The Gaza Offensive and the Laws of War with Zahir Janmohamed
Transcript No. 307 (23 January 2009)
Zahir Janmohamed of Amnesty International argued that when addressing Israel's December 2008 military assault on Gaza, the roots of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza should be fully understood. He explained that the onslaught that began on 27 December 2008 should be viewed as an escalation of the siege, which Gazans have suffered since June 2007. Janmohamed also argued that human rights organizations will have enough evidence of war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza. Janmohamed used a PowerPoint presentation during his talk. To view this presentation, click here.
To view the video of this briefing
online, go to http://www.thejerusalemfund.org/ht/display/ContentDetails/i/4079
15 January 2009
Thank you so much for that introduction, and thank you all for coming. It's really wonderful to be here at the Palestine Center. The Palestine Center consistently does some of the town's best events, and I know that I've benefited tremendously from the content that the Palestine Center creates, most notably the recent transcript of [Executive Director of United Palestinian Appeal] Samer [Badawi's] talk last week. So, I want to thank the organizers for inviting me today but also for all the work that the Palestine Center does.
In giving this talk today, I'm really privileged to speak to such an esteemed group. In terms of this talk, the title "Gaza: Humanitarian Implosion" is actually from an Amnesty report that I'm going to heavily talk about that was published in March 2008, and then I'll fast forward to the conflict.
First of all, as with so many issues related to Israel and Palestine, I think we have to start with how the issue is being framed. And we see that very much today in terms of how this issue is being spoken about. It's often times referred to as a war between Israel and Gaza or Israel and Hamas, and I think that's really a misnomer. I think what we're witnessing today is an assault, a massacre. And I think that a war implies that there is some sort of two consensual factions fighting with some sort of equal military power. I don't see that whatsoever. When we're hearing people speak about it, we should correct them when it is referred to as a war. It is not a war whatsoever. It is an assault. It is a massacre.
Another issue too is that the conflict is often times given a start date. When I refer to the violence that started on December 27, I always say the violence escalated on December 27. To me, the Israeli assault predates December 27. To me, I think the Israeli assault includes the blockade; it includes the other attacks as well. So when I refer to the violence on December 27, I refer to it as the escalation of violence. To me, that's not a start date whatsoever. Obviously, there's value in talking about the conflict from the 27th to the present, but we have to look at a much broader picture.
Another issue too is that it's often taken out of its historical and political context. As a human rights organization, we're not exactly in the best position to comment about this. For example, we don't talk about so much the occupation, what happened in '48, what happened in '67. And so I think our voice as a human rights organization has value, but I think it has increased value when our voice is added with historians and others. There's a whole group of new post-Zionist historians--Avi Shlaim did a great piece in the Guardian--where they talk about the occupation, where they talk about the history of Israel's colonial operations in Gaza and other places. So, I think that our voice is good in terms of talking about the human rights violations and the humanitarian issue. But it should be supplemented by looking at the historical issues and also the power dynamics as well. There are obviously power issues here as well, both Israel's military might but also it's might in terms of the corridors in Washington, D.C. And then there are issues of sides, blames [and] the idea of creating balance. Yesterday, I gave a presentation where somebody said I wasn't balanced on the conflict, and I said that I have no desire to be balanced on this conflict. The context is tremendously lopsided. If I'm giving a 50 minute presentation, it would be foolish if I talked for 25 minutes on violations by Hamas and 25 minutes on violations by Israel. That just doesn't make any sense. We are concerned about violations by Hamas, but we also have to look at this as a lopsided conflict. And so to me, this issue isn't about being balanced. It's about being consistent, and it's about being fair. We're applying the same international laws to all parties of the conflict. And I think there's another term as well about being objective. I don't think it's possible to read the accounts about what's happening and say that one is objective. I think it's really important to be consistent. So, that's what I'll try to do with this presentation.
