The war against Gaza’s civilians must be stopped … revenge is not justice!

In this article originally published on October 15, Susan Pashkoff condemns the horrific violence perpetrated by both Hamas and Israel in the recent conflict, arguing that the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza's civilians by Israel amounts to illegal collective punishment. While acknowledging the context of Palestinian oppression, she stresses that no cause justifies attacks on civilians. Pashkoff calls for an immediate ceasefire, the end of apartheid in Israel, and international solidarity with innocent Palestinians facing displacement and humanitarian catastrophe.


One never likes to hear about human created atrocities. Yet sometimes we are forced to do so; human atrocities have happened, continue to happen and will continue to happen until human beings stop using violence against each other. Until we find ways of addressing conflict beyond the use of violence, these atrocities will continue. Unfortunately, humans face violence of all forms regularly;  rather than societies which have transcended all forms of violence, we regularly witness it. Things that we do not even recognise as violence of an economic, political, and social nature are part and parcel of the world as we know it. Unfortunately, we also know that violence begets violence. 

Judith Butler’s excellent article on the war raises some of my own thoughts during this time (I strongly encourage you to read the whole article):

“Personally, I defend a politics of non-violence, in the knowledge that it cannot possibly operate as an absolute principle to be applied on all occasions. I maintain that liberation struggles that practise non-violence help to create the non-violent world in which we all want to live. I deplore the violence unequivocally at the same time as I, like so many others, want to be part of imagining and struggling for true equality and justice in the region, the kind that would compel groups like Hamas to disappear, the occupation to end, and new forms of political freedom and justice to flourish. Without equality and justice, without an end to the state violence conducted by a state, Israel, that was itself founded in violence, no future can be imagined, no future of true peace – not, that is, ‘peace’ as a euphemism for normalisation, which means keeping structures of inequality, rightlessness and racism in place. But such a future cannot come about without remaining free to name, describe and oppose all the violence, including Israeli state violence in all its forms, and to do so without fear of censorship, criminalisation, or of being maliciously accused of antisemitism. The world I want is one that would oppose the normalisation of colonial rule and support Palestinian self-determination and freedom, a world that would, in fact, realise the deepest desires of all the inhabitants of those lands to live together in freedom, non-violence, equality and justice. This hope no doubt seems naive, even impossible, to many. Nevertheless, some of us must rather wildly hold to it, refusing to believe that the structures that now exist will exist for ever. For this, we need our poets and our dreamers, the untamed fools, the kind who know how to organise.”

We have witnessed an horrific attack by Hamas against Israeli civilians attending a concert and at a Kibbutz near the Gaza border; which everyone should unquestionably condemn. We must also call for the repatriation of hostages taken by Hamas and this must be organised between Israel and Hamas. There is no question that this was an atrocity; there is also no question that Hamas should not have done this for any reason. It cannot be justified. We must analyse why things came to this, which is something that is often ignored by the mainstream news media; but we should not condone Hamas’ actions as they are unjustifiable.

This atrocity has not happened out of a context, but the context is not a justification, it is simply stating what has led to this situation, but does not justify the actions of an attack on civilians. Brutality does not justify brutality in response. The Palestinian people have lived with decades long oppression, living under Apartheid laws, a long-running blockade of the Gaza Strip formally instituted since 2007 following the election of Hamas, violations of human rights which has horrifically impacted the social and economic lives of people on the Gaza Strip and the murder of innocent Palestinians by the Israeli military, successive Israeli governments and by settlers against Palestinians. It provides a context to the attack but cannot justify what happened last weekend. This is a man-made situation which is in violation of International Humanitarian Law and only threatens to become worse due to relentless bombing, civilian deaths and the destruction of homes, hospitals, religious buildings and schools where people are sheltering from the bombing because they cannot flee the area. Those fleeing to South Gaza have no guarantee of shelter, safety and food and water.

