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Crying out for justice

As the latest inquiry into Israel’s war on Gaza hears the harrowing testimonies of Palestinian survi

On 28 June, the UN mission investigating alleged war crimes committed during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in January began public hearings in the coastal territory. The testimony of witnesses who had seen relatives killed and property destroyed in the war, which Israel codenamed Operation Cast Lead, was screened in a local hall and broadcast live on some TV channels in the Middle East. A plan to webcast the proceedings failed, for technical reasons, but a video will be made available on the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (www.ohchr.org), and another round of hearings will be held in Geneva on 6 and 7 July. “The purpose of the public hearings in Gaza and Geneva is to show the faces and broadcast the voices of victims – all of the victims,” the chair of the mission, Justice Richard Goldstone, said last week.

The emphasis is significant, because when the panel was established by the UN Human Rights Council in January, it was asked to investigate only the conduct of Israeli forces – a remit that, according to Tom Porteous, London director of Human Rights Watch, was “wrong in principle, and politically wrong”. The allegations that Israel was violating the rules of war began to surface in the first days of the offensive – it was accused of shelling civilian areas, using banned weapons such as white phosphorus, and attacking medical facilities and other non-military targets. But Hamas and other Palestinian factions were also accused of war crimes. The operation was intended to stop Palestinian militants firing rockets at towns in southern Israel – according to Amnesty International, around 15 Israeli civilians were killed by rockets fired from Gaza between June 2004 and December 2008, and another three were killed in the barrage that continued throughout the three weeks of the war. Hamas has also been accused of other human rights abuses and violations of international law, including deploying fighters in civilian homes, firing rockets from bases close to civilian areas, and conducting punitive attacks against its internal rivals.

When Goldstone was appointed chair of the inquiry in April, he made it plain that he intended to look at the ­actions of all parties, but its reputation for impartiality had already been damaged: Israel dismissed it as a “masquerade”, and refused to co-operate. Goldstone and his colleagues intended to visit towns in southern Israel to investigate the effect of Palestinian rocket fire, but were not allowed to enter the country.

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s researcher in Israel and the occupied territories, suggests that this doesn’t matter greatly: Goldstone and his colleagues were able to enter the Gaza Strip through Egypt, and the territory will provide the most important focus for both parts of their work. “The situation in southern Israel is very clear, whereas the situation in Gaza isn’t,” Rovera says. The inquiry’s task is to establish which of Israel’s attacks on targets in Gaza were legitimate under the rules of law, and which were not, whereas there is no question about the status of Palestinian attacks on southern Israel: indiscriminate rocket fire against civilian targets is inherently unlawful, and identifying those responsible will not be difficult, as the Palestinian militants claim credit for their actions.

Goldstone’s inquiry is the second the UN has established into the war, in which as many as 1,400 Palestinians were killed. The first had an even more limited remit: to investigate nine incidents in which UN property was attacked, including the shelling of the al-Fakhura school in the Jabaliya refugee camp on 6 January, the day after the school opened as a shelter for civilians. The UN estimated that around 40 people were killed in this single assault. Israel said its troops were responding to fire from militants near the school, but the inquiry found no firing from within the compound or its immediate vicinity. Of the nine incidents investigated, the inquiry found Israel responsible in seven cases, Hamas “or another Palestinian actor” responsible in one, and failed to establish responsibility in another.

Porteous says the 30-page summary of the report provides “compelling evidence that the Israel Defence Forces violated the laws of war during their military operations around UN installations in Gaza”. The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has requested $10.4m (£6.2m) compensation from Israel for damage caused to UN property, but Porteous regrets that he distanced himself from the report’s findings: “There was a clear need for a broader and more comprehensive investigation into allegations of violations of the rules of war, by both sides.”

Goldstone’s inquiry will report in September, but since it is not backed by the Security Council, it is unlikely to lead to any further action. “We think Goldstone will come up with recommendations, but if the report hits a political brick wall, it might be necessary to take the investigation to a higher level,” Porteous says. He has called on the UN secretary general and all states that “profess to care about the vital importance of upholding the rule of law in international ­affairs” to lend their weight to the campaign to bring suspected war criminals to trial.

The Security Council’s decision to refer alleged war crimes in Sudan to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has led to the indictment of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, but the model will not work in the case of Gaza. In March, the Palestinian Authority recognised the ICC in an attempt to clear the way for a full investigation into alleged war crimes, yet it is not clear whether it can do so since it is not a state, and Israel is not a signatory to the court’s founding charter.

“It’s extremely unlikely that anything will happen in the next few months,” Rovera says. She explains that the emphasis is on collecting and preserving evidence that might be used in the future. This week, Amnesty published a major report on Operation Cast Lead, called 22 Days of Death and Destruction, which concluded that much of the destruction was “wanton” and said that “children playing on the roofs of their homes or in the street . . . were killed in broad daylight” by highly accurate missiles launched by helicopter and unmanned drones. Human Rights Watch also released a report exploring six incidents in which 29 civilians were killed by drone-launched missiles.

Rovera’s assertion that “you have to take the long view” is borne out by a case currently going through the Spanish courts. On 29 January, less than two weeks after Operation Cast Lead came to an end, Spain’s national court announced that it would hear a case concerning events in the territory six and a half years earlier. At midnight on 22 July 2002, an Israeli F16 fighter jet dropped a 985kg bomb on an apartment building in the al-Daraj district of Gaza City. The target was Salah Shehade, thought to be the leader of the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. Shehade was killed, along with his guard, his wife and daughter, and 12 other civilians. Last June, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), which is based in Gaza, filed suit in Spain on behalf of six Palestinians who survived the attack. The case depended on evidence that the seven Israeli officials cited knew that civilians might be killed in the attack, and still decided to proceed. The al-Daraj bombing was part of a policy of “widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population”, the PCHR said, and as such it constituted both a crime against humanity and a breach of the Geneva Conventions.

