Slamming the door to justice on Palestinians

Israel’s ability to commit crimes against Palestinians with impunity relies on international complicity.

Jimmy Carter, Ismail Haniyeh
The Samouni family narrated the horror they lived through in a short movie named 'Samouni Street' [AP]

Chicago, IL –
There is a determined international effort to ensure that Palestinians are shut out of every legal forum where they could pursue justice for Israel’s crimes against them. Nothing illustrates this better than the horrifying case of the Samouni massacre.

Last week, Israeli military prosecutors announced that no charges would be filed against the soldiers responsible for killing dozens of members of the Samouni family during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead attack on Gaza.

Israeli officials decided, according to Haaretz, that “the attack on civilians ‘who did not take part in the fighting’, and their killing, were not done knowingly and directly, or out of haste and negligence ‘in a manner that would indicate criminal responsibility'”.

We ought to remind ourselves of what actually happened to put the claim that the killings “were not done knowingly and directly” in its proper context. The events are recounted in harrowing detail in the UN-commissioned Goldstone report, based on a thorough investigation.

100 civilians forced into house, then deliberately shelled

On January 4, 2009, nine days into the assault on Gaza, Israeli soldiers invaded the Zaytoun area south of Gaza City.

In an area named al-Samouni – after the extended family that lives there – the invaders entered houses by force, killing and injuring occupants in the process. They then forced about 100 civilians, mostly women and children, to gather in the home of Wa’el Samouni. Israeli forces forbade them to leave for a safer area and, as the UN report states: “There was hardly any water and no milk for the babies.”

Twenty-one family members were killed and 19 injured in the shelling of just that house… Nine of the dead in Wa’el Samouni’s house were children, the youngest a baby of six months.

On the morning of January 5, Wa’el Samouni and five other men stepped out of the house to collect some firewood. Israeli soldiers positioned on surrounding rooftops could see the men clearly.

“Suddenly,” the report states, “a projectile struck next to the five men, close to the door of Wa’el’s house, and killed Muhammad Ibrahim al-Samouni and, probably, Hamdi Maher al-Samouni. The other men managed to retreat to the house. Within about five minutes, two or three more projectiles had struck the house directly.”

Twenty-one family members were killed and 19 injured in the shelling of just that house. Others had been killed, injured and left to die in nearby homes. Nine of the dead in Wa’el Samouni’s house were children, the youngest a baby of six months. The dead children included Wa’el Samouni’s 14-year-old daughter, Rizqa, and 12-year-old son, Faris.

Those who were able to, fled the house toward Gaza City to seek help.

Children left for days among bodies of their parents

As if the massacre wasn’t bad enough, the Israeli army then repeatedly turned away several efforts by Red Crescent ambulances to rescue the injured. Soldiers even blocked an ambulance that had been thoroughly searched and sent it back to Gaza City empty.

When ambulances finally reached the devastated area on January 7, they found 15 bodies and two seriously injured children in Wa’el Samouni’s house. The children, lying among the decomposing corpses of their family members, were dehydrated and terrified.

Four children who survived the massacre, including one rescued from the rubble, narrated the horror they lived through, and the effort to rebuild their lives afterwards in a moving video named Samouni Street.

Israeli armed forces were in full control

The Israelis could not even use the usual excuse of “collateral damage” amid fierce fighting for this atrocity.

The UN commission found that “already before daybreak on January 4, 2009 the Israeli armed forces were in full control of the al-Samouni neighbourhood”, and there was no fighting there.

“Everything indicates that the Israeli forces knew that there were about 100 civilians in the house. Indeed, the families had asked to be allowed to leave the area towards a safer place, but had been ordered to stay in Wa’el al-Samouni’s house. The house must have been under constant observation by the Israeli soldiers, who had complete control over the area at the time,” the report added.

Four days after the massacre, the Israeli army even denied publicly that any attack on the house of Wa’el Samouni had taken place. That’s the same army, charged with investigating itself, that has now concluded that no crime occurred.

Why did the Israeli decision come now?

“The decision to close the Samouni family case clearly indicates Israel’s genuine unwillingness to uphold the rule of international law, and highlights the urgent need for recourse to mechanisms of international criminal justice,” said the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, which represents many Gaza victims.

But it seems likely that Israel waited to announce this brazen whitewash precisely until it was certain there would be little chance of international courts pursuing the culprits.

“It is important to understand that such impunity is no accident; it depends on international complicity and determined joint action … to close every door to justice for Palestinians.