I want to do three things in this presentation, and then we'll open it up for discussion. The first is the roots of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the second [is] the escalation of violence that began on the 27th that continues, unfortunately, until today and the last [is] what Amnesty has done and what you can do. Amnesty published a report in March of 2008 called "Gaza: A Humanitarian Implosion." It was authored with Oxfam [International] and CARE and about a dozen other organizations based in Europe. There's some interesting statistics from that report. Part of the reason why I wanted to go over it--I know this might be basic for others--is that when I'm usually interviewed on the radio, people say, "What's happening right now in Gaza?" I say, "Well, let's look at what happened in Gaza before 27 of December. Let's look at the conditions then." Because what's really shocking and appalling about the current Israeli assault is that basically what we're witnessing is the Israeli attack on a population that had already been beaten down, that had already been deprived of so many basic necessities. And this is something that we tried to capture in our report, just some statistics that I find to be helpful when I'm giving talks or interviews on this.
We know that there was a blockade implemented after Hamas was democratically elected. And if you look at just the first statistic, the price of milk rose 20 percent in that one month period alone. Another issue is that prior to the blockade there are 250 trucks carrying aid that enter Gaza each day. And in Samer's talk here, he spoke about how that number of 250 is just a small sum for a population of 1.5 million. But nonetheless, before the blockade, there were about 250 trucks carrying aid into Gaza. Subsequent blockades by the Israeli government, which I'll get to later--what the U.N. called it--severely limited how much aid could enter into Gaza. By December, before the violence escalated, that number had dropped to just five, an average of five. And then we know, of course, about a very infamous incident in December where a shipload of Libyan aid, 3,000 tons, was prevented from entering Gaza.
Poverty--in 2006, 63
percent were living in absolute poverty.
In 2008, that number had jumped to 80
percent. This I thought was an
interesting statistic. In 2004,
households were spending 37 percent of their
income on food, and 16 percent of their income
was spent on food in 2007. Then, the
number of families that are dependent on food
aid reached three quarters by the time that we
published the report in March 2008.
Unemployment continues to be a severe
issue. It's now, at least when the report
was issued, around 40 percent.
Palestinians are unable to go into Israel for
cheap labor, and also many factories have been
shut down as well. Medical facilities
were operating with very limited capacities as
of March 2008 with electricity for only eight
to ten hours per day. Amnesty had many
cases in 2008 where we said there were wounded
Palestinians who desperately needed to get out
of Gaza, who desperately needed medical
attention. And we tried, unfortunately in
most cases, unsuccessfully to get them
out. Many of them died. Just
recently a pregnant mother, in late November,
died because she wasn't able to get adequate
medical treatment. Again, this is all
before the violence had escalated.
Now let's look at what was said, before the violence escalated, about the conditions in Gaza. Because again, I think there's this idea, particularly in a lot of American newspapers, to present Gaza as this place that all of a sudden erupted into this chaos and how did things get so bad all of a sudden? But unfortunately, we have such a short term memory that we don't talk about what was said about Gaza just a few months before the conflict escalated. So, this is [Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza] John Ging speaking about Gaza, "It is a disaster for everybody because it's touching everybody in every aspect of their life. The way things have been reduced here there's a very sub-human existence for the general population. The definitions of a humanitarian crisis are rather obscene when compared with just how people are having to struggle to survive here at the moment." Now, [U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories] Richard Falk, who's one of the most demonized persons in the U.S., but nonetheless, I think his comments are useful maybe perhaps because he's been demonized so much. He came out with a very strong statement where he used some important legal terms that I'll get to later on in the presentation where we talk about crimes against humanity or collective punishment.
What's happening in Gaza before the 27th was collective punishment. Before December 27th was a crime against humanity. And here's a really good quote by Richard Falk in a statement that he made. Most of these I've taken from the Guardian, which I think in addition to other news outlets has been doing some wonderful coverage. He says, "And still Israel maintains its Gaza siege in its full fury, allowing only barely enough food and fuel to enter to stave off mass famine and disease. Such a policy of collective punishment..."--a dozen organizations all said that what's happening in Gaza is collective punishment. He says, "Such a policy of collective punishment, initiated by Israel to punish Gazans for political developments within the Gaza Strip, constitutes a continuing flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It is long past the time when talk suffices..." And this is the part that got a lot of press, not in the U.S., unfortunately. "At the very least, an urgent effort should be made at the United Nations to implement the agreed norm of a 'responsibility to protect' a civilian population being collectively punished by policies that amount to a crime against humanity." These two comments were echoed by so many other places as well. We had journalists, we had organizations, we had other governments saying the same thing about Gaza. Later in the slides, I show that soccer player during the Africa Cup who had this shirt, "Sympathize with Gaza." I think when we look at the global outrage over Gaza, it's that there was this consciousness worldwide about how Gaza was an area that was so devastated, that was experiencing collective punishment, Israeli collective punishment; that the Israeli government should have been accountable for war crimes before the violence had escalated. And yet, there was very little action to it. To me, like I said, when I give talks about this, I think it's important just to give the context about really how truly devastating the recent escalation of violence is.
