North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Sanctions not normalisation are needed to stop Israel’s human rights abuses

Until when will the Israeli government be allowed to continue its transgressions without international accountability?

Maha Hussaini
30 November 2020
Picture of a Palestinian child killed in an Israeli air strike hangs on a classroom door in Gaza, 16 November 2019
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Yousef Masoud, SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

The South African government of apartheid broke in the 1990s under the weight of international sanctions and condemnations. In contrast, despite its long history of war crimes and violations of international law over the course of 72 years, successive Israeli governments are repeatedly rewarded with favored trading status, state welcomes for officials, and more. Yes, resolutions have been passed chiding their behavior, but actions are needed if anything is to change. Sanctions must be deployed consistently, fairly and humanely.

Normalisation instead of sanctions

In September 2020, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed a normalisation agreement with Israel, followed by Sudan in October.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid Al-Khalifa signed the agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ironically, the latter is included in a secret list Israeli government officials have assembled of people likely to be arrested abroad if the International Criminal Court investigates alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories. Netanyahu, led the 2014 war on Gaza that a U.N. commission found rampant with possible war crimes.

The UAE went further, directly supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. In October, the US International Development Finance Corp. announced that the United States, Israel and the UAE will establish a fund “to enable the modernization of Israeli-operated checkpoints for Palestinians.”

Sanctions in international law

The United Nations has several tools at its disposal to maintain or restore international peace and security. Chapter VII of its charter allows it to impose penalties against governments and other entities that commit grave human rights violations. These penalties may include trade sanctions, travel bans, arms embargoes and restrictions on financial transactions.

Since 1966, the UN Security Council has imposed sanctions 30 times, on Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, the former Yugoslavia (twice), Haiti, Iraq (twice), Angola, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Eritrea, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Liberia (three times), Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, Lebanon, North Korea, Iran, Libya (twice), Guinea-Bissau, Central African Republic, Yemen, and South Sudan and Mali. In addition, three non-state actors have been sanctioned: ISIL (Da'esh), Al-Qaida, and the Taliban.

For example, in November 1977, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 418, which imposed an arms embargo on South Africa. The resolution mandated that all states cease “any provision to South Africa of arms and related materiel of all types, including the sale or transfer of weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary police equipment, and spare parts for the aforementioned.” The sanctions on South Africa were not limited to an arms embargo. The UN resolution also urged states to halt cultural and academic relations with the South African government to further pressure it to abide by international law. In 1985, another resolution by the General Assembly (40/64) went a step further, urging states to cease all collaborations with the racist regime of South Africa. The assembly requested that all governments adopt legislation or other measures to ensure the “observance of sports, cultural, academic, consumer, tourism and other boycotts of South Africa.”

The case for sanctions

In several respects, the basis for the call to action against South Africa is similar to the case that has been made against the government of Israel. If anything, the facts on the ground, along with reports by the UN and other international organisations, show that the Israeli government has committed more war crimes and killed more civilians in Palestine than the apartheid regime did in South Africa. However, no actions with any real “teeth” have been taken against it.

Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, successive governments have committed dozens of human rights violations that amount to war crimes under international law.

The prime example is the expulsion of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, forcing them to become refugees around the world—an event called the Nakba (catastrophe) by the victims. Yet for the past 72 years, there has been no effort to prosecute the perpetrators. Today, the number of those refugees has ballooned to 6 million.

Mass killings

Following the end of apartheid in South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed. It found that 19,050 people were killed by the governing apartheid regime. Contrast that with the 24,731 Palestinians that B’tselem and international organisations estimate were killed by Israel over 35 years, (During the Nakba and between 1987 - 2020), or less than half the duration of the 72-year Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Targeting of children

Like apartheid South Africa, Israel has a track record of turning a blind eye to the special protection that international humanitarian law gives to children.

On the morning of 16 June 1967, thousands of black South African high school students protested in the streets of Soweto against the ruling that Afrikaans should be the language of instruction in schools. The police responded with excessive force, killing 176 protesters.

In several respects, the basis for the call to action against South Africa is similar to the case that has been made against the government of Israel

Three days later, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 392, condemning the South African government’s repression of Black people and stating that “the policy of apartheid is a crime against the conscience and dignity of mankind and seriously disturbs international peace and security.”

During its occupation of Palestine, Israel has committed dozens of massacres against civilians, including children. One of these is known as the Kafr Qasim massacre. On 29 October 1956, Israeli border police opened fire on dozens of Palestinians for breaking a curfew of which they had been unaware. At least 48 people were killed, including 23 children and six women.

Defense for Children International estimates that between December 1987 and August 2020, the Israeli military have killed about 2,400 minors. This means that for the past 20 years, Israeli soldiers and police have killed on average one Palestinian child every three days.

Suppression of protests

On 21 March 1960, South African police suppressed a demonstration of around 7,000 people who were protesting the country’s internal passport system designed to segregate the population. The police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring 180 in what has come to be called the Sharpville massacre.

International condemnation followed, paving the way for sanctions. In 1979, the U.N. General Assembly marked the anniversary of the tragedy by organising a week of activities in solidarity with the struggle against racism, starting on the day of the massacre.

In contrast, Israel’s murder of 217 Palestinian protesters during the Gaza Strip’s Great March of Return, which took place every Friday beginning in March 2018 and extending through 2019, has attracted no such international response. Among the persons killed by Israeli forces, the vast majority were unarmed civilians, including 48 minors, two women, nine people with disabilities, four paramedics and two journalists. Another 14,713 were injured, including 3,696 minors, 387 women, 253 paramedics and 218 journalists, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

The United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry, established in 2018 to investigate protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that during the Great March of Return, Israeli soldiers committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.” It added that “some of those violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.”

Reluctance to abide by international law

During Israel’s 2014 attack on the Gaza Strip, named ‘Operation Protective Edge’, physicians on the ground and human rights groups reported that Israeli forces used unconventional weapons, including nail bombs and DIME munitions.

To investigate possible war crimes and other human rights violations committed during the attack by both Israeli forces and Palestinian armed factions, the United Nations appointed an independent commission of inquiry. The Israeli government refused to cooperate with the team, including Makarim Wibisono, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied since 1967. Israel refused to grant Wibisono access to the Palestinian territories, causing him to resign in January 2016.

“With no reply from Israel to my latest request in October 2015 to have access by the end of 2015, it is with deep regret that I accept that the premise upon which I took up the mandate, which is to have direct access to the victims in the Occupied Palestinian territories, will not be fulfilled,” he said.

Israel also refused to cooperate with the next special rapporteur, Michael Lynk, who was appointed in 2016. In October 2019, Israeli authorities denied Lynk access to the Palestinian territories.

While Israel prevents international experts from observing and documenting human rights violations on the ground in the occupied territories, they continue to ethnically cleanse thousands of Palestinians from their towns and villages, including by demolishing their homes and forcing them to leave.

A number of the buildings demolished by Israel were originally built with funds from the European Union. In 2019, the Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor documented the destruction or seizure of a record 127 structures funded by international donors, mainly the EU and its member states—twice as much as in 2018.

Until when will the Israeli government be allowed to continue its transgressions without international accountability?

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