Transcript of Neuer-Buttu Al Jazeera Debate

AL JAZEERA HOST (Adrian Finighan): Some findings in his report, Richard Goldstone said that new information showed that Israel did not deliberately target civilians. Let’s bring in our guests today: from Ramallah we’re joined by Diana Buttu, former Palestinian peace negotiator and human rights lawyer. In Geneva we have Hillel Neuer, Executive Director at UN Watch and an international lawyer. And also from Ramallah we’re joined by Bill van Esveld, the Israel and Palestine researcher at Human Rights Watch. Bill, we’ll start with you first. As far as Human Rights Watch is concerned, could war crimes have been committed by either side in this current conflict?

ESVELD: Yes they could. A war crime has got a simple definition. It is a violation of the laws of armed conflict with intent or recklessness, and we have seen that in a number of indiscriminate rocket launches that were clearly claimed by armed groups to have targeted Israeli population centers, but of course those have caused far, far less civilian casualties than some of the limited number of cases that Human Rights Watch has been able to investigate so far on the ground in Gaza. And in those cases, many of them, there was no military object at all in that area and a very large strike was launched, killing numerous civilians in each one of those cases—from a group of nine men and boys gathering to watch the World Cup on the beach, to another group of boys who had been playing hide-and-seek outside a hotel in Gaza City on the beach. No military object in either case, and very, very grave concerns that they were reckless or even worse attacks.

HOST: Hillel Neuer in Geneva: Might Israel be guilty of war crimes?

NEUER: Look, all deaths are tragic. But there’s no way that Bill from Human Rights Watch can know if there’s a military object when Hamas has their entire infrastructure built under kilometers of tunnels, built under hospitals and schools and private homes. So unless Hamas is giving Bill of Human Rights Watch privileged access to their terror tunnels, I think the conclusions that he’s making from afar seem to me baseless. And we have to recall what Colonel Kemp, the former Commander of British forces in Afghanistan, who served at the United Nations and NATO said: No army in the history of warfare has done more to avoid harming civilians than the IDF has done in the circumstances.

HOST: Okay, we will put that to Bill in just a moment, but first, Palestinian militants may put civilians at risk by launching attacks from or near homes or public buildings, but under the rules of war, civilians who don’t fight—the vast majority of ordinary Palestinians, Hillel—have to be protected. Yes, Israel gives warnings, but that doesn’t give it the right to proceed and hit civilians who are left behind or who can’t flee, with little regard for their welfare, does it?

NEUER: Hamas is a fascist, oppressive organization—a fundamentalist, radical jihadist organization just like ISIS and Boko Haram—that is committing a double war crime. Not only have they sent more than 2,000 rockets at cities, towns and villages across Israel, deliberately targeting civilians—and I was in Israel a couple of weeks ago, when rockets were fired at Jerusalem, which Islamists are supposed to claim as a holy city, they fired indiscriminate rockets at Jerusalem, and at Tel Aviv—but it’s a double war crime because they are urging their citizens, their civilians in Gaza, to go precisely at where the rocket launcher sites are, telling them to be human shields. Hamas has gone on television and has told them literally…

HOST: Alright…

NEUER: …”we need to you go on top of this or that building to be human shields.” This is a double war crime. The tragic deaths that have been caused in Gaza are deliberately caused by Hamas’ cynical, brutal oppression of its own people.

HOST: Okay, look, first of all, I would beg to argue with your comparison of Hamas as being like Boko Haram—but we’re not here to discuss that at the moment, we’re here to discuss whether war crimes have been committed by either side. We’ll speak to Diana Buttu in just a moment about whether Hamas has used civilians as human shields, but first I want to get a response from Bill in Ramallah, to what you’ve just heard.

ESVELD: Well, it’s not actually that difficult in some cases to figure out what’s going on and we are on the ground and so are a number of other human rights organizations as well as the UN office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, each one going around independently checking each bombing site…

NEUER: It’s happening below ground—the terror tunnels are below ground. How do you know if you’re not below ground?

ESVELD: You can say “terror tunnels,” but it’s a bit of a slogan…

NEUER: It’s not a slogan. There are kilometers and kilometers of cement that your organization demanded be imported in there. They used the cement not to build hospitals, schools—you’ve seen the videos, unless you’re being intentionally blind—the videos have been published of kilometers of tunnels that have been build from Gaza to Israel.

ESVELD: Mr. Neuer, I would like to respond, please…

HOST: Alright, Hillel, let’s listen to what Bill has to say.