Now the statistics--over 1,000 Palestinians killed, half of them civilians. I would venture that number might even be higher once human rights monitors actually get into Gaza. For the sake of this presentation, I'll quote what I've been reading--a third of them children; 4,800 wounded; 90,000 internally displaced. Again, I also think that out of 1.5 million, all these numbers are going to be increased substantially once human rights monitors enter. And then from the Israeli side, 13 Israelis killed; 3 civilians.
As a human rights organization, we have an obligation to apply the same laws to all parties of the conflict, and we have condemned rocket fire by Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas. We don't just say Hamas because there are other armed groups that have. Rocket fire has killed three civilians, as we've mentioned. It's hard to say exactly how many rocket fires have been fired. But around maybe 600 is what our latest numbers say. Some towns in particular have been particularly affected. This one, [Ashkelon], 40 percent had to flee. And that's something that as an organization we have an obligation to condemn as well. Any attack on civilians is a violation and should be condemned. I think what happens, unfortunately, is there is an effort to create a parity--the idea that Palestinians are killing people, Israelis are killing people. And I simply don't think that construction is fair to the conflict. There's a tremendous assault by the Israeli government, and there is response by some who are firing rockets, which is attacking civilians which we've condemned. But really the impotence of this issue is the blockade and is the Israeli assault. But nonetheless, as you hear in our organization, if there is a civilian who is attacked, then we are obliged to condemn it.
Now in terms of actions by the Israeli government, there are far too many violations than there is time here to go over. But let's just go over a few of them, and I can elaborate on them. The first is using powerful shells in civilian areas, which the army knew would cause large numbers of innocent causalities. One of the terms that we use a lot is that the Israeli response is disproportionate. Now, the question that I get often is what is a proportionate response? So, for example, Israel was attacked by these rockets, and so Israel legally has a right to respond. But the response has to be proportionate. Well, a proportionate response would be to ensure that all measures are taken to ensure that there are no civilian causalities in these attacks. That's a proportionate response. So for example, if there were to be a verifiable, certain, let's say, bomb making factory, and these bombs were used to fire at civilians in Israel, that would be a legitimate military target. But what we've seen is that there's been a disproportionate response. Areas have been attacked that have no military gain whatsoever--an area like the Islamic University or the U.N. school or the U.N. agency that was bombed just yesterday. These constitute disproportionate attacks, which are a very clear violation. The Israeli attacks are disproportionate on two levels: disproportionate in terms of the amount of response that we see from the Hamas rocket fire and disproportionate in terms of the number of causalities. But disproportionate actually also refers to the actual nature of the attack itself. These attacks are done with seemingly little to no military gain and often times when there is clear evidence that the stated target is a civilian site. An apartment building, for example; a mosque where there are children--and I'll get into the issue of war crimes later, which becomes the issue about being deliberate--blocking off humanitarian supplies.
The Israeli government recently said that they were going to allow a three hour truce, which to me is a complete farce and an insult to the word truce because three hours of a cessation of attacks is just absolutely absurd. When you have a population that before the attacks was so devastated, where the hospitals were running with just a few hours of electricity a day, to assume that, even after the Israeli escalation of attacks, for three hours to be a sufficient time frame to get in supplies is absolutely ridiculous. And so, the U.N. rightfully condemned it. Amnesty International and every other human rights organization condemned this three hour truce and said that there should be an adequate time frame for humanitarian supplies to enter. Now, the Israeli government has permitted some supplies to enter but it's--to use what Samer said--it's just a drop in the bucket. There's so much more that needs to enter into Gaza. And so, we should definitely look through the smokescreen of all that the Israeli government is trying to say, "Well, we're trying to help supplies get in," etc. The evidence shows otherwise; there's simply not enough. The fact that Israel has continued to block off supplies only furthers the issue of collective punishment, which is something that we've been saying for a long time.
