News Focus: Israel and Gaza

30 July 2014

The death toll in the conflict in the Gaza Strip has risen to over 1,000, as Israeli forces undertake military operations in response to Hamas rocket attacks. 

As part of a series of News Focus articles, in which we draw upon the expertise of social scientists to throw light on important events, we talk to Dr Louise Mallinder, Reader in Human Rights and International Law at the University of Ulster. She has visited the West Bank as a volunteer human rights worker, and in May travelled there and to Israel as part of her research on the ESRC-funded project, ‘Lawyers, conflict and transition’ (with K. McEvoy, M. Requa and A. Bryson):

We went to interview a selection of lawyers including those involved in defending human rights activists and Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories,” said Dr Mallinder.

“Progressive human rights lawyers spoke of their concerns that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was eroding notions of democracy within Israel itself. Part of the legitimacy of Israeli state, and part of its self-image, is that it is the only democracy in Middle East, but the lawyers we spoke to felt what was happening in the occupied territories was have a corrosive effect on Israeli democracy.

“For example, they noted the militarisation of Israeli youth, and that the sort of tactics used against Palestinians in the occupied territories were also being used against human rights protestors in Israel itself.

“There has been a normalisation of violence in Israeli society because you have generations of people who were conscripted into the military, many of whom have seen active service. Many of the police officers policing demonstrations or interrogating human rights activists and Arabs will have been in military at some point, which may affect the way they behave.

“The Arab populations living in Israel, who are citizens of Israel and are meant to be treated in accordance with Israeli law have long been subjected to racist or discriminatory laws. The outbreak of fighting in Gaza has worsened this situation, and large numbers of Israeli Arabs have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention and interrogation – again in a similar manner to what is happening in occupied territories.

“This increasing repression of dissent, whether from Arab Israelis or from Jewish activists who call for a greater respect for human rights for all, is not just a response to the recent violence in Gaza – it has developed over a longer period. It is a part of a growing trend within Israeli society, which has developed strongly since the 1980s, where those who express dissenting voices are frequently decried as traitors.

“For Israeli citizens to speak up for Palestinians will mean they will be marginalised and may face professional repercussions. There have been calls in the media to have academics removed from their jobs, and lawyers and human rights defenders have received death threats – and there is a campaign by right-wing organisations for human rights groups to be deprived of funding from abroad.

“This process is mirrored on the Palestinian side where human rights activists there who criticise the record of the Palestinian Authority, or their negotiation strategies with Israel are also accused of undermining Palestinian solidarity.

“Such disillusionment with the historically more secular Fatah faction is one of the reasons why we have seen an increase in more visible expressions of religious commitment among Palestinians.

“Hamas offers more radical action, shown most vividly in the firing of rockets, and the Israeli response to this makes Palestinians lives very hard. This doesn’t necessarily mean the Palestinians will turn against Hamas, because people living in Gaza have long endured extreme hardship – children in Gaza aged six have now experienced three wars.

“Even before the latest Israeli action every aspect of daily life was difficult, so there is a feeling of ‘what do we have to lose by supporting Hamas?’ Before this latest conflict, Gaza had been under blockade, and much of its infrastructure had been destroyed – the people had not been able to rebuild their power stations or hospitals destroyed or damaged in previous conflict.

“The situation is grim. Under international humanitarian law it is possible that both sides have committed war crimes, though there is a stark disparity in military capacity and in the number of civilian deaths caused by the Israelis.

“The erosion of freedom of expression in Israel and the increasingly racist policies induced by the Israeli state meant that many Israeli human rights activists that we interviewed before the conflict said ‘I have no hope’.

“I felt depressed to hear that, but I live in Northern Ireland and for many years people would have characterised the situation here as hopeless, but today we’re in a hugely different place.

• Dr Mallinder is a Reader at the Transitional Justice Institute. Her research interests focus on law, justice and transition, and she is an expert on amnesty laws. She researches international criminal law, international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as well as domestic law criminal and public law in diverse jurisdictions including Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Uruguay, Uganda, Tunisia, Israel-Palestine, South Africa, Cambodia, Chile and the United States. She has created an extensive Amnesty Law database.

The views expressed in our News Focus articles are those of the researcher, and do not necessarily represent those of the Campaign