Defying Israeli Genocide at Home (in School) And Abroad (in Court)
Defying Israeli Genocide at Home (in School) And Abroad (in Court). Photo M. Omer
Although ignored by much of the Western media, a battle which echoes the biblical story of David and Goliath is taking place in The Hague. In the modern-day version, young David is personified by a soft-spoken 15-year-old girl named Amira Alqerem. Goliath takes the form of the world’s fourth most powerful, nuclear-armed military state: Israel. At stake is victims’ rights the world over and the international commitment to “never again.” It is this commitment—as well as to international law, as laid down in the Fourth Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—that Amira is asking the International Criminal Court (ICC) to recognize and uphold.
The teenager’s story begins in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 14, 2009, in the waning days of Israel’s murderous “Operation Cast Lead” assault on Gaza. Residents of the Tal Al Hawa neighborhood, her family awoke to the sound of a missile smashing into their home, killing Amira’s 42-year-old father, a shoe industry businessman with permission to enter Israel on business, and injuring her in the leg. With Amira wounded, her 16-year-old sister and 14-year-old brother left her in the damaged home and went to seek assistance. Both were killed by another Israeli missile before they could return to Amira. For several days the injured teenager lay in the rubble beneath the veranda, surviving on water dripping from a partially functioning faucet and drifting in and out of consciousness. Finally, realizing that help would not come to her, she stumbled to her father’s dead body, hoping his cell phone would work—but it no longer did.
Looking out at the rubble of her former neighborhood, the young girl recognized a journalist’s home which was still standing. Painstakingly, dragging her injured leg, she made her way to the door, found it open and entered. Inside she found water bottles and clothing. Weak, she lost consciousness again. She was saved when the home’s occupants returned and discovered her.
Fast forward to Monday, Aug. 31, when Amira—cheered on by French, Belgium, German and Dutch supporters carrying banners and shouting “Justice for Amira” in French and English—and her lawyers entered the International Criminal Court and formally filed suit against the Israeli government.
Although bereft of her family and home, severely injured, and exhausted following several surgeries, the resolute teen had decided that the time had come to put an end to the killing and oppression that caused the death of her entire family. Rather than take up arms, however, she took up advocates, trusting in the law for justice and humanity for truth.
“I am here to lodge a complaint against the occupying army,” the young woman stated softly in an interview outside the courthouse in The Hague. “I hope this complaint will succeed,” she added, “because it is the truth.”
Elaborating on the reason for the lawsuit, Amira’s lawyer, Gilles Devers, focused on evidence suggesting the attacks killing the teen’s family and other Gazans were aimed at civilians rather, than away from them. “This was a crime against humanity,” he stated. “That is why we brought it to the ICC.”
Another of Amira’s lawyers stated emphatically as he entered the building, “Israeli politicians and military leaders must be held responsible.”
And attorney Narriman Kattineh said she had full confidence in the ICC judicial process to uphold international law. “We expect this will put an end to the impunity of the Israeli state,” she said. “We are establishing facts that can be qualified in international law as war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
On Sept. 1, Palestinian Authority Justice Minister Ali Kashan and more than 360 parties, including non-governmental organizations, submitted complaints and evidence to the office of ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo. Among the details submitted were the testimonies of multiple witnesses describing the indiscriminate targeting and killing by Israeli soldiers of unarmed civilians, including several carrying white flags. Also submitted were reports describing Israel’s use of weapons designed to cause the maximum suffering on civilians, and evidence strongly suggesting that Israel, contrary to its public statements, failed to distinguish between civilians and military targets. These same reports also cited instances where Palestinian militants committed war crimes during the period covered, and the ICC is looking into these as well.
After first initiating a “preliminary analysis” of alleged crimes committed by Israel during its Gaza offensive, the ICC’s Moreno-Ocampo noted that, due to Palestine’s status as a non-state, the court does not have jurisdiction in Gaza. However, in a July 1 New York Times op-ed, Moreno-Ocampo noted that the fact that “the Palestinian National Authority accepted the jurisdiction of the court” laid the groundwork for a possible investigation. According to ICC officials, the issue of Palestine’s status is still pending.
