In a reasoned survey of the muddle served up to the British public as reportage on Gaza, Professor Jonathan Rosenhead outlines the mendacity of Western media and the complicity of Western leaders in the ‘atrocity crimes’ that Israel has been daily committing ever since 8 October. The original posted on the Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) website can be found here.

In the heart of Gaza City they have created a wasteland

Truth, War and War Crimes

By Jonathan Rosenhead

War criminals do not tell the truth. They obfuscate, twist facts, assert irreconcilable opposites. Truth is the first casualty of war crimes.

Members of Hamas and other organisations committed war crimes on October 7th. Israel declared a state of war on October 8th, and has committed war crimes every day since. It is a war crime to establish a siege, a “total blockade” of food, water, medicine, fuel and electricity. The collective punishment of a population is a war crime. Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets of no military relevance is a war crime. Since October 28th we must add the war crimes committed by its rampaging ground troops inside Gaza. The process of obliteration of the structure of Palestinian civil society, regardless of the resulting civilian slaughter, has been described as a mass assassination factory. It is the execution in short order of what Baruch Kimmerling (Politicide, Verso. London – 2006) called ‘politicide’: the destruction of the very fabric of the Palestinian nation in order to pre-empt any meaningful self-determination.

Since the assault on October 7th Israel has justified whatever measures it gives itself permission to take by saying that it has the ‘right to defend itself. (Shahd Hammouri argues on the contrary that Israel “cannot claim self-defence as a legitimate reason for its aggression against a threat that emanates from within a territory [Gaza] it has effective control over”.) And so Israel carries out, methodically, day after day, military actions that are blatant violations of the provisions of the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court in 2002. Since 2021 Palestine has been a party to the ICC. This means that Israel’s actions within Gaza can be investigated by the ICC.

Countries do have the clear right under international law to defend themselves when attacked, even when, as is the case with Israel, they have removed all non-violent means by which the Palestinian people could have exerted pressure for their rights. But what is happening in Gaza is not Israel defending itself. It is Israel committing war crimes. The fact that serious violations of international humanitarian law have been committed on you by your opponent does not give you licence to do the same to them. As Conor Gearty has said “Israel has committed many of the same potential crimes [‘potential’ because not yet found guilty in a court of law] as the Hamas operatives” but with the extra criminal opportunities provided by its massive military capacity.

The distinction between civilians and the military is at the core of international humanitarian law. This law was developed precisely “to limit the effects of armed conflict” as its guardian, the International Committee of the Red Cross, puts it. It “protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare”.

It is this distinction which both Israel’s military and politicians and their international allies have gone to great lengths to muddy with the claim that Hamas uses civilians as “human shields”. They seem to feel that Hamas should do the decent thing and come out into the open where they can be located by surveillance technology and mown down by drones. Neve Gordon points out  that militants have always “hidden among civilians” in what we now call people’s wars – where the asymmetry of power between non-state paramilitary groups and national armies would otherwise make resistance futile. Indeed Gordon details the extensive use of this tactic against British forces in mandate Palestine – by the irregular armed Jewish groups which are among the principal progenitors of the current Israeli government.

Why is none of this stated by our ‘free’ mainstream media? Instead we have a mantra repeated by the BBC every time that the word Hamas is uttered – that “Hamas has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United Kingdom and many other countries” (as World Affairs Editor John Simpson felt obliged to explain.) What this formula doesn’t say is that the UK designation was only made in November 2021; until then only the military wing of Hamas was proscribed. The decision to extend the designation to the civilian Hamas government was not based on new information. It was a political decision by the Boris Johnson government.

The mantra on Hamas, repeated like the pattern on cheap wallpaper, is mind numbing. Where is the matching trigger warning, to be recited each time the daily statistics of Palestinian deaths notches up another thousand: “Israel is widely accused of committing war crimes in its assault on Gaza”?

A report just released by Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights has highlighted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s 2014 landmark report on “atrocity crimes”. These include the three legally defined international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as ethnic cleansing. The report stresses the legal duties of third states under the Geneva Conventions, which include, but are by no means limited to, seeking an urgent ceasefire.

The British government should be ashamed to have abstained on the Security Council vote calling for a cease fire. The leader of the opposition continues to trash his own residual reputation by dodging and fudging while thousands die. Their ethical and political failure is a stain on British politics.