The real problem with Israel’s ‘collective punishment’

The use of the term, while well-intended, ends up suggesting that it’s only the ‘collective’ bit that’s the problem.

A painting drawn by artists is seen at a house destroyed by Israel, in recent Israeli-Gaza fighting, in Deir Al-Balah, central Gaza Strip June 13, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
A painting drawn by artists is seen at a house destroyed by Israel in fighting in Deir Al-Balah, central Gaza Strip, June 13, 2023 [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

In September 2006, I paid my first visit to Lebanon, arriving 34 days after the 34-day summer assault by the Israeli military that had killed some 1,200 people in the country.

While Israel was subsequently revealed to have planned the war in advance, the alleged casus belli was the cross-border kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, which had intended to use them as bargaining chips to secure the release of Arab prisoners in Israeli jails.

I was 24 years old, and it was my first up-close view of Israeli military handiwork: decimated villages, bombed-out bridges, craters in the ground where apartment buildings had once stood.

The Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury would describe the scene as follows: “It is devastation. It is a pure devastation that is like nothing you have ever seen—apart from devastation. Ruins stretching to the horizon, challenging the sky.”

My friend Amelia and I spent two months hitchhiking through the wreckage of Lebanon, staying in the homes of beneficent strangers and being continuously force-fed in accordance with rules of Lebanese hospitality. By the time we left, “pure devastation” had become so normalised in our eyes that intact buildings had begun to seem disfigured.

The 2006 war is but one of numerous Israeli operations denounced by human rights organisations and other appointed upholders of global ethics as collective punishment, a war crime under international humanitarian law. According to Article 33 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, “no protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed.”

Indeed, on the surface, “collective punishment” appears to be a pretty apt description for flattening entire villages, saturating a country with millions of cluster bombs, and sending an attack helicopter to slaughter children in the back of a pick-up truck.

But the term fails to fully hit the mark – although I, too, have admittedly used it on various occasions.

The implication remains that it is merely the “collective” part of the punishment that’s the problem, and that Israel is still entitled in principle to mete out non-collective punishment in Lebanon. This is despite Israel’s own criminal track record in the country and integral role in generating the conditions for violence.

To be sure, kidnapping some soldiers is a rather anticlimactic “offence” when compared with the apocalyptic 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon that killed tens of thousands of people and spawned Hezbollah in the first place – or with the torture-happy 22-year occupation of south Lebanon that ended in 2000.

Speaking of occupation, jump across Lebanon’s southern border to occupied Palestine and you’ll find no shortage of collective punishment charges levelled against Israel by United Nations expertsHuman Rights Watch, and the like.

Again, the terminology would appear to constitute an accurate assessment of a panorama defined by intermittent military massacres, the asphyxiating blockade of the Gaza Strip, and continuing home demolitions in the West Bank. In the summer of 2014, for example, the Israeli army killed 2,251 people in Gaza over a period of 50 days, including 551 children – a “pure devastation”, if you will, that was allegedly in response to rocket fire from Hamas into Israel.

And over just three days in August of last year, in an operation dubbed Breaking Dawn, Israel presided over the slaughter of at least 44 Palestinians in the besieged coastal enclave. Among the dead were 16 children. According to the Israeli government, the bloody affair was a “preemptive” act against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group – which perhaps raises the morbid possibility of a new category of “preemptive collective punishment”.

But again, the “collective punishment” charge is inadequate from a perspective of justice – suggesting as it does that the Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation is a fundamentally criminal and punishable offence, as long as the punishment is meted out non-collectively.

After all, Palestinian violence does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs within a context of 75 years of Israeli subjugation, dispossession, ethnic cleansing and massacres. Rockets fired from within an occupied, blockaded, and bombarded territory are a response to Israeli violence.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, Israel’s rampant demolition of the homes of suspected Palestinian “terrorists” must obviously be denounced. And yet here, too, the “collective punishment” charge implies the validity of individual punishment of Palestinians whose own actions are a direct result of decades of barbaric Israeli policy.

Those who decry Israeli collective punishment no doubt mean well, but one can’t help but wonder whether the use of the terminology ultimately works to invalidate the right to resistance.

In The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law, Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier – legal director of Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières, or MSF) – references a fitting quote from French-Algerian philosopher and writer Albert Camus: “Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world.”

By terrorising Palestinians, Israel already adds considerably to the affliction of the world. And in the absence of any sign of improvement, perhaps it’s time to rethink how we talk about it.

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