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International Law, Israel, and Palestine

A Very Special Kind of War

Uri Avnery is an Israeli journalist, writer, and peace activist. Learn more about himf from his website.

By Israeli journalist Uri Avnery
From his News Page
August 11, 2004

“For all I care, they can starve to death!” announced Tzahi Hanegbi, after Palestinian prisoners declared an open-ended hunger strike against prison conditions. Thus the Minister for Internal Security added another memorable phrase to the lexicon of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hanegbi became famous (or infamous) for the first time when, as a student activist, he was caught on camera with his friends hunting Arab students with bicycle chains. At the time I published a photo of him that would not have shamed German or Polish students in the 1930s. With a small difference: in the 30s the Jews were the pursued, now they were the pursuers.

In the meantime, Hanegbi has changed like many young radicals – he has turned into an unrestrained careerist. He has become a minister, wearing elegant suits even on hot summer days and walking with the typical, self-important gait of a cabinet minister. Now he even supports Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, much to the distress of his mother, Geula Cohen, an extreme-right militant who has not changed her spots.

But beneath the minister’s suit and the statesman’s robe, Tzahi has remained Tzahi, as evidenced by the total inhumanity of his statement about the prisoners for whose wellbeing he is officially responsible. His influence is not limited to words: the current prison crisis was caused by his appointment of a new Director of Prisons, who immediately proceeded to create intolerable conditions for the Palestinian prisoners.

Let’s not dwell too much on the personality of the honorable minister. It is much more important to turn our thoughts to the strike itself.

Its basic cause is a particularly Israeli invention: the one-sided war.

The IDF generals declare again and again that we are at war. The state of war permits them to commit acts like “targeted eliminations”, which, in any other situation, would be called murder. But in a war, one kills the enemy without court proceedings. And in general, the killing and wounding of people, demolition of homes, uprooting of plantations and all the other acts of the occupiers that have become daily occurrences are being justified by the state of war.

But this is a very special war, because it confers rights only on the fighters of one side. On the other side, there is no war, no fighters, and no rights of fighters, but only criminals, terrorists, murderers.


Once there was a clear distinction: one was a soldier if one wore a uniform; if one did not wear a uniform, one was a criminal. Soldiers of an invading army were allowed to execute local inhabitants who fired at them on the spot. But in the middle of the 20th century, things changed. A worldwide consensus accepted that the members of the French resistance and the Russian and Yugoslav partisans and their like were fighters and therefore entitled to the international protection accorded to legitimate fighters. International conventions and the rules of war were amended accordingly.

So what is the difference between soldiers and terrorists? Well, the occupiers say, there is a tremendous difference: Soldiers fight soldiers, terrorists hurt innocent civilians.

Really? The pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians – was he a soldier or just a criminal, a terrorist? And what were the pilots who destroyed whole cities, like Hamburg and Dresden, when there was no valid military necessity anymore? The declared aim was to break the will of the German civilian population and compel them to capitulate. Were the commanders of the British and American air forces terrorists (as the Nazis indeed called them, inventing the term “Terrorflieger”)?

What is the difference between an American pilot who drops a bomb on a Baghdad market and the Iraqi terrorist, who lays a bomb in the same market? The fact that the pilot has a uniform? Or that he drops his bomb from a distance and does not see the children he is killing?

I am not saying this, of course, to justify the killing of civilians. Indeed, I strongly condemn it, whoever the perpetrators may be – soldiers, guerillas, pilots above or terrorists below. One law for all.

Soldiers who are captured become prisoners-of-war, entitled to many rights guaranteed by international conventions. A particular international organization – the Red Cross – oversees this. P0Ws are not held for punishment or revenge, but solely in order to prevent them from returning to the battlefield. They are released when peace comes.

Underground fighters captured by their enemies are often tried as criminals. Not only are they not entitled to the rights of POWs, but in Israel their prison conditions are even worse than the inhuman conditions inflicted on Israeli criminals. The American have learned from us, and President George W. Bush has been sending Afghan fighters to an infamous prison set up for them in Guantanamo, where they are deprived of all human rights, both the rights of POWs and the rights of ordinary criminal prisoners.

Years ago, when the Hebrew underground organizations were fighting the British regime in Palestine, we demanded that our prisoners be accorded the rights of POWs. The British did not accept this, but in practice prisoners were generally treated as if they were POWs. The captured underground fighters could enrol for correspondence courses, and in fact, many of them completed their studies in law and other professions in British prison camps.

One of the prisoners at that time was Geula Cohen, Tzahi Hanegbi’s mother. It would be interesting to know how she and her Stern Group comrades would have reacted if a British police commander had declared that he didn’t give a damn if she died in prison. Probably they would have tried to assassinate him. Fortunately, the British behaved otherwise. They even brought her to a hospital for treatment (where she promptly escaped with the help of Arab villagers.)

Towards the Irish underground fighters, the British took a different line. When they declared a hunger strike, Margaret Thatcher let them starve to death. This episode, on top of her attitude towards workers and the needy, contributed to her image as an inhuman person.

A humane treatment of political prisoners is preferable even for purely pragmatic reasons. Ex-prisoners are now filling the upper ranks of the Palestinian Authority. Men who have spent 10, 15 and even 20 years in Israeli jails have become political leaders, ministers and mayors. They speak fluent Hebrew and know Israel well. Almost all of them now belong to the moderate Palestinian camp, advocating co-existence between Israel and a Palestinian state. They also head the forces seeking democracy and reforms in the Palestinian Authority. The fair treatment they got at the time by the prison personnel must have contributed to this.

But for me, the main thing is that the State of Israel should not look like Tzahi Hanegbi and his ilk. It is important for me that human beings – Palestinians as much as Israelis – should not starve to death in Israeli prisons. It is important for me that prisoners – whether Israelis or Palestinians – should be accorded humane conditions.

If Tzahi Hanegbi were in prison, I would be demanding the same even for him.

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