public letters with broad bipartisan support providing unqualified backing for the massive Israeli air and ground assault in language directly contradicting findings by journalists, medical workers and United Nations officials on the ground, as well as investigations by both Israeli and international human rights groups.

Human rights groups and UN officials have also strongly denounced Hamas and other Palestinian militants for firing rockets into civilian areas in Israel as well as their refusal to accept several cease-fire proposals which could have ended the carnage earlier. While none of these groups found any evidence that Hamas used human shields, as the Israeli government has alleged, they also criticized Hamas for not keeping armaments and fighters far enough from civilian areas in that crowded urban enclave.

In short, both sides are apparently guilty of war crimes.

However, the Congressional resolutions and letters all appear based on the assumption that while Hamas is guilty of terrorism and murder in the deaths of the five civilians killed by Hamas rockets inside Israel during this summer's fighting, the Israeli government bears absolutely no responsibility for the deaths of nearly 1,500 Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli ordinance inside the Gaza Strip.

This comes in the face of reports by Amnesty International that "Israeli forces have carried out attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians, using precision weaponry such as drone-fired missiles, as well as munitions such as artillery, which cannot be precisely targeted, on very densely populated residential areas. ...They have also directly attacked thousands of homes," including high-rise apartment blocks, killing whole families. Declaring that civilians in the Gaza Strip "have nowhere to escape military operations by Israeli forces," Amnesty provided ample evidence that Israeli forces were engaging in "indiscriminate attacks on urban areas using artillery and bombs." Amnesty further reported that "In breach of Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law, ambulances and medical personnel on their way to collect the wounded appear to have been deliberately targeted on several occasions and hospitals have been destroyed by shelling from tanks and missiles."

Human Rights Watch cited evidence of Israel "blatantly violating the laws of war designed to spare civilians," including attacks on heavily-populated neighborhoods and shooting at fleeing civilians. Similarly, the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem challenged its government's claims that they had "no intention of harming civilians," noting how after "weeks of lethal bombardments by Israel in the Gaza Strip which have killed hundreds of civilians and wiped out dozens of families, this claim has become meaningless." United Nations officials in Gaza Strip officials also charged Israeli forces with engaging in serious violations of international law following a series of attacks against six UN schools where Palestinians were seeking refuge and where no Hamas weaponry or fighters were present, killing 46 civilians.

In an effort to discredit these reports, the House of Representatives, with more than 100 co-sponsors from both parties, passed a resolution by unanimous consent insisting that the Israeli attacks were exclusively "focused on terrorist targets" and that Israel "goes to extraordinary lengths to target only terrorist actors." Majority leader Harry Reid introduced a Senate resolution, also pushed through by unanimous consent, claiming that "the Government of Israel has taken significant steps to protect civilians in Gaza" and that "Israel's attacks have focused on terrorist targets."

Israel certainly has a right to defends itself. However, just because Israel is considered an important strategic ally of the United States and a lucrative market for U.S. arms manufacturers does not give Congress the right to lie and cover up for war crimes.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and program director for Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.