The limits of ‘human rights’ discourse in Palestine

Asa Winstanley

Middle East Monitor  /  September 18, 2021

In 2014, a large part of Ismail Ziada’s family was wiped out.

The lives of his mother, 70-year-old Muftia, his three brothers, Jamil, Yousif and Omar, his sister-in-law Bayan, his 12-year-old nephew Shaban, as well as a seventh person who had been visiting, were all ended in one fell swoop.

Israel’s bombing of the Ziada family home in the Al-Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip reduced the entire three-story structure to dust.

That was only one of so many massacres committed by Israeli troops that month.

Ziada’s relatives were exterminated by Israel during their 51-day attack targeting the civilian population of the Gaza Strip in July 2014. Overall, 2,251 Palestinians were killed in that murderous war of aggression, mostly civilians, including 551 children.

It is a crime for which Israel has suffered no consequences from the so-called “international community”, with its self-righteous preaching about human rights.

And so, Israel continues committing similar atrocities, most recently in May during its 11-day bombing campaign on Gaza. Thankfully though, by that time, the Palestinian resistance factions had increased their military capabilities.

This enabled them to impose real-world consequences on Israel, stopping their troops from entering the Gaza Strip and halting the latest assault far sooner than the last major one in 2014. This meant far fewer casualties than in 2014 – although with the deaths of 260 Palestinians, including 60 children, still tragically high.

The Palestinian resistance, in all its forms, is the only thing stopping Israel from carrying out all its destructive plans against the indigenous people of Palestine.

Ziada, who is also a Dutch citizen, has taken out a war-crimes case against Israel for the killing of his family. A Dutch appeal court will hear it next week. Ziada wants Israel’s current minister of war, Benny Gantz – who was Israel’s army chief in 2014 – charged with war crimes for the bombing of his family.

The case is going to appeal because a Dutch court ruled that it was granting immunity to Gantz due to him acting in an official capacity. In other words, he was “only following orders.”

If that sounds familiar, it should: it was, of course, what many Nazi war criminals argued at Nuremberg. It didn’t help them, and neither should it help Israel.

But the international system is loaded against the Palestinians and biased in favour of Israel. The Dutch court’s unwillingness so far to enforce its own outlawing of war crimes when it comes to Israel is the perfect example of that.

But it goes further than that.

A recent and important article by my colleague at The Electronic Intifada Maureen Murphy looks in some detail at the reasons for this.

Murphy has examined recent reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the international human rights group based in New York. Her article is a thorough and total skewering of HRW for its hypocrisy when it comes to Israel.

In essence, while HRW has unequivocally condemned the rockets fired by Palestinian resistance fighters as indisputable “war crimes”, in almost the very same breath, the group will only say that massive and deadly Israeli bombardments of entire civilian neighbourhoods are “apparent” war crimes.

HRW is ignoring intentionality and context. The Palestinians are – by definition – defending themselves from an invading, alien, settler-colonial force. By way of contrast, the Israelis are committing heinous war crimes to terrorize and remove the indigenous population.

While Palestinian resistance fighters have recently reiterated that the resistance is: “Keen on developing its capabilities so that it can accurately target Israeli military headquarters and activities only,” Israel wantonly and openly declares its intention to bomb Gaza “back to the stone age“.

To help him become elected, Gantz himself ran campaign ads boasting that as military commander during the 2014 war on Gaza he had made sure that: “Parts of Gaza were returned to the stone ages.”

In May, as Murphy reported, Gantz declared: “No person, area or neighbourhood in Gaza is immune.” In other words, we will bomb men, women and children to death at will.

This is genocidal language – and from a supposedly “centrist” Israeli politician too.

The rigging of the international system shows the inherent limits in understanding the Palestinian liberation struggle for freedom purely inside the human rights framework.

As Murphy put it in her analysis, HRW has failed to: “Acknowledge the imperialist and pro-state bias inherent in international law.” This bias goes back to the colonial era.

“Those rules and principles were first developed as a tool of the ‘civilizing mission’ of colonialism,” she wrote. The aim was, and remains: “To bring the ‘uncivilized’ into the ‘universal order’ as determined by Europe for its material aims.”

She reports that University of Utah law professor Antony Anghie explained how imperialism shaped the formation of international law: “In particular, its founding concept, sovereignty.”

Murphy explained something that I did not realize: there have already been as many as ten commissions of inquiry and fact-finding investigations into the situation in Palestine.

An 11th was established by the United Nations after the war in May.

What Palestine doesn’t need is yet more commissions, inquiries, white papers, reports, fact-findings, empty condemnations and the like. What Palestinians need is action to end Israel’s crimes.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist living in London who writes about Palestine and the Middle East