More “Hell on Earth”

Two weeks ago, I reported the acquittal of campaigners who had been accused of causing some £200,000 worth of damage to a factory which was said to have made weapons used by the Israelis in Gaza 18 months ago.

It was reported that Judge Bathurst-Norman told the jury: “You may well think that hell on earth would not be an understatement of what the Gazans suffered in that time”.

I said at the time that I hoped that the judge had been quoted out of context.

Thanks to Jonathan Hoffman, I have now seen a transcript of the judge’s comments to the jury. He was summing up the evidence given by one of the defendants, Ornella Saibene. This is what the official transcript (pages 46/47) records the judge as having said:

She took us through the horrors, and there is really no other word for it than horrors, that emerged in the press and on the news and the footage as to what the Israelis were doing in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Women and children were killed, many more injured, United Nations buildings bombed, civilians having taken shelter there. You may think that perhaps “Hell on Earth” would be an understatement of what the Gazans endured at that time.

So was the judge’s comment taken out of context? Perhaps it is difficult to tell from a single paragraph.

However, the entire transcript runs to 87 pages and is far too long for me to reproduce. It is also copyright: copies are available, for a fee, from the transcribers, Marten Walsh Cherer Ltd.

But I think I may be permitted to quote a passage of some 11 pages (starting on page 13). This is entirely unedited, apart from a few tiny changes I have made to the punctuation. All I think you need to know is that Christopher Osmond was a defendant and Dr Taylor must have been a witness.

As you read this lengthy extract, ask yourself these questions. Is this judge merely summing up the evidence as given by the witnesses? Or is he giving his own view of events? If the latter, is it a fair, dispassionate view of what happened? Or is it a one-sided, tendentious, inaccurate account designed to produce an acquittal? You be the judge.

Democracy would not exist unless there were reporters and members of the public who were prepared to stand up for what they believe to be right and sometimes, as in the case of the suffragettes, even to go to prison for their beliefs. As Edmund Burke says: “For injustice to flourish, all that is needed is for good men to do nothing.” Indeed, people like Mr Osmond, who put themselves in harm’s way to protect others may, in fact — there may be much to be admired about people like that. Perhaps if he had done it in this country in the last war he would probably have received a George Medal. However, that does not give anyone a licence without any justification to commit offences. It is your task in this case to decide whether it is possible that such justification existed.

I am going to start with the background relating to Israel and Palestine and to the evidence which points to the war crimes being committed by Israel in Gaza, an area over which Israel has imposed a blockade. The evidence shows that those war crimes are committed against the civilian population of Gaza and against the property of its residents, including the United Nations, by the Israeli Forces.

Now you have to look at the evidence coldly and dispassionately. It may be as you went through what I can only describe as horrific scenes, scenes of devastation to civilian population, scenes which one would rather have hoped to have disappeared with the Nazi regimes of the last war, you may have felt anger and been absolutely appalled by them, but you must put that emotion aside.

Equally, you must put aside any feelings of being thoroughly ashamed of our government, of the American government and the United Nations and the EU in doing nothing about what was happening. You just concentrate on the evidence and deal with the case on the evidence as it stands.

Dr Taylor’s evidence led us along the way. She told us how the immunity which the United States by the veto affords — in the Security Council affords the protection to Israel and prevents it from suffering any reprisals for its actions. The result enables Israel to cock a snook at any decision of the United Nations or of the International Court of Justice by simply ignoring anything that is decided. The USA has exercised its veto in the United Nations Security Council to veto resolutions condemning Israel on no less than forty occasions. Israel has been able to ignore resolutions like 242, calling on it to withdraw from the Palestinian lands and calling for a United Nations Force to protect peace. However, calls are made for Israel to pull — so whatever calls are made for Israel to pull down the barrier, and the judgment of the International Court holding it illegal and to stop building settlements in the West Bank are simply ignored by Israel in the occupied territories seized in 1967. One can see from the maps produced by Dr. Taylor that effectively Israel takes from the Palestinians more and more and more of their land. So with that broad picture in mind let me concentrate on Gaza.

Gaza is a small area twenty-five miles long by four to eight miles wide. Following the 1967 war it passed from Egyptian to Israeli control. It has a population of one-and-a-half-million, whose very existence depends upon UN food handouts. It can best be described as a giant prison camp, for the Israeli withdrawal did not give Gaza its freedom. It is surrounded by a fence. That fence is patrolled by Israeli tanks, planes fly overhead; Egypt keeps the one small crossing into Egypt closed. That crossing is so small that, if used, insufficient aid would get in. The remaining crossings are controlled by Israel, and it is Israel that decides what comes in and who goes in and out. In international law, the West Bank remains an occupied territory.

