By abstaining from a crucial vote that would have allowed the ICC to investigate Israeli war crimes, India sends signals of a disturbingly different stance towards Palestine
A year ago, Israel began its assault on the Gaza Strip. More than 2,100 Palestinians died in the bombing — seven out of ten were civilians, according to the United Nations. Israeli bombs killed 500 Palestinian children and orphaned 1,500 more. During the war, the UN Human Rights Council empanelled a commission to investigate the conduct of both the Israeli state and the non-state Palestinian resistance. That panel, led by former New York Supreme Court Judge Mary McGowan Davis, has now produced a report that accuses the Israeli government of actions tantamount to war crimes. The Davis Report said that Israeli conduct was “reflective of a broader policy, approved at least tacitly by decision-makers at the highest levels of the government of Israel”.
Little wonder then that a majority of the UN Human Rights Council forwarded this forensic report to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for further action. When Israel’s bombing ended in August 2014, the ICC’s Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said that she would not open a file on Israel because Palestine was not a member of the ICC. Her refusal to investigate war crimes by Israel, she said, was not “due to political pressure”. Palestine joined the ICC in April 2015. The Human Rights Council’s submission to the ICC opens the door for Ms. Bensouda to live by the standard she has set herself. An investigation of Israel should now commence.
The Davis Report is only the most recent of the many UN investigations into Israel’s 2014 bombing of Gaza. On April 27, the UN Secretary-General released a summary report on Israeli attacks on UN schools that had been used as shelters in the war. In none of the seven cases looked at in detail did Palestinian militants use the schools as a launch pad for their retaliation attacks. The UN had given the Israelis precise GPS coordinates for these schools, which were nonetheless targeted. Pierre Krahenbühl, the Commissioner General for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which runs the schools, said at the time of one of the attacks, “Today the world stands disgraced. I condemn in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces”. These words were validated by the UN summary report from April and in the Davis Report.
What the Davis Report found was that Israel’s military deliberately targeted civilian areas, hitting residential buildings, “which are prima facie civilian objects immune from attack”. Israel’s assaults on homes increased after 2009. As an indicator, in the 2009 war, 14 per cent of civilian casualties were women, while in this war, that increased to 20 per cent. Chillingly, the Davis Report did not study “attacks by Israel on United Nations shelters, medical facilities, ambulances, and other critical infrastructure” because “these patterns have been a recurring reality in this and prior conflicts”. In other words, Israel has made it a habit to bomb hospitals and power plants to inflict punishment on the Palestinians — a crime against the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The UN was not alone in its allegations. The Israeli group Breaking the Silence released a report on May 5 that documented statements from Israeli soldiers who had taken part in the attack on Gaza. One infantry sergeant said, “Anything inside the Gaza Strip is a threat. The area has to be sterilised, empty of people, and if we don’t see someone waving a white flag, screaming, “I give up” or something, then he’s a threat and there’s authorisation to open fire.” Breaking the Silence’s Yuli Novak said, “A troubling picture arises of a policy of indiscriminate fire that led to the deaths of innocent civilians.”
Strikingly, India abstained in its vote at the Human Rights Council. It joined Kenya, Ethiopia, Paraguay and Macedonia — all lobbied by Israel over the course of the year. The U.S. was the only country to vote against the motion to accept the Davis Report and send the file over to the ICC. Forty-one states, including the eight sitting European members, voted to censure Israel. Last year, India had voted in support of the Human Rights Council resolution to set up the commission to investigate war crimes. In the debate last year, India’s ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Dilip Sinha, bemoaned the “heavy air strikes in Gaza and the disproportionate use of force resulting in the tragic loss of civilian lives”. Now India has decided to abstain. Why?
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) says that there has been no change in its policy towards the struggle of the Palestinians. The reason for the abstention is that India is not a signatory of the Rome Statute that set up the ICC. The MEA claims that India has a policy not to vote for a resolution that refers a country to the ICC. But — as the record shows — India has voted at least twice for UN Human Rights Council resolutions that do refer cases to the ICC. Both these cases are about allegations of Syrian government violations in its civil war — once on March 23, 2012, and again on June 1, 2012. The principled stand to refrain from collaboration with the ICC does not seem as clear as suggested by the MEA. China, by the way, is also not a signatory to the Rome Statute. Yet, China voted with the majority to accept the Davis report. Why did India vote to send the Syrian government to the ICC but not the Israeli government?
One suggested answer is political. Israel has pinned its hopes on the Narendra Modi government to break India’s ties with the Palestinians and join the United States, Palau and Nauru in the pro-Israel bloc in the UN. The Bharatiya Janata Party and its ancestors have called for close ties with Israel since 1948, largely because of their antipathy to Muslims. Mr. Modi has already suggested that he would be the first Indian head of government to visit Israel. This new alignment could very well be signalled by India’s abstention on this vote. Suggestions of principle by the MEA are well and good, but these might not contain the entire story. Other, less noble, motivations might be at play.
Immunity or accountability?
On June 14, Israel released its own report on the war, which suggested that it had committed no war crimes. This is part of its campaign to whitewash the war and the continued occupation of Palestinian lands. Israel’s settlement activity and security walls in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its throttling of Gaza by embargo have rendered the “two-state” solution moot. There is no possibility for the creation of Palestine in the moth-eaten land that remains. A “one-state” solution is equally impossible if Israel insists that it is a “Jewish State”, an ethno-nationalist concept that denies the rights of Palestinians inside Israel. Israeli policy directly leads to endless occupation and punctuated wars. That is why the Davis Report was concerned that nothing would come of their work, since “impunity prevails across the boards for violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law allegedly committed by Israeli forces, whether it be in the context of active hostilities in Gaza or killings, torture and ill-treatment in the West Bank.”
Pressure on Israel to change its policy direction could come from an ICC investigation. India’s abstention does not help the situation in West Asia. In fact, it has given the Israeli policymakers respite, and has betrayed the slim hopes of the Palestinian people.
(Vijay Prashad teaches International Studies at Trinity College. He is the editor of Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation (2015).)