Israel gets away with it, but for how long?

Israel gets away with it, but for how long?
Comment: A UN report says Israel bombed its civilian shelters in Gaza last year. The ICC must now be held to its own standards of prosecution, says Vijay Prashad.
4 min read
30 April, 2015
Civilian infrastructure, including schools, was destoryed during the Gaza war [AFP]

In August 2013, the UN's legal counsel Patricia O'Brien said: "The beginning of the end of impunity has begun. No one is above the law. Leaders will be held accountable."

For Israel, however, the age of impunity continues.

During its last bombardment of Gaza, Israel killed 2,100 people, mostly civilians, and also targeted a UN building.

Many of these buildings had been schools that the UN hastily turned into shelters. Israel's bombs fell on these shelters.

The most serious assault was on July 30, 2014. The UN's relief agency, UNRWA, had designated the school an emergency shelter on 16 July.

A barrage of four 155mm shells hit the school at 4.45am.

They killed 18 civilians - including an UNRWA staff member and his two sons, and a guard hired by the UN. Another 99 people were injured.

"Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame," said the UNRWA's commissioner-general, Pierre Krahenbuhl. 

"Today the world stands disgraced. I condemn in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces."

On April 27, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon released a summary of a report into violations against UN schools during Israel's war on Gaza. The board looked at seven incidents, including against the Jabalia elementary girls school.

"The agony of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, and the tragic, decades-long predicament they endure there, is reflected in the report," said Ban.

The UN had informed Israel "twice-daily" of the GPS coordinates of each of its designated emergency shelters.

     Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame.
Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA's commissioner-general

It showed that in none of the cases studied did any Palestinian militants use these shelters as a launch pad for rocket attacks. In a few cases, in abandoned schools, the UN found evidence of arms caches.

For Jabalia, the report found that "weapons were prohibited inside the school" and that witnesses confirmed "that this rule was strictly observed".

The two guards at the gate ensured that no militants entered the school and that no one was seen climbing the school wall on the morning of the incident or the night before.

The Israeli army still shelled Jabalia, and killed civilians and UN employees.

Ban's letter which accompanied the summary is plaintive.

"[This is the] second time during my tenure as secretary-general that I have been obliged to establish a board of inquiry into incidents involving United Nations premises and personnel in Gaza," he said.

War crimes

From 2009 and 2014 the board recommended better communications with the Israelis.

These are important reforms, but they are toothless and did not prevent the Israeli bombing of Jabalia.

No recommendations in the new report ask to hold Israel accountable for what Krahenbuhl called a "serious violation of international law". Israel will get away with it once more.

When Ban went to Gaza in October, he said that the destruction was "beyond description" and "much more serious" than in previous assaults by Israel.

Earlier this year, Oxfam noted that at the current pace of reconstruction, it would take 100 years for Gaza to return to the condition it was before the bombing of 2014.

Thirty aid agencies released a statement in February which pointed the finger directly at Israel.

"Israel, as the occupying power, is the main duty bearer and must comply with its obligations under international law," read a joint statement.

If Israel is not being held to account for what appear to be war crimes. It is unlikely that it will be held to any account for its denial of reconstruction of Gaza.

     The Palestinian Authority has indicated that it would move this report to the International Criminal Court.

The Palestinian Authority has indicated that it would move this report to the International Criminal Court.

Palestine became the 123rd state party to join the ICC. If Ramallah does move the board of inquiry report to the ICC, it would be of great interest.

It would give ballast to the "preliminary examination" opened on 16 January by the ICC's prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.

In August 2014, Bensouda took to the Guardian to defend the ICC against charges that it would not investigate war crimes by Israel "due to political pressure".

"I reject any suggestion of this in the strongest terms," Bensouda wrote.

The problem for Palestine was that it was not then a member of the ICC. It is now a member, and this raises the stakes for Bensouda's office.

"It is my firm belief that recourse to justice should never be compromised by political expediency," Bensouda wrote.

Bensouda will have to live by this standard - it is one that she has set herself.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.