During and after Israel’s war on Gaza,
bipartisan congressional majorities have
worked to undermine war crimes
investigations by the United Nations
and human rights groups.

Stephen Zunes
October 17, 2014

Israel’s seven weeks of attacks this summer on heavily populated civilian
neighborhoods in Gaza has led to unprecedented concern among Americans
who, while still broadly supportive of Israel, found the attacks to be
disproportionate and unnecessary.

Close to 1,500 Palestinian civilians in Gaza were killed in the Israeli attacks—
more of 500 of whom were children—and 18,000 homes were destroyed,
leaving over 100,000 people homeless. Despite this devastating civilian
toll, leading Democrats in Washington have joined Republicans in claiming
that Israel’s actions were legitimate acts of self-defense against military
targets, dismissing reports by reputable Israeli and international human
rights groups saying otherwise.

In July and August, the two houses of Congress passed four resolutions and
forwarded a series of letters providing unqualified backing for the massive
Israeli air and ground assault, echoing the Israeli government’s
justifications for the war and directly contradicting findings by United
Nations officials on the ground, as well as investigations by both Israeli
and international human rights groups.

What is particularly shocking is not just the vehemence with which the vast
majority of congresspersons so enthusiastically supported a military
operation condemned by most of the international community, but that they
went on record making demonstrably false accusations despite being
repeatedly confronted with evidence directly contradicting their claims.

The resolutions and letters seem to assume that while Hamas was guilty of
terrorism in the deaths of the five civilians killed by Hamas rockets inside
Israel, the Israeli government bore absolutely no responsibility for the
deaths of nearly 1,500 Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli ordnance inside
the Gaza Strip. Indeed, members of Congress have repeatedly asserted
that the Palestinian side was somehow responsible for the deaths of its own
people at Israel’s hands.

On July 25, Amnesty International reported that “Israeli forces have carried
out attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians, using precision weaponry
such as drone-fired missiles, as well as munitions such as artillery, which
cannot be precisely targeted, on very densely populated residential areas.”
Israeli forces “directly attacked thousands of homes,” including high-rise
apartment blocks, killing whole families. Observing that civilians in the
Gaza Strip had “nowhere to escape military operations by Israeli forces,”
Amnesty provided ample evidence that Israeli forces were engaging in
“indiscriminate attacks on urban areas using artillery and bombs.” In a
particularly serious breach of international law, Amnesty further reported
that “ambulances and medical personnel on their way to collect the
wounded appear to have been deliberately targeted on several occasions,
and hospitals have been destroyed by shelling from tanks and missiles.”

The congressional reaction to reports like Amnesty International’s was

On July 29, the U.S. House of Representatives, with more than 100
co-sponsors from both parties, passed a resolution by unanimous consent
insisting that the Israeli attacks were exclusively “focused on terrorist
targets” and that Israel “goes to extraordinary lengths to target only
terrorist actors.” Co-sponsors included such prominent Democrats as Alan
Grayson (FL), Jared Polis (CO), Eric Swalwell (CA), Richard Neal (MA),
Joseph Kennedy (MA), Tulsi Gabbard (HI), Jan Schakowsky (IL), Brad
Sherman (CA), Elliot Engel (NY), and Debbie Wasserman-Schulz (FL). Two
days later, Senate majority leader Harry Reid introduced a resolution, also
pushed through by unanimous consent, claiming that “the Government
of Israel has taken significant steps to protect civilians in Gaza” and that
“Israel’s attacks have focused on terrorist targets.”

These were just two in a series of similar bipartisan resolutions and public
letters that went through Capitol Hill as part of a concerted campaign to
discredit human rights groups, journalists, medical workers, UN officials,
and any other eyewitness who discredited the Israeli government’s talking

Amnesty International certainly wasn’t alone in implicating Israeli forces
in war crimes. Human Rights Watch cited evidence of Israel “blatantly
violating the laws of war designed to spare civilians,” including by
attacking heavily populated neighborhoods, bombing UN-run schools, and
shooting at fleeing civilians. The Israeli human rights organization
B’Tselem challenged its government’s claims that it had “no intention of
harming civilians,” noting that “after more than three weeks of lethal
bombardments by Israel in the Gaza Strip which have killed hundreds of
civilians and wiped out dozens of families, this claim has become
meaningless.” UN officialsalso charged Israeli forces with engaging in
serious violations of international law following a series of attacks
against UN schools where Palestinians were seeking refuge, prompting a
bipartisan letter signed by 149 House members to the UN secretary
general insisting that “Israel practices the greatest caution trying to
prevent civilian casualties.”

