Israel's rule of lawlessness
By Ali Abunimah
The Jordan Times
August 9, 2001
ON MARCH 6, 1988, Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann, all
members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), were gunned down by a
British Army undercover squad on a street in Gibraltar, the British
colony at the southern tip of Spain. The two men and a woman were
felled with a hail of 29 bullets, 16 pumped into Savage alone.
The British government, then led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher,
maintained that the three had been en route to plant a massive car
bomb targeting a changing of the guard ceremony. Thatcher herself had
narrowly escaped death in an IRA bombing of her hotel in Brighton in
1984, an attack that struck at the heart of her government, killing
five people and injuring many more.
Yet even with the background of IRA violence, the Gibraltar killings
set off a debate that raged for years in the UK, as to whether the
Thatcher government operated an illegal "shoot to kill" policy -- a
policy of extrajudicial killings -- against IRA activists. The families
of the Gibraltar Three took their case to the European Court of Human
Rights, which ruled in September 1995 that although there was no
evidence that the UK had operated such a policy, the killings in
Gibraltar were unnecessary, even though the British soldiers honestly
believed they had to act to prevent a bombing. The court found that
the lethal shooting violated Article 2 of the European Convention on
Human Rights, which guarantees the right to life and outlaws
extrajudicial executions. The court ruled that the IRA members could
and should have been arrested rather than gunned down in cold blood.
Spanish Magistrate Baltasar Garzon, who gained international fame for
his pursuit of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, is
also engaged in investigations much less well-known and much closer to
Throughout the 1980s, the Spanish government, led by former Prime
Minister Felipe Gonzalez conducted a "dirty war" against the Basque
separatist group ETA, which had itself carried out many indiscriminate
killings and bombings targeting Spanish civilians, police and
politicians. Gonzalez, who led Spain for most of the period following
the post-Franco restoration of democracy, has seen his reputation
badly damaged by allegations and speculation about how much he knew or
was involved in the Spanish government's own campaign of kidnappings,
bombings and extrajudicial executions.
In April 2000, General Enrique Rodriguez Galindo, Spain's most
highly-decorated police officer, was sentenced to 71 years in prison
by a Madrid court for ordering the kidnapping, torture and killing of
two ETA members in 1983. The civil governor of the province of
Guipuzcoa, who merely visited the kidnapped men while General Galindo
was personally interrogating them, received an identical sentence. If
Judge Garzon has his way, these convictions will not be the last.
What these examples demonstrate is that in a real democracy, the
methods employed by gangsters and criminals, such as murder, are
impermissible for the state, even against its worst enemies. Few are
the leaders in a democracy who even if they were involved in such
horrors would boast about them. And the mere suspicion that a
democratically-elected leader might have behaved in such a way is
enough to set off a public outcry.
Then there is Israel. At a recent meeting of the central committee of
the Likud Party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, addressing hundreds of
delegates, boasted about the extrajudicial killings his government has
ordered. He read off a list of names of Palestinians assassinated by
Israeli army death squads, or helicopter gunships, and after each name
shouted "he's gone!" ("Bibi's back in town," Peretz Kidron, Middle
East International, July 27, 2001) Sharon's boasting was supposed to
mollify the delegates who were accusing him of being too soft and
demanding even more brutality.
Such a bloodcurdling spectacle is difficult to imagine even in the
worst dictatorship, let alone in a country calling itself a democracy,
as Israel does. What also distinguishes Israel from countries like the
UK and Spain is the near total absence of any dissent or outrage among
politicians and journalists, almost all of whom justify Israel's
assassination policy on the grounds of "self defence."
Of course it escapes their notice, when making such arguments, that a
country with an invasion army tens of thousands strong, belligerently
occupying millions of people and their land in violation of
international law and forcibly settling that land, is in an inherently
aggressive posture and cannot claim to be defending itself.
Yet the Israeli death campaign continues unabated. Global outrage and
strong condemnation from the United States followed the July 31
missile attack on Nablus which killed eight Palestinians, including
Ashraf and Bilal Khader, aged five and eight. Despite these protests,
and despite a widely publicised call from the Palestinian Authority
for an end to attacks within Israel, an assassination -- which Israel
claims was aimed at someone else -- very nearly killed West Bank Fateh
leader Marwan Barghouthi on August 4.
The following day, Israeli missiles were more "successful," killing
20-year-old Amer Hudire as he was driving in his car near Tulkarem.
Although it would scarcely provide a justification, Israel does not
even bother to claim that all of its extrajudicial killings are
intended to prevent future Palestinian "attacks." Rather, Israel has
boasted that many of them are to punish the victims for attacks Israel
claims they planned or carried out in the past. Thus, Israel is
admitting openly that it is acting as judge, jury and executioner in a
manner that is wholly illegal under international law.
The cases in Spain and the UK on the one hand, and Israel on the
other, are not entirely analogous. The expectation of countries like
the former, is that when they are engaged in a domestic conflict,
nothing can justify abandoning the rule of law. The expectation from
Israel, however, is not that its occupation should be more just, but
that it should end. As long as it persists, however, Israel and its
leaders must be held accountable for their abuses under international
The Fourth Geneva Convention, which the UN Security Council has
repeatedly reaffirmed applies to the Israeli-occupied territories,
states that all signatories (of which Israel is one) "specifically
agree that each of them is prohibited from taking any measure of such
a character as to cause the physical suffering or extermination of
protected persons in their hands. This prohibition applies not only to
murder, torture, corporal punishments, mutilation and medical or
scientific experiments not necessitated by the medical treatment of a
protected person, but also to any other measures of brutality whether
applied by civilian or military agents." (Article 32).
The convention also explicitly bans "collective penalties" and "all
measures of intimidation or of terrorism" by the occupying power, and
affirms that "reprisals against protected persons and their property
are prohibited" (Article 33).
Violations of these and other provisions of international law are war
crimes. Much public attention has been focused on proceedings being
brought against Sharon in Belgium for his role in the 1982 Sabra and
Shatilla massacres. And human rights groups in Denmark are attempting
to pursue Israel's ambassador-designate Carmi Gillon for allegations
he was involved in torture when he worked for Israel's secret police.
These developments have worried Israel's foreign ministry enough that
it has warned senior Israeli officials to be careful when travelling
But it is not only for crimes past that Sharon, his fellow ministers
and Israel's senior army officers should beware when they venture out
of their fortified redoubt. With each new extrajudicial execution,
they are adding to the potential list of charges against them. It is
highly doubtful that Israel has a Judge Garzon, or a judiciary that
could bring such charges against its own leaders. So it is up to the
international community to ensure that Israel's crimes do not go
The question remains, though, what it would take for those countries
that crow loudest about human rights to be up to the challenge of
holding Israel and its leaders accountable.
The writer is an analyst based in the United States.