Tag Archives: Operation Protective Edge

Wartime Journalism: Mohammed Omer on Gaza

7 Aug

thI visited North Vietnam in 1968, and had meetings with its leaders in the midst of the ongoing war, which resulted in receiving the outlines of a proposal for ending the conflict on a basis more favorable to the United States than what was finally negotiated by Henry Kissinger seven years and many deaths later.  Because I was among the early anti-war visitors to Hanoi and may have been the first with a combination of academic credentials and some access to American decision-makers there was great journalistic interest inmy experience. I was approached on my return by mainstream journalists from major newspapers and TV networks, especially those who harbored growing doubts about the war, resulting in a series of interviews given prominent media attention for several days.

 

Yet I was deeply disappointed and disturbed by the experience, and the journalistic ethos that it revealed. The mainstream interest was totally focused on what I had been told by the North Vietnamese leadership about their receptivity to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. This preoccupation was, of course, understandable, but what I found so distressing at the time was a total disinterest in my accounts of the total vulnerability of the Vietnamese people to the onslaught of high tech weaponry, the resulting suffering and devastation, as well as the absence of military targets in the Vietnamese  countryside where the only structures were churches and hospitals. I was deeply affected by this exposure to the human fabric of warfare, as well as by the Vietnamese spirit of resilience and perseverance coupled with an absence of bitterness toward the American people in part a reflection of the way Vietnam was governed at the time. School children were taught that it is not contradictory to view the government of the United States as an enemy and yet maintain friendship with American people and the best of their national traditions. Throughout the war, I found it remarkable that Vietnamese school children were taught to regard the American Declaration of Independence as a step toward human liberation that deserved universal affirmation.

 

What I encountered in Europe and the United States when I tried to convey these impressions to journalists, especially those who were unashamedly liberal in their critical outlook toward the war, was a total disinterest in the (in)human face of the Vietnam War. Their concerns were confined to the realist agenda about how the war was going and whether the Vietnamese were serious about their posture of seeking peace via diplomacy on the basis of a political compromise rather than through victory on a battlefield outcome. The more I reflected on this, the more I came to realize that the journalistic ethos as applied to foreign policy was indifferent to the wartime suffering of the enemy population and a humanitarian catastrophe of massive proportions.

 

This deep seated indifference had several components. Above all, it reflected the nationalistic limits of empathy, which highlights sufferings of our side, and essentially ignores the losses of the other side, an extension of the friends/enemies dichotomy that underlies the realist paradigm. At most, the losses of the enemy other will be reported as statistics, but except in rare circumstances, without much human context to exhibit the terrible impact of war on the civilian population of a country that is subject to the sort of one-sided onslaught that afflicted Vietnam for so long.  A second explanation had to do with the imperial mentality that dominated Western journalism whether liberally inclined or not, which dissented from the war not because it violated the UN Charter or international law or was an affront to fundamental morality, but either because it was not producing a victory or was not worth the cost in American lives and resources. It is this realist calculus that is filtered through a nationalist optic that helps understand the peculiar form of liberalism that prevails in the United States and endorses the pernicious postulates of  ‘American exceptionalism.’

 

A third explanation had to do with the overt commitment of Western mainstream journalism to a style of reportage based on facts, nor feelings or opinions, both of which are distrusted because of their supposedly subjective character.  The primary journalistic claim in this tradition of professionalism is ‘the news without spin.’ In this respect, my post-Vietnam interviewers were acting ‘professionally’ given this canon as any display of empathy for Vietnamese suffering would be discrediting to their claims to stand outside the circle of controversy when reporting the news. Not that such disengagement was unbiased, hiding rather than acknowledging its nationalist and realist framings.