ESVELD: Okay, just a few things. You do have to look at each individual case, each individual attack, before declaring whether it’s a war crime, or just a mistake, or an attack on a legitimate military target that doesn’t pose any concerns under the laws of war. That’s what we’re doing. There was no allegation by the IDF that there were any terror tunnels in several of the incidents where we documented numerous civilian deaths, and a lot of civilian casualties. That’s one thing. Another thing is that if Israel has no concerns that it’s doing anything wrong, why is it going to be blocking, as it suggested, this commission of inquiry? Which would be independent, and which would look indeed at laws of war violations by both sides.

HOST: Alright, let’s bring in Diana Buttu, also in Ramallah. Diana, is Hamas, or are any of the other Palestinian militant factions, guilty of war crimes? Are they using civilians as human shields or schools to store missiles?

BUTTU: Absolutely not. And this type of questioning is absolutely repulsive and repugnant. The very thought that Palestinians should be blamed for the fact that Israel is bombing them is beyond repulsive.

These are 650 Palestinians, over 150 children who’ve been killed, brutally murdered, by Israel through its bombing campaign. And if it’s not through the bombing campaign, it’s through the blockade that it has imposed illegally on the Gaza strip. To suggest that somehow, some Palestinian is going to be so blind as to allow themselves to be a human shield is silly and repugnant. And I think that rather than castigating Palestinians for dying, we should be castigating the Israelis for killing Palestinians. This is the line of questioning that we should be going down.

And by the way, there have been inquiries in the past, none of them have ever demonstrated that Hamas or any other organization has used Palestinians as human shields. But the converse is true. Israel in the past has used Palestinians as human shields in order to carry out its military operations. So once again, let’s stop blaming the Palestinians, the victims, for being killed, and let’s start blaming the aggressor, Israel, for doing the killing.

HOST: Hillel, how do you respond to that?

NEUER: Well, I think it’s sad that Diana is contradicting her own organization she used to work for, the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, which in 2007, when there was the coup d’état in Gaza, and Hamas killed dozens and dozens of Fatah people, and threw them off rooftops, they then called Hamas “terrorists.” And it’s the same terrorist group.

And what she said is contradicted by UNRWA—and by the Palestinian ambassador in Geneva. UNRWA, twice in the past week, has said they’ve discovered large amounts of rockets in their schools. The UN Secretary General today has condemned that, said he’s alarmed and outraged, and that the missiles have now gone missing. So she’s saying there’s no rockets in schools—and UNRWA, the group that’s dedicated to helping Palestinians, has said, for the second time, they’ve found rockets in schools.

So it’s quite obvious that the Palestinian ambassador in Geneva, on Palestinian TV on July 9th, has said what Diana refuses to say. He’s said that the reason that the Palestinians do not join the ICC is because they are liable. Because he said, and I’m quoting him: Hamas, every missile that they fire is aimed at civilians, and every one of these missiles aimed at Israeli civilians is a war crime.He went on to say that: Unlike Israel—which when Israel attacks in Gaza, they send us warnings before each attack—when we fire missiles, we don’t give any warnings, so they’re war crimes.

So what Diana is saying is contradicted by her own ambassador in Geneva. I said it yesterday before the Human Rights Council, he took the floor and intervened, and did not challenge those words at all. We had a chat privately afterwards, those words are on the record. She refuses to say anything. If Diana’s a human rights lawyer, why can’t she condemn an organization that is anti-women, anti-gay, anti-human rights, and is clearly putting rockets in schools and hospitals? Why can’t she condemn them? Why can’t she say what her own ambassador is saying?

HOST: Diana, please. 

BUTTU: [Gags, pauses.] Is this going to be a discussion or is this just going to be the floor for Hillel? Let me respond. First and foremost, I don’t represent the PLO. I represent myself. Secondly, and more importantly, when it comes to the issue of the rockets and the rockets that were found in the UNRWA schools, I didn’t deny it. All I said was that, that, Hamas is not using Palestinians as human shields.

Now, let’s get to the issue of the rockets in the schools in UNRWA. The rockets that were found in the schools in UNRWA were schools that are not being used by anybody—school is out, if you, if I’ll have you know.

And if you want me to renounce Hamas because they’re anti-women, anti-everything, then I’m also gong to sit and renounce Israel, which is also anti-women, anti-free speech, anti-, anti-gay, anti-everything. The fact that we have to sit here and engage in this debate rather than discussing war crimes that Israel continues to commit against the Palestinians…

NEUER: Israel’s anti-gay? Diana, Israel’s anti-gay?

BUTTU: I don’t want to go down your pink-washing line of discussion. This is about war crimes. Hillel, there are war crimes that are being committed by Israel at this point in time. This isn’t the first time, and this isn’t the last time.

