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Where Art Thou, International Law?

March 2004

Now I’m no expert on international law; please understand that. But even a layperson like myself begins to sense that when an Israeli soldiers beats a prisoner in full public view with complete impunity, there must be a law out there crying out to be implemented. The targeted assassination of Sheikh Yassin and the entire program of targeted assassinations similarly stinks of the same extra-judicial character.

Just prior to arriving at a checkpoint yesterday, an armored military jeep sped by with its rear doors flung open. The doors were left open with apparent intent, so Palestinians waiting in line at the check point could watch and be intimidated by a young Israeli soldier smashing his steel shanked helmet into the head of a young Palestinian. (Another descriptor might be “head-butting” though this act was far too vicious and the environment far too tense for vernacular that conjures up play.) By the time I reached the checkpoint soldiers to hand over my documents for inspection, the beaten boy stood ten feet away with two other boys, legs spread wide, palms up against a fence. At least this had the appearance of an actual arrest proceeding. The soldier, a recent Russian immigrant, handed me back my passport, smiled and said both warmly and sternly, “be very careful here”.

Yesterday, I visited the United Nations Association for International Service (UNAIS). They place international volunteers in service positions with Palestinian community-based organizations including the Mandela Institute for Human Rights, which published a report entitled “Palestinian Prisoners: Legal Analysis”. The report caught my eye given my recent experience at the checkpoint. They argue that arrested Palestinians are denied a great many rights that pertain to them. For example, they should not be subject to arbitrary arrest in the first place, should not be tried under systems of military justice, and in some cases, ought to be treated as prisoners of war and receive corresponding POW treatment. Needless to say, Israeli strongly disputes such arguments, claiming not to be an occupying force in the first place and that even if they were, their security concerns supersede national and even international laws. But most importantly, they argue: Who cares? No country in the world, least of all the United States, respects international law. On that last one, they certainly have a point. The targeted assassination of Sheikh Yassin has met with muddled and contradictory statements from the White House and State Department, some supportive of Israel and none offering more than the mildest rebuke.

On the evening of the assassination of Sheikh Yassin, we watched Israeli TV news. The news anchor held a conversation with an Israeli Defense Force representative not about the ethics, morality, or legality of the air strike, but rather about timing and aim. Should the Apache helicopter from which the rocket was fired into Yassin’s wheelchair have been aimed only at him or at the comrades surrounding him as well? The hit had been planned for many days; it was only a question of when and with whom he would be killed.

Where is discussion of respect for international law? Admittedly, it is a difficult conversation to take seriously when the US’ war on terrorism uses extra-judicial arrests and killings as standard procedure. This contradiction apart, have we regressed so far that we talk about the timing of an assassination rather than how to support an international framework of justice to deal with legitimate security threats? Clearly, given the high level of global insecurity, we should be talking non-stop about elevating the rule of law as the single best weapon against terrorism. Public debate should center on how to best enforce these laws. But there is simply no time for such talk; we have to get the terrorists.

Can I introduce you to someone we met today who works tirelessly to demand that Israel adhere to international law? His name is Jamal Juma and he heads the Stop the Wall Campaign. Israel is in mid-construction of a cement wall eight meters high and half a meter thick to permanently separate Israel from the West Bank. Today, we went with Jamal to a place where it divides a vibrant Palestinian community in half. Neighbors who used to greet each other from open windows now stare into a cement wall. I was remembering my ancestors in Warsaw and beginning to cry when I noticed angry graffiti scrawled on the Wall, “We will not live in a ghetto!”

The Wall does not pretend to follow the Green Line (pre-1967 borders), but curves and jogs, confiscating 10% of the West Bank along its route, bisecting Palestianian villages and separating Palestinians from their land and water. Jamal recently pressed the case of the Wall’s illegality at deliberations of the International Court of Justice in the Hague. A decision is due in the coming weeks. Grassroots International supports Jamal’s work with communities affected by the wall, to document their loss of land and resources and to organize a decentralized, non-violent grassroots movement throughout the territories to resist the wall’s construction. Tragically, four people have died in this resistance.

Does Jamal maintain that Israel does not face a security threat? Of course not. He is no friend to Hamas, their tactics or vision. But he is a friend to the rule of law and a believer that the construction of the wall is a blatant land grab violating numerous UN resolutions, is a form of collective punishment, is a violent act that breaches basic principles of human rights and as such, will ultimately swell the ranks of extremists. He predicts that suicide bombers will not be thwarted, that if they can get through checkpoints, they will get around the wall. Exasperated, he asks, “when will Israel realize that feeding a cycle of violence and denying Palestinians their basic rights will not breed peace or coexistence? The Wall is an illusion of security for Israel and a severe blow to Palestinian aspirations for a nation.”

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