Holding Palestinian families as human shields--we published a statement last Thursday saying that Israel was using Palestinians as human shields, which is interesting because in the Washington Post today, on the cover story, the headline is "Debate Grows about Civilians in Gaza Conflict" or something like that. And it's basically saying how now there's this debate, we all know, that civilians have been killed. It's the question of is Hamas using civilians as human shields? It's a pretty awful article. I invite you to read it, and then if you're still so inclined to do so, to respond. I have already written my response this morning. Again, it's that whole narrative that we've heard for such a long time, and it's often times kind of, for a lack of a better word, it's kind of this racist rhetoric that somehow Palestinians don't care about women and children and somehow they're so eager to use them as human shields. I think that's just absurd. In 2006, there was evidence of Israel using--and I'm not saying that there haven't been incidents in the past where Palestinians have used human shields--but there is evidence that is not brought to the table in these discussions, in the Washington Post that Israel is also using Palestinians as human shields. What we found was incidents where a ground invasion happened. Israel would go into a home where there would be Palestinians, some of whom were wounded from an attack on that apartment building or home. They would force them to stay in the home, and then they would use that home to do sniper fire from those targets. And that is in effect using Palestinians as human shields. We sent out our press release last Thursday. It didn't get picked up. But it's still, nonetheless, something that should be talked about. If we're going to talk about human shields, we really have to talk about Israel's use of human shields, which is a very clear violation of humanitarian law, and it constitutes a war crime.
Attacking medical facilities--this is the one thing that to me has been just truly--so many things are shocking about this conflict--but 19 medical workers within 20 days? About one a day killed; even ambulances that were marked or NGOs that were marked. Save the Children--there was a good NPR story. A woman was talking about how she raised a Save the Children logo flag, and it was still attacked. There's a quote by ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] that I'll put in here in a second. If those who are trying to provide medical assistance are also under attack too, it just shows you the level of impunity that the Israel government is acting on right now. If you're attacking an ambulance, there's absolutely no legitimate military target. That attack constitutes an issue of deliberate. If somebody knowingly attacked an ambulance, then that is a war crime and that should be held accountable for. And then, there's also a large number of police with no military role. So for example, the Israeli government has this famous idea that anybody in Gaza who has any relation with the government in Gaza, any apparatus of the government is a legitimate military target. So, the Interior Ministry was targeted and police officers were seen as [targets]. These are not legitimate military targets whatsoever, just in the same way that a police officer here is. If the United States were to go to war where somebody is also attacking the United States, then the police officers here are not a legitimate military target. And anytime somebody tries to frame it in the context of "Well, they're police, they're targets," they are not a legitimate target. Many of them have been targeted as well as many others who are affiliated with the government.
There was an ICRC statement. ICRC generally doesn't make really strong statements about this issue, but they had a really strong statement saying that they were really afraid of their workers in Gaza. Despite giving their coordinates to the IDF (the Israeli Defense Forces), despite their facilities being clearly marked/demarcated, they were still being attacked, they were afraid to operate and they made a strong rebuke to the Israeli government. That was last week. To me, what's so amazing is that these statements are occurring--they're getting press coverage; that was, I think, on the cover of the Washington Post--but these attacks still continue. This is something that Human Rights Watch did a really great job last week in breaking this story about the use of white phosphorous, which is a substance that when used in this conflict creates these vicious burns. And there's some pretty graphic photos. I didn't want to show them here, but you can see them on the internet. There's a quote here, which again raised the issue of war crimes, "If white phosphorous was deliberately fired at a crowd of people someone would end up in The Hague" (i.e. tried for war crimes). "White phosphorous is also a terror weapon. The descending blobs of phosphorous will burn when it comes into contact with the skin" [Quote by Charles Heyman, a military expert and former major in the British Army, 5 January 2009]. If you look at some of the wounds in this conflict, there have been some pretty horrific images of some who show burn marks, severe burn marks. And again, this also comes to the issue of if we're going to say that Israel has a right to respond to Hamas, the response has to be in measure with the amount of threat that it faces. It has to ensure that civilians are not attacked. The deliberate use of white phosphorous and then compounded with that onto civilian targets is a war crime. There's just no questions about it. It's an absolute war crime.