In January ‘06, Gaza elected Hamas as its governing body. Israel’s response was to impose a land, air and sea blockade. Even John Dugan, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, was refused entry to Gaza by the Israelis. What food or aid going into Gaza is decided not by the needs of the Gazans but by Israel.

Hamas took to firing rockets into Israel between 2001 through 2009. Nineteen Israelis were killed. Hamas has no Army, no Air Force and no Navy. Israel has a highly trained Army, a Navy and an Air Force with more F16s than any other country except for the USA. It is the USA’s policy to ensure that Israel is kept well-armed.

So we come to 2006. Israel was at war in Lebanon and, named after an attack on a civilian quarter of Beirut, Israel developed what is called after that area the Dahiyah doctrine, namely that Israel would apply disproportionate force and cause great damage and destruction to any village from which Israel was fired upon. Israel regards such villages as military bases, not as civilian villages. So with an election coming up and wanting to prove to the Israeli people that it was tough, on 27th December 2008 the Kadima government in Israel launched operation Cast Lead against Gaza. It sealed the border so no one could get into it or out of it, it stopped journalists entering it and encouraged them to leave and it claimed it was acting in self-defence. Of course, in those circumstances Israel doesn’t want journalists around, because if they are allowed to get in the full truth might get out. So far as self-defence is concerned it is only, of course, a defence if the force used is proportionate to the threat. If you use disproportionate or unreasonable force or act in revenge, or for some other purpose, you become the aggressor, even if you were acting in self-defence originally.

Israel’s attack on Gaza involved the use of disproportionate force, despite the fears of the international community, and in particular the United Nations Human Rights Adviser, John Gaye. The Israeli plan called for a shock and awe bombardment. In three minutes 40 seconds, 250 Gazans were killed on the first day, as compared with nineteen Israelis killed by rocket fire in eight years. Throughout the campaign, and you have seen the papers saying they were still flying, the evidence of Dr Taylor was that throughout the campaign I should say still flying after the 17th throughout the campaign, F16s were used as bombers, apart from what the Israeli Army was doing on the ground.

Worse still, Israel dropped leaflets telling civilians to flee the urban areas, with a result that many took shelter in United Nations facilities, which under international law should have been safe, which were clearly marked and from the fact that the GPS co-ordinates had been given to the Israelis, but these were nonetheless bombed, with many people killed.

On 15th January, the Al Quds hospital was bombed. Hospitals, ambulance depots, mosques, United Nations compound, industrial and agricultural sites, the sewage and the electricity power plants were all targeted and damaged or destroyed. Journalists and United Nations officials were kept out of Gaza whilst all this was happening. Those with power to do something, the United Nations, the EU, the USA and the Quartet contented themselves by calling upon Israel to stop. No doubt protected by the United States, Israel ignored the calls, their confidence in the USA’s protection, you may think, boosted by the fact that whilst the United Nations called for a cease-fire the USA abstained. Had the same events happened anywhere else, you may think, there would have been military intervention by the powers in question, as there had been in Bosnia and Kosovo, but you may think double standards were applied because it was Israel — to Israel, because nothing happened.

You have seen the news reports as to what happened. They are harrowing, and I am not going to take you through them in detail. You will have them with you, and I need only say, I think, that the death toll mounted, with women and children being killed over and over again. To use Dr Taylor’s words, it was a turkey shoot; the civilians had no escape.

When it was all over, the United Nations Human Rights Agency set up a Commission to investigate what had happened. That Commission was headed by an eminent international jurist, Justice Goldstone, who is himself Jewish. Because his report was not to the liking of Israel he was condemned by Israel as being antisemitic. Israel, of course, had refused to co-operate with this Commission. Justice Goldstone — you have his reports before you and I am only going to concentrate on the summary — Justice Goldstone found that both Israel and Hamas were guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He said that Israel’s attack on the population of Gaza constituted grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention. He said that certain weapons, white phosphorous, flechettes and DIMES, though not illegal under international law, were used indiscriminately against civilians, and so their use should be regarded as a war crime. Israeli Forces had used Palestinians as a human shield, which was a war crime. Detaining Palestinians in degrading conditions, depriving them of water, food and sanitary facilities was a war crime. He said that the objective of the Israeli Defence Force involved the use of disproportionate force, causing great damage and destruction to the civilian population and to the infrastructure, also causing suffering to civilians, which again was a war crime. The damage caused by Israel to property in Gaza was estimated between £1.1 billion and £1.3 billion.

