Rachel Corrie, Nuha Sweidan and Israeli War Crimes
by Steve Niva
March 18, 2003
The Israeli bulldozer that ran over and killed American peace activist Rachel Corrie, 23, in the Gaza Strip yesterday had killed before. A few weeks ago, on March 3, an Israeli bulldozer killed a nine-month pregnant Palestinian woman, Nuha Sweidan, while destroying the house next door in a dilapidated Gaza refugee camp. Palestinian witnesses said that Mrs. Sweidan, 33, bled to death under the rubble as she cradled her 18-month-old daughter. Her unborn baby also died.
Rachel Corrie and Nuha Sweidan probably never met, but they will forever be linked as victims of Israel's 35-year occupation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
They are both victims of Israeli war crimes. The Geneva Conventions expressly prohibits attacks on civilian populations regardless of the motivation, even if in retaliation for attacks on its own civilians. To attack civilian populations intentionally is a war crime. Both Rachel Corrie and Nuha Sweidan were killed during military actions against a civilian population, in this case, during a house demolition.
Since June 2002, the Israeli army has destroyed more than 150 houses belonging to Palestinians allegedly involved in attacks, a policy human rights groups describe as collective punishment and which has drawn US criticism in the past.
This past month, Israel nearly set a record for killing Palestinians, mostly civilians, in a single month. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Israeli assaults killed 82 Palestinians, of them 50 in the Gaza Strip and 32 in the West Bank, wounding an additional 616 persons. Israeli soldiers also killed several Palestinian children and 3 medical staff as they sought to attend to wounded. Now, they have killed an American peace activist. In this same period, only six Israeli's were killed, all of them soldiers.
Why so many civilian casualties?
These killings are the product of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's escalation of Israeli Army assaults on Palestinian population centers following his re-election on January 28. Since that time, Israeli forces have largely focused their wrath on Gaza. They have conducted unprecedented armored military operations in Gaza city centers, pursued suspected militants deep into refugee camps and deployed bulldozers to destroy dozens of building and homes. This latter type of operation led to Rachel Corrie and Nuha Sweidan's deaths.
Israeli sympathizers may object that these assaults and civilians killings are justified in response to Palestinian suicide bombings but international law is clear that attacks on civilians are prohibited under any circumstance.
Palestinian suicide bombings are clearly war crimes, even though some Palestinians claim they are justified in response to Israeli massacres and the illegal occupation of Palestinian land. However, Israeli military assaults that systematically result in civilian deaths are also war crimes, regardless of their justification. Both are reprehensible and must be condemned.
Moreover, few independent observers accept that Israel's assaults on Palestinian civilian centers in the past two months correlate as responses to suicide bombs. These operations began nearly a month after the January 5 suicide bomb that killed over 20 Israeli's in Tel Aviv. The only other suicide bomb this year came on March 5, well after the Israeli campaign in Gaza was underway. Furthermore, in both cases the suicide bombers came from the West Bank, not Gaza.
The reality is that Rachel Corrie and Nuha Sweidan will also be forever linked as victims of the extremist Israeli leader Ariel Sharon's relentless war on Palestinians on behalf of Israeli settlements and his vision of a Greater Israel that seeks total control of all of historic Palestine.
The escalating assaults on Gaza over the past month indicate that Ariel Sharon is preparing the way for an invasion and reconquest of the Gaza Strip to complement his reconquest of the West Bank last April. With the West Bank now firmly under Israeli control, Gaza has become the sole remaining area of armed Palestinian resistance to Israel. It stands in the way of Sharon imposing a settlement on the Palestinians that will assign them small, disconnected Bantustans surrounded by hundreds of Israeli settlements. Ariel Sharon was the original architect of the massive expansion of settlements after 1978 and continues to be their main patron.
Sharon is well known for his cold, calculating, tactical acumen, both as a General and as a politician. He is also known as a ruthless fighter and has been accused of crimes against humanity for his role in the massacre of nearly a thousand Palestinian women, children and elderly people in Beirut in 1982.
He is well aware of the sympathy Israel has received in response to the brutal suicide bomb attacks over the past few years. He knows that the world is focused on the impending war in Iraq. Thus, he has calculated that the time is right to set in motion the reoccupation of Gaza, even if it provokes further suicide bombings because he can use them as a pretext for even larger actions.
Menachem Klein, an Israeli political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, outlined the logic of Sharon's actions in a recent Christian Science Monitor article (13 Mar 2003).
"These raids can be a kind of rehearsal, with the idea to arrest someone, but also to see how to get in and out, what tactics to use. A rehearsal on live people. And the thinking is that if the world gets used to these short-term reoccupations, it will digest the long-term one."
Rachel Corrie, Nuha Sweidan, over a hundred Palestinians and scores of Israeli civilians are the victims of this live rehearsal.
It is true that Palestinian suicide bombers have helped contribute to this cycle of violence through their own vicious acts. Indeed they have murdered women, children and innocent civilians as well.
However, this is not a symmetrical conflict. Israel dominates the lives and land of over 3 million Palestinians through massive military assaults, imprisonment of thousands, torture and systematic starvation policies that have lead to a major humanitarian crisis in many areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In fact, Rachel had been working with other members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to defend a newly dug water well from Israeli attempts to destroy it before she was killed.
Moreover, since his return to power two years ago, Ariel Sharon has systematically escalated Israeli military assaults and assassinations in search of a military solution, despite the waves of suicide bombings, in order to achieve a very clear set of political objectives. At the top of the list has been the destruction of any base of Palestinian political and military resistance to Israeli settlements and permanent control of the land Israel occupied in 1967. Gaza is his last objective.
There is no "balance" in this conflict. It is time to call Israel into account for its war crimes and time to stop Ariel Sharon from imposing his violent dream of Greater Israel on Palestinians. It is time to stop the needless deaths of Rachel Corrie, Nuha Sweidan and others, whether Palestinian or Israeli, or now, American.
Steve Niva is a Member of the Faculty, The Evergreen State College. He teaches international politics and Middle East studies. He met with Rachel Corrie before she left for Gaza in January and is deeply saddened by her tragic and unnecessary death.