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All of which brings me to Mohammed Omer’s extraordinary Shell-Shocked: On the Ground under Israel’s Gaza Assault, published by Or Books (New York & London) in 2015.  The book consists of dispatches from the war zone by a young prize-winning journalist who has been telling the world about the Gaza ordeal for almost ten years, since his early 20s. Omer’s prior reporting earned him the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2007, recognizing the excellence of his reportage on Gaza (‘a voice for the voicelss’). After receiving the award in The Netherlands, Omer on his return home received a brutal reception at the Gaza border by Israeli security guards being beaten so severely as to endure serious injury that required specialized surgery. With the help of a Dutch diplomat and medical treatment Omer restored his health while studying in overseas universities, yet opting to return to Gaza rather than to enjoy a life abroad as an honored exile. Omer wrote this book while doing his best during the 51 day war of 2014, what Israelis called Operation Protective Edge, to tell the world about the war from the perspective of those enduring it, that is, the civilian population of Gaza. Shell-Shocked raises many issues worthy of commentary but here I will limit myself to issues bearing on the style and ethics of professional journalism.

 

In essence, Omer does not have the option of detachment from the ordeal of war in the manner of the liberal journalists who I describe above as covering the Vietnam War as an instance of failure for American foreign policy. Omer by choice and circumstances refused to be detached, but that does not mean that he cannot be trusted.  On the contrary.  As Omer explains, “..I’m a journalist, and I owe it to my people and the Israeli people to get to the truth. I choose to stay in Palestine, my beloved home, with my wife, son, mother, father, siblings. I am not willing to let Israel or Zionism exterminate me.” (28) He has a Dutch passport, and could leave, and lament the fate of Gaza from afar, and who could blame him for doing so. Obviously, the choice is not an easy or simple one. He observes at one point, “I wish I could airlift my wife and son (3 months) out of here. But this is my ancestral home; what else can I do?” (26) In describing the effects of the war, minimizes his own struggle to stay alive, courageously confronting life-threatening dangers on an hourly basis so as to fulfill his role as the eyes and voice of the Palestinian people enduring the ultimate horrors of war.

 

Part of what separates Omer from even the most empathetic of foreign journalists, for instance Max Blumenthal, is his embeddedness in the history and realities of life in Gaza. Even if he were to leave, his family would be surviving under the heavy weight of the Israeli assault. He can never escape emotionally from his deep attachment to Gaza. Again his words are the best evidence of the authenticity and importance of his journalistic witnessing: “..I am offended, not only as a human, as a Palestinian in Gaza and as a father, but also as a journalist in Gaza. To get a story, I navigate a sea of body parts and blood each day, much it the remnants of people I know: my neighbors, friends and community. Unlike international reporters, those of us from Gaza don’t simply report. We live and die here.” (23) Of course, the last part of this passage is not entirely fair. Many brave international correspondents have risked their lives and paid the highest price on some occasions. I recall the great French reporter, Bernard Fall, being blown up by a mine while walking on a Vietnam beach, or more recently, the grisly 2014 TV beheading of the American journalist, James Foley, but Omer’s distinction still generally holds. The outsider who enters such a cauldron of political violence puts his life at risk, yet in almost all circumstances, can after awhile withdraw from the combat zone, resuming normalcy, although some journalists are subject to a kind of ‘fever of war,’ and only feel truly human when in the close vicinity of mortal danger. I remember Peter Arnett telling me in Hanoi on my second trip there in 1972 that after covering many major wars he only felt fully alive when doing first-hand war journalism, but the New Zealand born Peter, although animated and brave, never allowed the suffering of the civilian population to get to him, managing a detachment in the Western style, supposedly letting the facts do all the talking.

 

In important respects, this is also what Omer does, but with an undisguised sharp normative edge. The book consists of describing the daily ordeal experienced by the citizens of Gaza living under the fury of the Israeli attacks with no way of finding secure sanctuary, often relying on their own words to give the details of their struggles for survival and to recount their harrowing loss of loved ones. In this spirit Omer makes the reader almost feel what it must be like not to find food on the shelves of the neighborhood store or not to afford the spike in prices that follows from growing scarcities or not to have safe drinking water for growing children or not to be able to escape the confines of one’s house, which is itself never out of the danger zone.  And most of all, what it feels like to cope with the unspeakable death and maiming of family members and neighbors as a result of Israeli military tactics. These graphic descriptions of what the 51-day war meant for specific residents of Gaza constitutes the basic reportage of Shell-Shocked.

