UPDATED December 14, 2023. Looking back on wars such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Angola, Somalia, Mozambique and Salvador, no government has ever really succeeded in achieving a long-term and sustainable solution by relying on brute military force. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF), often ranked as one of the most effective military bodies in the world, proved disastrous when its background intelligence and belated on-the-ground response to the Hamas-instigated murder, rape and torture of the October 7 assaults failed miserably.
As some military analysts point out, its current actions involving the mass slaughter of over 18,000 civilians (December 13, 2023) in Gaza, mostly women and children, are only making matters worse. Based on the experiences of past counterinsurgencies elsewhere, Benjamin Netanyahu’s highhanded war is unlikely to resolve Israel’s future or long-term security.
While Israel’s visceral reaction is fully understandable regarding the horrific killing, rape and torture of its civilians by Hamas as already noted in previous articles, this war did not start with the Hamas assaults. As experienced observers point out, this is a long and enduring conflict of bitterness and hatred that dates to May 14, 1948, and even before, with the partition of Palestine and the founding of the new state of Israel. Seventy-five years on, Israelis and Palestinians are still grappling with a highly emotional and contentious struggle that often has no logic but can ultimately only be resolved through peaceful means, something which select actors on both sides have been seeking to do but which may now be thwarted by the current conflict.
“The problem is that the Israel’s right-wing government is not even considering what will happen the day after hostilities come to an end,” noted one Tel Aviv resident, a humanitarian advocate, while on visit to Geneva. “This is something we all need to be thinking about.” But then, as retired Israeli major-general Amos Yadlin told the BBC: “First of all, forget everything you thought you knew about Israel before 7 October. It’s all changed.” He also insisted that Israel was bombing Hamas, not civilians, an allegation increasingly disputed by members of the international community, including the Biden administration. “We bombed the Hamas targets only…Hamas uses them as a human shield,” Yadlin reiterated.
With their hopes for peace put into question by Hamas’ actions, some Israelis and diaspora Jews fear, too, that the Tel Aviv government’s current strategy may undermine long-term reconciliation by accommodating the desire of its hard-line and ultraorthodox elements to destroy Gaza and to force out all Palestinians. Far right extremists such as Simcha Rothman, a settler of the Religious Zionism party, clearly wish to see full Israeli occupation of Gaza but also the West Bank which he refers to by its Biblical name of Samaria and Judea. According to Rothman, Israel has the “complete right” to continue bombing Gaza regardless of civilian casualties and international humanitarian law if this is what is needed to annihilate Hamas.
For Buddy Elias, first cousin of Anna Frank and a close friend of my family who headed up the Anna Frank Fonds in Basel until he died at 89 on March 16, 2015, such views would have been repugnant. Buddy firmly believed in Israeli-Palestian rapprochement and coexistence with a focus on educating young people regardless of religion and race for ensuring a peaceful future. One wonders, too, what the young Anna Frank would have thought. (See Edward Girardet article in Global Insights)
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during pause in Israeli bombardments. (Photo: Human Rights Watch)
Both Rothman and other supporters of the Netanyahu government have attacked the United Nations for being complicit with Hamas, an allegation which Philippe Lazzarini, the Swiss head of the UN Relief and Works’ Agency (UNRWA), vehemently denies. Given that his organization, which has strongly criticized the Hamas attacks, is the only UN operation on the ground in Gaza, he recently alleged that Israel was making a deliberate attempt “to strangle our operations and to paralyze UNRWA” to keep humanitarian flows limited. As he points out, some 1.7 million people have now been displaced with one million living in UN shelters. Prior to the war, there were 500 trucks bringing in supplies per day, while during the recent truce only 200 were able to come in. “People are now dependent on us for survival,” he told the BBC’s HardTalk.
For these reasons, if peace is the objective which is what many want, Israel needs to explore possible lessons from other counterinsurgencies which failed. In many ways, Netanyahu’s government sounds increasingly like Rhodesia during its final UDI days, whereby the minority White regime of Ian Smith felt that all it needed to do was “destroy the terrorists” to continue existing. It failed to understand the incredible animosity white Rhodesians had engendered amongst the majority black population by seeking to impose themselves, often highly effectively with the deployment of deadly special forces teams, through military means, but which in the end achieved nothing.
