Gaza and the Bipartisan War on Human Rights
During and after Israel's war on Gaza, bipartisan congressional majorities have worked to undermine war crimes investigations by the United Nations and human rights groups
October 20, 2014
Israel’s seven weeks of attacks this summer on heavily populated civilian neighborhoods
in Gaza has led to unprecedented concern among Americans who, while still broadly
supportive of Israel, found the attacks to be disproportionate
Close to 1,500
Palestinian civilians in Gaza were killed in the Israeli attacks – more of
500 of whom were children – and 18,000 homes were destroyed, leaving over 100,000
people homeless. Despite this devastating civilian toll, leading Democrats in
Washington have joined Republicans in claiming that Israel’s actions were
legitimate acts of self-defense against military targets, dismissing reports
by reputable Israeli and international human rights groups saying otherwise.
In July and August, the two houses of Congress passed four resolutions and
forwarded a series of letters providing unqualified backing for the massive
Israeli air and ground assault, echoing the Israeli government’s justifications
for the war and directly contradicting findings by United Nations officials
on the ground, as well as investigations by both Israeli and international human
What is particularly shocking is not just the vehemence with which the vast
majority of congresspersons so enthusiastically supported a military operation
condemned by most of the international community, but that they went on record
making demonstrably false accusations despite being repeatedly confronted with
evidence directly contradicting their claims.
The resolutions and letters seem to assume that while Hamas was guilty of terrorism
in the deaths of the five civilians killed by Hamas rockets inside Israel, the
Israeli government bore absolutely no responsibility for the deaths of nearly
1,500 Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli ordnance inside the Gaza Strip.
Indeed, members of Congress have repeatedly asserted that the Palestinian side
was somehow responsible for the deaths of its own people at Israel’s hands.
On July 25, Amnesty International reported
that "Israeli forces have carried out attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians,
using precision weaponry such as drone-fired missiles, as well as munitions
such as artillery, which cannot be precisely targeted, on very densely populated
residential areas." Israeli forces "directly attacked thousands
of homes," including high-rise apartment blocks, killing whole families. Observing
that civilians in the Gaza Strip had "nowhere to escape military operations
by Israeli forces," Amnesty provided ample evidence that Israeli forces were
engaging in "indiscriminate attacks on urban areas using artillery and bombs."
In a particularly serious breach of international law, Amnesty further
reported that "ambulances and medical personnel on their way to collect
the wounded appear to have been deliberately targeted on several occasions,
and hospitals have been destroyed by shelling from tanks and missiles."
The congressional reaction to reports like Amnesty International’s was
On July 29, the U.S. House of Representatives, with more than 100
co-sponsors from both parties, passed a
resolution by unanimous consent insisting that the Israeli attacks were
exclusively "focused on terrorist targets" and that Israel "goes to extraordinary
lengths to target only terrorist actors." Cosponsors included such prominent
Democrats as Alan Grayson (FL), Jared Polis (CO), Eric Swalwell (CA), Richard
Neal (MA), Joseph Kennedy (MA), Tulsi Gabbard (HI), Jan Schakowsky (IL), Brad
Sherman (CA), Elliot Engel (NY), and Debbie Wasserman-Schulz (FL). Two days
later, Senate majority leader Harry Reid introduced
a resolution, also pushed through by unanimous consent, claiming that "the
Government of Israel has taken significant steps to protect civilians in Gaza"
and that "Israel’s attacks have focused on terrorist targets."
These were just two in a series of similar bipartisan resolutions and public
letters that went through Capitol Hill as part of a concerted campaign to discredit
human rights groups, journalists, medical workers, UN officials, and any other
eyewitness who discredited the Israeli government’s talking points.
Amnesty International certainly wasn’t alone in implicating Israeli forces
in war crimes. Human
Rights Watch cited evidence of Israel "blatantly violating the laws of war
designed to spare civilians," including by attacking heavily populated neighborhoods,
bombing UN-run schools, and shooting at fleeing civilians. The Israeli human
B’Tselem challenged its government’s claims that it had "no intention of
harming civilians," noting that "after more than three weeks of lethal bombardments
by Israel in the Gaza Strip which have killed hundreds of civilians and wiped
out dozens of families, this claim has become meaningless." UN
officials also charged Israeli forces with engaging in serious violations
of international law following a series of attacks against UN schools where
Palestinians were seeking refuge, prompting a bipartisan
letter signed by 149 House members to the UN secretary general insisting
that "Israel practices the greatest caution trying to prevent civilian casualties."