These human rights groups and UN officials also strongly denounced
Palestinian militants for firing rockets into civilian areas in Israel and
for keeping armaments and soldiers in close proximity to civilian areas in
Gaza, as well as for their refusal to accept several ceasefire proposals
that could have ended the carnage earlier. Congress had no problem with
that. By contrast, since Israel is considered an important strategic ally of
the United States and a lucrative market for U.S. arms manufacturers, both
major political parties made it a priority to lie and cover up for Israel’s
war crimes, effectively insisting that Amnesty International, Human Rights
Watch, B’Tselem, and the United Nations were simply wrong and that
they—from the comfort of their air-conditioned offices in Washington, DC—
somehow knew better.

The Human Shields Myth

The Israeli government has repeatedly claimed that the large number of
civilians killed by its forces were a result of Hamas using “human shields,”
defined under international law as “Utilizing the presence of a civilian or
other protected person to render certain points, areas, or military forces
immune from military operation.”

No eyewitnesses in the Gaza Strip during the war found any evidence of this,
however. For example, in late July, New York Times reporters in Gaza noted,
“There is no evidence that Hamas and other militants force civilians to stay
in areas that are under attack.” Likewise, Jeremy Bowen of the BBC that he
saw “no evidence” for “Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as
human shields.” According to reporters from The Independent and The
Guardian, it was a “myth” that Hamas forced civilians to stay in their
neighborhoods during Israeli attacks. Contrary to accusations by members of
Congress, the Gazans who failed to heed Israeli warnings to evacuate did so
because areas Israel had declared safe were being attacked as well.

Similarly, on July 25, Amnesty International noted that it had no evidence
“that Palestinian civilians have been intentionally used by Hamas or
Palestinian armed groups during the current hostilities to ‘shield’ specific
locations or military personnel or equipment from Israeli attacks.”
Preliminary investigations by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and
other groups—while noting that Hamas had illegally engaged in hostilities in
close proximity to populated areas and had stored weaponry in unoccupied
homes and schools—found no evidence that Hamas had actually engaged in
actions that met the widely accepted legal definition of using human shields.

Again, the response in Congress was swift: In less than a week, Senate
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pushed through a Senate resolution
claiming that “Hamas intentionally uses civilians as human shields” and
condemning the United Nations Human Rights Council for not saying so.
Similarly, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)—who serves, ironically, as chair of
the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee focusing on human rights—
drafted a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, signed by
34 of her colleagues, insisting that “Hamas is using Palestinian men, women,
and children as human shields to deter Israeli attacks.” When I contacted
them, neither senator’s office was able to provide any evidence backing their
claims, nor did they explain how they were able to somehow locate
information that journalists, UN officials, and human rights monitors in
Gaza were unable to find.

A House resolution went one step further, claiming that Hamas had
“encouraged Palestinians to gather on the roofs of their homes to act as
human shields.” Without any regard for the evidence, the resolution—also
adopted by unanimous consent—put the House on record calling on “the
international community to recognize and condemn Hamas’ breaches of
international law through the use of human shields.” A letter signed by 149
members even insisted, in reference to rockets targeting Israel (and without
any supporting evidence), that Hamas “publicly declares it the duty of every
Palestinian to put his or her life on the line to protect them.”

Protocol I of the Fourth Geneva Convention makes it clear that even if one
party to a conflict is in fact shielding itself behind civilians, such a
violation “shall not release the [other] Parties to the conflict from their
legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians.” In
other words, even if Hamas actually had used civilians as shields, it would
still have been a war crime for Israel to kill them. To use a domestic
example: if bank robbers were holding tellers and customers hostage while
shooting at the police, the police could not get away with killing the
hostages along with the criminals. Indeed, the implications of such broad
bipartisan support in Congress for such a concept are chilling, given that
this rationale could be replicated by law enforcement officials here in the
United States—particularly given the militarization of local police forces
in the name of fighting terrorism.

There is little question that these broadly supported bipartisan efforts were
designed not just to defend Israel’s war on Gaza, but to discredit empirical
investigations by human rights organizations overall. For example, one
of the House resolutions passed this summer—in addition to making
unsubstantiated claims about Hamas—also claimed that “throughout the
summer of 2006 conflict between the State of Israel and the terrorist
organization [sic]* Hezbollah, Hezbollah forces utilized human shields in
violation of international humanitarian law.”

