May article

CHAPTER 5: Gaza and our State Attorney General

In April I wrote about the blockade of Gaza – maintained by Israel with the cooperation (so far) of Egypt, on its border with Gaza. It is a blockade unilaterally imposed, done without any imprimatur of international legality. In last month’s posting I quote Israeli officials’ candid remarks about the reason for the blockade: It is collective punishment against civilians in Gaza, to punish them and to undermine the government of Hamas.

Last month I presented the evidence and the conclusion that it is an act of terrorism. This month also deals with Gaza, but from a “local perspective.”

On March 30, 2009, shortly after the end of the Israeli military action in Gaza known as “Operation Cast Lead” (winter ’08-’09) ten U.S. state attorneys general sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Attorney General Rob McKenna of Washington State also signed it, “to convey [his] strong support for the State of Israel’s actions in Gaza.”

The letter said, in part, “To Israel’s credit, it launched a limited and directed action against the source of Hamas’s military acts while allowing the entrance of humanitarian aid into Gaza.” Because of the similarity with the U.S. blockade of Iraq (i.e., the economic sanctions, intended to overthrow President Saddam Hussein), I will focus on that aspect of Attorney General McKenna’s support for Israeli policy.

(The Israeli operation caused some 1,400 deaths in Gaza in contrast to 14 Israeli deaths which Hamas rockets and Israeli “friendly fire” caused during the same period. However I will leave it for others to challenge Rob McKenna’s description of this as a “limited and directed action.” Nonetheless I suspect he has never heard of the “Dahiye Doctrine” of the Israeli Defense Forces – and so I could wish that he’d read the Summary of the report No Second Thoughts from the Israeli Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.)

The letter Rob McKenna signed to Hillary Clinton cites “Article 48 of Additional Protocol 1 to the Geneva Convention of 1949 which provides that ‘… the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants.’”

In response to his letter, I wrote Rob McKenna asking if he believes “there is a legal basis for any denying of humanitarian aid?” And if not, “Isn’t it a violation of the Geneva Convention and the rules of discrimination and proportionality?” These are exactly the same rules under the international law of war which are cited in his letter.

I also wrote the following paragraphs in my letter to Attorney General McKenna:

Further, the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in time of War, Article 23, states that even in war, parties to the treaty: “shall allow the free passage of all consignments of medical and hospital stores … even if the latter is its adversary. It shall likewise permit the free passage of all consignments of essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended for children under fifteen, expectant mothers and maternity cases.”

This denial of essential humanitarian aid over such an extended period – including during the cease-fire, when rocket attacks had stopped and when Israel had agreed to end its blockade of Gaza but refused to do so –was an act that Richard Falk called “a crime against humanity” and a “flagrant and massive violation of international law.”

Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, recently in Gaza, said, “There was not enough food for families, not enough healthcare.” Jimmy Carter called the siege “an atrocity, a crime, an abomination.”

I am glad to put you in touch with doctors from Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility (WPSR) who have traveled to Gaza and know the situation – and with the Israeli group, Physicians for Human Rights. Physicians from both groups will be able to testify as to the potentially lethal consequences of a blockade of humanitarian goods.

Several weeks after my letter to Rob McKenna, I learned he was to be interviewed on KUOW’s Weekday program. I called up and again asked the same question: “I’m asking according to International Law, what basis is there for denying civilians any amount of humanitarian aid, using food as a weapon essentially.”

Rob McKenna’s answer was, “[I]f you stop shipments that contain weapons, you’re stopping shipments to stop the weapons.” The host Steve Scher got right on the issue and asked, “if they’re cutting off humanitarian aid, is that against International Law?” To which the Attorney General replied, “I think that is a question of fact.”

Remember this: Attorney General Rob McKenna (correctly) declares that whether there has been a violation of international law depends on whether the facts show that Israel has deliberately withheld essential humanitarian supplies to the civilian population of Gaza. How did our Attorney General proceed to determine what are the facts regarding the blockade?

