15 January 2009

15 January 2009 - Responding to Jewish critics of Israel in South Africa

Last week, several dozen left-wing South African Jews signed a letter protesting the Jewish community's solidarity with Israel.

My response, below, appeared in several South African newspapers this week.

While I respect the feelings of those South African Jews who signed the letter (above), first published in the Cape Times earlier this week, protesting against Israel's military operation against Hamas in Gaza, and I empathise with their call for a ceasefire, they are incorrect in their claim that "Israel's response is an inhumane and disproportionate collective punishment, prohibited under international law".

Israel has not only suspended its military activity daily to allow humanitarian aid to reach Palestinians in Gaza, but it has also provided much of that aid.

Its response is not "disproportionate", but fully in line with the doctrine of proportionality as outlined in the First Protocol Additional to the Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Court.

According to these instruments of international law, proportionality is measured relative to the legitimate military objectives of each side, not by weighing the numbers of casualties on either side. Given Hamas's incessant rocket attacks against Israeli civilians over the past several years, and Israel's exhaustion of every other reasonable means to resolve the conflict, stopping Hamas from carrying out further attacks is certainly a legitimate military objective.

The majority of Palestinian casualties have been Hamas fighters, not civilians, indicating that Israel's use of force is neither reckless nor disproportionate to the goals it seeks.

As for "collective punishment", it is in fact Hamas that has "collectively punished" Palestinian civilians by refusing to abandon its policies of terrorism and incitement, which have led to Gaza's international economic and political isolation.

It is interesting to note that many of those who signed the letter did not protest when Hamas killed Palestinian civilians in launching a coup against the elected Fatah executive, nor do they cite Hamas's numerous violations of international law, including the use of human shields and the deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians.

They attack the Jewish communal leadership, but do not criticise the blatant anti-Semitism that has accompanied anti-Israel protests.

Their double standards undermine the sincerity of their call for peace. A ceasefire is urgent - but not just any ceasefire.

An agreement must commit Hamas to end all rocket fire into Israel and provide concrete measures to stop any future arms smuggling into Gaza.

Only those conditions will protect civilians on both sides from the terrible costs of war in future.

Joel Pollak

Harvard Law School

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