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Dr. Mads Gilbert: The siege of Gaza continues to make life unbearable

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

In the first few days of April, the International Criminal Court said it would not proceed with any investigation or process of possible Israeli war crimes in Gaza. They gave the reason that no state entity that’s a signatory to the ICC treaty has asked for such a thing, and in the course of that they denied the request of the Palestinian Authority to be considered such a state entity, thus closing down such investigations.

Now joining us to talk about this situation is Dr. Mads Gilbert. Dr. Gilbert is a Norwegian physician. He cofounded NORWAC, a Norwegian-Palestinian humanitarian aid organization, and he’s the co-author of the book Eyes in Gaza. He was last in Gaza last January. Thanks for joining us.

DR. MADS GILBERT, COFOUNDER, NORWAC: Thank you for having me.

JAY: So let’s start with the ICC decision. It sounds like the ICC keeps finding technical reasons not to pursue this investigation.

GILBERT: Well, I think you’re absolutely right, sir, and I think these technicalities should not have obstructed the ICC from performing an investigation. And it’s really a sad decision, because it means that there is no rule of law as to the rights of the Palestinian people. We have to remember that Israel is the fourth-strongest army in the world, and they executed extremely brutal means towards the civilian population not only in Gaza but also in the occupied West Bank. And all these actions for sure amounts to collective punishment, and the number of killed and injured civilians during Operation Cast Lead certainly amounts to war crimes, as has been stated by the Goldstone Report, the Arab League fact-finding commission, and the B’Tselem report. So there was solid evidence for these war crimes.

JAY: But the ICC treaty, if I understand it correctly, does require states to either sign or not sign. And many have not. For example, the United States has not. And if they haven’t signed, they’re not covered. Isn’t that—you know, it may not be right, but isn’t that the way the treaty works?

GILBERT: Well, Israel has not signed either. And you can be examined or prosecuted even if you have not signed. If not, you know, any state could just avoid the ICC and thus exempt itself from all the rules of law. So war crimes can be investigated by ICC even if that state who executed the war crimes or potential war crimes has not signed the treaty. The treaty works such that any signatory state has to be active in prosecuting war criminals within its own territory and also see to it that war criminals are not being allowed to roam freely in their country.

JAY: Well, if the ICC has any argument that because they won’t recognize the Palestinians and the Israelis have not signed, you would think that takes it out of their jurisdiction. But if I understand it correctly, any signatory country could launch this request. For example, Norway could. And in fact there has been an attempt. But the ICC still doesn’t pursue it. What happened there?

GILBERT: Well, that’s true, and there was an attempt by a group of prominent Norwegian lawyers to have the International Norwegian Court—which has recently been established, and precisely to see to [it] that war criminals are not moving freely around in Norway—they filed the charge against Israel on the Cast Lead war crimes, but the Norwegian International Court did not follow up. Again, formalities and technicalities were used as the rejection reason.

JAY: Now, you were in Gaza in January. Talk about what was the situation. Since the revolutions in Egypt and some of the other Arab countries, since the various reports, Israel has sort of suggested they’ve eased up on the sanctions and that, you know, most of the critical stuff is actually getting through to Gaza. What did you find when you were there?

GILBERT: Well, on the ground, and if you look at the UN reports on the metric tons of building materials, food and daily goods coming in over the Israeli-Gazan border, that is not true. There is no real ease. Malnutrition is rampant in Gaza. A large proportion of the children under five are malnourished, and they have stunting, meaning they are not growing properly. There is a huge lack of building and reconstruction material for all the bombed buildings, and the large proportion of building material, if anything comes in at all, comes through the 600 tunnels in the south between Egypt and Gaza.

This smuggling activity, of course, is extremely devastating to the economy, because everything smuggled into the tunnels will be much more expensive than if it had passed normally across the border. Also, Israel has closed the northern crossing and converter belts, which normally was used to import stuff into Gaza, and move that all down to the southern corner of the border, which adds 20 percent costs to all the NGOs, and in particular to the UN activities, to import food into Gaza. So what I saw in January really was an ongoing, harsh, and very brutal siege affecting as a collective punishment the whole civilian Palestinian society.

JAY: Now, what—in terms of the so-called rockets going back to Israel being fired from the Gaza side and attacks by the Israelis on Gaza, how much [of] that kind of level of warfare is still going on, and what do you make of it?

GILBERT: Well, there are regular Israeli air attacks on Gaza. There are regular killings. And there are wounded almost every week. If you look at the UN reports, the number of children, it’s close to 40 injured children so far this year. And these targeted killings are still going on. So there is by no means peace in Gaza. And the population and the people I know from many years of work in Gaza are waiting for a new, massive Israeli attack. And, in fact, the Israeli commanders have said it is not if but when the new attack will come on Gaza, and it will be, quote-unquote, more vicious than Operation Cast Lead. So in addition to all these deficiencies due to the siege, we have to understand that this is a large, very young civilian population living in extreme fear. Don’t forget that 60 percent of the 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza are 18 years or below. The average age in Gaza is 17.6 years. So this is in fact a child prison. And there is nowhere to fly when the Apache or the drones come in and fire their deadly weapons.

JAY: Now, the rockets that are—to what extent are rockets still being fired from Gaza to Israel, which I assume is going to be a rationale for any attack the Israelis have?