He said the targeting of the United Nations compound, the sewage system, the electricity power plant was a war crime. He said the impact of the blockade and the military actions on the Gazan people meant that Israel had violated the Fourth Geneva Convention and was a war crime. The Fourth Geneva Convention protects people under occupation. He said the attack on the Palestinian Authority’s assembly building, the United Nation building, the ambulance depots and the hospitals violated customary international law.

He recommended that both Israel and Hamas investigate these matters, and said if they failed to do so it should mean that the allegations were brought to the International Criminal Court, and that as the crimes were so serious universal jurisdiction should be invoked to prosecute those concerned. Israel has not carried out any investigations and, unlike in the case of Milosevic over Bosnia and Kambanda over Rwanda, nothing has been referred to the International Court.

As you can see from Exhibit 29, you need not look at it for the moment, 1,086 Palestinians were killed, including 346 children and 79 women. 4,900 were injured, 1,709 of those were children, 724 were women, 140,000 children were suffering from stress and trauma, against nine Israeli soldiers killed and four Israelis killed in Israel and 58 injured by rocket attacks.

You have heard the unchallenged evidence of Sharyn Lock, one of the international volunteers on the ground in Gaza. She told how she was shot at by the Israeli Army in 2002, using fragmentation bullets (I think they used to be called dum-dums) at a time when she had her hands in the air and was trying to deliver on foot food aid to a village.

Courageously in 2008, December, when it was bitterly cold, she went back to help the injured. You saw her DVD outlining Israeli attacks upon civilians under eighteen, women and children being injured, dragging people from their homes, medical workers being targeted, hospitals being overwhelmed, and of the need for an international response, at least with sanctions. The whole of the Gaza strip was being targeted she said. She hoped in vain that people like her could get the government to respond I say “the government”, the governments to respond. They never did. The Israelis were targeting ambulances, she said, they would strike an area and when the ambulances arrived to collect the wounded they would strike again.

She spoke she spoke of the Israeli Army making ambulance workers collect the wounded four or five days after they were wounded by hand-drawn donkey carts. She started to work in the Al Quds Hospital, where the Israeli Army attacked with white phosphorous. Civilians got caught up in that because, thinking it was a lighting system, they went out into the street. The use of water to put out the phosphorous fires, of course, just made them burn the more because of the oxygen in the water. There were tanks and snipers in the street; people ran to the hospital for safety. A nine-year-old girl was brought in shot in the face by a sniper. Her DVD showed that child’s mother and sister. As a result of the Australian Ambassador intervening and telling the Israeli government she was in the hospital the Israelis said they would stop shelling the hospital within an hour, but they continued for a further twelve hours. Four to five hundred people were sheltering in the hospital. With the Israelis’ permission, but only to go on foot, the Red Cross tried to get those people to a school about a mile away, but by that time that school had been attacked. Later that day they had to evacuate the bedridden from the hospital as the roof was badly damaged by fire. She said F16s were used. She witnessed war crimes, she said, and those who supplied Israel had the blood of children on their hands.

Dr Lucas, the MP for Brighton Pavilion and a former EU MP, led an EU delegation to Gaza. She was really shocked by the scale of the destruction: families who had left loved ones, homes, properties, sitting crying outside the rubble of their homes with no food. She was incredibly impressed by the efforts of the International Solidarity Groups and the courage they showed in defending others. It became clear to her that war crimes were being committed indiscriminately against civilians, so when she came back she tried to do something about it. The EU have a Trade Association Agreement with Israel; it has a human rights clause in it which says it can be suspended if Israel violates human rights. Although, she said, suspending it might be rather symbolic it would at least carry a message to Israel. So she tried to get the EU Commission to enforce that clause, but guess what? The Commission refused. They did nothing whatsoever, she said, to uphold their own values and support the Palestinians in that way. Perhaps that was the most direct and greatest and most depressing indictment she found of the EU’s behaviour. She met Government officials in this country and tried to motivate the British Government into doing something, but because of the USA they were not willing to do so.

Because of the huge numbers of enquiries which she got in her EU office about EDO MBM she tried to investigate MBM. Her request under the Freedom of Information Act was refused. She tried to meet Mr. Hills, but the fact he demanded confidentiality in respect of the meeting and what she might learn of any meeting she, you may think quite rightly, refused to meet him on those terms, and as a result she concluded that what was happening at MBM was not above board. She said people in Brighton have done their best to make their voices heard in relation to MBM and have tried to influence the Council, but they have achieved nothing.

Finally, you have in respect of what happened the Goldstone Report. I have already summarised it, I am not going through it, save to say that it reaffirmed that in Gaza Israel were applying the Dahiyah doctrine…

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