US troops in Afghanistan during NATO occupation (2001-2021)
The West’s Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan: A complete failure
Another more recent failure to contain ‘terrorism’ is the West’s colossal disaster in Afghanistan whereby the US-led Coalition pursued over nearly two decades an utterly pointless counterinsurgency costing more than two trillion dollars and thousands of lives lost. As an end goal, the Americans had nothing to show militarily other than a tragic debacle with their shameful abandonment of the country and its people in the summer of 2021. (See Edward Girardet article in The Christian Science Monitor and Global Insights on America’s Afghanistan failure)
While highly trained NATO forces supported by massive air and ground power claimed to have defeated the Taliban within two years of their own Oct 7, 2001 ‘intervention’, the insurgents disappeared into the towns and countryside, or across the border into Pakistan. Simply put, the Taliban were applying basic guerrilla strategy. You can operate according to your own agenda. As both the mujahideen during the Soviet and the Taliban during the NATO occupations liked to say: “You have the watches, we have the time.”
While knowledgable international journalists, aid workers and other experts who had closely followed the Soviet Union’s equally catastrophic occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s fully predicted that this would happen, Washington refused to listen. Instead, it allowed its military to run the show with little understanding of the way Afghans think. When one American colonel in Helmand proudly told me what excellent relations he had developed with village elders, he refused to believe that these very people doubled up as Taliban at night. Nor did he understand the basic tenet of Afghan society. “You can always rent an Afghan, but you can never buy him.” This determined the entire nature of the war.
Several years into the West’s occupation, the Taliban began to re-appear with attacks against both NATO and Afghan government forces combined with ‘terrorist’ IED and suicide bombings across the country. NATO responded with more drone and ground assaults coupled with “hearts and minds” operations by so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams. All this proved unable to destroy the Taliban who re-occupied more and more territory. And every time the Coalition forces ‘punished’ local inhabitants or bombed their villages for suspected collaboration, the Taliban found their ranks replenished.
NATO’s Afghanistan war but also, to a point, US interventions in Iraq and Syria are reminiscent of the IDF’s own current bombardment of Gaza as well as security actions against Palestinians elsewhere. Such approaches only play directly into the hands of Hamas, whose October 7 actions may have been deliberately geared toward undermining any form of rapproachment by Israel with countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Some observers believe that Hamas’ failure to hold elections since 2006 has only prevented more open-minded Palestinians from expressing themselves against the movement’s hardline position vis a vis Israel. Nevertheless, the number of Hamas and Palestinian flags that appeared during the release of Palestinians detained by the Israelis in exchange for those held by the insurgents suggest that Hamas still retains significant support and that it may be benefitting from the fallout of Israel bombing.
Of course, at this stage no one can determine how Gaza Palestinians truly feel about Hamas, whether they are intimidated or simply unable to express their views openly. As one human rights advocate maintained, “no one is doing any polling in Gaza for the moment.”
Civilians fleeing during Sri Lanka war on Tamil Tigers. (Photo: ICRC)
Sri Lanka: a successful counterinsurgency, but at what cost?
While some might argue that Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long military campaign against the Tamil Tigers proved a successful counterinsurgency, this remains debatable. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam finally admitted defeat in May 2009, but not before over 100,000 civilians with 50,000 soldiers on both sides were killed. Despite international pleas to stop the onslaught, Colombo’s war during the final days included vicious deliberate shelling of a closed off no-fire zone in which some 30,000 civilians and fighters were trapped. Over 6,500 Tamils are believed to have died with a further 14,000 wounded.
The economic and moral costs for Sri Lanka, which has yet to recover, have been staggering. With its reputation tarnished, Sri Lanka is still facing international efforts to hold those who remain alive accountable on both sides for war crimes. Human rights groups, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) but also credible news organizations, such as Britain’s Channel Four, have compiled massive testimony on Sri Lanka’s killing fields. This includes hundreds of ‘vanity’ videos recorded by Sri Lankan soldiers as victory boasts and shared on social media, of their abuses such as the execution, rape and other forms of assault against civilians and prisoners of war, which is what Hamas also did.
Israeli military: Fighting an impossible war? (Photo: IDF)
Holding abusers accountable
While the likelihood of either the Sri Lankans or the Tamil Tigers responsible for war crimes being brought before the International Criminal Court at the Hague is slim, it can still happen. Slobodan Milošević, former President of Serbia, was extradited well over a decade after the Balkans War by the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia) for war crimes but died in prison in 2006. Ratko Mladić, a Serb military commander, was tried for his involvement in the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre and sentenced in 2017 to life imprisonment. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was another perpetrator brought to trial and now serving a 50-year sentence for terror, murder and rape. (See Global Geneva article on Civitas Maxima holding perpetrators accountablie)
Whether politicians or commanders, those engaged in military actions which could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity often consider themselves to be above the law. According to human rights advocates, the Netanyahu government’s claim that Israel’s actions are justifiable to “destroy Hamas” falls into this category – and this despite growing criticism within Israeli and Jewish communities around the world that the bombings are going too far, despite the brutal atrocities by Hamas.