We just did a press statement yesterday kind of picking up on the whole issue of white phosphorous where we said that there are 325 containers of U.S. munitions, which included white phosphorous that was approved by the Pentagon on the 31st of December. So, this is a few days after the conflict escalated on the 27th. They are due to be shipped to Israel. It's really hard to verify if they've actually got there. We've heard reports that they've cancelled. But what we can verify because we have ballistics experts now in the region--we're hoping to get into Gaza very soon--that the Pentagon did approve a shipment of these substances. And it shows that these shipments did contain white phosphorous. The U.S. is now saying that it's looking for other avenues by which to deliver this. And to me, this is just absolutely shocking. We know the reports that the U.S. had been shipping bunker-busting missiles in September, but knowingly after the conflict started on the 27th for the Pentagon to approve--even if we're assuming that this statement is correct and I'm hoping it's right because we put it out--but that it was cancelled. We can verify that it was approved on the 31st of December, that after the fighting started that a) more U.S. arms, munitions were sent to Israel but b) that it included white phosphorous, a banned substance, a substance which we've seen Israel use including on the recent attack at the U.N. facility. That to me is just absolutely outrageous that the U.S. would do it; that our tax money would be sent. It's akin to when the U.S. sent the cluster munitions in 2006 that were used on Lebanon.
When it came to the issue of war crimes, I could've given a whole laundry list of examples, but I wanted to give one story, to me, that really highlights the issue of war crimes because the issue with war crimes is you have to show, just like when you talk about genocide. The tricky thing with genocide is you have to talk about intent; so, a given government entity has an intent to completely eradicate a population. The litmus test is intent. With war crimes, it's deliberate. It's the issue of deliberation. Did an entity deliberately, knowingly target a civilian? Then, it becomes a war crime, and you have to investigate the whole chain of command there. So if a soldier carried it out and it was ordered from [Israeli Acting Prime Minister] Tzipi Livni or [Minister of Defense] Ehud Barak, then the whole chain should be indicted in that. But there was one incident that the Guardian did. The Guardian has these really excellent first person accounts where Palestinians have these narratives about what's happened. Okay, so this story that happened in Zaitoun. It's outside Gaza City. There's a person, he says--there were people who were fleeing into this home--"When the shelling started, more than half the people in the house were killed." The Guardian says 110 were forced into this home, and then when they were forced into that home, the shelling began on that home. So, they were forced to go into this home and then shelling started. "Some were decapitated. My cousin and his son died in front of me." His son was only 12 years old and was shot in the heart and the chest. And when you read that account in the Guardian, which was on the 10th of January, it shows--and I'm assuming the Guardian did their due diligence that these narratives are correct--that these were individuals who were civilians, were family, were fathers with their children, mothers with their children. That they were a) forced into this home b) shelled upon. And there was no distinction between children and women killed in that attack. That is a war crime.
There are so many other examples we can talk about. We can talk about the U.N. school. We can talk about the attack on the U.N. facility yesterday. With the U.N. school, the U.N. investigator said that there were no Hamas fighters at the time. But still, the Israeli government said we thought they were there at the time. Here's an incident where Israeli soldiers rounded up some people--it's basically a firing squad--pushed them into this house and then opened up fire on them. There's a very powerful account on that. That's a war crime. It should be investigated.