NEUER: What you’re saying is preposterous. Diana, in Tel Aviv, there’s a gay parade every year.

HOST: Okay, look we can’t talk over each other like this, we’re not going to get anywhere if we continue to talk over each other like this because of the satellite delay that we’re working with here. Bill van Esveld in Ramallah, let’s get back to this investigation. Does this kind of investigation serve any purpose at all? Both Israel and Hamas rejected the Goldstone Report, the same is surely going to happen with this probe, isn’t it?

ESVELD: Well we’ll have to see what happens. Obviously our hope as a human rights organization is that the chairperson appointed to head this commission of inquiry will be somebody of a high level, who’s experienced, who’s impartial and who’s committed to bringing justice to a conflict where there’s been just a history of impunity, and a lot of very poor decision-making by other governments who have wrongfully decided that justice and accountability are somehow going to get in the way of peace.

And what we need for peace is less impunity for war crimes, not more. So what we really need is somebody who’s going to head this commission of inquiry, backed up by very solid staff, who produces a solid report with good recommendations that are then backed up by Western countries in particular. Those Western countries, if they’re presented with a good document—obviously we don’t know what the report’s going to look like yet—but if it’s solid and credible and does what it should do, it should be backed up fully. We’ve seen three major escalations in Gaza since 2008. If you’re a 6-year-old child in Gaza, you have lived through three conflicts and I hope you live through this one. This can’t continue, but it’s going to continue unless there’s a real push for accountability, particularly by Israel’s allies in the West.

HOST: Alight, so all sides—Israel, Hamas, the other Palestinian factions—all stand accused of war crimes, but who, Bill, should be held accountable? How? And could you ever foresee a time when Israeli leaders or military commanders or leaders and militants from Hamas or other Palestinian groups appear before the International Criminal Court?

ESVELD: Well of course we of Human Rights Watch, Palestinian human rights organizations such as Al Haq, international groups like Amnesty, we have all been really pushing on the Palestinian leadership to join the International Criminal Court. Of course they haven’t done so because of immense pressure and threats, particularly from the Israeli side but also the US.

Now if Palestine joined the ICC, that court would have jurisdiction over war crimes committed by all sides, by Israelis as well as by Palestinian armed groups. It would be an impartial justice mechanism and the first time really that we’d see international justice with teeth. So yes, it is possible, but we need a lot less negative opposing and misguided pressure against accountability, pressure for impunity, on the part of those Western powers, so that the Palestinian leadership can step up to the plate and join the ICC.

HOST: Diana Buttu, why won’t the Palestinian leadership join the ICC?

BUTTU: There’s a great deal of fear, and the great deal of fear has nothing to do with the fact that they’re afraid of war crimes allegations against them, it’s quite the opposite. They’re afraid of the United States cutting off funding, they’re afraid of the Europeans cutting off funding.

Let’s be clear, this is a government that lives by the hand and mouth of what donors have been giving them, and the donors have made it clear that they don’t want to see Israel held to account. If they did, we don’t have to go the ICC. There are many other mechanisms that they could and should be using to hold Israel accountable, such as boycotting Israel, divesting from Israel, imposing sanctions on Israel, an arms embargo on Israel, these are all things that the international community can do very easily without Palestinians joining on to the ICC.

The big problem is that because they’ve put so much pressure on the Palestinians not to join, they’ve also made sure that they do nothing in return to hold Israel to account. And this is where the problem lies. We have to get to the point where Israel is not treated above the law, and where Palestinians are not treated below the law.

HOST: Hillel Neuer, would Israel cooperate with this investigation? It’s refused to cooperate in the past.

NEUER: Well, Bill says that we should trust the Human Rights Council, and would have us believe that it’s composed of people like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, when the truth is, and I’m going to quote the director of his own organization, Ken Roth, writing in 2001 in the International Herald Tribune, who said the Human Rights Commission, to understand it, imagine a jury of thieves, rapists and murderers.That’s a quote from the head of his own organization.

And the reason he said that is because just this year, the Human Rights Council welcomed the new members China, Russia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Algeria, adding to Pakistan and Venezuela. These are the countries that initiated the session yesterday. Not a single major democracy voted for the resolution. In fact the European Union, which has support the Palestinians with hundreds of millions of dollars, and politically…

HOST: Right, Okay…

NEUER: … they said that the resolution yesterday…

HOST: Alright, alright…

NEUER: … and the commission of Inquiry were inaccurate and imbalanced

HOST: Alright, Hillel…

NEUER: … and the notion that you can trust the Human Rights Council is absurd.

