Sunday, June 22, 2008

Israel’s new Intifada Law twists the knife in Palestinians

Last week, the Israeli Knesset approved a first reading of a bill designed to ban Palestinians from claiming compensation for harm caused by military operations. The hugely controversial bill requires two more readings to pass before it is entered into law and would give its troops exemption from liability for any damage caused to people or property. It is the second attempt at such a law after an earlier version was overturned in court two years ago. Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Likud supporter of the new bill, Gideon Sa’ar, called it an end to “an ATM funding terror against [Israel’s] citizens”.

The new bill has been dubbed Intifada Law II. It is aimed at circumventing a ruling that overturned a similar law in 2006. The law exempts the state from responsibility for damages suffered by Palestinians in the Intifada. The original Intifada Law was enacted in 2002 to give the state backdated immunity against Palestinian compensation suits for personal injury or property damage incurred during Israeli operations in the occupied territories. However the High Court of Justice acted on a petition from human rights organisations and ruled it contradicted the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, because it undermined the rights to life, dignity, property and freedom. "Not all ends justify the means," wrote then-court president Aharon Barak in his ruling.

This time round, the bill seeks to expand the definition of the term “military act” under which the state is exempt from being held accountable for damage. It summarily deems residents of the occupied territories to be citizens of “enemy states” and operatives of “terrorist organisations”. So defined, they would be ineligible to seek compensation for damage caused by the IDF because it fell under the legal umbrella of the “military act”. Civil rights organization Adalah (Justice) criticized the amendment proposal. "The bill opposes all logic and principles of Israeli and international law,” it said. “A lack of ability to file claims will result in the impossibility of investigating abuse and property damage cases.”

The original law was a backlash to the Al Aqsa Intifada which began in 2000 after Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Then Prime Minister Ehud Barak dispatched a massive military and police presence to the Al Aqsa mosque on the Muslim day of prayer. Several Palestinians were killed and 200 injured in the violence that followed. A UN report into the aftermath found no evidence of Palestinian gunfire with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) responsible for nearly all of the casualties.

The IDF killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians and imposed an even more brutal regime than existed prior to the Intifada. The UN Commission of Rights inquiry found the IDF did not suffer a single casualty as a result of Palestinian demonstrations but nevertheless subjected the population to harsh collective punishment and humiliation. The few Israeli casualties occurred at settlement roads and isolated checkpoints and the report said that these should be examined in the light of “settler violence against Palestinian civilians adjoining settlements and of IDF complicity in such violence”.

However the result of this inquiry and others has been virtually ignored in the West. A HRW report on the violence in the West Bank city of Hebron found the IDF had a “disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law”. However its findings that tens of thousands of Palestinians in the city were held as virtual prisoners for months was totally ignored in the US apart from one brief appearance in a Washington Post article five days later. Similarly when Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem accused the IDF of using Palestinian civilians as human shields, its report also sunk without trace in the west.

According to Noam Chomsky it is meaningless to condemn these actions as “Israeli atrocities” in the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. In his essay on Israel’s response to the Intifada in his “Pirates and Emperors Old and New” (2nd edition), he says the conflict should be more properly described as being between US/Israel and Palestine. Helicopters which fired missiles into Palestinian civilian areas are “US helicopters with Israeli pilots”. US supply is critical because as Israel’s own Ministry of Defence admitted “it is impractical to think we can manufacture...major weapons systems of this kind in Israel.”

The US media has been complicit in the one-sided nature of the conflict. As the Electronic Intifada (EI) wrote in 2004, coverage of IDF offensive actions in the occupied territories is scantily reported in the west. It examined the Rafah campaign where Israel bulldozed homes leaving 12 dead and 500 people homeless and found most US coverage read as if they were Israeli press releases. Their damning conclusion is that Palestinians and Israelis continue to die because Americans get a grossly distorted account of events that doesn’t recognise the imbalance of power or any idea of the extent of the US role in the conflict.

EI’s complaint is that the Western media takes Israel at their word and does little to question their side of the story. As EI’s Ali Abunimah says “the basic narrative of Palestine is always subordinated to Israel”. When the Western media describe a 'relative calm' in Israeli-Palestine violence, it usually means that few or no Israelis were being killed during the 'relative calm', but many Palestinians were being killed and injured. As Abunimah describes, “if it wasn't happening to Israelis it wasn't happening at all.” Now Israel's Intifada Law II is about to confirm the non-existence of Palestinian victims of Israeli violence.

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