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IPS Fellow Phyllis Bennis discusses the International Criminal Court’s decision to not pursue a case against Israel for the Mavi Marmara incident; the Amnesty International Report on incidents during Operative Protective Edge; and U.S. General Martin Dempsey’s defense of Israel’s actions during that campaign

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore. And welcome to another edition of the Bennis report.

Now joining us is Phyllis Bennis.

Phyllis is a fellow and director at the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s also the author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.


WORONCZUK: So, Phyllis, while most people’s eyes are on the unrest in Jerusalem, let’s turn to Gaza. Some of the most recent news is that the International Criminal Court will not pursue a case against Israel for the Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine people were killed on a flotilla that was headed towards Gaza to challenge the blockade. What do you make of this decision to not pursue the case?

BENNIS: Well, there are some serious problems with it. This is actually the first time that the International Criminal Court has turned down a request from a member state of the court, the Comoros, where the Mavi Marmara was planned, had requested the investigation. And they issued the rejection based on an initial looking over the evidence without doing their own investigation. So that’s a serious problem.

On the other hand, they have in the past turned down bringing charges in other cases where the level of violence was not as huge as a full-scale war. And I think that what they may have been looking at here is that the number of casualties–nine people were killed and several dozen people were injured–doesn’t perhaps rise to the level of the International Court.

I don’t think that it should be taken as evidence that they would not, for instance, take seriously an investigation if the jurisdiction issues could be dealt with, meaning if the Palestinians would finally join the International Criminal Court, that things like the settlement process overall, which is a war crime under the terms of the Rome Statute, that something like that might well be considered something that they would take up.

So I think this was a setback, but I’m not sure that it reflects any intention to avoid any criticism of Israel by the International Criminal Court.

WORONCZUK: Well, the chief prosecutor, I think, said that it’s clear, though, that Israel might have committed war crimes. And in the case of war crimes, if not the ICC, what institution would be taking this up, then?

BENNIS: Unfortunately, the ICC isn’t the only institution. There is the principle of universal jurisdiction that says that there are crimes that are so heinous–and war crimes are among them–that any jurisdiction, any court, any court in the world, a U.S. court, a court in South Africa–famously, the courts in Spain had taken up a number of these cases, against Pinochet and others. So there is the possibility of a country using its national courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

This is where you get into the problem where there’s not a country in the world, I don’t think, that would be prepared to stand up to the United States and take on bringing charges against Israeli officials for the Mavi Marmara or for other war crimes in Gaza or elsewhere, knowing what the consequences would be. So there’s the political problem with that more than a legal problem.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And meanwhile, Amnesty International released a report just a few days ago that looked at issues during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge from over the summer. And they took a look at Israel’s policy of so-called knock-on-the-roof, I believe it was, where the IDF launches a rocket without ammunition, and they launch it to hit the top of Palestinian homes to warn them that they’re about to bomb their house. And the report found that despite this policy, that at least 100 Palestinians have died during this use of this tactic. What do you make of this report?

BENNIS: Well, I think the report was quite important for a number of reasons. The report spoke of the Israelis’ callous indifference to civilian casualties, despite its claims that it used leaflets to tell people to flee (acknowledging they had nowhere to go), that, as you mentioned, the knock-on-the-roof method was one that was sometimes responsible for killing people and was not a sufficient–it didn’t justify the kind of force that the Israelis were using.

It said one thing that I thought was quite interesting in the Israeli response to the report. The Israeli position was this is simply propaganda that’s a tool for Hamas. And I think it was interesting that the Israelis did not deny–as usual, they did not deny any of the claims of the report, because they can’t. So all they can do is try to discredit the report. Of course something like this is going to be used by critics of Israel in the Palestinian territories and around the world. But the Israelis were in no position to say it’s not true. So I think that was quite important.

Now, the weakness of the report, the weakness of the Amnesty report, was that it took the existence of the Israeli attack as a given. It’s as if there’s a war going on, and our job is just to assess how one or both sides are abiding by the laws of war. What they did not look at was the illegality of this attack, that the claim of self-defense was not a valid claim under international law, that there are alternatives. And in this case, when the attack was on an occupied territory where the occupying power, Israel, has the obligation to protect the occupied population, they cannot go to war against that population with any legitimacy in international law. They should have been looking–and I’m sorry that the Amnesty report did not look at the reality that if the Israeli claim was true, that their only interest was in stopping the rocket fire–which was also a violation of international law–that if that were their only concern, the periods in recent years when there was no rocket fire were periods of ceasefires, and that it was Israel who had violated the most recent ceasefire. If they had maintained that ceasefire or indeed declared a new one, they would have been offered another chance for a period without rocket fire. So the fact that they never even investigated that possibility but instead went directly to the use of war made the entire attack illegal. And that was something that the Amnesty report did not deal with.

WORONCZUK: And a few days after this report was released, U.S. General Martin Dempsey, who is also the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made public remarks very much in defense of Israel’s actions during Operation Protective Edge. Let’s take a look at that.


GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIR, U.S. JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: I actually do think that Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties. But they did some extraordinary things to try to limit civilian casualties, to include calling out, you know, making it known that they were going to destroy a particular structure, even developed some techniques to–they called it roof knocking, you know, to have something knock on the roof. They would display leaflets to warn the citizens and population to move away from where these tunnels–.

But, look, in this kind of conflict, where you are held to a standard that your enemy is not held to, you’re going to be criticized for civilian casualties.


WORONCZUK: So, Phyllis, you heard Dempsey there. He was saying that Israel went to extraordinary lengths to protect civilians and did all it could to warn them that they were about to bomb their houses. And what do you make of these remarks?

BENNIS: You know, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, given that the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel began as a relationship between the Pentagon and the Israel Defense Forces, that that’s always–given that that relationship, the relationship between the IDF and the Pentagon, has always been at the center of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, we shouldn’t be surprised, perhaps, that the chairman of the joint chiefs of the U.S. military would defend his counterparts in Israel. But it’s still shocking to hear him say this. I mean, he didn’t acknowledge that the Israeli political leadership has said explicitly that the attack on Gaza was designed because we have to–as they put it, occasionally we have to mow the lawn, meaning occasionally–and they defined it this way–we have to simply go after people in Gaza, remove any threat that they might imagine they could pose at some future date. We have to suppress them. We have to remind them of the disproportionate power of our military. That’s the position of the Israelis.

And for Dempsey to treat this as if this was a war between equals–and he said, if one side is being held accountable and the other isn’t, of course the side being held accountable is going to look worse. Well, one side is the occupying power that, under international law, has a whole set of obligations that the other side does not hold. So it was an outrage that he made these kinds of remarks. It also, of course, flies in the face of the official position of the Obama administration, which is to be very critical of the number of civilian casualties in Gaza, despite the fact that the U.S. did nothing about it, did not hold Israel accountable, has said they will not hold Israel accountable. At least they made remarks saying, well, there’s a concern that there were so many civilian casualties, a third of whom were children. And for Dempsey to not even acknowledge the degree to which his statement flies in the face of that is pretty outrageous.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Phyllis Bennis, coming to us from the Institute for Policy Studies, thank you so much for joining us.

BENNIS: Thank you.

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


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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.