These human rights groups and UN officials also strongly denounced Palestinian
militants for firing rockets into civilian areas in Israel and for keeping armaments
and soldiers in close proximity to civilian areas in Gaza, as well as for their
refusal to accept several ceasefire proposals that could have ended the carnage
earlier. Congress had no problem with that. By contrast, since Israel is considered
an important strategic ally of the United States and a lucrative market for
US arms manufacturers, both major political parties made it a priority to lie
and cover up for Israel’s war crimes, effectively insisting that Amnesty International,
Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, and the United Nations were simply wrong and that
they – from the comfort of their air-conditioned offices in Washington,
DC – somehow knew better.
The Human Shields Myth
The Israeli government has repeatedly claimed that the large number of civilians
killed by its forces were a result of Hamas using "human shields," defined under
international law as "Utilizing the presence of a civilian or other protected
person to render certain points, areas, or military forces immune from military
No eyewitnesses in the Gaza Strip during the war found any evidence of this,
however. For example, in late July, New
York Times reporters in Gaza noted, "There is no evidence that Hamas
and other militants force civilians to stay in areas that are under attack."
Likewise, Jeremy Bowen of the BBC that he saw "no evidence" for
"Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields."
According to reporters from The
Independent and The
Guardian, it was a "myth" that Hamas forced civilians to
stay in their neighborhoods during Israeli attacks. Contrary to accusations
by members of Congress, the Gazans who failed to heed Israeli warnings to evacuate
did so because areas Israel had declared safe were being attacked as well.
Similarly, on July 25, Amnesty
International noted that it had no evidence "that Palestinian civilians
have been intentionally used by Hamas or Palestinian armed groups during the
current hostilities to 'shield’ specific locations or military personnel or
equipment from Israeli attacks." Preliminary investigations by the United Nations,
Human Rights Watch, and other groups – while noting that Hamas had illegally engaged
in hostilities in close proximity to populated areas and had stored weaponry
in unoccupied homes and schools – found no evidence that Hamas had actually engaged
in actions that met the widely accepted legal definition of using human shields.
Again, the response in Congress was swift: In less than a week, Senate Majority
Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pushed through a
Senate resolution claiming that "Hamas intentionally uses civilians as human
shields" and condemning the United Nations Human Rights Council for not saying
so. Similarly, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) – who serves, ironically, as chair
of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee focusing on human rights – drafted
a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, signed by 34 of her
colleagues, insisting that "Hamas is using Palestinian men, women, and children
as human shields to deter Israeli attacks." When I contacted them, neither senator’s
office was able to provide any evidence backing their claims, nor did they explain
how they were able to somehow locate information that journalists, UN officials,
and human rights monitors in Gaza were unable to find.
resolution went one step further, claiming that Hamas had "encouraged Palestinians
to gather on the roofs of their homes to act as human shields." Without any
regard for the evidence, the resolution – also adopted by unanimous consent – put
the House on record calling on "the international community to recognize and
condemn Hamas’ breaches of international law through the use of human
letter signed by 149 members even insisted, in reference to rockets targeting
Israel (and without any supporting evidence), that Hamas "publicly declares
it the duty of every Palestinian to put his or her life on the line to protect
Protocol I of the Fourth Geneva Convention makes it clear that even if one
party to a conflict is in fact shielding itself behind civilians, such a violation
"shall not release the [other] Parties to the conflict from their legal
obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians." In
other words, even if Hamas actually had used civilians as shields, it would
still have been a war crime for Israel to kill them. To use a domestic example:
if bank robbers were holding tellers and customers hostage while shooting at
the police, the police could not get away with killing the hostages along with
the criminals. Indeed, the implications of such broad bipartisan support in
Congress for such a concept are chilling, given that this rationale could be
replicated by law enforcement officials here in the United States – particularly
given the militarization
of local police forces in the
name of fighting terrorism.
There is little question that these broadly supported bipartisan efforts were
designed not just to defend Israel’s war on Gaza, but to discredit empirical
investigations by human rights organizations overall. For example, one of the
resolutions passed this summer – in addition to making unsubstantiated claims
about Hamas – also claimed that "throughout the summer of 2006 conflict between
the State of Israel and the terrorist organization Hezbollah, Hezbollah forces
utilized human shields in violation of international humanitarian law."
