Indicting Israel for Self-Defense

By P. David Hornik | 2/4/2009

The ceasefire announced by Hamas on January 18, never a sterling example of the genre, further deteriorated on Sunday as over 15 rockets and mortar shells were fired at Israel from Gaza. That night, when Israeli planes struck back at Hamas targets, many Palestinians reported that Israel had telephoned them warnings to evacuate. There were no casualties in the strike.

During Operation Cast Lead, Israel reduced Palestinian casualties with such measures as disseminating warnings in leaflets or SMS messages and dropping small, harmless bombs on rooftops before attacks. It prompted former British colonel Richard Kemp to say that “I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the IDF is doing today in Gaza.”

Nevertheless, it was reported on Monday that a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague had announced plans to investigate claims by Palestinian groups that Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza by using phosphorus shells in populated areas. In 2004 the ICC condemned Israel for building its security fence—believed by some security officials to have saved hundreds of lives—after waves of terror from the West Bank.

And the news about the ICC came hard on the heels of Thursday’s announcement that a Spanish court, after granting a petition by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, was planning to try seven Israeli security officials for “crimes against humanity” in the 2002 assassination of Hamas kingpin Salah Shehadeh. Fourteen civilians were also killed in the strike. Shehadeh had masterminded the killings of hundreds of Israelis and was preparing a mega-attack at the time. The seven Israeli officials include a former defense minister and two former chiefs of staff.

Israel, then, is between a rock and a hard place. From its complete disengagement from Gaza in August 2005 till Operation Cast Lead was launched in late December 2008, 6500 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza at predominantly civilian Israeli targets with only small, tactical Israeli responses. Yet the world went along its way. There were no Security Council sessions, ICC investigations, or threats by European countries to put Hamas leaders on trial. The suffering of Sderot residents never became a chic cause on campuses where “the Palestinians” continued to be lionized.

Then came Operation Cast Lead, and all hell broke loose. To even mention Israel’s extraordinary measures to avoid harming civilians was to be an embattled polemicist citing esoteric facts. But when some unclear number of Palestinian civilians—inevitably, given Hamas’s use of them—were nonetheless killed or wounded, it was Israel that was in the hot seat. Although some European leaders like German chancellor Angela Merkel and Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg showed Israel some degree of understanding, by the time Israel ended the operation on January 17 its diplomatic support had dwindled to zero.

And the ICC announcement is only the most dramatic instance so far of legal fallout from the operation. The expected wave of “lawfare” against Israeli soldiers and officers prompted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to set up a special team to defend them headed by the justice minister, with legal and intelligence experts already gathering evidence related to the fighting in Gaza. In 2005 Israeli general Doron Almog barely escaped arrest on war-crime charges in Britain when he was warned by the Israeli embassy not to disembark from his plane at Heathrow Airport.

With the war also having sparked fierce anti-Semitic eruptions particularly in Venezuela and Turkey, the worldview of Israel’s outgoing government—one of the factors behind the seemingly inhuman “restraint” in the face of the rockets—appears more wobbly than ever. It was a worldview in which Israel could expect reason and understanding from the nations in light of such facts as: Israel had withdrawn from Gaza and it was no longer occupied; Hamas is a terrorist organization that specifically targets civilians while using its own civilians for cover; and any country—yes, even Israel—has the right to self-defense.

The fact that, notwithstanding all that, the war has galvanized both heightened anti-Israeli lawfare and heightened anti-Semitic agitation has not been lost on the Israeli populace—which has, for instance, drastically cut back on tourism to once-popular Turkey. And as the rockets continue to fall, the need for a more sober outlook—one perhaps closer to traditional Jewish understandings of Israel’s role in the world—is likely to prevail in the February 10 elections.
P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Tel Aviv. He blogs at He can be reached at