As Amos Yadlin, who still advises the Israeli military, recently noted, Israel wants to rescue its hostages, kill Hamas’ leaders and annihilate the militant organization as a military formation that can threaten Israelis and destroy its capacity to govern. He maintained that Israel was more careful about avoiding civilian casualties than the US and UK had been when they were bombing jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Nevertheless, there comes a point where one has to decide what is justifiable and what is not, commented Romy Brauman, a former head of Medecins sans Frontiers (MSF) and who is himself of Jewish and Israeli background.
As a reporter, I recall hearing similar arguments by Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadžić at the 1993 UN Security Council consultations in the Palais des Nations in Geneva on the carving up of Bosnia-Herzegovina. With his thick wavey hair and suave three-piece suit, he arrogantly lectured the press on his right to threaten and bomb this former Yugoslavia region into submission. Little did he imagine that he would one day be sentenced to life imprisonment by the ICTY for precisely such crimes.
As western journalists working with the BBC, New York Times and other media point out, both the Netanyahu government and Hamas are indulging in massive disinformation and propaganda, with each attacking the other.
Nevertheless, as the UN’s Lazzarini warns, both Hamas and Israeli leaders could find themselves held responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity. “As the head of a UN agency, I believe that one has to speak out,” he said. While refusing to say whether either side has broken International Humanitarian Law, he maintained that it will be up to legal instruments to decide. Yves Beigbeder, who died last week at 99 as the last surviving member of the Allied Prosecution team at Nuremberg and a young legal aide to the French judge, maintained that the United Nations has a “moral obligation” to condem any form war crimes abuse. (See article in Global Insights on whistleblowing within the UN system)
Clearly, the Israeli-Gaza War is a hugely sensitive issue for all concerned. It has also led to a rise in anti-semitic and islamophobic incidents both in Europe and North America. Nevertheless, various human rights groups from Physicians for Human Rights-Israeil (PHR-I) to UNHCHR but also international media with special investigative teams, such as the BBC, consider it imperative to establish the facts of what has happened. They are currently gathering evidence of alleged war crimes relating to the current conflict.
Their investigations are specifically looking into the manner with which Hamas and other Islamist fighters deliberately raped, tortured and murdered Israeli and foreign captives as part of a long-planned operation during the October 7, 2023, assaults. They are doing this by going through often highly disturbing video and photographic evidence regarding incidents recorded by the insurgents’ for propaganda purposes on social media. As one spokesperson pointed out, PHR-I has been carefully documenting through interviews and videos of Hamas atrocities to establish a true picture of what happened, which as even critics of the Netanyahu government point out, were “deliberate and horrific beyond imagination.”
At the same time, these same organizations, including Israeli human rights advocates, are seeking to compile evidence of possible crimes committed by the IDF in their massive and largely indiscriminate bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Under investigation, too, is the way the Israeli Prisons Service is treating Palestinians, many of them detained without trial. Since October 7, PHR-Israel (PHR-I) maintains, the number of Palestinians held has more than doubled to over 10,000 with recent testimony claiming torture and other forms of violence.
Some human rights groups, too, are seeking to hold IDF members, police as well as illegal settlers in the West Bank accountable for the murder, shootings, beatings and other forms of violence, including the vandalising and destruction of homes, against Palestinians. Even Washington has finally called for sanctions against those responsible for such actions which will probably not end until such settlements, which are supported by extremist political groups and against both Israeli and international law, are forcibly removed. (See BBC December 6, 2023 Report)
The UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Israel and Palestine published in October 2023 concluded that “all parties to the conflict….have failed to take effective precautionary measures to avoid civilian casualties, exacerbating the long-running crisis and deepening divisions and hate on all sides.”
It also maintained that the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on May 11, 2022, who was shot in the back of her head by an armour piercing bullet, was done by Israeli forces using “lethal force without justification under international rights law.” British Frontline News producer James Miller was similarly shot by an Israeli soldier in May, 2003, while filming children in Gaza according to the 2004 Channel 4 documentary Death in Gaza. To date, more than 60 journalists and media technicians, including Palestinian and Israeli, have been killed since October 7.
As the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, who has been covering wars since 1989, including as Jerasalem correspondent for the Middle East, this has proven to be one of the difficult conflicts to report because of the need to maintain complete balance on what has happened, and continues to happen, on both sides. Faced with the incredible difficulties of on-the-ground reporting, Bowen said that the BBC – as with other media – has to “rely on things people say” as well as looking “at the multiplicity of videos” that are released before making a judgment on what to report on.