Israel appealed against the decision to hear the al-Daraj case in Spain. Officials sent a 400-page document to the Spanish legal team, stating that the operation was subject to proceedings in Israel, and therefore the Spanish court should have declined to exercise jurisdiction, but on 4 May a Spanish judge announced that the case would continue. “The Spanish court rejected the claim that Israel had adequately investigated the crime,” says Raji Sourani, director of the PCHR.

Sourani stresses that the decision’s significance is not limited to the al-Daraj case: “The court also ruled that, in view of the status of Gaza as occupied territory – that is, not part of Israel – Spanish criminal law does not accord Israel primary jurisdiction over suspected Israeli war criminals.” Instead, the court affirmed the principle of universal jurisdiction, which states that torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity are so serious that they may be tried in any country, regardless of where they were committed.

Universal jurisdiction has been used in other cases, most notably that of General Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, who was arrested in London in October 1998 after an international warrant was issued by a Spanish judge. Pinochet was kept under house arrest until March 2000, when the then home secretary, Jack Straw, released him on grounds of ill health. Pinochet returned to Chile, yet he did not entirely escape justice – there were renewed attempts to prosecute him in Chile, and by the time of his death in 2006, he had been implicated in more than 300 criminal charges.

The International Federation for Human Rights has calculated that 75 complaints have been filed or prosecutions opened on the basis of universal jurisdiction in European courts since 2006, and five offenders have been convicted. The first successful prosecution in the UK was in July 2005, when the Afghan militia leader Faryadi Zardad was convicted of acts of torture and hostage-taking in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Heads of state enjoy immunity from prosecution, so complaints filed against George W Bush and Robert Mugabe have not been investigated, and Human Rights Watch says that immunity seems to be extended to every sitting minister of foreign governments: in February 2004, for example, a London court rejected an application for an arrest warrant against Israel’s defence minister, Shaul Mofaz.

The provision reflects that universal jurisdiction cases are conducted in the face of considerable international pressure: “European countries don’t want to get into a fight with Israel and the US,” Rovera observes. In 1993, Belgium passed universal jurisdiction legislation for “grave breaches of international humanitarian law”, later amended to include crimes against humanity and genocide: Carla Ferstman, the director of Redress, which seeks reparation for survivors of torture, says it was “universal jurisdiction of the purest kind”, as it allowed prosecutions irrespective of where the crime took place or whether the perpetrator was in the country. It also allowed people who had no connection with Belgium to bring a case, which resulted in what Ferstman calls “forum shopping”. A flood of lawsuits, including an attempt to prosecute Ariel Sharon for his role in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, led to revisions of the law in 2003.

Britain has also considered revising its legislation. In 2005, the PCHR filed a lawsuit in the UK against Doron Almog, head of the Israeli army southern command between 2000 and 2003, for committing grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention. When he arrived at Heathrow, the British-Israeli lawyer Daniel Machover, who was part of the team that brought the al-Daraj suit in Spain, attempted to arrest him on a warrant issued by a magistrate. Almog heard about the warrant and refused to leave his plane. He escaped arrest by flying back to Israel. There are differing reports of what happened next: some say that Tony Blair attempted to bring the system under political control by ensuring that only the attorney general could issue warrants for the arrest of individuals like Almog, but others say the Blair government refused a request from the government of Israel to make the change.

The government is now considering what most human rights activists consider an improvement to the UK law: following the high court’s recent decision to release four Rwandan men suspected of genocide who were held in the UK since 2006, because of fears that they might not get a fair trial, it may introduce an amendment that would allow courts to try cases where genocide had allegedly been committed elsewhere in the world. An announcement is expected imminently, though Ferstman fears that the changes will not include provisions to try cases of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Spain is the last European country that can hear cases where the victims are not Spanish nationals, or the perpetrator is not present in the country, but its law is also under review. “I intend to appeal to the Spanish foreign minister, the Spanish minister of defence and, if need be, the Spanish prime minister, who is a colleague of mine in the Socialist International, to override the decision,” said the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, on the day the Spanish court announced it would proceed with the al-Daraj case. On 19 May, the Spanish parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to modify its universal jurisdiction mechanisms, so that cases may only be pursued if they involve Spanish victims or if the accused is on Spanish soil.

Various NGOs, including the PCHR, are mobilising resistance to the change. Had Sourani been allowed to leave the Gaza Strip, he would have given the keynote speech at a conference entitled “In Defence of Universal Jurisdiction”, held in Madrid last week. “Entire peoples cannot be consigned to the rule of the jungle for the sake of political expediency,” he said in a speech delivered on his behalf. Ferstman acknowledges that it is unfair for certain countries to have to bear the brunt of universal jurisdiction cases, though she believes that the solution is for other countries to broaden their laws, rather than for Spain and Belgium to narrow theirs.

The PCHR is now planning to expand the al-Daraj suit to include other cases of crimes against humanity perpetrated during Operation Cast Lead, though Sourani would not comment on reports that the PCHR has assembled 936 cases, and is preparing to present evidence in 13. In any case, he insists that universal jurisdiction is not merely a Palestinian issue: when Israel kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of the Holocaust, and tried and executed him, it was acting according to the same principles. “Universal jurisdiction is an essential legal tool when national courts are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute those accused of international crimes, and it provides a means of judicial remedy to victims throughout the world who suffer at the hands of oppressive regimes,” Sourani says. “It’s an essential component in upholding the rule of law.”

Edward Platt, a contributing writer of the NS, is completing a book about the West Bank city of Hebron. Newstatesman.com will link to a video of the Gaza hearings as soon as it is released

Related Content: Edward Platt Q&A

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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