Last month, Luis Moreno Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), rejected an application from the Palestinian Authority (PA) to assume jurisdiction over war crimes committed in Gaza because, the ICC prosecutor argued, it was up to UN bodies or ICC states parties to decide if the PA was a “state” for the purposes of joining the court.

Amnesty International condemned the ICC prosecutor’s decision as “dangerous” and “political”.

The decision “opens the ICC to accusations of political bias and is inconsistent with the independence of the ICC”, said Marek Marczynski, head of Amnesty International’s international justice campaign. “It also breaches the Rome Statute which clearly states that such matters should be considered by the institution’s judges.”

“It’s disgraceful but not surprising that the ICC has dismissed Palestine’s complaint against Israel,” said Michael Mandel, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto. “It sat on the complaint for over three years, always proudly announcing that it was investigating it to give the appearance of impartiality.”

Given what he saw as the ICC prosecutor’s biases toward the agenda of the United States – which is not even a signatory of the Rome Statute that established the court – Mandel concluded that the ICC “was a hoax from the start”.

Obstruction of justice

The ICC prosecutor’s deeply troubling decision to let Israel off the hook sent Israeli authorities the signal that it was safe to close the file on the Samouni massacre. And if Israel saw no crime in that brazen case, then don’t expect Israel to hold itself accountable for any other killings.

But it is important to understand that such impunity is no accident; it depends on international complicity and determined joint action – in effect a conspiracy – to close every door to justice for Palestinians.

At the head of all these efforts has been the United States, especially under the Obama administration. President Barack Obama’s then newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, told Politico in 2009 that one of her key tasks would be to battle “the anti-Israel crap”.

In fact what Rice has done is lead a relentless anti-Palestinian crusade at the UN, which included efforts to discredit and bury the Goldstone report, blocking the Palestinian Authority’s bid for “Palestine” to be admitted as a full UN member (which I opposed for different reasons), cutting off funds to UNESCO for admitting Palestine, and most recently attempting to bully the UN Human Rights Council into abandoning a probe of Israel’s illegal West Bank colonies.

But these efforts go back further and rely on more than just the United States.

“Former prisoners and hunger strikers have said that even the smallest demonstration, the smallest acts of solidarity anywhere in the world – which those still in Israel’s jails might hear about on smuggled radios – make an enormous difference to their morale.

Recall that a decade ago, survivors of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut attempted to pursue justice in Belgium against Israel’s Ariel Sharon, who was defence minister in charge of Israeli forces occupying Lebanon at the time. Under US pressure, Belgium changed its widely acclaimed universal jurisdiction law just to protect Israel.

And after a UK magistrate issued an arrest warrant for former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni in 2009, for accusations related to her role in the attack on Gaza, the UK government rushed to change its laws, effectively taking away the independence of the courts as a venue for victims of international crimes to seek justice.

Rubbing salt into the wounds of the surviving Samouni family members, UK foreign secretary William Hague welcomed Livni to London in October 2011.

“It was an appalling situation when political abuse of our legal procedures prevented people like Ms Livni from travelling legitimately to the UK,” Hague said of the effort to bring her to justice.

In fact the appalling abuse is the political interference to constantly change the legal rules to ensure Israeli impunity.

What can Palestinians do?

Given how determined the United States and its clients are to block all official channels for redress and justice for Palestinians, it is clear that Palestinians and those who support their rights must intensify their efforts by other means.

This would include mass mobilisation, the option of resistance through all legitimate means and building international solidarity especially through the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel.

Right now the battle is being waged by more than 1,500 Palestinian political prisoners on hunger strike, subjected to a cruel system of prolonged detention without charge or trial, or conviction by Israeli military kangaroo courts, and to inhumane and illegal conditions of imprisonment.

The most urgent cases are of ten hunger strikers, who are gravely ill and close to death, and who are still being denied family visits and access to independent doctors and lawyers.

The Susan Rices and William Hagues of the world are not only silent about these crimes, but fully complicit in them.

Former prisoners and hunger strikers have said that even the smallest demonstration, the smallest acts of solidarity anywhere in the world – which those still in Israel’s jails might hear about on smuggled radios – make an enormous difference to their morale.

So we must not sit by in despair; it remains up to all of us to put as much pressure on Israel and its accomplices as citizens can.

Ali Abunimah is author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. He is a co-founder of the online publication The Electronic Intifada and a policy adviser with Al-Shabaka.

Follow on Twitter him at: @AliAbunimah