Can the International Community Save Palestinian Civilians?


Dear Virtual Editor,

unflagI have waited to respond to Israel’s latest outrage because I saw little point in doing nothing more than venting my anger. Somehow, there had to be something constructive to say.  You will recall that my 29 January 2014 post (See Archives) was a call for a civil debate about possible solutions. I said: Criticism of Israel’s policies is not Anti-Semitic and we should not be deterred by allegations that it is. Our silence only leaves the field to fanatics. I warned against just venting righteous anger to make ourselves feel superior. Now I have to try to heed my own warning. That is not easy and I cannot comply completely. I will try to honour the spirit of the January post, and I do have an affirmative proposal.  But the truth is that I simply have to vent. So, first the venting, then the proposal.


 When it comes to speaking the truth about the morality of killing civilians, the leaders of both my countries, and even of my Province, are cowed or cowardly. Barak Obama, Stephen Harper, Hillary Clinton, are all in lock step with Bibi Netanyahu. Even British Columbia Premiere, Grinnin’ Christy Clark, who knows about as much about the Middle East as I do about feminine hygiene, weighed in with the “Israel has a right to defend itself” line. Maybe they all have a point, provided we buy into the Dick Cheney theory of self-defence that has controlled Israeli policy from day one of its existence.

I confess to being slightly puzzled by Canada’s position. U.S. policy on this matter is dictated by a blindly pro-Israel lobby that is unmatched in influence, with the possible exception of the National Rifle Association. Maybe I underestimated the lobby’s international reach, but I really do not understand Canada’s sycophantic policy.  I thought we were better than that.

Media, of course, give the bulk of space and airtime to Israel’s spokespeople. The very best they can do is claim that this is some sort of fair fight where both sides are wrong.  If that is true, Israel is approximately 450 times wronger.

Here is an example of what I meant by the danger of leaving the field to fanatics. A blogger did a calculation, using the tonnage of explosives dropped on Gaza at the date of his post, and the explosive content and kill radius of the weapons used (cluster bombs). He observed that at the time, “of course regrettably”, 80 civilians had been killed. Plugging that figure into his equation, he triumphantly announced that Israel could hardly be accused of indiscriminately killing civilians because: (drum roll) …for every 14,857 grenades dropped on Gaza, representing a kill radius of 472 miles, only one civilian was killed!

gaza-crisisHow does one reach these season ticket holders to the theatre of the absurd?  Where along the way did this math genius lose the ability to picture members of his own family dismembered, starved, traumatized?  How do those of us who are able to see these images convey the simple message: Never kill civilians. How do we put human faces on the dead children?

We might, I suppose, take a cue from the successful TV appeals of organizations like the Christian Childrens Fund and the S.P.C.A.  We could show a Palestinian child, perhaps a dead one, but probably better an emaciated one near death. Over the picture would the voice of the narrator, intoning:

For only $16 a month, you can sponsor a decent burial for a child like this. Each month, you will receive a letter from the grieving parents, keeping you up to date on how many family members remain.

 The venting is almost over. I will close with comments about a few other shibboleths that are becoming more shopworn as the years go by:

  1. “They deny Israel’s right to exist”.  Every Palestinian entity with which Israel has purported to negotiate has been willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist as part of an overall solution. That is not the problem.
  1. “The Palestinians don’t want peace.” To whatever extent that statement has been true over time, Israel has never been interested in peace. Israel has chosen to live by the sword from even before it declared itself a nation.
  1. “Civilian deaths are Hamas’ fault. They are purposely hiding weapons among civilians”.  This is the lamest excuse for a war crime since William Calley.  Here is a news flash, Bibi. How about sending your heavily armed, U.S. equipped ground troops in to seize Hamas weapons, with rules of engagement that permit them to fire only when fired upon or when in immediate danger. Leave the fighter jets, attack helicopters and bombs at home.  The world will thank you. Killing civilians is unacceptable. Killing them from the air is cowardly.

The Proposal

There may be a way for the United Nations to save civilian lives, but only if world opinion speaks with one voice—-a loud one. The much maligned and ignored UN has actually done some very effective peacekeeping work over the years. The biggest obstacle is an anachronistic relic of World War II.  It gives each of the five permanent members of the Security Council a veto over collective action. There is no reason that the U.S., Russia, China, France, and the U.K. should have this power, but that is what we have to live with for now.

book_coverThere are, however, two potential ways around the Security Council, one that may be for now, and one that may give hope to civilians in the future.  The key words are Uniting for Peace and Responsibility to Protect (RTP).  I will give them a few introductory paragraphs, but it would it would be too much to explain them in detail here. Instead, I make this strong recommendation: Instead of following the body count, take time to find a copy of Alex D. Bellamy and Paul D. Williams Understanding Peacekeeping, Polity Press (2010). On Uniting for Peace, see the comments of my friend, colleague, and respected international scholar Frederick Kirgis at For Responsibility to Protect, find the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide at Meanwhile, here is a bit of background.

Uniting for Peace is a 1950 General Assembly resolution, designed to circumvent Security Council vetoes, and used for the first time in the 1956 Suez crisis. Resolution of the crisis brought a Nobel Peace Prize to future Canadian P.M. Lester Pearson. It also involved Israel, which was looking for a way to take Sinai from Egypt. Israel made a secret agreement with Britain and France. The deal provided that Israel would attack Egypt, then the British and French would invade to “restore order”, and incidentally regain control of the canal.  Israel did attack, but the scam was exposed and world opinion turned strongly against the plotters.  Once a cease-fire was declared, it was the General Assembly, using the Uniting for Peace resolution, that authorized the first UN peacekeeping force.  All the parties had to consent, but world opinion gave them little choice. The Security Council likewise did try to block the mission, which created a buffer zone and saved lives.

Responsibility to Protect provides no official authority to act at the moment, and no way around the Security Council, but it is a doctrine that is gaining attention in light of the humanitarian disasters that have occurred over the years since the UN Charter.  One of the early proponents of Responsibility to Protect was former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy. For centuries, international law and diplomacy has forbidden nations from interfering with each other’s internal affairs. This is generally a good thing.  RTP provides, however, that when a nation is unable or unwilling to protect the basic human rights of its people on a mass scale, it may lose at least some of its traditional sovereignty. The international community, through the UN, has a responsibility to use peaceful means to protect populations from atrocities and, on a case by case basis, can take military action to protect. At the 2005 UN World Summit, leaders of 150 nations unanimously endorsed Responsibility to Protect.

There will ultimately be another cease-fire in Gaza. If the General Assembly acts under Uniting for Peace, can world opinion once again keep the Security Council from interfering? Perhaps.  A long shot, but worth a try?

No amount of public opinion will stop western powers in the Security Council from vetoing any action against Israel under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Yet it may still be a good idea to raise the question of whether a good case could be made for it. At least it would promote a discussion more positive than the current tired exchange of slogans.

Israel’s crimes in Gaza do not represent the only reason the time has come for ordinary people to effectively oppose the will of all the powerful nations on the issue of peace and human rights. The approach of those nations is a disaster. While they bicker about whom to arm, and call one another “terrorists”, we need to demand and end to violence and work on how to achieve it.

There is no good violence and bad violence, “our” violence and “their” violence. There is only violence and it is all bad.  If that view can advance even an inch because of Gaza, perhaps those women and children will not have perished completely in vain.





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