 

One expects that within this frame of witnessing Omer reports as accurately as possible, without exaggeration or invention. From what I know of Omer (he is a friend who I have known and admired for seven years) and of the situation in Gaza from other sources, I am utterly convinced that Omer is adhering to the highest standards of accuracy in reportage, relying heavily on descriptions of the scene and the witness of those who have endured the worst  losses of loved ones, homes, livelihood. As well, his local affiliations are neutral. Omer does not belong to or identify with any political party or association. He is embedded in Gaza by life circumstances, being a member of the victimized society with deep family and community affinities, and by this identity disposed toward ending the occupation of Gaza, achieving self-determination for the Palestinian people, and the achieving a durable and just peace for both peoples.

 

Omer never pretends that he has no personal stake in this conflict. In introducing his book Omer gives the reader a sense of his outlook: “As for myself, I try to remain optimistic, no small feat in ruined shell of what was once a beautiful and self-sufficient coastal enclave. Our reality is predicated upon Israel’s determination to drive us from our homes for good.” (7)  More than this, Omer observes critically that “[v]ery few in the mainstream media ever talk about the right of the people of Gaza to defend ourselves, or even just to exist.” (10) Note in the tangled syntax of this sentence that Omer gets trapped between describing the right that pertains to the people and a right that belongs to himself as one of the people.  Making his political viewpoint even clearer, and from the Western journalistic ethos unacceptable, Omer acknowledges his support for BDS as raising the costs of occupation for Israel, and besides being a tactic that is lawful and nonviolent. Omer also affirms the inclusiveness of his hopes: “Speaking personally I would like to see a single state where equity and tolerance are the only way forward for Israelis and Palestinians.” (11)

 

Omer also makes it clear that Israel understands that from its perspective that such journalistic depictions of the effects of the war both complicate and even undermine their propagandistic portrayals of good versus evil. Omer quotes a Beirut-based TV camera man, Abed Afifi, who reacts to the intentional targeting of a journalistic colleague with these words: “Such [an] attack is meant to intimidate us. Israel has no bank of targets, except civilians and journalists.” (55) He goes on to insist that “[A]ll these attacks on civilians should not stop us from working—the world has to see what Israel is doing in Gaza.” (55) And so it has to some degree, thanks to the efforts of Omer, Afifi, and many others.

 

Given the Israeli use of precision missiles against clearly marked TV vans, the inference of deliberate targeting seems hard to avoid. Israel has half acknowledged this by claiming that the journalists targeted are not ‘legitimate journalists,’ a claim refuted by Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch, pointing out that such an attack is a violation of international humanitarian law even if the journalists can be shown to be partisan. In effect, the subjectively motivated journalist is by choice and hostile perception a kind of warrior, seeking to help win that part of the war, often the decisive part, waged for control of the psychological terrain governing ‘hearts and minds,’ and hence ‘illegitimate’ in the eyes of the side relying on a military onslaught to impose its will.

 

Finally, I return to my central comparison between objectively styled journalism that prevails in the West and the subjectively styled approach taken by Mohammed Omer and other journalists who work from a vantage point within the orbit of extreme victimization. I recall my friend, Walden Bello, the noted author and political figure from the Philippines, saying that he didn’t have to determine whether imperialism was real or not as he experiences its reality on a daily basis, which shaped and conditioned his observational standpoint. For Omer, the reality of violent oppression does not have to be determined as it is experienced in the most intense possible ways.

 

Some years ago, in collaboration with Howard Friel, I was the junior co-author of two books highly critical of the manner in which the New York Times handled foreign policy debates and reported on Middle East issues, especially the Israel/Palestine conflict. [The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy (2004) and Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misrepresents Conflict in the Middle East (2007). We reached two main conclusions: (1) the Times systematically excluded the relevance of international law whenever it was seen as impinging on American choices in the pursuit of foreign policy goals; (2) the selective presentation of evidence sought to maintain a pro-Israeli consensus and to minimize the actualities of Palestinian victimization, a pattern very evident in the news coverage, but also in the type of opinion writers who were published and those who were excluded. In this regard, the claim of objectivity and detachment were sham, and devices used to manipulate and indoctrinate the reader, a phenomenon brilliantly depicted by Noam Chomsky in his studies of ‘indoctrination in a liberal society. I remember telling my students during the height of the Cold War that if you were a Russian in Moscow you learned how to discern realities by reading between the lines but if you were an American in Washington it required much greater sophistication to gain a comparable appreciation of the news from the New York Times or Washington Post, despite their widely accepted claims of being ‘papers of record.’