According to Al Jazeera, since Hamas’ attack:

  • An estimated one million Gazans have been displaced in the first seven days of conflict with Israel, according to the United Nations agency supporting Palestinian refugees, as aid groups said the situation in the besieged enclave is “catastrophic”.
  • Israel has deployed tanks and weapons on the border fence with Gaza as the military build-up continues amid relentless bombardment.
  • At least 2,329 Palestinians, including 724 children, have been killed in Israeli air raids. The number of Israelis killed in Hamas’s military operation stands at 1,300, including 286 soldiers.
  • The Israeli military says it is striking targets in Lebanon after a missile attack by Hezbollah fighters killed a person in its territory. This comes as Iran is warning Israel to cease its “war crimes” against Gaza.

We have been watching a response by the Israeli state and military that we all knew was coming when we heard of Hamas’ attack on civilians, and which we should also condemn. The lives of Palestinians and Israelis are all equally important; no life should be viewed as more important than another. B’Tselem argues that the abandonment of the moral principle that all humans are created equal is a loss of humanity, I agree. If you do think that one group of people has more value than another group of people, you need to ask yourself who is more important and why you think that is the case.  This is the road to genocide; this is the road to hate, racism and eugenics – this is the road to continual violence against people you think are lesser or other: this is dehumanisation of those you consider inferior, but you are also dehumanising yourself as well. This justifies continued atrocities and humanity has trod this road for far too long.

Collective Punishment and the “rules of war”

In the “rules of war” (see the Geneva Conventions) the lives of civilians are protected, they are non-combatants, and that is why Hamas’ attack must be condemned. Those rules of war, also are supposed to protect everyone; that includes Palestinians who are not combatants which applies to Palestinians living in Gaza, the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Palestinians residing in the 1948 borders of Israel. Already, 51 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli Jewish settlers since last Saturday; this has been documented by B’Tselem.

One cannot blame the whole of the Palestinian people for the actions of a specific group; just as one cannot blame the Israeli population as a whole for the actions of settlers, the Israeli military and the Israeli government and institutions of power. Just as Americans and British people should not be held responsible for the actions of their militaries and governments. We cannot impute collective responsibility.

Moreover, there is a term for holding a group responsible for the actions of a few, it is called collective punishment and it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, specifically Article 33 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions:

Article 33 – Individual responsibility, collective penalties, pillage, reprisals

No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.

Pillage is prohibited.

Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.”

See also Rule 103 of Human Rights Law, which applies to both international and non-international conflicts:

“The prohibition of collective punishments is stated in the Hague Regulations and the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions.[2] The prohibition is recognized in Additional Protocols I and II as a fundamental guarantee for all civilians and persons hors de combat.[3]

The imposition of “collective penalties” was considered a war crime in the Report of the Commission on Responsibility set up after the First World War.[4] The customary nature of this rule, already applicable during the Second World War, was affirmed by the Military Tribunal of Rome in the Priebke case in 1997.[5] The specification that the imposition of collective punishments is a war crime is also to be found in the Statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.[6]

The prohibition of collective punishments is contained in numerous military manuals.[7] This prohibition is also set forth in the legislation of many States.[8] It is further supported by official statements.[9]

[…] While human rights law does not explicitly prohibit “collective punishments” as such, such acts would constitute a violation of specific human rights, in particular the right to liberty and security of person and the right to a fair trial. In its General Comment on Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (concerning states of emergency), the UN Human Rights Committee stated that States parties may “in no circumstances” invoke a state of emergency “as justification for acting in violation of humanitarian law or peremptory norms of international law, for instance … by imposing collective punishments”.

When in response to an atrocity committed against Israeli civilians the Israeli government and military relentlessly bomb an area full of civilians, an area whose population contains large numbers of children (in different pieces, it has been estimated that children make up 42-50% of the population of the Gaza Strip), we move from a response against those directly committing the atrocity to the use of collective punishment against people not responsible for the atrocity. When bombs are indiscriminately fired, innocent civilians are killed, people also have their homes destroyed, electricity has been turned off, running water has been turned off, there are insufficient medical supplies, not enough food to survive, that is collective punishment, that is a violation of International Humanitarian Law.