In reality, empirical investigations during and following the conflict by several
reputable investigative bodies found absolutely no evidence supporting this
charge. A detailed study
by Human Rights Watch published at the end of the fighting in Lebanon found
"no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to
protect them from retaliatory IDF attack." Similarly, Amnesty International,
in a well-documented report
of its own, observed that "While the presence of Hezbollah’s fighters
and short-range weapons within civilian areas is not contested, this in itself
is not conclusive evidence of intent to use civilians as 'human shields’,
any more than the presence of Israeli soldiers in a kibbutz is in itself evidence
of the same war crime." In addition, Amnesty reported that while Hezbollah
did store weapons and fire from civilian areas, it was only long after most
of the civilian population had been evacuated. Subsequent reports for the US
Army War College and elsewhere also failed to find any evidence for the
charge, which was nonetheless repeated by the House resolution years later.
In apparent anticipation of the US
bombing in Syria and Iraq, which would commence soon thereafter, the bipartisan
House majority also went on record saying that Islamic State forces "typically
use innocent civilians as human shields." Following the logic from this and
other resolutions supporting Israel’s attacks on Palestinian civilians in Gaza,
this appears to have been a preemptive effort to exempt US forces from any moral
or legal culpability for the deaths of Syrian and Iraqi civilians caused by
the imminent bombing of urban areas in those countries as well.
Attacks on the United Nations
Attacking the United Nations used to be the reserve of right-wing Republicans.
Under the current congressional leadership, however, it has become a bipartisan
affair, at least when concerns are raised about war crimes by a right-wing ally
of the United States.
A particular target of the bipartisan attacks was UN
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who on July 20 condemned Israel’s devastating
bombing and shelling of the Shijaiyah neighborhood in Gaza – which resulted in
scores of civilian casualties, including journalists and health care workers – as
"atrocious." In response, Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Kelly
Ayotte (R-NH) drafted a strongly
worded letter, signed by a bipartisan group of colleagues, insisting that
the Shijaiyah massacre was a "measured response of a nation-state trying to
defend its citizens" and that Israel was actually "undertaking extraordinary
efforts to avoid civilian casualties while Hamas cynically uses other Palestinians
as human shields." The letter went on to claim that Ban’s expression of
concern about civilian deaths "undercuts the legitimate right of nation-states
to defend their citizens."
Another UN official targeted by Capitol Hill was Navi Pillay, the highly
regarded UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who criticized
Israeli forces for their "disregard for international humanitarian law and
for the right to life." Senator Boxer and her allies accused Pillay and the
United Nations of having a "clearly political and biased agenda," despite the
fact that Pillay had made similar
accusations against Hamas for failing to distinguish between civilian and
military targets. During her tenure at the United Nations, Pillay had also roundly
condemned war crimes and other human rights abuses by North Korea, Syria, Sudan,
Sri Lanka, and other countries, raising no objections from Congress. According
to 35 senators, however, the objections raised by Pillay and other UN officials
were not due to evidence that Israel had also committed war crimes, but to the
UN’s supposed opposition to "The fact that Israel has effective defenses
against the rockets aimed at its citizens."
Another target of congressional wrath has been the United Nations Refugee and
Works Agency (UNRWA), the relief and development agency that provides education,
health care, social services, and other assistance for Palestinian refugees
in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere in the Middle East. UNRWA Commissioner General
Pierre Krahenbuhl has repeatedly condemned Hamas for a number of illegal activities,
including storing weapons in two unoccupied UN schools, and called
for an end to the indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza aimed at Israel.
But when Krahenbuhl also noted
that Israeli forces were acting "contrary to international humanitarian law"
UN schools housing refugees, Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Mark
Kirk (R-IL) co-authored a bipartisan letter
to Secretary of State John Kerry calling for an investigation into the allegedly
"one-sided statements from UNRWA leadership that unjustly condemn Israel." The
six Israeli attacks on UNRWA schools – which killed 46 civilians, including 10
UN staff members – took place after UNRWA officials notified the Israelis of their
exact locations and the absence of any Hamas military equipment or activity.