 

In this sense, I learn more about the news and the infrastructure of opinions that are shaping its editorial assessments from the avowedly conservative Wall Street Journal than I do from reading these liberal, more sympathetic, papers of record. And without doubt I learn more from Mohammed Omer about the realities of what happened during those 51 days in Gaza than I do from the mainstream media with its hidden biases and posture of apolitical detachment. That this learning corresponds with my political and ethical inclinations makes the experience moving and congenial as well as informative, and I encourage all with concern for Palestine’s present and future to read Omer’s brave book that can also be appreciated as a documentary compilation of testimony by the residents of Gaza caught in the maelstrom of a particularly cruel military onslaught and who yet manifest that quality of sumud that has made Palestinian resilience such an inspiring human reality amid the doldrums of the early 21st century. Mohammed Omer deserves the last word: “I have written this book as a way of preserving and passing on stories that need to be told.” (11)

 

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Did Israel Commit Genocide in Gaza?

9 Oct

[Prefatory Note: the post below is a somewhat revised version of a text published by The Nation, and to be found at the following link. I should also point out that in these proceedings in Brussels under the auspices of the Russell Tribunal I served as a member of the jury]

 

 

In a special session of the Russell Tribunal held in Brussels on September 24th, Israel’s military operation Protective Edge was critically scrutinized from the perspective of international law, including the core allegation of genocide. The process featured a series of testimonies by legal and weapons experts, health workers, journalists and others most of whom had experienced the 50 days of military assault.

 

A jury composed of prominent individuals from around the world, known for their moral engagement with issues of the day that concerned their societies, and also the wellbeing of humanity, assessed the evidence with the help of an expert legal team of volunteers that helped with the preparation of the findings and analysis for consideration by the jury, which deliberated and debated all relevant issues of fact and law, above all the question of how to respond to the charge of genocide.

 

 

It should be acknowledged that this undertaking was never intended to be a neutral inquiry without any predispositions. It was brought into being because of the enormity of the devastation caused by Protective Edge and the spectacle of horror associated with deploying a high technology weaponry to attack a vulnerable civilian population of Gaza locked into the combat zone that left no place to hide. It also responded to the failures of the international community to do more to stop the carnage, and condemn Israel’s disproportionate uses of force against this essentially helpless and beleaguered civilian population. Israel’s contested military operations targeted many legally forbidden targets, including UN buildings used as shelters, residential neighborhoods, hospitals and clinics, and mosques. In defense of these tactics, Israel claimed that rockets and ammunition were stored in these buildings and that Hamas rocket launchers were deliberately placed in the structures that had been singled out for attack. The evidence presented did not confirm these Israeli claims.

 

Although the Russell Tribunal proceeded from the presumed sense that Israel was responsible for severe wrongdoing, it made every effort to be scrupulous in the presentation of evidence and the interpretation of applicable international law, and relied on testimony from individuals with established reputations as persons of integrity and conscience. Among the highlights of the testimony were a report on damage to hospitals and clinics given by Dr. Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor serving in a Gaza hospital during the attacks, Mohammed Omer, a widely respected  journalist who daily reported from the combat zone, Max Blumenthal, the prize winning journalist who was in Gaza throughout Protective Edge and analyzed for the jury the overall political design that appeared to explain the civilian targeting patterns, and David Sheen, who reported in agonizing detail on the racist hatred exhibited by prominent Israelis during the period of combat, widely echoed by Israelis in the social media, and never repudiated by the leadership or public in Tel Aviv.