Current conditions in Gaza--I think these are obviously low. But John Ging had said that there were a million without electricity, 750K without access to water. Egypt, unfortunately, has not allowed an adequate number of people to enter for medical treatment, even though there are medical teams ready and willing to accept people. Egypt has allowed only a trickle of people. We've made a lot of petitions to the Egyptian government about that. Journalists and human rights monitors are still blocked from entering. If these are the reports that we're getting without people there in Gaza, I just can't imagine what we would be seeing if there were people there actually witnessing some of these conditions. Amnesty International has not been permitted to enter. We're a little bit different than other human rights organizations. We only enter a region or a country when we're formally given permission. So, for example, I couldn't go there for a tourist visa. Not that I couldn't get a tourist visa right now there, but only when the Israeli government gives us consent to enter. So, we have a team right now in southern Israel. The Israeli government has yet to give us consent to enter into Gaza. Egypt--we've put in requests as well. We have not been able to enter in by Egypt. That's one of our big tasks right now, is that there should be human rights monitors. And in the absence of that, there should be an international investigation. I mean, if human rights monitors and journalists can't get in, then others should go in to investigate because there is rising evidence of war crimes. And they have to be investigated, and they have to be punished.
There's also humanitarian aid still trickling in. Internal displacement I talked about earlier. There's the ICRC statement; they were saying that they were frustrated that they could not do more. In terms of what Amnesty has been saying--and I think this is not just true with Amnesty but other leading human rights organizations--is that all parties should cease attacks on civilians, and that the U.S. should condemn Israel for its disproportionate response. We sent out a letter to [U.S.] Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice on January 3rd saying that the U.S. response was lackadaisical and lopsided. The U.S. very quickly and the whole infrastructure of the U.S. from [U.S. Representative Howard] Berman to [U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy] Pelosi to the [U.S. President George W.] Bush administration basically blamed Hamas for everything that has happened. We said that this was lopsided. That Israel should also be blamed for disproportionate response. So, we still have an action on our website to Secretary Rice, which you can write to her. It's a little outdated because it's from the 3rd of January, but still the point is the same. That the U.S. response needs to be more even-handed, and it should condemn Israel for deliberately attacking civilians. Humanitarian access should be allowed, and that journalists and human rights monitors should enter. Notice here that I put humanitarian access should be allowed. Someone can say, "Well, it is being allowed." I would say that in quotes. It's currently being "allowed." But the amount that's being permitted to enter and the manner is a paltry sum. Again, I think Samer did a really good job in his talk of talking about that. There's so much more aid that simply needs to enter at this time.
We've also said that Egypt should open up its borders to allow for more wounded to enter. I don't exactly know the number that Egypt has allowed in, but it has been a really tiny amount of the over 4,500 that are wounded. I've heard figures that are below a hundred. I don't know. I don't want to say. Our numbers are based on sources from others because we don't have people in there at the time. So, we've said that Egypt should allow a lot of people in. The U.S. should investigate if U.S. weapons were used on Israeli attacks on civilians. We've actually now called for an arms embargo that the U.S. should not send any weapons right now to Israel as well. It's a very strong statement from Amnesty that the U.S. should not send its weapons, and that those weapons that were used in the conflict and are continuing to be used should be investigated. It's a violation of U.S. law for U.S. weapons to be used knowingly to harm civilians, and there should be investigations. I'm not optimistic that there will be, just like we saw with the cluster munitions. There was that investigation after the cluster munitions were used against Lebanon. We went to the State Department and others and the Pentagon and demanded an investigation. There was an investigation. It was not made public. So if there is an investigation, it should be made public. There should be accountability. I'm hoping that happens, but I'm not terribly optimistic.
In terms of what we've done, the IS, the International Secretariat, put out eight statements, which were put on our website. We have a letter to Secretary Rice, which you can take. There's also a petition. My intern has a petition if you want to sign the petition. We have a letter to the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., [Zalmay] Khalilzad. There were people who were cheering last week's U.N. binding resolution. I suppose on some level it was good. It's obviously not been followed. But what we were saying is that it didn't go far enough. The biggest issue that the resolution failed in was there was no issue about accountability. And to me, if we're going to move forward and we're going to ensure that something like this doesn't happen again, there has to be an end to impunity. There has to be accountability. Those who have engaged in war crimes should be held accountable. There was nothing in there about accountability. There was nothing in there about violations of international humanitarian law, about the laws that govern war. There was nothing about human rights. It was basically cease attacks on civilians. Allow for humanitarian aid. Those are issues that we're concerned about, but to me the real issue is that in a matter of eight, nine days Israel bombed two U.N. facilities. They bombed one and then, just a few days later, even after there's international outcry about it and there's a binding resolution, they bomb another. And they'll continue to bomb unless there's language in these resolutions that demand for accountability. Specifically, we should not shy about using the term war crime. These are important terms that we have to use. These are war crimes. We should call them war crimes. We have to use terms like collective punishment. They're technical terms. We have to study them. We have to learn how to use them. But war crimes, collective punishment, crimes against humanity--they have very specific definitions, and there's abundant evidence in the current crisis. We've witnessed all of them. The collective punishment: i.e. the humanitarian aid being blocked. The war crimes: deliberate attacks on civilians. These are crimes against humanity. We saw the quote from Richard Falk.
