Why war keeps knocking on Gaza’s door

In Gaza, international humanitarian law becomes part of the war cycle, legitimising violence against Palestinians.

A Palestinian man carries his son as the shadow of Palestinian children playing on a swing is cast against a wall in the east of Gaza City
Gazans simply could not flee the fighting, turning the Strip into the world's largest open air prison, writes LeVine [Reuters]

Over 60 million human beings are currently on the run world-wide, the majority of them in or from the Middle East and North Africa.

The “staggering acceleration” of distressed movement by large numbers of displaced civilians constitutes not just the greatest collective humanitarian disaster since World War II, but one of the greatest assaults on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) as well.

IHL is the internationally recognised set of rules for engaging in armed conflict, whose primary purpose is to “restrict the means and methods of warfare” to limit its impact on civilians. 

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The manner in which external powers, local governments, and insurgent and terrorist movements wage war against each other today – from drones to mass drowning – has strained the ability of international law to mitigate, never mind ameliorate, the suffering of millions of civilians who are the principal victims of the carnage.

The Gaza War of 2014, which erupted a year ago this week, stands apart from these conflicts and the waves of migration they’ve generated. Unlike these other conflicts, the population of the Strip simply could not flee the fighting (although half a million were displaced) which occurred while Gaza remained under an unending eight- year-long siege that has turned the Strip into the world’s largest open air prison, whose “deep scars” reflect a region on the verge of “economic collapse“.

Settlement strategy

Traditionally, Israel has used ethnic cleansing to create more favourable demographic conditions on the ground, as the waves of refugees created by the 1948 and 1967 wars, and the ongoing settlement enterprise and policy of encouraging Palestinian emigration make clear.

Yet the logic of the siege makes addressing the demographic problem posed by Gaza’s relatively large population impossible to solve with the traditional modus operandi.

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem there is a three-fold metric for judging the success of Israeli policies vis-a-vis maintaining the occupation: how much additional Palestinian land and resources they help secure and how many Palestinians they encourage or force to leave (or prevent from returning). 

The weaponisation of human rights in Gaza marks a truly frightening escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict...


Gaza’s metric is different. With the population, and for now at least, Hamas, more or less stuck in place, the goals of even the most intense spasm of violence become disciplinary, discursive and rhetorical rather than territorial:

Is Hamas more effectively (if reluctantly) helping Israel police or Palestinians resist the occupation? Can renewed conflict be spun to demonstrate the essential morality of Israel, evil of Hamas, helplessness of Palestinian civilians, naivete or mendacity of their supporters, and ultimately, the irresolvability of the broader conflict? 

Large-scale violence

The benefits of such a narrative are clear. Even if Israel’s arguments don’t persuade most of the world, as long as the debate centres on who did what to whom in Gaza the daily machinery of the occupation remains decentred if not marginalised from the mainstream conversation, precisely where Israel needs it to remain. 

Moreover, Israel’s defence of its deployment of large-scale violence against civilians enables – indeed, demands – the recourse to existential arguments that both remove the war and its immediate causes from years of siege and the larger occupation, and enable it to demonise anyone who would criticise its actions as being anti-Israel. This tactic is clear from narrative of the recently published The Gaza War 2014:The War Israel Did Not Want and the Disaster It Averted, by former UN Ambassador Dore Gold and Hirsh Goodman.

The “truth” the report purports to tell is one in which Israel went to unprecedented lengths to protect civilians unlike Hamas, which deliberately put them in harms way, most dead Palestinians were at least potential Hamas fighters, and Hamas’s “crimes against humanity” and “cult of death” contrasted with Israel’s “right to self-defense” and respect for IHL.

Equally important, anyone who challenges this narrative, particularly the media or human rights organisations, are “Hamas’s silent partners.”  

All of these claims are represented by the Report’s celebration of “roof-knocking” – the dropping of dummy bombs on the roofs of civilian buildings to warn people of an impending strike – as exemplifying the lengths Israel would go to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties. 

Israel has used ethnic cleansing to create more favourable demographic conditions on the ground [Getty] 
Israel has used ethnic cleansing to create more favourable demographic conditions on the ground [Getty] 

Failures of ‘roof-knocking’ 

But as the just released UN report on Gaza makes clear in a far more detailed analysis than that presented by Gold, the reality is that roof-knocking failed numerous times to warn Palestinians to flee targeted buildings for a variety of reasons – from no one hearing the knock in the midst of other bombings, to “knocking” on the wrong buildings, or because inhabitants were to old, sick, frightened, or unwilling to leave their homes.

But facts on the ground cannot be allowed to stand against the truths placed in the public sphere. What matters is that “the totally different attitudes Israel and Hamas hold on the value of human life and which make war crimes and violations of all accepted humanitarian norms” by Palestinians inevitable. Once that is accepted, the rest of the argument unfolds naturally.

As Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon demonstrate in their powerful new book The Human Right to Dominate, such demonisation of the Palestinian side enables Israel to argue that its own violence is not only proportionate and justified, but ultimately on behalf of the very Palestinians who are its primary victims.

Viewed through this lens, last year’s war on Gaza becomes an extremely efficacious if blunt tool for enhancing Israeli domination of the West Bank – the “endziel ” of a half-century long occupation – rather than an example of excessive Israeli force and violations of IHL and human rights norms by both sides (as the UN report clearly demonstrates it to be).

In Gaza, IHL becomes part of the kill chain, “legitimis[ing] the killing of Palestinians” in the name of protecting them from their own rulers as well as on behalf of a “superior human right” for Jews to control and settle the land.

The weaponisation of human rights in Gaza marks a truly frightening escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one whose implications stretch across the Middle East to most every struggle for freedom, democracy and social justice in the region. 

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.