 

The jury had little difficulty concluding that the pattern of attack, as well as the targeting, amounted to a series of war crimes that were aggravated by the commission of crimes against humanity, most centrally the imposition of a multi-faceted regime of collective punishment upon the entire civilian population of Gaza in flagrant and sustained violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. A further notable legal finding was the rejection of the central Israel claim of acting in self-defense against rocket attacks directed at Israel.

 

There were several reasons given for reaching this conclusion: the claim of self-defense does not exist in relation to resistance mounted by an occupied people, and Gaza from the perspective of international law remains occupied due to Israeli persisting effective control despite Israel’s purported disengagement in 2005 (more properly characterized as a military redployment); the rockets fired from Gaza were partly at least in response to prior Israeli unlawful provocations, including the mass detention of several hundred persons loosely associated with Hamas in the West Bank and incitement to violence against Palestinians as revenge for the murder of the three kidnapped Israeli settler children; and finally, the minimal damage done by the rockets, seven civilian deaths over the entire period, is too small a security threat to qualify as “an armed attack” as is required by the UN Charter to uphold a claim of self-defense. At the same time, despite these mitigating factors, the jury did not doubt the unlawfulness of firing of numerous rockets into Israel that were incapable of distinguishing between military and civilian targets. This form of unlawful resistance was attributed to both Hamas and independent Palestinian militias operating within the Gaza Strip.

 

A focus of concern in the jury deliberations before and after the proceedings themselves was how to address the allegation of ‘genocide,’ which has been described as ‘the crimes of crimes.’ The jury was sensitive to the differences between the journalistic and political uses of the word ‘genocide’ to describe various forms of collective violence directed at ethnic and religious minorities, and the more demanding legal definition of genocide that requires compelling and unambiguous evidence of a specific ‘intent to destroy’.

 

The testimony made this issue complex and sensitive. It produced a consensus on the jury that the evidence of genocide was sufficient to make it appropriate and responsible to give careful consideration as to whether the crime of genocide had actually been committed by Israel in the course of carrying out Protective Edge. This was itself an acknowledgement that there was a genocidal atmosphere in Israel in which high officials made statements supporting the destruction, elimination, and subjugation of Gazans as a people, and such inflammatory assertions were at no time repudiated by the Netanyahu leadership or subject to criminal investigation, let alone any legal proceedings. Furthermore, the sustained bombardment of Gaza under circumstances where the population had no opportunity to leave or to seek sanctuary within the Gaza Strip lent further credibility to the charge of genocide. The fact that Protective Edge was the third large-scale, sustained military assault on this unlawfully blockaded, impoverished, and endangered population, also formed part of the larger genocidal context.

 

Further in the background, yet perhaps most relevant consideration of all, Israel failed to exhaust diplomatic remedies before its recourse to force, as required by international law and the UN Charter. Israel had the option of lifting the blockade and exploring the prospects for long-term arrangements for peaceful co-existence that Hamas had proposed numerous times in recent years. Such initiatives were spurned by Israel on the ground that it would not

deal with a terrorist organization.

 

Despite the incriminating weight of these factors, there were legal doubts as to the crime of genocide. The political and military leaders of Israel never explicitly endorsed the pursuit of genocidal goals, and purported to seek a ceasefire during the military campaign. There was absent a clear official expression of intent to commit genocide as distinct from the intensification of the regime of collective punishment that was convincingly documented. The presence of genocidal behavior and language even if used in government circles is not by itself sufficient to conclude that Protective Edge, despite its scale and fury, amounted to the commission of the crime of genocide.

 

What the jury did agree upon, however, was that Israeli citizens, including officials, appear to have been guilty in several instances of the separate crime of Incitement to Genocide that is specified in Article 3(c) of the Genocide Convention. It also agreed that the additional duty of Israel and others, especially the United States and Europe, to act to prevent genocide was definitely engaged by Israeli behavior. In this regard the Tribunal is sending an urgent message of warning to Israel and an appeal to the UN and the international community to uphold the Genocide Convention, and act to prevent any further behavior by Israel that would cross the line, and satisfy the difficult burden of proof that must be met if the conclusion is to be reached that the crime of genocide is being committed. At some point, the accumulation of genocidal acts will be reasonably understood as satisfying the high evidentiary bar that must be reached so as to conclude that Israel had committed genocide.