We're asking our activists and others interested to organize petitions, teach-ins, show the movie "Gaza Strip" by James Longley, which is a little dated but I still think it's very powerful, because we really think that there should be a big educational component. So, we have Amnesty members across the country. Some of them have already organized vigils and demonstrations. But we're putting something together on our website that should be up by tomorrow, maybe early next week at the latest. We also have a researcher right now in Israel who's pending entry. We did an online chat with her, and that's uploaded. We did the chat partly because some of the questions we get are the trickier questions, which is something like what is a proportionate response? Or, why does Amnesty always condemn Israel but not Hamas? If Hamas' stated goal is to destroy Israel, how can Hamas listen to these demands? So, a lot of more critical questions. Also, on the opposite side, we get questions like why doesn't Amnesty talk about the occupation? So, it's a good way to have some of these discussions. It's also a good way for us to remain transparent as well and be accountable. We have blog entries as well.
What can be done? A few things. First, the more that I do work on the Middle East, particularly Israel/Palestine, I think there has to be an end to the culture of impunity granted to Israel--both in the U.S. government and society. I know Will and I have had the same experiences. There's this idea that people start talking about how if you criticize Israel, there are consequences, there are black lists, there's things like that. Okay, there obviously are. We know about the [former U.S. Representative] Paul Findleys out there and the other stories, etc. I think that we should, nonetheless, be very forthcoming in articulating our criticism to the Israeli government that should approach every aspect of society. I think that should be in media, in popular culture, in government. Too often times I hear justifications, even by people who are very critical of Israel, saying, "Well, it's not really going to get us much. The Washington Post isn't going to publish it." I mean the fact that we have [Law Professor] George Bisharat's article in the Wall Street Journal saying that Israel was guilty of war crimes. [Former U.S. President] Jimmy Carter's article, Rashid Khalidi's article. These are positive signs. Still much more needs to be done, but I think there's still this fear that criticizing Israel doesn't get us much or, "My Obama application won't go through." It's unfortunate that this excuse has led to almost like a self censorship. I think that has to end.
I know I'm on record on the camera but I'll say this, as a human rights organization, unfortunately, we ourselves are sometimes not as strong as we should be, to put it mildly. And when this conflict happened, we wrote a very strong letter to Secretary Rice, unusually strong for Amnesty where we said the U.S. should cease arms transfers to Israel, which is something we generally do not say. We also said the U.S. should condemn the lackadaisical response. In response to that email we sent out, we thought, "Oh my God! Donors will get upset. They'll stop joining Amnesty. They'll cancel their memberships." We actually got the most amount of donations from that one email in all of 2008. We got $19,000 in donations just from that one email. The last time we got so much money was because of Tibet, which is sort of a darling issue of the left. We got a lot of responses to that. And I think it just goes to show that there are more people than we expect from all different sides, whatever their religious background is, whatever their ethnic background is who want critical discussions about what is happening. And when we sent out that email, I was so excited that about 40,000 responded as in they wrote to Secretary Rice. But more importantly, I was excited about the money because it shows that there are people, our major donors, who are eager to see us do more work like this. But again, it has to come from just taking those bold steps to end that culture of impunity.