GILBERT: I don’t have the exact number of rockets. They’re carefully counted by the Israeli side. But what we know about these rockets is that they are fairly useless as a military tool. If you look at the mere numbers from the Operation Cast Lead assault on Gaza, 13 Israelis were killed and 1,400 Palestinians. That’s a ratio of 1 to 100. And among those 13 Israeli killed, 10 more soldiers, and 10 out of the soldiers were killed by friendly fire. So that remains three killed civilian Israelis and 1,400 Palestinians. And the same ratio goes for the injured. So there is a massive disproportion in the military force and indeed in the military activities on the two sides. So I think it’s not really justified to call it sort of a balanced military conflict. This is an occupying force, an occupying state using excessive force to keep 1.6 million people in a prison and punishing them.

JAY: There was some suggestion after the fall of Mubarak that the Egyptians would relax, open up the Egyptian border crossing to Gaza. Has that in fact changed?

GILBERT: Not substantially, I think. The number of Palestinians that can pass the Egyptian-Palestinian border at Rafa is—I believe it’s 400, a quota of 400 per day, which is very little. Across the border to Israel [incompr.] It’s absolutely closed, even for sick people needing treatment abroad.

JAY: Now, the—I don’t know how well the Egyptian people understand that situation. I think there was a sense amongst Egyptians that there’d be a dramatic change on the Egyptian side. And the sanctions or the blockade of Gaza is really only possible if Egypt cooperates, collaborates with it. Isn’t that right?

GILBERT: Well, I think the Egyptian people at large have a strong sympathy for the Palestinian cause and they would like to see a change. But as you know, the major changes happening after the Arab spring, in particular in Egypt, they have not been very substantial when it comes to foreign policy and the big political issues. Still the old regime has a good grip on foreign policy and security policies. So I think that’s part of the explanation why things have changed quite little with regards to the siege of Gaza.

JAY: All the global attention on Iran and the Israel potential attack on Iran and sanctions and such, it seems to have quite successfully moved the conversation away from what had been the discussion about Israel, which was the occupation, and there seems to be very little talk about Gaza at all now. I mean, how much has this Iranian issue distracted people from what’s going on in Gaza?

GILBERT: Well, I think you’re making an absolutely correct observation, and I think this is an old Israeli tactic when it comes to foreign policy. It is to define new external enemies to distract the international opinion from what they’re doing in occupied Palestine. Not only are they maintaining the harsh siege of Gaza and continuing the military attacks, but also they are expanding the colonies on the West Bank and the destruction of Palestinian property in East Jerusalem. So really the Israeli molding machine, this destructive machine which is grabbing more and more Palestinian land, is going on despite the warnings from the United States and despite all the hopes of a new potential negotiation for a peaceful solution.

I’d like to underline that there are no military solutions to the occupation of Palestine on either side. There are only political solutions. And the one who keeps the key to the political solutions is actually United States, who subsidizes the state of Israel and their military power with so many billion dollars. If the United States could put down the foot and say enough is enough, then that would change the map completely with regards to the occupation of Palestine.

JAY: But there’s no sign of that, is there?

GILBERT: There is very little sign of that. And I think President Obama, with all due respect, has been a huge disappointment. From his speech at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, opening with “as-salamu alaykum“, everybody had, really, a sigh of relief thinking that U.S. policy towards Israel and towards the occupation of Palestine, among other issues, would be eased and would change. Unfortunately, that has not taken place. Contrary to that, I think Netanyahu is actually whipping your president quite a bit.

And I do hope—this is my sixth speaking tour to the United States on the issue of Cast Lead, and I see a clear change of opinion among the American public—the church, the civil movement, in the universities. People want to hear the Palestinian narrative. And more and more, the pro-Israeli, the Zionist lobby is getting isolated, and more and more. So I think that the only hope for the future is that the American public proper stands up and say enough is enough, we want a change in the U.S. politics towards Israel.

JAY: And in terms of legal process, is there any avenue left for some accountability in terms of Cast Lead?

GILBERT: Well, I think there are, and there are many good lawyers and judges around in Europe, actually, who are really exploring the potentials for holding the Israeli government and the army responsible for the atrocities. And if you read our book Eyes in Gaza, you know there are some absolutely shocking massacres where nobody has been held accountable. And we cannot have it that way. We cannot have it that way that the only state in the Middle East calling itself the only democracy, with such a large army, can go on, unpunished and uninvestigated, to massacre, to oppress, and to really torture the Palestinian people in the way they’re doing. We need to see justice find its place also in Palestine. So I hope and I believe that the international legal community will find a way to have a proper legal proceeding in the court to find out who did what and who is responsible for the killings in Gaza.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Mads.

GILBERT: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Dr. Mads Gilbert is a Norwegian Physician long known for his studies on children and infants in time of war. Dr. Gilbert co-founded NORWAC, a Norwegian-Palestinian humanitarian aid organization. He worked in an underground Palestinian refugee camp hospital in Beirut during the 1982 Israeli invasion and bombardment of Lebanon and again in Beirut during the Summer 2006 Israeli war against Lebanon. He was one of only a small handful of westerners in Gaza during the Israeli attack from Dec. 27th 2008 to January 18th, 2009. After the attack, he testified as an expert witnesses at subsequent Human Rights Committee Sessions held at the United Nations in Geneva.