Armed Conflicts, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, North America

POLITICS: Rights Group Calls for Israel/Hamas Arms Embargo

Daniel Luban

NEW YORK, Feb 23 2009 (IPS) - A prominent international human rights organisation has called for an arms embargo against both Israel and Hamas after finding evidence that both sides used foreign-supplied arms to commit war crimes during the recent conflict in Gaza.

In a report released Monday, Amnesty International found that weapons produced in the U.S. and Europe, including white phosphorus shells, were used in “indiscriminate” Israeli attacks that killed civilians in Gaza. In addition to a U.N.-backed embargo, the group called on states to unilaterally suspend arms transfers to all parties in the conflict, and to take steps to hold perpetrators accountable for war crimes committed during the three-week war.

While critics of the Israeli military campaign have made similar charges since it began on Dec. 27, the Amnesty International report is likely to carry special weight due both to the organisation’s stature and to the extensive fact-finding mission in Gaza and southern Israel that preceded its publication.

“As the major supplier of weapons to Israel, the USA has a particular obligation to stop any supply that contributes to gross violations of the laws of war and of human rights,” said Malcolm Smart, Middle East director for Amnesty International, in a statement accompanying the report. “The Obama Administration should immediately suspend U.S. military aid to Israel”.

The organisation’s fact-finding mission, conducted during and after the fighting, found “evidence of war crimes and other serious violations of international law by all parties to the conflict”.

The report found that both sides conducted indiscriminate attacks, which are defined as war crimes under the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions. “Indiscriminate” attacks include both those directed at civilian targets and those which can be expected to cause an excessive amount of civilian collateral damage in relation to the military objective.

On the Palestinian side, these attacks consisted of the firing of rockets – most locally made, but others foreign in origin – by Hamas and other militant groups at towns in southern Israel.

On the Israeli side, indiscriminate attacks resulted from the use of weapons considered acceptable in conventional warfare against the tightly-packed civilian population of Gaza, as well as from the use of banned or contested weapons such as white phosphorus.

The fact-finding mission found white phosphorus shells scattered throughout the Gaza Strip with markings indicating that they were U.S.-made M825A1 munitions.

White phosphorus is permitted as a smokescreen under international law, but is forbidden for use against human targets. The Amnesty mission recorded several incidents of white phosphorus shells striking civilian targets, including private residences and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City.

The report also found that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) used several other weapons during the conflict that could be expected to cause indiscriminate civilian casualties when used in highly-populated areas.

These included flechettes – thousands of small metal darts packed into tank artillery shells – as well as “a new type of missile, seemingly launched from unmanned drones, which explodes large numbers of tiny sharp-edged metal cubes”.

These new missiles, the report noted, “appear designed to cause maximum injury and, in some respects, seem to be a more sophisticated version of the ball- bearings or nails and bolts” that are frequently used in suicide bombings.

Due to the evidence of war crimes committed by both sides, Amnesty called for the U.N. Security Council to implement immediately a comprehensive arms embargo “until effective mechanisms are in place to ensure that weapons or munitions and other military equipment will not be used to commit serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law”.

They also called on individual member states to halt unilaterally their arms transfers to the parties to the conflict – a step aimed most notably at the U.S., which is by far the largest supplier of arms to Israel.

The U.S. has provided Israel with nearly 20 billion dollars in direct military aid since 2002, and will provide an additional 30 billion dollars in military aid under the terms of a 10-year agreement signed in 2007.

Much of the key equipment used by the IDF in the Gaza bombing campaign is produced in the U.S., including the F-16 fighter and Apache AH-64 helicopter. Many of the controversial weapons used in the campaign, such as white phosphorus shells and flechettes, also originate in the U.S.

“Put simply, Israel’s military intervention in the Gaza Strip has been equipped to a large extent by U.S.-supplied weapons, munitions and military equipment paid for with U.S. taxpayers’ money”, the Amnesty report stated.

However, many European countries are also significant providers of arms and military assistance to Israel, including France, Germany, and Romania.

While most of the rockets fired by Hamas into southern Israel are produced locally, the group also reportedly uses Russian-, Iranian-, and perhaps Chinese-made rockets that are smuggled into the Gaza Strip through Egypt.

Although it is widely believed that Iran and Syria have provided arms to Hamas, there is little reliable information about the extent of state support for the group.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly responded to the Amnesty report with a statement denouncing the report as “biased”. The statement charges that the report “ignores the basic fact that Hamas is a terror organisation” and fails to pay sufficient attention to Hamas’s war crimes when assessing the Israeli response.

Hamas similarly denounced the report as “unbalanced and unfair”. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that it “make[s] equal between the real criminal and the victim”.

International law experts, however, note that in assessing whether a party committed war crimes, the legal status of their opponent is irrelevant – as is the question of whether the opponent also committed war crimes.

“Shouldn’t Hamas’s evident willingness to commit war crimes be taken into account when Israel is accused of committing war crimes in retaliation? The answer is no, for one simple reason: innocent civilians deserve to be protected from (unjustifiable) harm regardless of the criminal behavior of their governments,” University of Auckland law professor Kevin Jon Heller wrote soon after the outbreak of conflict in January.

“That is why Hamas’s direct attacks on Israeli civilians are war crimes, and that is why disproportionate attacks on Palestinian combatants are war crimes.”

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