Another one is approach a member of Congress. Amnesty just wrote a letter to Congress today. It's up on the front page of our website. Again, that was one of those things that's like well, with so many people voting for this lopsided resolution condemning Hamas, is Congress really going to do much? I'm not naive about this. I don't think Congress is going to say, "Oh wow! Amnesty says these things. Let's change our policies." It's not. But what I wanted to do is I wanted to give people the confidence and I wanted to sort of say that yes, we might not convince the [U.S. Representative] Gary Ackermans out there, we might not convince these individuals on the Hill, the Pelosis, but nonetheless go to your member of Congress and say, "I'm outraged over your vote on this resolution." "I'm outraged over your unwillingness to criticize Israel, even though a third of those killed are children." We need to do that even if it's not going to be "effective." We need to have different definitions of what is effective. To me, this has to be a generational issue. If we have subsequent generations of people who are willing to go to Congress with very strong messages that aren't watered down, then maybe the next generation will be much more of a movement. I've already seen more people that are willing and interested in going to the Hill with these issues. And I think the same is with the administration. Amnesty has not criticized [U.S. President-Elect Barack] Obama for his position on Gaza, but on day one of office or day two of office, we're ready as soon as he makes any comments. To us, this is a question about holding government accountable and making sure our tax money isn't being used to supply these bombs that are bombing U.N. facilities, universities, etc.
Another one is write to the U.S. media. I highly recommend you write to the Washington Post, firstname.lastname@example.org, to the front page story about the so-called debate on whether or not civilians are being targeted. There's obviously Thomas Freidman, etc. It's interesting because when the U.N. school was hit, the first New York Times headline was "Israel Bomb Hit near School." The Guardian, the BBC, not even to mention Al Jazeera, which has been doing great coverage on this, have all said that "Israel Bombs School." Where in fact was the bomb? The bomb was at the playground. The playground is the school. When you're a kid and you're told stay on the school grounds, you're still okay if you're on the playground. It's so shocking to me that in subsequent New York Times articles it did improve its coverage. In it said that the school was attacked. That first headline, which Yahoo picked up and AP and all those others, was that Israel bombs near the school. And I think we need to be vigilant about this, writing to The New York Times and the Washington Post. I did a presentation to interns yesterday, and I always think okay, these are Amnesty interns. They're savvy. They're getting on the Guardian and Al Jazeera English. And I was amazed at how some of them didn't even know the Guardian has coverage of this. The Ha'aretz has really good coverage. But even though I read these things and I think that all of us probably read them daily, a lot of people are still relying on CNN and New York Times. Let alone Fox News. We need to still read them, as pungent as they often times are, and respond to them.
Join human rights groups, NGOs, etc. When everything started on the 27th, it kind of caught people by surprise. Most people were on vacation at the time. But I've also seen how having a diverse staff at key organizations makes a real big difference. I think the human rights movement, for the most part, has been good on this issue. But for the most part, we haven't been good. The reason why, sort of on a personal level, I joined the human rights movement was because I was very critical of how human rights groups have characterized conflicts around the world and this idea of creating "balance," creating parity and ignoring power dynamics. This is one thing that I invite you to. Join human rights groups, whether as a volunteer or as a staff, because your voice is important. Your voice is important to say that you can't use half a web page on Israel and half a web page on Hamas, Israel is a lot longer because we're saying, "Don't use white phosphorous. Don't block borders. Allow people to get medical attention," etc. But we need people in these organizations. We need diversity. And there is some, but I think there could be more. I know it's challenging. I know it's hard sometimes when you're going in and you're trying to work for an NGO where you don't see the diversity. You don't see your voice, particularly for Palestinians. Palestinians, unfortunately, are so demonized in this country. I want to extend any help I can offer you if you're interested in entering this field. So, you can come to me after.
Another one is to support organizations like The Jerusalem Fund, Palestine Center. United Palestinian Appeal, I think, is wonderful. UNRWA. I think it's important to donate. As much as, of course, I would love for you to donate to Amnesty, I feel like right now the critical need is to organizations that are really holding a candle to what's happening like this Center and like Samer's organization as well.
Sorry, I was a little
longer than expected. I really love this
photo because it shows to me how Gaza, in the
popular consciousness, was such a big issue
long before it was in the U.S.
Zahir Janmohamed is is advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker's views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.