In reality, empirical investigations during and following the conflict by
several reputable investigative bodies found absolutely no evidence
supporting this charge. A detailed study by Human Rights Watch published
at the end of the fighting in Lebanon found “no cases in which Hezbollah
deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF
attack.” Similarly, Amnesty International, in a well-documented report of
its own, observed that “While the presence of Hizbullah’s fighters and
short-range weapons within civilian areas is not contested, this in itself
is not conclusive evidence of intent to use civilians as ‘human shields’,
any more than the presence of Israeli soldiers in a kibbutz is in itself
evidence of the same war crime.” In addition, Amnesty reported that while
Hezbollah did store weapons and fire from civilian areas, it was only long
after most of the civilian population had been evacuated. Subsequent
reports for the U.S. Army War College and elsewhere also failed to find any
evidence for the charge, which was nonetheless repeated by the House
resolution years later.

In apparent anticipation of the U.S. bombing in Syria and Iraq, which
would commence soon thereafter, the bipartisan House majority also went
on record saying that Islamic State forces “typically use innocent civilians
as human shields.” Following the logic from this and other resolutions
supporting Israel’s attacks on Palestinian civilians in Gaza, this appears
to have been a preemptive effort to exempt U.S. forces from any moral or
legal culpability for the deaths of Syrian and Iraqi civilians caused by the
imminent bombing of urban areas in those countries as well.

Attacks on the United Nations

Attacking the United Nations used to be the reserve of right-wing
Republicans. Under the current congressional leadership, however, it has
become a bipartisan affair, at least when concerns are raised about war
crimes by a right-wing ally of the United States.

A particular target of the bipartisan attacks was UN Secretary General Ban
Ki-moon, who on July 20 condemned Israel’s devastating bombing and
shelling of the Shijaiyah neighborhood in Gaza—which resulted in scores
of civilian casualties, including journalists and health care workers—as
“atrocious.” In response, Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Kelly Ayotte
(R-NH) drafted a strongly worded letter, signed by a bipartisan group of
colleagues, insisting that the Shijaiyah massacre was a “measured response
of a nation-state trying to defend its citizens” and that Israel was
actually “undertaking extraordinary efforts to avoid civilian casualties
while Hamas cynically uses other Palestinians as human shields.” The letter
went on to claim that Ban’s expression of concern about civilian deaths
“undercuts the legitimate right of nation-states to defend their citizens.”

Another UN official targeted by Capitol Hill was Navi Pillay, the highly
regarded UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who criticized Israeli
forces for their “disregard for international humanitarian law and for the
right to life.” Senator Boxer and her allies accused Pillay and the United
Nations of having a “clearly political and biased agenda,” despite the fact
that Pillay had made similar accusations against Hamas for failing to
distinguish between civilian and military targets. During her tenure at the
United Nations, Pillay had also roundly condemned war crimes and other
human rights abuses by North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and other
countries, raising no objections from Congress. According to 35 senators,
however, the objections raised by Pillay and other UN officials were not due
to evidence that Israel had also committed war crimes, but to the UN’s
supposed opposition to “The fact that Israel has effective defenses against
the rockets aimed at its citizens.”

Another target of congressional wrath has been the United Nations Refugee
and Works Agency (UNRWA), the relief and development agency that
provides education, health care, social services, and other assistance for
Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere in the Middle East.
UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl has repeatedly
condemned Hamas for a number of illegal activities, including storing
weapons in two unoccupied UN schools, and called for an end to the
indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza aimed at Israel. But when Krahenbuhl
also noted that Israeli forces were acting “contrary to international
humanitarian law” in attacking UN schools housing refugees, Senators Ben
Cardin (D-MD) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) co-authored a bipartisan letter to
Secretary of State John Kerry calling for an investigation into the allegedly
“one-sided statements from UNRWA leadership that unjustly condemn
Israel.” The six Israeli attacks on UNRWA schools—which killed 46 civilians,
including 10 UN staff members—took place after UNRWA officials notified
the Israelis of their exact locations and the absence of any Hamas military
equipment or activity.

The primary target of Congress was the United Nations Human Rights
Council (UNHRC), which had been praised by many in Congress only
months earlier for its efforts to expose war crimes by the Assad regime in
Syria. The UNHRC found itself the target of bipartisan wrath when it voted
to establish a commission of inquiry looking into “all violations of
international humanitarian law and international human rights law” in the
hostilities in Gaza. The United States was the only one of the UNHRC’s 47
members to vote against establishing the commission.

