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On the eleventh day of the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, two UN schools were bombed by Israeli jets. The schools were housing people who had been displaced from their homes as a result of the conflict, and the Associate Press reports that 37 civilians were killed in the attacks. As the costs of the conflict to civilian populations continues to increase, the Real News spoke to Phyllis Bennis to find out what international law has to say about the events. Phyllis believes that while certain key members of the UN apparatus have spoken out against international law violations, the power structure of the Security Council continues to make definitive action impossible.

Story Transcript

Israel and international law

JESSE FREESTON (VOICEOVER), TRNN: On Tuesday, Israeli air strikes hit two United Nations-administered schools in the Gaza Strip, killing a total of 37 civilians. The Associated Press reports that the schools were being used as shelters for those displaced from their homes during the ongoing military offensive.

JOHN GING, DIRECTOR, UN RELIEF AND WORKS AGENCY: Nowhere is safe. We have the tragedy of the deaths last night in one of our schools, where people had come, fleeing the conflict, hoping for safety, and now they’re dead.

FREESTON: In Part 2 of our interview with Phyllis Bennis, we discuss the perceived failure of the United Nations and international law in general in the case of the Gaza Strip.


FREESTON: Phyllis, what are your thoughts on the lack of intervention by the international community, and specifically the UN, in the Gaza conflict?

PHYLLIS BENNIS, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Well, I’m a little bit pessimistic, but a little bit optimistic as well. I’m pessimistic because the power relations have not changed. The Security Council is still paralyzed by the mere threat of a US veto. The difference now, the reason that I’m a bit optimistic, is that there are some new forces at the United Nations. The UN special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied territories, Richard Falk of Princeton University, one of the world’s leading experts on international law, has issued incredibly powerful and grounded statements identifying the international law violations in the Israeli attack. Of course, we know that he tried to get into the occupied territories three weeks ago, was instead held, imprisoned, essentially, at a detention facility outside the airport for 20 hours, and then put on a plane and deported out of Israel, not allowed into the occupied territories to do the work of his mandate. Nonetheless, he has issued a number of very important statements on this question. Similarly, the president of the General Assembly this year, Father Miguel d’Escoto, the former foreign minister of Nicaragua during the Sandinista years, has played a very important role, issued very important statements also regarding the responsibility of the United Nations to respond to this.


MIGUEL D’ESCOTO, PRESIDENT, UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY: It’s a monstrosity. There is no other way to name it. And what is worse is that once again the world is watching in dismay the dysfunctionality of the Security Council, because there are some members of the Security Council that are trying to protect their own political interest. This is a real shame, but people are dying.


BENNIS: I think, although I don’t know this for sure, I assume that the General Assembly was waiting to see if the Security Council would in fact take its charter-mandated responsibility. They refused to do that. They failed to do that.


ALEJANDRO D. WOLFF, DEPUTY US AMBASSADOR TO THE UN: As you heard, we were not able to come to an agreement on any product today. It is our firm view that Hamas is in violation and has been since the calm was agreed to. And we’re not going to equate the actions of Israel, a member state of the United Nations, with the actions of the terrorist group Hamas. There is no equivalence here. The charter of this organization respects the right of every member state to exercise its self-defense, and Israel’s self-defense is not negotiable.


BENNIS: I would anticipate that by this coming Monday, when the holiday is over and the ambassadors are back in New York, that we will be hearing from the General Assembly, perhaps on issues around ensuring access for humanitarian material, some kind of an investigation of Israeli war crimes, perhaps specifically an investigation of the Israeli Navy’s confronting and ramming an unarmed humanitarian relief ship that was in international waters 90 miles away from Gaza. The Dignity, the ship run by the Free Gaza Movement, which had on board several European doctors who were on their way to help in the Gaza hospitals, as well as Cynthia McKinney, the former congresswoman from the United States, and 3,000 pounds of humanitarian, particularly medical, assistance, the ship was rammed, damaged, and it limped into port in Lebanon after being threatened.


DENIS HEALEY, CAPTAIN, SS DIGNITY: We was rammed by an Israeli gunboat without any warning, any provocation, or anything. There was two other gunboats on our port side with search lights shining at us, distracting us while the third boat came from ahead and rammed us.


BENNIS: I would think that that would be an appropriate investigation for the General Assembly to take up.

FREESTON: Sticking with international law, is the firing of Qassam rockets by Hamas or other groups a violation as well?

BENNIS: Clearly the firing of those rockets by the Palestinians, whether it’s Hamas or anybody else, it is a violation of international law. They can’t be aimed, so they are inevitably aimed at civilians. Luckily, there have been very, very few casualties, particularly relative to the extraordinary high level of Palestinian casualties. But nonetheless they are a violation of international law, should be condemned, should be stopped. An occupied population has the right to resist, including the right to resist militarily against a military occupation, but that right does not extend to attacks on civilians. That should be taken into account.

FREESTON: As you point out, the Qassam rockets cannot be aimed. However, it is clear that Israel’s military has actively targeted civilian locations, including schools, hospitals, and the largest university in Gaza. What does international law have to say about this?

BENNIS: There is. There’s, starting, the Geneva Conventions. Israel is the occupying power, and as the occupying power, it has very clear obligations under the Geneva Convention. One of the most clear, Article 33, is a prohibition on collective punishment, and it’s absolute. It’s not “You can’t do collective punishment unless they’re really doing bad stuff” or something; this is an absolute, that you cannot punish—and that includes bombings—you cannot punish any person in the occupied population, except for an act that he or she personally committed. That’s the definition of collective punishment, and it’s exactly that that the Israelis are doing. Telling people in robocalls to their cell phones, “Your house is going to be bombed in five minutes,” doesn’t make it okay to then bomb a house. So that’s just the first of the very specific ones. And I would mention that Congressman Dennis Kucinich here in the United States has actually issued a call for the United Nations to investigate the violations of Article 33 of the Geneva Conventions. Other international laws include the illegality of attacks on civilians. What I mentioned regarding the Palestinian rockets, that’s certainly even more a requirement for the powerful, for the occupying force. It is illegal to target civilian targets. And saying, for example, that the television station is pro-Hamas does not make it a military target; saying that the university is used for Hamas recruiters does not make it a military target. These assertions are simply false, and, unfortunately, in the mainstream Western press, certainly in the United States, they are not being sufficiently challenged. There’s another law, also within the Geneva Conventions and others, against disproportionate military attacks. That applies only when the idea of a military assault is legal. In this case, I think that’s a very questionable one. But even if it’s legal, you cannot use disproportionate military attacks. And in this case, the level of death and destruction should give very clear evidence that this is absolutely disproportionate.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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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.