The primary target of Congress was the United Nations Human Rights Council
(UNHRC), which had been praised by many in Congress only months earlier for
its efforts to expose war crimes by the Assad regime in Syria. The UNHRC found
itself the target of bipartisan wrath when it voted to establish a
commission of inquiry looking into "all violations of international
humanitarian law and international human rights law" in the hostilities in Gaza.
The United States was the only one of the UNHRC’s 47 members to vote against
establishing the commission.
While unfortunately only mentioning Israel by name in establishing the commission,
the language of the
resolution condemned "all violence against civilians wherever it occurred,"
explicitly including the killing of Israeli civilians as a result of Hamas rocket
fire. Commission chair William Schabas, a respected Canadian human rights lawyer,
noted that the mandate is "clear that violations of international humanitarian
law by all participants in the conflict would be covered." Similarly, Pillay
noted that "resolution S-21/1 of the Human Rights Council mandates the independent,
international commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international
humanitarian law and international human rights law." She added that there
was "increasing evidence of incidents that may constitute war crimes on
In response to the establishment of the commission, nearly 150 members of the
House signed a July 25 letter
to Pillay protesting the UNHRC’s decision "to unjustly probe alleged war
crimes" by a nation simply "defending its citizens from rocket attacks and terror
tunnels" while failing to condemn Hamas’ fictitious "continuing use of human
shields." Similarly, the July 31 Senate letter
to Ban denounced the UNHRC for investigating possible Israeli war crimes, insisting
that Israel has "worked assiduously to minimize civilian casualties" and claiming
that the UN had allegedly "turned a blind eye to Hamas’ brazen and depraved
use of civilians as human shields."
The full chambers of both the
House and Senate
went on record condemning the UN investigation as well, with Democratic leader
Reid, on the Senate floor, declaring
he was "disgusted" that the UNHRC would adopt a resolution "accusing Israel
of human rights violations in the ongoing Gaza conflict," calling such accusations
"anti-Israel." The desperation with which both political parties in Congress
have rushed to block a UN inquiry exemplifies their determination to minimize
the availability of data that would expose how their previous resolutions and
letters were essentially efforts to hide the truth.
Terror Tunnels and Other Lies
Other mistruths abound.
For example, Senate
Resolution 526 justified Israel’s war in part on the alleged necessity
"to destroy the matrix of tunnels Hamas uses to smuggle weapons and Hamas fighters
into Israel to carry out terrorist attacks."
reports seem to indicate that while the tunnels – which were primarily used
to smuggle civilian goods into the besieged enclave – have at times been used
to attack Israeli soldiers, no Israeli civilians have been subjected to attacks
through the tunnels. For example, an Israeli
magazine’s investigation concluded that in all six Hamas attacks launched
through the tunnels, "Hamas’ targets were IDF soldiers, not the communities."
Leading Israeli military correspondent Alon
Ben-David explicitly said that "there is no doubt their goal is to hurt
and capture soldiers – not civilians." Similarly, a senior
military source told Israel’s Army Radio that "all tunnels were aimed towards
military targets and not Gaza-perimeter communities."
None of the resolution cosponsors I contacted could cite any terrorist attacks
carried out from those tunnels, yet none of these senators who supported the
resolution have thus far distanced themselves from this claim.
Another misleading statement came in Senate
Resolution 498, co-sponsored by 79
out of 100 members of the Senate, which accused Hamas’ secular Fatah rivals
of sharing responsibility for attacks on Israel, despite the consensus that
the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority desperately wanted to prevent another Gaza
war. Working on the absurd assumption that the rival parties in the newly formed
Palestinian coalition government were somehow responsible for each other’s actions,
the resolution insisted that "the unity governing agreement implies Fatah’s
and the Palestinian Authority’s support for Hamas’ belligerent actions
against Israel" and called on "Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
to dissolve the unity governing arrangement with Hamas."
In reality, the cabinet of the technocratic "unity" government does not have
a single Hamas member, and the Palestinian Authority has maintained its commitment
to past agreements, including non-belligerence and full recognition of Israel.
As the New
York Times observed, those "who oppose a two-state solution understand
that a unified Palestinian leadership is a prerequisite for any lasting peace"
and would thus seek to undermine it. (Ironically, Congress has been willing
to spend billions of dollars propping up the disparate coalition government
of Iraq, which has included in its ruling coalition members affiliated with
the radical Islamist Mahdi Army, notorious for acts of terrorism and attacks
on US personnel.)