While unfortunately only mentioning Israel by name in establishing the
commission, the language of the resolution condemned “all violence against
civilians wherever it occurred,” explicitly including the killing of Israeli
civilians as a result of Hamas rocket fire. Commission chair William
Schabas, a respected Canadian human rights lawyer, noted that the mandate
is “clear that violations of international humanitarian law by all participants
in the conflict would be covered.” Similarly, Pillay noted that “resolution
S-21/1 of the Human Rights Council mandates the independent,
international commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of
international humanitarian law and international human rights law.” She
added that there was “increasing evidence of incidents that may constitute
war crimes on both sides.”

In response to the establishment of the commission, nearly 150 members of
the House signed a July 25 letter to Pillay protesting the UNHRC’s decision
“to unjustly probe alleged war crimes” by a nation simply “defending its
citizens from rocket attacks and terror tunnels” while failing to condemn
Hamas’ fictitious “continuing use of human shields.” Similarly, the July 31
Senate letter to Ban denounced the UNHRC for investigating possible Israeli
war crimes, insisting that Israel has “worked assiduously to minimize
civilian casualties” and claiming that the UN had allegedly “turned a blind
eye to Hamas’ brazen and depraved use of civilians as human shields.”

The full chambers of both the House and Senate went on record condemning
the UN investigation as well, with Democratic leader Reid, on the Senate floor,
declaring he was “disgusted” that the UNHRC would adopt a resolution
“accusing Israel of human rights violations in the ongoing Gaza conflict,”
calling such accusations “anti-Israel.” The desperation with which both
political parties in Congress have rushed to block a UN inquiry exemplifies
their determination to minimize the availability of data that would expose
how their previous resolutions and letters were essentially efforts to hide
the truth.

Terror Tunnels and Other Lies

Other mistruths abound.

For example, Senate Resolution 526 justified Israel’s war in part on the
alleged necessity “to destroy the matrix of tunnels Hamas uses to smuggle
weapons and Hamas fighters into Israel to carry out terrorist attacks.”

However, most reports seem to indicate that while the tunnels—which were
primarily used to smuggle civilian goods into the besieged enclave—have at
times been used to attack Israeli soldiers, no Israeli civilians have been
subjected to attacks through the tunnels. For example, an Israeli magazine’s
investigation concluded that in all six Hamas attacks launched through the
tunnels, “Hamas’ targets were IDF soldiers, not the communities.” Leading
Israeli military correspondent Alon Ben-David explicitly said that “there is
no doubt their goal is to hurt and capture soldiers—not civilians.” Similarly,
a senior military source told Israel’s Army Radio that “all tunnels were
aimed towards military targets and not Gaza-perimeter communities.”

None of the resolution cosponsors I contacted could cite any terrorist
attacks carried out from those tunnels, yet none of these senators who
supported the resolution have thus far distanced themselves from this claim.

Another misleading statement came in Senate Resolution 498, co-sponsored
by 79 out of 100 members of the Senate, which accused Hamas’ secular
Fatah rivals of sharing responsibility for attacks on Israel, despite the
consensus that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority desperately wanted to
prevent another Gaza war. Working on the absurd assumption that the rival
parties in the newly formed Palestinian coalition government were somehow
responsible for each other’s actions, the resolution insisted that “the
unity governing agreement implies Fatah’s and the Palestinian Authority’s
support for Hamas’ belligerent actions against Israel” and called on
“Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to dissolve the unity
governing arrangement with Hamas.”

In reality, the cabinet of the technocratic “unity” government does not have
a single Hamas member, and the Palestinian Authority has maintained its
commitment to past agreements, including non-belligerence and full
recognition of Israel. As the New York Times observed, those “who oppose a
two-state solution understand that a unified Palestinian leadership is a
prerequisite for any lasting peace” and would thus seek to undermine it.
(Ironically, Congress has been willing to spend billions of dollars propping
up the disparate coalition government of Iraq, which has included in its
ruling coalition members affiliated with the radical Islamist Mahdi Army,
notorious for acts of terrorism and attacks on U.S. personnel.)