International Criminal Court at The Hague. (Photo: ICC)
War Crimes: Who will decide?
As the Geneva-based human rights NGO Civitas Maxima notes, the main problem today is if, where and when current war crimes by both Israel and Hamas will be prosecuted. For the moment, “any country where a legal case were to be initiated by a national court under the principle of universal jurisdiction would face immense political pressure.” This happened in 2002, where cases in Belgium against former Israeli and Palestinian leaders Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat led nowhere and strained Israeli-Belgian relations. (See Global Insights article by William Dowell on Civitas Maxima)
Nevertheless, international pressure, including amongst Jews and Muslims in Europe and North America, is growing for ending pereived terror propagated by both Israelis and Hamas. Even though countries like Russia, Israel and the United States have signed but never ratified the statutes of the ICC, the world court at The Hague appears to be only institution capable of holding abusers of international humanitarian law to account. In 2021, its judges ruled that the ICC has jurisdiction to investigate crimes in Palestine since June 2014.
More recently, ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan, who recently visited both Israel and Palestine, made it clear that this same mandate applies to events in Israel and Gaza since October 7, 2023. “We must show that the law is there, on the front lines, and that it is capable of protecting all,” Khan said.
For this to happen, Civitas Maxima points out, the ICC must decide whether local possibilities to sanction and hold accountable alleged perpetrators exist in Israel or in Palestine. If not, and only then, does the court have the right to prosecute international crimes. Much, too, depends on whether the ICC is granted sufficient resources given that much of its financial reserve has been depleted by investigations in the Ukraine war. With the 75th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights looming on December 10, 2023, member states will meet in New York to decide the ICC’s 2024 budget. (See Edward Girardet article on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
As human rights advocates note, the most important thing is to get it on the books. The ICC, for example, recently issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for the unlawful deportation of children in time of war. This remains the only tangible legal means of holding the Russian dictator to account with the satisfaction of knowing that he can only risk travelling to countries which have not signed the ICC statutes, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and China. Any other signatory would be obliged to arrest him. Given that Putin is suspected of overall responsibility for numerous alleged war crimes in Ukraine, local and international human rights groups are currently meticulously compiling evidence in the event of a trial.
For Israel, perhaps one of the most important lessons from the past is best illustrated by Nazi Germany’s brutal repression of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising by Jews resisting deportation to the concentration camps. While the Nazis succeeded in fully annihilating the ghetto through artillery, flamethrowers and armed assaults killing 13,000 Jews – half of them burned alive or suffocated – those who fought back realised that they were unlikely to survive but wanted to show that they would not bow to Nazi force. Only a small handful of resistance fighters emerged alive, yet, according to the Holocaust Museum in the United States, the uprising proved to be one of the “most significant occurrences in Jewish history.”
In the end, Nazi Germany lost and the Jews, inspired by such determination, were able to create their own new homeland, Israel. Now, for everyone’s sake, they need to achieve a genuine peace enabling Israelis and Palestinians to live together. One symbolic change might be to incorporate Pope Francis’ suggestion of designating Jerusalem as an International City of Peace for all religions rather than a political capital.
As harshly unrealistic it may appear today, for genuine peace to emerge, mediators point out, both peoples will need to think about a tomorrow that involves both Israelis and Palestinians living side by side. In the longrun, this may prove to be the only realistic option to end the region’s current nightmare. As UNWRA’s Lazarrini maintained this week at the UN’s Refugee Conference in Geneva: “There is absolutely no alternative to a “genuine political process to end the cycle of violence” with Israelis and Palestinians both enjoying statehood, peace, and stability. Whether the hardliners on either side will agree is another matter.
Global Insights editor Edward Girardet is a journalist and author focusing on conflict, humanitarian crises, environment and development worldwide. He is currently working with filmmaker Tom Woods on developing a three-year multi-media project on the Mediterranean.
Girardet is well-known for his dedicated coverage of Afghanistan since just prior to the Soviet war in 1979. His 2011 book “Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan” is considered a ‘classic’ (New York Review of Books) and one of the most informed on this country’s apparently never-ending humanitarian and economic turmoil since civil war first broke out in the summer of 1978. Other books include: “Afghanistan: The Soviet War”; “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan”. (4 fully-revised editions) and “Somalia, Rwanda and Beyond.” Girardet is finalising a new book, The American Club, about Peshawar as the Casablanca of the 1980s.