Additional misleading information has concerned the alleged role of outside
actors in supporting the Hamas attacks. For example, one
of the House resolutions contains the bizarre claim that the Syrian government
was providing "material support and training to Hamas" in its "rocket and mortar
attacks from Gaza." Not only is there no evidence for this charge, but Hamas
and the Syrian regime are now bitter rivals; Hamas has not even had a diplomatic
office in the Syrian capital of Damascus since 2011. Indeed, the Palestinian
Islamist group has denounced the Assad regime and thrown its support to armed
rebel groups seeking its overthrow. Hamas is on much friendlier terms with other
Middle Eastern governments – such as Turkey and Qatar – that are considered
US allies. Again, requests to congressional offices to back up this claim were
The Broad Agenda
When it comes to Israel, both parties allow ideology to trump the facts. A
majority of both Democrats and Republicans are determined to attack the United
Nations and discredit human rights groups if they dare document war crimes by
the right-wing Israeli government.
This is nothing new, however. Back in the 1980s, members of Congress (primarily
Republicans, but some Democrats as well) also tried to undermine the credibility
of the UN and human rights organizations when they provided evidence of war
crimes by US allies in the Central America. In recent decades, leaders in both
parties have also covered for atrocities committed by allied governments in
Indonesia, Turkey, Colombia, Rwanda, and beyond.
What’s different today is that liberal and progressive groups that used
to expose "Death Squad Democrats" along with Republicans who defended such governments
are now giving unconditional support to Democratic defenders of Israel’s
Barbara Boxer, perhaps the most outspoken Democratic supporter of Israel’s
actions in the Senate, has been named a "progressive hero" by such groups as
MoveOn and Democracy for America. Peace Action has endorsed Oregon Democrat
Jeff Merkley, whom – despite his co-sponsorship of Senate Resolution 498
– they label as a "peace leader." Backers of these and other resolutions
covering up for Israeli war crimes – including Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL)
and Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Al Franken (D-MN), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and
Mazie Hirono (D-HI) – have been labeled "bold progressives" by the Progressive
Change Campaign Committee, which is raising money for their reelection. Meanwhile,
MoveOn has endorsed Sens. Mark Udall (D-CO), Kay Hagan (D-NC), and other unconditional
supporters of Israel’s actions.
While most Americans are still broadly supportive of Israel, only a
minority agree that Hamas was mostly responsible for this summer’s violence.
Even in the early weeks of the conflict, when sympathy for Israel was strongest,
only 29 percent of Democrats surveyed agreed Hamas was mostly at fault, a demonstration
that the vast majority of Democrats in Congress – who have gone on record insisting
that Hamas was solely responsible – are at odds with their constituents. This
gap is particularly apparent among the core Democratic constituencies, such
as liberals, minorities, women, and young people, whose enthusiasm is needed
to get the vote out in November. Already, there are signs that the strident
support by most congressional Democrats in defense of Israeli war crimes has
alienated some of the party’s base – particularly among young
people, who tend to trust human rights groups over politicians.
Still, it’s important to note that not everyone in Congress supported
these right-wing initiatives. Scores of House and Senate members, particularly
progressive Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans, refused to do so.
Though four of these resolutions were adopted by a parliamentary procedure known
as "unanimous consent," it does not mean they had unanimous support. While technically
anyone present could block it by demanding a roll call vote, such resolutions
are often pushed through without advance warning when hardly anyone is on the
floor. Indeed, the very fact that the party leadership went to some lengths
to avoid virtually any roll call votes on the war may have stemmed from an awareness
that a growing number of members from both sides of the aisle are reluctant
to go on record supporting war crimes.
The bottom line, though, is that there is currently a large majority of both
parties willing to undermine and discredit UN agencies and reputable human rights
groups in their investigations of war crimes and suppress the reporting and
enforcement of international humanitarian law.
The bipartisan implication that, in the name of fighting terrorism, a government
can legitimately engage in the massive bombardment of urban areas where 70 percent
of the casualties are civilians goes well beyond Israel and Palestine. Unfortunately,
the willingness of supposedly "progressive" activist groups to provide unconditional
support for the reelection campaigns of those pushing this kind of agenda shows
these politicians that they have little to lose when they do.
Stephen Zunes, a Santa Cruz resident, writes for PeaceVoice,
is a professor of Politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the
University of San Francisco.