Sieges that threaten the survival of civilians in any war, are a violation of international Humanitarian Law; civilians caught in a war zone still have rights, among these are the right to food, electricity, and running water, their survival must not be threatened. All governments (and that includes the one conducting the war) are responsible for ensuring that civilian life is protected and preserved. Instead of ensuring humanitarian relief to the people of Gaza, several governments are supporting Israeli attacks on Gaza. They are ignoring their responsibilities under treaties that they have signed — this includes the US, UK and several other countries (and Israel and Palestine are signatories to the Geneva Conventions) that refuse to provide support to Palestinians under siege. One cannot abstract from treaties you have signed and pretend that they do not apply to your allies.  This is normalising collective punishment and a siege against civilians without providing for their general welfare. It is unacceptable and we must demand that our governments stop this and provide humanitarian aid and assistance to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

From David Miliband, President & CEO of the International Rescue Committee: 

When the Israeli government tells millions of people to flee Northern Gaza to the south; when there is really no place to flee to, because they are going to destroy their homes, their schools, their hospitals, we are talking about a humanitarian catastrophe.  Moreover, there are specific protections in International Humanitarian Law relating to Protected Objects Property which includes Hospitals, Schools, Homes, and Religious buildings, protected people include all civilians, and there are specific rules relating to Medical Personnel, those providing humanitarian assistance, journalists, Women and children and the manner in which the Israeli military and government are pounding the Gaza Strip violates those laws. Where are people to run to, where is there a safe place to evacuate the wounded and doctors, where can they go? What about those unwilling or unable to leave and who are essentially trapped in North Gaza being bombed with every shelling perhaps the last?

They cannot cross into Egypt as the borders are closed and that would once again force them out of what is left of Palestine which needless to say is something no Palestinian wants to do again. Southern Gaza cannot provide for the safety and care of an additional million people. The UN estimates that 1 million people have already been fled Northern Gaza in the first week of this war. Gaza’s hospitals are expected to run out of fuel in the next two days. The regional head of the World Health Organisation has said that it is impossible to evacuate Northern Gazan hospitals and reminded the world that evacuation of hospitals is a war crime. There is not enough housing, food and water is scarce, this is already a humanitarian crisis and it is growing and it will add further catastrophe onto an already existing disaster. 

Some final thoughts

There have been protests around the world in solidarity with the Palestinians. Solidarity is essential, Palestinians need to know that they are not alone as they face another siege and threats to their lives due to the actions of Hamas; condemnation of attacks on all civilians is fundamental — we are all human beings and we are not all collectively responsible for the actions of our states, our governments, and our politicians and we are not individually responsible for our armies for that matter unless we ourselves do the action. But that means that we also have an obligation to oppose these various groups when they act in this manner; staying silent is complicity. This is why I was at two protests this week in solidarity with people in Gaza. As a Jew, healing the world is a fundamental obligation which I cannot and will not abrogate.

The bombing of Gaza must be stopped (it is collective punishment) and the Israeli military must not start a land war. Further bombings and a land war will only lead to more civilian casualties and more violations of International Law and International Humanitarian Law. We must call on Hamas to release any Israeli civilian hostages. We must call on our governments to demand an end to this war, we must stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and we must be arguing for an end to collective punishment and the end of Apartheid in Israel. 

How do we move beyond the cycles of hate and violence to actually create a world based on mutual respect and equality between people? How are we to address these atrocities without giving succour to those committing them? How do we stop these atrocities in the future? How do we honour the grief, the horror, and loss of yet more innocent human beings to yet another cycle of violence of humans against humans? I agree with Judith Butler, that requires more than empathy, it requires human beings to commit to opposing the oppression that people live with, to end divide and rule, to fight for the whole of humanity for a better future. Without that hope, we are all condemned to continued violence against each other. This requires solidarity, mutual respect and humans collectively building a future where all are treated equally and where our needs are the priority.

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Susan Pashkoff is a revolutionary Marxist, Economist, political activist and blogger. She writes on issues around US and British politics and economics, gender and women's oppression, and disability.

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