Israel is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court and claims it does not fall under its jurisdiction. But, asserted attorney Kattineh, “This does not mean that Israel cannot be punished for war crimes.” The leaders of the Nazi, Rwandan and Sierra Leone governments were not members of the ICC, she pointed out, but this did not prevent the international community from prosecuting those in power for war crimes they committed.
Another solution was proffered by South African law professor John Dugard, formerly the U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. “The U.N. Security Council could refer the situation [assault on Gaza] to the ICC as it did in the case of Darfur,” he suggested, although he admitted that “this is unlikely, as such a move would certainly be vetoed by the United States.”
Certainly a U.S. veto or move to protect Israel remains a strong possibility, given Washington’s history of vetoing Security Council resolutions critical of Israeli aggression against neighboring states or illegally occupied territories. Moreover, the mainstream American media rarely report on the deaths of American citizens such as Rachel Corrie at the hands of Israel’s military occupiers, much less on the lives of Palestinians wounded and killed. Amira’s story, despite its potential impact on U.S. foreign policy, is no exception.
Nevertheless, many people hope that this teenager’s nonviolent search for justice finally will tip the scales of justice in favor of peace and reconciliation. And Amira herself remains undeterred.
“I am doing this for all the children of Gaza,” she told the court. “I want to do something to change the situation.”
Khulud Abu Askar
Khulud Abu Askar stands on the rubble of her destroyed house in the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, July 21, 2009. AFP photo/Mohammed Abed
Khulud Abu Askar’s family now has reason to be happy, following her secondary school achievements in Gaza. Despite her personal tragedy and the loss she sustained during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” assault on Gaza, she managed to score a grade of 90.3 on last year’s Tawjihi (exams).
Khulud lost her two brothers and an uncle, as well as her family home, which was badly damaged, then demolished. She still vividly remembers Jan. 6 of this year, when Israeli security telephoned her house, telling the family to evacuate the house because it was going to be demolished. “A few minutes later the house was completely in ruins,” she recalled.
“Some hours later that same day, Israeli missile rockets hit the U.N.’s Al Fakhoura school,” she said, where her two brothers, Khalid (19) and Imad (14), and Uncle Rafat (30) were seeking shelter.
“After the pain of the destruction, and the sadness within my family, I tried to replace the sorrow with happiness, by working hard on my exams,” she explained in an interview.
Indeed, despite the trauma and obstacles they have endured, 55 percent of Gaza’s schoolchildren passed their exams for the last academic year. Scores in the humanities section of the exams improved by 4 percent over last year, in fact, and science scores by 2 percent.
Gaza’s students also are used to studying without paper—and not because they have the luxury of computer screens (which, of course, require electricity). There simply is no paper available in the Gaza Strip. “I had to use my textbooks as my class notebooks as well,” said secondary student Dua’a Khalil. The siege has caused shortages of paper and many other school supplies that children elsewhere in the world take for granted.
According to Khalid Radi, spokesman for the Gaza-based Ministry of Education and Higher Education, “Many books did not arrive till late in the year, and some did not arrive at all. Supplies of ink and paper are no longer available.”
Hanan Al-Manameh scored 99.4 percent in science, the sixth highest score in both Gaza and the West Bank. “The war and the siege on Gaza will not break us down,” she vowed in a phone call from Gaza City. “The war didn’t put an end to the school year; neither did it kill the motivation inside me.”
Said elected Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, at a rare public appearance to honor the students who excelled: “The results of the secondary school exams of this year have a special meaning, because it was difficult and full of obstacles and blood during the aggression on both the West Bank and Gaza.”
The de facto government also awarded certificates posthumously to 23 high school students and 12 teachers killed during the Israeli bombing.
Of the 47,469 students who passed the exam, 1,189 managed to score above 90 percent in science and humanities. This despite suffering during and surviving more than three weeks of Israeli bombing which killed many other children, including friends, siblings and other relatives. Even before the Israeli assault, the academic year was disrupted when hundreds of teachers went on strike (see November 2008 Washington Report, p. 14). So there was much the students had to endure last year.
Mahmoud Al-Segali, 18, is happy to have scored 99.5 percent, despite the trauma inflicted on him. “My family had to move from one shelter to another while Israeli F-16s bombed the houses around us,” he recalled. “We had power outages, too, and supplies of paper were short, but I still managed to achieve my dream result.”
