Gaza fighting moves to the courts

A break in fighting in Gaza hasn’t brought peace, it has moved the war to a new arena—the courts

Ezz al-Zanoun/APAImages/Polaris

Ezz al-Zanoun/APAImages/Polaris

If the quiet has finally come, after six failed ceasefires and 29 days of intense fighting, it is not a moment too soon. Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” against Hamas and its tunnels and rocket launchers in Gaza has had, by any calculation, a horrifying cost. Close to 2,000 dead Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, including at least 400 children. Another 10,000 people injured, 60,000 left homeless, a quarter of Gaza’s 1.8 million population displaced, and $4 billion to $6 billion in damage done to its buildings and infrastructure.

The other side of the ledger—67 Israelis dead, all but three of them soldiers, and several hundred wounded in combat—suggests a lopsided victory, despite the more than 3,300 mortars and missiles fired from the territory. Yet Israel’s sworn enemies are still standing. And peace has never seemed further away.

The initial three-day break in hostilities, brokered by the Egyptians and Americans, was supposed to pave the way for a more lasting truce, with representatives of both sides meeting via intermediaries in Cairo. But the final barrages of bombs and rocket fire had barely stopped before the fight shifted to the diplomatic arena. Riad al-Malki, the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister, paid a surprise visit to prosecutors of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Malki pressing for a case to be launched against the Jewish state to punish those responsible for the heavy civilian death toll in Gaza. “Everything that has happened in the last 28 days is clear evidence of war crimes committed by Israel, amounting to crimes against humanity,” he told reporters. “There is no difficulty for us to show or build the case. Evidence is there . . . Israel is in clear violation of international law.”

Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have ever signed on to the ICC, established more than a decade ago. Without that legal recognition, the only way the court would find jurisdiction would be via a resolution of the United Nations Security Council—a highly unlikely event as long as the U.S. holds a veto. But both sides seem to enjoy using the body to threaten each other. (It only took a few hours for the Israelis to let it be known that they will file a countersuit against the Palestinians, focusing on past terror attacks, if matters ever proceed.)

However, the snap trip to The Hague does represent a significant evolution in strategy from Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president. The ICC has always been at the very end of the lengthy list of international bodies the Palestinians are seeking to join in their incremental push for statehood. “It’s been sort of a legal bogeyman,” says Grant Rumley, a specialist in Palestinian politics with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank that focuses on the fight against terrorism. By accelerating the timeline—and seeking the support of the Hamas leadership for the move—Abbas is sending a clear message that he now favours provocative action over peace talks. “There’s a different paradigm,” says Rumley. “They’re going to go to the UN to build a state. Then they’ll negotiate with Israel, but only about ending the occupation.”

Israel can hardly count on much sympathy at the UN, with its already fraught relationship hitting a new low during the Gaza campaign. More than 100 of the organization’s facilities came under fire during the fighting and at least eight UN staff members died. In addition, three separate strikes against UN schools that were serving as emergency shelters killed 29 civilians. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon termed the most recent incident, on Aug. 3, “a moral outrage and a criminal act” and “gross violation of international law,” and demanded a full investigation. The Israel Defense Forces had been “repeatedly informed” of all the schools’ locations, he noted.

The supply of international support for Israel also seems to be dwindling. British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed public worries that a two-state solution was “beginning to look impossible.” At ceremonies to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War last week, French President François Hollande said the time for even-handedness was coming to an end. “How could one remain neutral when a people, not far from Europe, fights for its rights and its territorial integrity? How can one remain neutral when a murderous conflict [has been raging] in Gaza for a month?” he asked. Even the U.S. government had uncharacteristically harsh words for its ally, calling the latest strike against a UN school “disgraceful.” (Although the harsh words were quickly followed by a shipment of ammunition and $225 million in emergency U.S. funding for Israel’s anti-missile system.)

The official condemnations and free-flowing outrage are unlikely to make much of a difference in Israel, however. According to one recent opinion poll, fully 95 per cent of the population supported the war. And despite not having scored a decisive victory in Gaza, most analysts believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has increased his chances of winning the next election.

What remains of the Israeli peace movement is now looking for a silver lining in the chaos. Gershon Baskin, a founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information—a joint public policy think tank—talks about a “convergence of interests” with Palestinian moderates, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, all of them equally scared of Islamic hardliners. “There’s always opportunity. It’s a question of what our leaders decided to do with it,” he told Maclean’s. “Two states remains the goal. There is no other answer to the conflict.”