HOST: Yeah, Hillel, we get the point, thank you. Bill, do you want to respond to that? Or do you want to take on this question: How do you go about closing the responsibility gap that we were talking about, with neither side at the moment willing to prosecute its own for violations of humanitarian law, and how much responsibility does the US bear for the apparent lack of accountability in this Israeli-Palestinian violence?

ESVELD: I think the US bears a significant amount of responsibility because they have blocked and vetoed virtually every international justice mechanism that would have been applied to Israel in the past.

The Human Rights Council, as Hillel notes, we have criticized strongly in the past. However, it is an internationally-mandated body to look into human rights emergencies. It has actually improved over the years in terms of the number of different situations that it is looking at and investigating. So it’s a bit outdated, actually, to say that it’s only looking at Israel.

The other problem I think with that argument is that, well, maybe it does look quite a bit at Israel—and indeed there have been several fact-finding missions, commissions of inquiry, what have you—but that should actually be the standard for all human rights abusers across the globe.

And it’s a bit of a distraction to start pinning the blame and talking about what’s up with the Human Rights Council when you’ve got hundreds of dead civilians including hundreds of dead children on the ground in Gaza, some still buried under the rubble. That’s what we need to be looking at. If we had a real, serious, pushed, supported commission of inquiry, then I think we could actually start to see some changes. Things are a bit different internationally for Israel’s reputation than they were before Operation Cast Lead.

HOST: Diana, you’re a human rights lawyer. Will there be no justice until the United States gets behind this issue properly?

BUTTU: Well I think that the United States is the biggest enabler of Israel’s blatant war crimes and its violations of international law, but at the same time I think that it goes beyond the United States. I think that other countries have also been complicit. But I think in terms of moving forward, I believe that it’s going to be the United States that will be the last country, just as it was when it came to apartheid in South Africa — which it very gingerly supported, as did Israel — and we ended up seeing that the world community was the one that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa, and so too, I believe, that we will see that the United States will be the last country to join in terms of demanding that Israel finally give freedom to the Palestinians and allow Palestinians to live in the same dignity and freedom that other people are allowed to live in around the world.

HOST: All right, one final…I think it’s going to be a final comment here from Bill. Sorry, Hillel, but we’re running out of time here. What do you think is going to happen here, Bill? Will there be a time when we will see true justice in the case, justice for both sides in this conflict?

ESVELD: I hope so. I mean, that’s a big hypothetical. We’re going to need to see a lot of change. We have seen a lot of popular support and much more popular awareness of what’s really going on in Gaza right now, than we saw during Operation Cast Lead. As you know, in 2008-2009, no media were allowed into the Gaza Strip by Israel until after the offensive was over. That’s different this time. I think public perceptions are becoming more well-informed about what’s going on, and we hope and we encourage those publics to push their governments for accountability this time, so we don’t have to see it another time.

HOST: And Human Rights [Watch] continues to monitor the situation on the ground there?

ESVELD: Yes, we do. We have staff on the ground and we are running around to the best of our ability while the bombs are still falling, along with many courageous local human rights organizations on the ground as well.

HOST: Hillel, one final comment from you, if we can, please. But time is tight, so please, if you can, keep it fairly short.

NEUER: Well, it’s two against one, but…  Look, I just want to respond to two things that were said. Diana Buttu said that Israel is “anti-women” and “anti-gay” like Hamas is. Can’t think of anything more preposterous than that. Israel has an annual gay parade in Tel Aviv and has enormous equality — more equality for gays than anywhere in the entire Middle East. And she knows that.

She also knows that Israel had a woman as Chief Justice, and women who head major political parties and were prime ministers. And Hamas, the idea that a woman would have any public position is preposterous. So she’s saying things that are just absolutely absurd.

BUTTU: And how many women are in the cabinet? It’s a cabinet that is fascist.

NEUER: Please, let me, you had a chance [to speak]. The Palestinian charter talks about racism…

HOST: OK. Alright. Look.

NEUER: The Hamas charter talks about killing Jews, and…

HOST: OK. Alright. OK.

NEUER: The PLO media regularly talks about killing Jews in songs that they teach little children, and naming public squares in Ramallah after people who murdered children. Diana supports that. Why does she support naming public squares after people who murdered children? It’s absurd.

HOST: Alright Hillel. OK. Diana, we have a matter of seconds, please, a very, very brief point.

BUTTU: What I was going to say is that what the Israelis always try to do is they try to deflect their war crimes by trying to focus on everything else but their war crimes. This is why an international investigation is so vital and so needed and this is precisely why Israel’s refusing to cooperate.

HOST: I’m afraid we have to leave it. Many thanks to all of you.

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