Like many students around the world, however, even Al-Segali has room for improvement. “It was his handwriting that prevented him from getting that extra .5 percent,” said Dr. Yousif Ibrahim, deputy minister for education. “He must work on that.”
Despite the admirable resolve and determination of these young Gazans, the traumatic conditions take their toll. As Khulud Abu Askar said, “I cannot deny that the loss of my brothers and uncle, plus the destruction of my home, has affected my life and my ability to focus on studying.” She has had to rebuild her young life as a student by collecting new books to replace the ones lying under the rubble of her demolished house.
“In the first days after the assault on Gaza, we didn’t study anything. The students were preoccupied with their experiences and losses during the assault,” she explained.
“Many teachers are concerned about students’ inability to concentrate, and this has become worse after the war on Gaza,” noted Education Ministry spokesman Radi. Sometimes it’s not just a matter of concentration, he added, but of something far more basic. “In many schools children can’t see what is written on the blackboard because of inadequate lighting due to the shortage of electricity,” Radi explained.
And, of course, despite the successes of many of Gaza’s students, there were those who, despite their best efforts, failed the exams. Diab Jumma, 18, is one of them. “My mother fainted when she heard,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t have the time to read, but when I do I am just not able to focus, to concentrate. I get nightmares about the bombing, and when I sit to read a book I find it hard to collect my thoughts and put them into studies.”
Even those students who passed cannot escape the nightmares or memories. Each time she tries to concentrate on her studying, Khulud said, “My eyes will catch sight of the empty desks of my classmates Jihan and Tahrir.” Two students killed in the bombing, 17-year-old Tahrir Balousha and Jihan Ahmad were best friends. Tahrir was killed on Dec. 29, 2008 along with her four sisters, all buried under the rubble of the Imad Aqil Mosque in Jabalya refugee camp where they were taking shelter. Jihan was killed on Jan. 4, 2009 when Israeli forces shelled her home.
Such problems as nightmares, bad memories, lack of focus/concentration are common, according to Dr. Ibrahim.
Citing the Al-Samouni family as an example, he asked, “How is it possible for a student to focus when he has seen the flesh and blood of his parent’s body stuck on the walls of a room of what was once his home?” Israeli bombing killed 28 members of the Al-Samouni family.
And yet Gaza’s results are comparable with those in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, said Dr. Ibrahim. “And imagine, in those countries they have all the budgets, the stability, the means to create a proper atmosphere for education.”
As the much-anticipated results of the Tawjihi were announced across Palestine, families of the 17- and 18-year-olds who would have graduated last spring observed quiet, sad memorials. Tahrir’s mother, who saw the mosque building crumble over her daughters as she turned back while carrying out her youngest child, learned from family friends that her eldest daughter would be honored posthumously.
On the morning of the grades announcement Tahrir’s mother woke up and thought, “Today they will announce the Tawjihi results, and Tahrir has gone.” She remembers waking her husband up in tears, and says she will forever wonder how her daughter would have done on the exams, whether she also would have been handing out sweets to the neighbors, and how she would have been helping Tahrir decide what university program to enter—if they had only been able to exit the mosque faster.
Thirteen schools in Gaza were demolished in the bombing, and 176 damaged, said Dr. Ibrahim—and the continuing Israeli siege means there are no materials available to build the 75 new schools scheduled for construction. Meanwhile, the average classroom size has soared from 40 to 55.
Late August, the new academic year began in Gaza, but this time with even more limited stationery and school supplies, depending only on what could be smuggled through tunnels.
Mahmoud Al Yajzi, deputy director of Gaza’s Chamber of Commerce, estimated the shortage of stationery and school supplies at 90 percent. “Israel is deliberately not allowing stationery into the Gaza Strip in this last period,” he charged, adding that the “occupation forces are blocking 1,750 containers of school supplies and stationery” worth $160 million. Gaza merchants have ordered hundreds of thousands of school bags from suppliers abroad, but nothing has entered Gaza, despite numerous appeals to other nations “to intervene and stop the suffering of our students.” he adds.
Khulud wants to enroll in journalism school in Gaza; she has decided to use her loss and success as the motivation to go on with her life: “I want to show the world the Israeli crimes committed against our people,” she said.