From a Freedom of Information request, we learned his office’s response. Within two hours of this radio interview his office made only one inquiry – to the Israeli Consul General’s Office: “We would like advice about how to counter certain arguments, most prominently the accusation that Israel has blocked the entry of humanitarian supplies into Gaza.”

I was personally very struck by what Rob McKenna’s office asked in their inquiry: they did not ask whether Israel had in fact ever blocked the entry of humanitarian supplies into Gaza; they only asked how to counter any accusation that Israel might have blocked such supplies.

Although I had offered to put him in touch with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, (a Nobel Peace Prize group which had visited Gaza) and the Israeli counterpart, Physicians for Human Rights, Rob McKenna never asked to be put in contact with them. As far as I could tell from information from his office, they never did inquire what were the facts!

One positive result of public opposition to the letter and subsequent statements by Rob McKenna was an invitation to about a dozen of us to meet with our Attorney General on July 15, 2009, on this matter. (Cindy and Craig Corrie, the parents of Rachel Corrie who was killed in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer, were among those at the meeting. I consider them wonderful examples of peacemakers; they created the Rachel Corrie Foundation to further the work of their daughter for education, reconciliation, and peace in Palestine and Israel.)

After our hour-long meeting, we asked for a reply letter from our Attorney General. He wrote us, “I share your concern for the innocent people of Gaza – the women, children and others harmed during the military action and by the restrictions on supplies that were put in place to prevent the movement of weapons.” (my emphasis)

I eventually wrote an opinion piece describing our meeting and Rob McKenna’s reply letter. The ten footnotes are hyperlinks, linking back to the source of the very compelling evidence: The blockade was put into place and maintained to punish the Palestinians of Gaza for electing Hamas and to “send the message” that they will continue to suffer until they overthrow Hamas. Footnotes 4, 5, and 6 are most compelling and most incontrovertible. They all come from Israeli sources, even including data from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Please have a look.

The 18 posts on the site BertOnGaza.blogspot.com present the story I’ve outlined above. It is parallel to the site BertOnIraq.blogspot.com where a very similar denial of basic humanitarian goods was implemented and maintained through U.S. power on the Iraqi people with a similar goal: to overthrow a government by causing massive civilian suffering and death.

A blockade or sanctions regime which is “dangerous to human life” is an act of violence! It can be more deadly than bombs and bullets precisely because it is silent and goes unnoticed.

In the two years since I began my correspondence with Attorney General McKenna much has happened regarding the Israeli (and Egyptian) blockade of Gaza. World attention was focused on the blockade of Gaza by the Israeli commando raid of May 31, 2010. In international waters Israeli commandos boarded the lead ship of a flotilla intending to break the blockade of Gaza and ended up killing eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American man.

In September 2009 the Goldstone Report – named after the Jewish South African jurist Richard Goldstone who headed the mission – reported on their investigation of Israeli and Palestinian possible war crimes and human rights violations surrounding Operation Cast Lead. The Report stated: “[T]he policy of blockade that preceded [Operation Cast Lead] … in the Mission’s view amounts to collective punishment intentionally inflicted by the Government of Israel on the people of the Gaza Strip.”

More recently, the Israeli human rights organization Gisha – concerned with free access of people and goods into and out of Gaza – has published many of their findings. They have succeeded with legal challenges requiring the government of Israel to reveal many aspects of the Israeli policy of blockade of Gaza. These results, gotten directly from the determining Israeli government bodies who make and implement the blockade policies, leave no reasonable doubt: Rob McKenna’s position that the blockade of Gaza was not done to punish and harm civilians in Gaza is simply not believable.

That leaves an important question. How can we understand Rob McKenna and his failure to admit the error of his earlier, still unchanged position, of justifying Israel’s blockade of Gaza?

That’s the question I’ll try to address next month.

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