Comments from Roundtable on Gaza

Below are opening comments I made at a Roundtable on Gaza on 25 September 2014, sponsored by the Glasgow Human Rights Network.

25 September 2014

Tonight, we have with us four experts from Glasgow on the Middle East and/or of international law and international relations to help us understand the recent developments and eruptions in Gaza and Palestine more generally. First, we have Robin Geiss who is Professor of International Law and Security. Second, is Christian Tams, Professor of International Law. Third, is Naomi Head who is a Lecturer in Politics. Finally, we have Keith Hammond who is a Lecturer in the Centre for Open Studies.

Before we turn to our panelists, I want to make a couple of opening remarks to set the scene for our discussion this evening. First, this topic is very emotionally laden, and people on all sides of the issue hold very strong views. Everybody is entitled to hold their views, but I ask that the discussion be held in a civil manner befitting Glasgow University, and that everybody is given the chance to speak uninterrupted and that everybody’s views are accorded equal respect – even if you fundamentally disagree.

Second, I think it is worth noting that this is the fourth autumn in a row that we have held an even focused on human rights in the Middle East. In 2011, we discussed the astounding events of the Arab Spring. In 2012, we came together with a perhaps somewhat more sober assessment of those events and their aftermath. Last year, we discussed Syria (and recent events have demonstrated we could easily have organised another event with that focus tonight). And tonight we turn our gaze to the most intractable of the many ongoing and interconnected conflicts in the Middle East – the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and its most recent eruption in Gaza. On the one hand, it is gratifying that so many of you have come out this evening – and to the other events. This indicates a significant level of interest and engagement. On the other hand, the fact that we have to keep returning to this region and these issues indicates that the Arab Spring has a long way to go to live up to it original expectations, and that political leaders and international institutions have not done a very good job of dealing with these conflicts.

Third, the title of this roundtable focuses on Gaza, and certainly when this roundtable was first conceived, all the world’s eyes were on Gaza. And the recent events have frequently been portrayed as just the most recent war in Gaza. Yet, this ignores a very fundamental fact – that this particular eruption in violence is tied into a decades-long conflict in Palestine, stretching back to 1948, when the state of Israel was first created, and then to 1967 when the occupation was more formalised as a result of the 1967 war. In the decades since then, there have been periodic attempts at resolving the broader conflict. The dynamics of conflict and occupation have not changed for the better. The occupation remains, and is a daily fact for the people in both Gaza and the West Bank. Yet, the two areas experience the occupation differently. In the West Bank, movement by Palestinians is severely constricted, and there are constant incursions on Palestinian territory, in particular as the Israeli settlements expand. In Gaza, the Israeli military has formally withdrawn, but as we have seen, reserves the right to intervene militarily whenever it chooses. It maintains that Gaza is not occupied, but given that Israel controls most of its land borders, as well as access by sea, and its airport is not functional, it is difficult to describe it as anything else. And since Israel does not recognise a Palestinian state, it is unclear what Gaza would be if it is not occupied territory. Perhaps our international lawyers can shed some light on this. But it uses this portrayal of Gazan self-governance to bolster its claims to self-defense against missiles and mortars emanating from Gaza, while questions of Gazan self-defense against an occupying force are ignored, as are the bigger questions of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Finally, a few statistics about the most recent military engagement in Gaza are in order. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2131 civilians have been killed in Operation Protective Edge. This included at least 1,473 civilians, 279 members of armed groups, and another 379 unknown. So at least 69% of those killed were civilians, and that percentage is probably higher, given that earlier in the fighting it appeared that around 80% of those killed were civilians. On the Israeli side, 71 people were killed. 66 of these were soldiers, 4 were civilians, and 1 was unknown. So around 6% of Israelis killed were civilian. Most Israelis killed were soldiers engaged in operations in Gaza. [As an addendum, I would also note that OCHA observes that: ‘The scale of damage resulting from the 50-day escalation in hostilities is unprecedented since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967.’]

I think one more statistic is relevant here. Between 2001 and August 29th of this year, 44 people in Israel have died from rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza. That is 2% of the people killed during Operation Protective Edge. And if you take into account two other Israeli operations in 2009 and 2012, it is around 1% of the Palestinians killed, again, the majority of whom were civilian. Further, of these 44, 30 were civilians, including 2 killed at a military post. During the most recent violence, 17 have been killed in Israel, with 12 of those killed at military targets. So, more than 125 Palestinians have been killed for every Israeli killed. Or at least 295 Palestinian civilians killed for every Israeli civilian killed. These figures are in no way meant to justify Hamas sending rockets into civilian areas in Israel. However, they do raise very significant issues of proportionality, which I am sure we will talk about more.

With that, I will turn it over to our speakers.

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