Additional misleading information has concerned the alleged role of outside
actors in supporting the Hamas attacks. For example, one of the House
resolutions contains the bizarre claim that the Syrian government was
providing “material support and training to Hamas” in its “rocket and mortar
attacks from Gaza.” Not only is there no evidence for this charge, but Hamas
and the Syrian regime are now bitter rivals; Hamas has not even had a
diplomatic office in the Syrian capital of Damascus since 2011. Indeed, the
Palestinian Islamist group has denounced the Assad regime and thrown its
support to armed rebel groups seeking its overthrow. Hamas is on much
friendlier terms with other Middle Eastern governments—such as Turkey and
Qatar—that are considered U.S. allies. Again, requests to congressional
offices to back up this claim were unanswered.

The Broad Agenda

When it comes to Israel, both parties allow ideology to trump the facts. A
majority of both Democrats and Republicans are determined to attack the
United Nations and discredit human rights groups if they dare document war
crimes by the right-wing Israeli government.

This is nothing new, however. Back in the 1980s, members of Congress
(primarily Republicans, but some Democrats as well) also tried to undermine
the credibility of the UN and human rights organizations when they provided
evidence of war crimes by U.S. allies in the Central America. In recent
decades, leaders in both parties have also covered for atrocities committed
by allied governments in Indonesia, Turkey, Colombia, Rwanda, and beyond.

What’s different today is that liberal and progressive groups that used to
expose “Death Squad Democrats” along with Republicans who defended such
governments are now giving unconditional support to Democratic defenders
of Israel’s war crimes.

Barbara Boxer, perhaps the most outspoken Democratic supporter of Israel’s
actions in the Senate, has been named a “progressive hero” by such groups as
MoveOn and Democracy for America. Peace Action has endorsed Oregon
Democrat Jeff Merkley, whom—despite his co-sponsorship of Senate Resolution
498—they label as a “peace leader.” Backers of these and other resolutions
covering up for Israeli war crimes—including Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) and
Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Al Franken (D-MN), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and
Mazie Hirono (D-HI)—have been labeled “bold progressives” by the Progressive
Change Campaign Committee, which is raising money for their re-election.
Meanwhile, MoveOn has endorsed Sens. Mark Udall (D-CO), Kay Hagan
(D-NC), and other unconditional supporters of Israel’s actions.

While most Americans are still broadly supportive of Israel, only a minority
agree that Hamas was mostly responsible for this summer’s violence. Even in
the early weeks of the conflict, when sympathy for Israel was strongest,
only 29 percent of Democrats surveyed agreed Hamas was mostly at fault, a
demonstration that the vast majority of Democrats in Congress—who have gone
on record insisting that Hamas was solely responsible—are at odds with their
constituents. This gap is particularly apparent among the core Democratic
constituencies, such as liberals, minorities, women, and young people, whose
enthusiasm is needed to get the vote out in November. Already, there are
signs that the strident support by most congressional Democrats in defense
of Israeli war crimes has alienated some of the party’s base—particularly
among young people, who tend to trust human rights groups over politicians.

Still, it’s important to note that not everyone in Congress supported these
right-wing initiatives. Scores of House and Senate members, particularly
progressive Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans, refused to do so.
Though four of these resolutions were adopted by a parliamentary procedure
known as “unanimous consent,” it does not mean they had unanimous support.
While technically anyone present could block it by demanding a roll call
vote, such resolutions are often pushed through without advance warning when
hardly anyone is on the floor. Indeed, the very fact that the party leadership
went to some lengths to avoid virtually any roll call votes on the war may have
stemmed from an awareness that a growing number of members from both
sides of the aisle are reluctant to go on record supporting war crimes.

The bottom line, though, is that there is currently a large majority of both
parties willing to undermine and discredit UN agencies and reputable human
rights groups in their investigations of war crimes and suppress the
reporting and enforcement of international humanitarian law.

The bipartisan implication that, in the name of fighting terrorism, a
government can legitimately engage in the massive bombardment of urban
areas where 70 percent of the casualties are civilians goes well beyond Israel
and Palestine. Unfortunately, the willingness of supposedly “progressive”
activist groups to provide unconditional support for the re-election campaigns
of those pushing this kind of agenda shows these politicians that they have
little to lose when they do.

Stephen Zunes, a Santa Cruz resident, writes for PeaceVoice, a project of the
Oregon Peace Institute, is a professor of Politics and coordinator of Middle
Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy In Focus. For reference links, go to:

Article source:


* Hezbollah is a terrorist organization only in the eyes of Israel and it’s US
supporters. In fact, it was formed during Israel’s occupation of the southern
half of Lebanon from 1982 to 2001 and it’s resistance to that occupation
was the principal reason Israel finally withdrew. It is a legitimate Lebanese
political party with seats in the Lebanese government, not a terrorist