BY VIC ALHADEFF
December 30, 2008
Imagine a scenario in which a terrorist organisation based offshore starts firing dozens of rockets and mortars, day after day, at towns and cities in northern Australia, aimed expressly at killing, maiming and terrorising as many civilians as possible.
Australia offers the terrorists a truce, but the offer is contemptuously rejected. None of the political and diplomatic measures taken by Australia to halt the attacks have any effect. How long would you expect the Australian government to wait before using force to defend its citizens?
Now imagine that Australian forces attack the terrorist bases. Most of the casualties on the other side are armed operatives, but inevitably there are also civilian casualties. Does this mean Australia has used disproportionate force?
These are the kinds of questions that Israelis and their government have had to face in recent days. For the last six months a truce was in effect between Israel and Hamas, but in truth the rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza aimed at Israeli civilians only declined; they did not cease.
Moreover, during the truce, Hamas continued to smuggle weapons, munitions and personnel through tunnels from Egypt into Gaza. Kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit remained (and remains) in captivity.
Israel did not respond in force, but it did restrict movements into and out of Gaza to slow the movement of gunmen and weapons. Meanwhile, it continued to allow humanitarian supplies into the territory and to supply Gazans with more than half of their electricity requirements. Incredibly, some of the continuing sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza targeted the crossing points through which humanitarian relief was provided – the same crossing-points which Hamas says it wants Israel to open without restriction!
The truce ended on December 19. Through the Egyptian government, Israel sought an extension. Between December 24 and 27, Hamas fired 80 rockets per day at Israeli cities and towns and declared publicly that it would not renew the truce. One of its rockets fell short and killed two Palestinian girls in Gaza. This received scant coverage in the media. The attacks continued unabated. By December 27, Israelis had had enough and the current operation began.
Backed by Iran, Hamas’ widespread and systematic attacks against Israel are a crime against humanity because they are aimed intentionally at killing and maiming Israelis and maximising civilian casualties.
Hamas and its accomplices have fired approximately 6300 rockets, mortars and missiles at Israeli civilians since 2001. For a sustained period, these were fired on a daily basis, forcing 250,000 Israeli civilians to spend the past eight years in and out of bomb shelters. Schoolchildren and elderly people in towns which are within striking range of Hamas missiles dare not venture outdoors, for when a siren sounds to signal an incoming missile, they have precisely 15 seconds in which to take cover.
Fair-minded people accept that Israelis have the right to defend themselves in these circumstances. But some accuse Israel of using disproportionate force, even though the great majority of casualties have been Hamas operatives, many armed and uniformed. The media has focused on the civilian casualties, but Israel’s intentions are clearly to avoid harming civilians.
It is true that international law imposes a requirement of proportionality on the use of force in self-defence. The recourse to force in self-defence must be limited to the objective of halting or repelling the attack and preventing a recurrence. But it is a misconception to think this means the extent of the force used must be equivalent in some sense to the extent of the force used in the initial attack. According to Robert Ago, when he was chief judge of the International Court of Justice:
“The action needed to halt and repulse the attack may well have to assume dimensions disproportionate to those of the attack suffered. What matters in this respect is the result to be achieved by the “defensive” action, and not the forms, substance and strength of the action itself.”
It follows that Israel may lawfully use whatever force is needed to remove the danger of Hamas rockets and mortars and to prevent a recurrence of the attacks on its civilians. That includes destroying command centres and military and communications facilities. As long as the rocket attacks continue, Israel is entitled to respond.
It is time to direct some hard questions at Hamas – questions which very few ask of Hamas spokesmen. Why does Hamas deliberately locate its weapons factories and rocket-launching sites in densely populated civilian areas? Even though Gaza is crowded, there are large vacant areas where Hamas could relocate these items. Of course, that would make it easier for Israel to knock them out. But what kind of leadership does Hamas offer its people when it is prepared to use them as human shields?
Why did Hamas refuse Israel’s offer to extend the truce? Was it worried that the truce made it look soft in the eyes of its extremist constituency? Is the bloodshed occurring because Hamas sees the need to “look tough” and re-establish its street credibility in the face of competition from Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups which operate on its turf?
Is Hamas trying to harden Israeli public opinion ahead of the general elections in February in order to bring about the victory of the more hardline Likud Party? Historically, Hamas has tried to influence electoral opinion in Israel against more moderate governments because they undermine its absolutist message.
Finally, since there has been no Israeli military or civilian presence in Gaza since 2005, why does Hamas use its energies and scarce resources to produce rockets and mortars to attack Israel, instead of building up the Palestinian economy, society and political system? By comparison, the West Bank, which is not under the control of Hamas, has been undergoing significant improvements in all these areas.
Here we come to the ugly heart of what Hamas is really about and why it is listed as a terrorist organization by the US and EU and in the UK and Australia the Hamas military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is listed as a terrorist group. The Hamas Charter makes it clear that destroying Israel and driving out or killing its Jewish citizens has a higher priority than establishing a Palestinian state.
As Israel’s Foreign Minister has stated, if Hamas stopped its rocket attacks, the tunnelling and the weapons-smuggling, and called off its war on Israel, Gaza’s situation would be rapidly and dramatically transformed for the better. There would be no need for Israel to resort to military action to defend its citizens or to continue the restrictions on movement into and out of the area.
Gazans and Israelis could then get on with building their lives and a future for their children.
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