A Humanitarian Sham(as)

February 15, 2009

To most international observers, the recent Israeli attack on Gaza does not involve a particularly difficult exercise in moral calculus. Coming on the heels of a year-long blockade which has restricted access to food and medicines, along with the smaller but also brutal Operation Summer Rains (over 400 dead), Israel’s assault represented another episode in the long-running repression of Gazans’ right to belong to a workable Palestinian national state.

The targeting of public buildings, reports of innocent civilians being murdered while surrendering, destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure and agricultural lands, and well documented attacks using White Phosphorus represent a series of internationally recognised war crimes and outrages.

On the face of it, Israel’s attack on Gaza was a huge propaganda mistake, a hapless mis-step in the battle for international legitimacy. Hamas, a group which had hardly endeared itself globally through suicide attacks, came out of the conflict with an aura of nobility. In comparison with the revulsion that Israeli actions inspired, it looked like the Jewish state had taken a potentially ruinous wrong turn.

Would American liberals continue to turn a blind eye to Israel’s settlement building, collective punishment and nuclear subterfuge? Would Barack Obama take the opportunity presented by Israel’s murder spree to cut back the $3 billion plus in welfare payments that America doles out to its Middle Eastern favorite?

Maybe. But a curious thing has begun to happen. We’ve seen it before, most notably during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah-Lebanon war, but it has resurfaced with a vengeance: erstwhile defenders of human rights have lost control of their moral compass and, placing the resistance of the oppressed and outgunned on the same plane as the techically, economically and politically dominant aggressor, have become Israel’s useful idiots.

Amnesty International has been leading the way, and in so doing has done great damage to its credibility worldwide. This week, for example, the crusading NGO demanded that the United Nations change the course of an internal investigation into Israeli attacks upon UN buildings and civilian casualties within them or in the vicinity.

As John Ging, the UN’s point man in Gaza, related on announcing the investigation, some 50 UN buildings were attacked during the conflict. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon labelled such attacks “outrageous” and appointed the investigation to, essentially, extract a “full explanation of each incident” from the Israelis.

That’s hardly controversial. If 50 of my buildings were blown up and my staff killed, I would like to ascertain just why they were attacked. Given that Palestinian groups had little inclination to blow up UN targets, I would focus closely on demanding answers from Israel and, if necessary, seek to bring international condemnation of such attacks.

Apparently, Amnesty International does not see things in quite the same way. As the NGO stated on 13 February, “Amnesty International has described the planned investigation, announced on Tuesday, as “welcome yet insufficient”.

AI’s own Secretary General, Irene Khan, says that “The UN’s investigation must not be so limited as to look only at recent attacks by Israeli forces on UN schools, staff and property in Gaza. It is not only the victims of attacks on the UN who have a right to know why their rights were violated and who was responsible, and to obtain justice and reparation.”

But here’s the kicker; Khan added that “What is needed is a comprehensive international investigation that looks at all alleged violations of international law – by Israel, by Hamas and by other Palestinian armed groups involved in the conflict.”

Thereby making an assessment of Israel’s moral responsibility for attacking UN buildings rather more elusive. In fact, in the aftermath of war in Gaza, AI has scrambled to shift attention away from the world’s shock at Israeli brutality. Bucking the global trend, AI has sent teams of researchers to the Strip to compile data on Hamas atrocities against political rivals.

As I write this, Amnesty’s UK website is carrying a call out from artists to “demand war crimes accountability.” Its summary declares that “Amnesty has found undeniable evidence of war crimes, including the use of civilians as human shields, the indiscriminate firing of rockets and the use of “white phosphorous” shells in residential areas of Gaza.”

Palestinian “crimes” are equated with chemical warfare. The actions of the weaker party are combined with those of the obvious aggressor and oppressor to render the exercise of isolating “war crimes” and human rights abuses politically meaningless. If all that had occurred on the Palestinian side had been a stone throw across the border, then you can be sure that that tiny act of defiance would be coupled with military-industrial devastation as a comparable crime.

Supine and powerless as we are, observers of the conflict often lapse into demanding “proportion” in Israel’s actions (and we are always, always, frustrated in our desires). Well Amnesty has dispensed with that illusion at least. AI has lost all proportion in the past couple of weeks. In so doing, it is playing an indispensible role in smoothing the way for fresh Israeli outrages and continuing U.S. aid to its psychopathic client state.

The media never afford organizations like AI the scrutiny that they deserve and, indeed, require. The Guardian, for example, simply relayed Amnesty’s verdict that Hamas has embarked upon a “campaign of abductions, deliberate and unlawful killings, torture and death threats against those they accuse of ‘collaborating’ with Israel, as well as opponents and critics.”

Rory McCarthy’s report quotes Palestinians blaming Hamas for making people “afraid to live normal lives, to express their opinions freely” or even for the declining state of Gazan healthcare. There is, of course, no mention of the blockade, nor even a mention of the mass repression of Palestinian rights by Israeli bombs, bullets and bulldozers over the past month.

There is also no space to mention Mohammed Adbel-Jamil al-Hajj either. Al-Hajj, a prisoner held by the Fatah-led government on the (Occupied) West Bank, was found hanging in his cell last week. While the authorities claimed suicide, Al-Hajj’s father thinks otherwise, telling Reuters that “He had been jailed five times and he was tortured severely each time. Why would he hang himself this time? … The Palestinian Authority and Preventive Security are responsible for his killing. They jailed him because he was Hamas.”

In fact, since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 (after an abortive Fatah-led coup, sponsored by the Bush administration), Fatah has taken the opportunity to comprehensively repress Hamas activities in the West Bank. AI has had nothing to say about this repression and, lacking a lead from agenda-setting NGOs, the media has hardly bothered to cover it either.

NGOs such as Amnesty are a great grey area in international governance. Habitually taking a moral high ground that is seemingly objective and disconnected from particularities such as national interests yet actually generally congenial to western state goals, they continue to play a key role in justifying “interventionism” across the globe.

The equivalence of disparate crimes (a home made rocket vs a drone fired tomahawk missile, stones vs white phosphorus) obscures the power relations at work in conflict. This neutralizes public anger at the manifest brutality of the dominant power attacking (repeatedly) a weaker people, as we see – and will see and see again – is the case in Gaza.

AI has essentially embarked upon a campaign of imperial triage – slapping a gauze bandage over the propaganda wounds that Israel has inflicted upon itself. At times like these, the hollowness of “humanitarianism” becomes all too apparent.

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