 

Many will react to this assessment of Protective Edge as lacking legal authority and dismiss the finding of the jury as merely recording the predictable views of a biased ‘kangaroo court.’ Such allegations have been directed at the Russell Tribunal ever since its establishment in the mid-1960s by the great English philosopher, Bertrand Russell, in the midst of the Vietnam War. These first sessions of the Russell Tribunal similarly assessed charges of war crimes associated with U.S. tactics in Vietnam, and in Russell’s words, represented a stand of citizens of conscience ‘against the crime of silence.’ This latest venture of the tribunal has a similar mission in relation to Israel’s actions in Gaza, although less against silence than the crime of indifference.

 

It is my view that such tribunals, created almost always in exceptional circumstances of defiance of the most elemental constraints of international law, make crucial contributions to public awareness in situations of moral and legal outrage where geopolitical realities preclude established institutional procedures such as recourse to the International Criminal Court and the UN Security Council and General Assembly. That is, these kind of self-constituted tribunals only come into being when two conditions exist: first, a circumstance of extreme and sustained violation of fundamental norms of morality and international law and secondly, a political setting in which governmental procedures and UN procedures are inoperative.

 

When the interests of the West are at stake, as in the Ukraine, there is no need to activate unofficial international law initiatives through the agency of civil society. However in circumstances involving Israel and Palestine, with the United States Government and most of Western Europe standing fully behind whatever Israel chooses to do, the need for a legal and moral accounting is particularly compelling even if the prospects for accountability are virtually nil. The long suffering people of Gaza have endured three criminal assaults in the past six years, and it has left virtually the whole of the population, especially young children, traumatized by the experience of such sustained military operations.

 

It should be acknowledged that the UN Human Rights Council has appointed a Commission of Inquiry to investigate allegations of war crimes associated with Protective Edge, but its report is not due for several months, Israel has indicated its unwillingness to cooperate with this official UN initiative, and it is almost certain that any findings of criminality and related recommendations will not be implemented due to the exercise of a geopolitical veto by the United States, and perhaps, other members of the Security Council. In view of these circumstances, the argument for convening the Russell Tribunal remains strong, especially if one recalls the fate of the Goldstone Report prepared in analogous conditions after the 2008-09 Israeli attacks on Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead.

 

The Russell Tribunal is filling a normative vacuum in the world. It does not pretend to be a court. In fact, among its recommendations is a call on the Palestinian Authority to join the International Criminal Court, and present Palestinian grievances to the authorities in The Hague for their investigation and possible indictments. Even then the realities of the world are such that prosecution will be impossible as Israel is not a party to the treaty establishing the ICC and would certainly refuse to honor any arrest warrants issued in The Hague, and no trial could be held without the physical presence of those accused. The value of an ICC proceeding would be symbolic and psychological, which in a legitimacy war would amount to a major ‘battlefield’ victory. It is notable that Hamas has joined in urging recourse to the ICC despite facing the distinct possibility that allegations against its launch of rockets would also be investigated and its officials indicted for its alleged war crimes.

 

As with the Nuremberg Judgment that documented the criminality of the Nazi experience, the process was flawed, especially by the exclusion of any consideration of the crimes committed by the victors in World War II, the Russell Tribunal can be criticized as one-sided in its undertaking. At the same time it seems virtually certain that on balance this assessment of Israel’s behavior toward the people of Gaza will be viewed as supportive of the long struggle to make the rule of law applicable to the strong as well as the weak. It is also reflective in the disparity of responsibility for the harm done by the two sides.

 

I recall some illuminating words of Edward Said uttered in the course of an interview with Bruce Robbins, published in Social Text (1998): “The major task of the American or the Palestinian or the Israeli intellectual of the left is to reveal the disparity between the so-called two sides, which appear to be rhetorically and ideologically to be in perfect balance, but are not in fact. To reveal that there is an oppressed and an oppressor, a victim and a victimizer, and unless we recognize that, we’re nowhere.”