by Henry Precht
Lidice was a town in German-occupied Czechoslovakia that not too many people will remember now. It was there early in World War II that partisans assassinated the local Nazi commander, Reinhard Heydrich. In revenge, the Nazis executed the community’s males: 173 men over the age of 15. In addition, 184 women and 88 children were sent to concentration camps; 153 women returned, 17 children.
Later, in 1944 in France there was the village of Oradour-sur-Glane where a Nazi commander was believed to have been kidnapped. One hundred forty-two inhabitants were massacred by SS troops and the village destroyed. (Its ruins remain as a monument.) It turned out that the German bureaucracy had gotten confused and originally intended Oradour-sur-Vaynor for destruction as the locus of the kidnapping. Mistakes happen in time of war.
After the war the victorious nations, responding to these and other Nazi atrocities, joined together to draft the Fourth Geneva Convention. The first three conventions, dating from the turn of the 20th century, were an attempt to “civilize” the conduct of warfare. The fourth convention deals with the treatment of civilians in war. The crimes of Lidice and Oradour are banned as collective punishment under paragraph 33. The US, Israel and 194 other nations have signed up.
It seems to me that collective punishment is precisely what Israel with US-supplied weaponry has been inflicting on its Palestinian enemies on and off since territory was seized in the 1967 war. The present surge in violence, including a ground invasion, started when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped — an awful crime without pardon. Hamas was blamed without a shred of evidence produced. Over 200 people from all walks of life were jailed without charge — except that they were associated with Hamas. Then, in an apparent revenge attack by Israelis, a Palestinian youth was burned to death. Another Palestinian boy, an American citizen, was badly beaten by police and arrested. Six Hamas militants were killed in Gaza.
Tensions mounted. Hamas fired its rockets at Israel, harming no one. That unleashed Israel, which retaliated with heavy firepower, killing over 250 persons at this writing and wounding many more. “Collateral damage which we tried to avoid,” says Israel. One person has since been killed this week on the Israeli side: a volunteer at an Israeli military base near the border. Crowds of Israelis cheer on the bombing in Gaza. Collective punishment in a small space crammed with 1.8 million people, I say. American politicians from the president down only say Israel “has the right to defend itself,” and urge both sides to cool down. No mention of a violation of international law.
Back to the Geneva Convention and its rules. One of them is the requirement that an occupying power (like Israel) will “protect” the inhabitants under its control. That would seem to mean, at a minimum, not bombing Gaza’s water facilities and depriving 1.8 million people of fresh water. Mistakes happen in time of war; yet they can be avoided by not taking risky actions that can be reasonably foreseen to harm innocents.
Another of the Convention’s prohibitions (article 49) is that an occupying power shall not transfer its citizens into occupied territory. That is what makes Israel’s construction of settlements on Palestinian land a violation of international law. Virtually all the world, including Washington, agrees on that charge.
Then why doesn’t “the world” act to enforce international law? In good part because Washington has blocked any such move at the United Nations. Europeans tend to follow our lead, although its dutiful subservience has been weakening of late.
In light of the flaccid official stance private groups and some public entities have begun to use other means of putting pressure on Israel to conform to international standards. This is the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” movement that advocates cutting ties to Israeli and foreign entities that support the occupation of Palestine. Banks and firms in Europe have moved against Israeli businesses and their cooperating outsiders, for example, Caterpillar, which sells bulldozers used to level homes of Palestinians. Some religious groups have taken similar action.
International isolation worked against apartheid South Africa — in a not dissimilar situation. If ordinary Americans understood the hardships of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, they might generate sufficient pressure to move our leaders towards a more morally balanced posture. As long, however, as our politics are so closely bound up with contributions from special interests, any change will come only very, very slowly.
Photo: Palestinians inspect the remains of a house which was destroyed during an air strike in Central Bureij refugee camp, in the Middle Area of the Gaza Strip, July 15, 2014. Credit: Shareef Sarhan/UNRWA Archives