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Opinion: Israel’s use of force in Gaza reflects an entrenched but unsustainable colonial logic

International lawyers are in agreement that Israel’s military actions went far beyond the pale of legality during Operation Protective Edge.

John Reynolds

IT IS NEARLY two weeks since Israel began winding down its “Operation Protective Edge” in the Gaza Strip. The gaze of the world media has diverted itself elsewhere. For Palestinians, however, the status quo of occupation and blockade remains. Negotiations in Cairo continue to be afflicted by circular absurdities reminscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, while people in Gaza struggle to return to the “normalcy” of their permanent state of emergency and come to terms with the scale of destruction wrought in this latest offensive.

What the world witnessed in Gaza over the course of Operation Protective Edge was the calculated implementation of the ‘Dahiya doctrine’. Dahiya is an area of Beirut that was levelled by the Israeli army during its war on Lebanon in 2006. The military doctrine to which its name has been lent deploys the tactics of targeting civilian infrastructure and collectively punishing the civilian population, in pursuit of a broader strategy of eradicating all forms of opposition to military occupation and foreign rule.

Colonial military doctrine

Israeli military Deputy Chief-of-Staff Major-General Gadi Eizenkot has stated openly in relation to any city, town or village from which shots are fired in the direction of Israel: “We will wield disproportionate power against it and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these cities are military bases. This isn’t a suggestion. It’s a plan that has already been authorised.”

This approach has been consistently applied in Israel’s periodic incursions in Gaza over the years, such that lawyers in Palestine have now taken to labelling it the ‘Gaza doctrine’. Following investigations into Operation Cast Lead in 2009, the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission held that Israeli forces had systematically targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure. Referring directly to the Dahiya doctrine, the Mission’s report concluded that the target of Israel’s offensive was not merely individual rocket-launchers or tunnel-diggers, but Gaza’s population as a whole, as part of an overarching policy designed to punish and terrorise that population. This policy reverberated through Operation Protective Edge in the bombardment of Gaza’s hospitals, universities, beaches and markets, the destruction of its only power plant, and the multiple strikes on UN schools in which civilians were being sheltered.

The violence against civilian areas and infrastructure in Palestine, over the past month and over the past several decades alike, is far from gratuitous. It is underpinned by a measured logic of conquest and control. The colonisation and progressive annexation of the West Bank relies on such force, as does access to Palestine’s natural resources (Gaza’s extensive offshore gas fields included). The continued control and suppression of the “hostile territory” of Gaza requires keeping the occupied population bullied into submission. Foreign occupation, as it always has done, breeds many forms of local resistance. The rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups at military targets and civilian areas in Israel are a symptom of colonial violence, not the cause of it. Non-violent expressions of resistance by Palestinians are equally dealt with by lethal Israeli military force, as has been the case at demonstrations in the West Bank in recent weeks. The late Edward Said’s portrayal of the war on Iraq as ‘imperial arrogance unschooled in worldliness, undeterred by history or human complexity, unrepentant in its violence and the cruelty of its technology’ is equally apposite to the situation in his own homeland today.

Try as Israel might to justify such sustained violence against a besieged population, it is indefensible by any barometer of morality. International lawyers are also in consensus that Israeli actions have again gone far beyond the pale of legality during Operation Protective Edge. Another commission of inquiry will be dispatched by the UN to investigate violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, while domestic pressure continues to mount on Mahmoud Abbas to defy his western sponsors and follow through on Palestine’s plans to join the International Criminal Court. Whether this happens or not, the institutional weakness of international law’s enforcement mechanisms—when viewed in the shadow of the Obama administration’s active diplomatic and military support for Israel’s use of force, the complicity of many of the Arab region’s counter-revolutionary regimes, and the meekness of the European Union—means that Israel’s rulers and generals remain confident for now of being allowed to continue to act with impunity.

Bending towards justice?

With the scale—if not the nature—of the destruction in Gaza reaching unprecedented levels during Operation Protective Edge, and the trends of incitement to further violence proliferating in Israeli public discourse (embodied in consistent calls from figures on the right such as Moshe Feiglin, Deputy Speaker of the Israeli parliament, for the full annexation and ethnic cleansing of Gaza), there appears to be ever less hope for the future in Palestine.

When history reflects on past situations of structural injustice, however, there is a tendency for defining moments to emerge as instrumental to a change in the course of events and an ultimate rupture from the historic wrong. The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and the Soweto uprising in 1976 are recognised now as formative moments in the wider world’s understanding of apartheid South Africa. The imagery of children being mowed down with such ruthless intent by the regime was a shocking but galvanising agent in spurring social movements across the globe to act against institutionalised racial subjugation. This sparked the solidarity campaigns, boycott actions and political pressure for arms embargoes and economic sanctions that ultimately fed in to the downfall of apartheid.

Israel’s ruthlessness in Gaza this summer has opened more and more people’s eyes to the reality of the occupation of Palestine. We have seen that in the record numbers marching in demonstrations around the world, declaring that ‘we are all Palestinians’. We hear it in the volume of voices answering the Palestinian call to boycott and divestment, from Stephen Hawking, Desmond Tutu and Massive Attack to the village of Kinvara. Even G4S, a paragon of global capitalism’s security-industrial complex, has indicated that an Israeli prison system that incarcerates Palestinian minors without trial is too much for it to remain complicit in.

While numerous Latin American governments have protested Israel’s behaviour by suspending diplomatic ties, and Spain has frozen its arms exports to Israel, the ruling classes in much of Europe and North America remain some distance behind the curve of public support for the Palestinian self-determination struggle. If social movements, solidarity campaigns and unions continue to organise and mobilise effectively, however, that curve will ultimately catch up on our elected representatives. And future generations will look back to wonder how such a stifling regime of occupation, engaged in a colonial land acquisition project and employing military policies like the Dahiya doctrine, was allowed to persist for so long.

Dr John Reynolds is a Lecturer in International Law at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

Read: Gaza peace talks resume in Cairo

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