International humanitarian law derived from the Geneva Convention of 1949 and the 1977 Protocols, states clearly that no person should be punished for any actions he did not commit. This principle applies to all individuals, including prisoners of war, ethnic groups and the wider civilian population. It is supposed to be protection against the consequences of war waged on civilians. It is also supposed to govern the conduct of war, which is evil in any case.
Yet collective punishment figures prominently in human history, just like war itself. In the modern world, collective punishment is given fancy names to disguise its inhumane effects. “Foreign policy tools”, for example, or simply “sanctions”, both political and economic, targeting certain government elites. Sanctions have been used widely by powerful nations against weaker states. The most recent cases of sanctions act as a form of collective punishment when imposed by the very countries that are supposed to be the protectors of world peace and human rights, including the United States.
When sanctions are applied the aim is always the same: to change the political discourse or behaviour of another state or people regardless if their behaviour is indeed punishable under international law. To make the case for “collective punishment” more convincing, such measures are often justified by enforcing them through the UN. Again, powerful states use their position to attack weaker nations through the UN Security Council, turning it into what the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi once called “the council of horror”. Examples of this have been seen in relation to Cuba, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, to name but a few.
The collective punishment meted out against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip stands out as brutality against more than two million people because of acts allegedly committed by a few of their fellow citizens. Furthermore, the sanctions on Gaza include a near total blockade on the densely populated enclave which sees fishermen prevented from exploiting their own territorial waters. The sanctions thus impose hunger and poverty on an already malnourished and desperately poor population.
Israel always defends such brutality by claiming that it is meant to punish what it calls Palestinian “militant” groups such as Hamas. The reality, though, is that the entire population is being punished in open violation of the Geneva Conventions in a manner which goes way beyond any more usual — but equally unacceptable — act of collective punishment.
Israel keeps a list of items that are banned from entering Gaza because, as the occupation state claims falsely, they benefit those who are resisting — legitimately, I might add — the Israeli military occupation and are designated as “militants” and “terrorists”. While the ban on construction materials and fuel makes the headlines, other important items never get mentioned.
Between 2007 and 2010, for example, the list of banned items included things like paper, paper pins, nutmeg, tarpaulin sheets for huts, fishing nets and nylon sheeting for greenhouses. Until June 2010, biscuits and chocolate were banned unless the end user was one of the international organisations operating in Gaza and caring for the Palestinians’ humanitarian needs.
To compound the misery, Israel generally does not announce what is banned and what is not. Importers, private traders, merchants, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and international organisations only find out when they submit their lists of items they wish to transfer into Gaza as part of the tedious task of seeking permission from the Israeli occupation authorities.
Exports also have their banned and permitted list. Furniture and furniture parts were banned, then permitted, only to banned again earlier this month.
The ban goes further to include things like medical supplies and diagnostic equipment needed for the health sector in Gaza. In January this year, the health authority in Gaza warned that Israeli restrictions on certain medical equipment, such as mobile X-ray machines, threaten the quality of the health care provision in the territory.
Until June 2007, Israel justified bans by citing security threats. Three years later, “humanitarian minimums” were the norm, Israel-speak for a blanket ban on almost everything. The occupation authorities never disclose the criteria they use to make banning decisions; or what “humanitarian” actually means. Tarpaulin sheets, for example, were banned until 2010, and are always in demand by the poorest of the poor in Gaza due to the regular destruction of their homes by Israeli missiles and bombs, as happened this week. When civilian homes are bombed, tarpaulin sheets are essential items to provide shelter from the elements.
The same policy of “collective punishment” means that Israel also decides who can enter or leave Gaza and when. This usually means that hundreds of Palestinians are left stranded in Egypt or in Israel itself waiting for permission to go home; or are blocked from seeking medical treatment, study opportunities or work elsewhere. Short visits to see relatives, even if they are dying, are discouraged by this policy, as people have no idea how much time they will need to spend at the border post.
Apartheid Israel uses a different set of sanctions against the PA, its supposed partner in the non-existent peace process, including the withholding of taxes collected by Israel on the PA’s behalf. This make it difficult for the PA to pay the salaries of its public workers and security personnel who act as an arm of the Israeli security services in protecting illegal settlers and curbing resistance activism.
Egypt also plays the collective punishment card against the Palestinians in Gaza by the frequent closure of the border crossing due to alleged security concerns. Nobody should be surprised by any of this, given that both Egypt and Israel are client states of the US, which is a serial offender when it comes to collective punishment.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.