Back at the end of March, Elliott Abrams wrote an article for the Council on Foreign Relations expressing the unfair bias Israel receives in relation to its campaign in Palestine and the seemingly passive attitude towards Saudi Arabia’s shelling of Yemen. He began with an excerpt from a Washington Post article detailing Saudi Arabia’s attack on a refugee camp in Northern Yemen killing 40, where Houthi rebels have taken civilians as human shields. Abrams went on to emphasize the “almost certain silence in the United Nations about the attack on the refugee camp in Yemen” with no reports, investigations, or condemnation against the Kingdom. Meanwhile, Israel is victimized by the Arab States and the United Nations with condemnation and detailed investigations as Hamas performs the very actions the Houthis in Yemen are criticized for.
“I cannot recall an incident where Israel struck at a refugee camp and killed 40 people all at once, also injuring 200 others, but I am willing to bet on the world reaction to this Saudi attack: zero. No meetings, commissions, no reports.”
Being that it’s been almost four months since Abrams’ article, there certainly has been development on the Yemeni crisis. However, the UN has expressed its concern about the crisis albeit reserved.
Just three days before, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Saudi Arabia and other participating states to refrain from targeting civilians and to encourage dialogue rather than escalation of violence. On March 31st, Saudi Arabia’s strike on a refugee camp in Northern Yemen was faced with backlash from human rights groups and officials from the United Nations.
Several NGO’s have also publicly condemned Saudi Arabia’s actions both against Yemeni civilians and against outside media and aid agencies. Johannes Van Der Klaauw, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, had rejected Saudi Arabia’s rationalization for indiscriminately hitting populated areas regardless of prior warning. The Saudi military has failed in many regards to warn Yemeni civilians of attacks and airstrikes, even so far as labeling major sections of the country as a “military target.”
The Human Rights Watch has found credible evidence that Saudi Arabia had used cluster munitions in its airstrikes against Houthi controlled zones. These weapons are designed to impact a large and wide zone, potentially harming a number of civilians. Cluster munitions have widely been banned by majority of nations, although Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United States (a supplier of such weapons) are not among them.
Bombing civilian zones, with or without prior warning, especially in an indiscriminate manner is a violation of international law. The usage of civilian zones as a launch point for militaristic activity, as the Houthi insurgents have done, is also a violation of international law.
Houthi forces have committed a number of war crimes, as documented by rights groups like the Human Rights Watch. The fighters have killed civilians and aid workers unlawfully detained and used as hostages, as well as entrenched themselves in civilian buildings.
Saudi Arabia has also closed Yemeni sea ports in an effort to keep Iranian forces from entering the fight. This action comes at the expense of much needed humanitarian aid reaching the war-torn country. And its restrictions on entering Yemen have extended to reporters and investigators, with many reporters denied access to flights or ships to Yemen. The Kingdom has taken an active approach with media outlets, and most likely with allies, in limiting information or distorting reports that may damage its campaign.
Within the last week, the United Nations called for an investigation into a Saudi attack on a UN office in Yemen. Whether this is the first official order for a report on attacks in Yemen by the UN, those opposed to the airstrikes see this as an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to face charges or punishments. It also places the United States in a precarious position.
The US Government has expressed “concern” over Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen but have not taken a strong stance against their ally, at least not publicly. And the US’ role in the Saudi led coalition raises eyebrows on its commitment to human rights and the rule of law. The US Government has provided Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States, with a gracious supply of arms and military aid, most notably the cluster munitions mentioned earlier.
The US Government has also expressed this “concern” with other Arab states over human rights violations and tied future arms transfers to progress on human rights developments. Similarly, the US has continued or unfrozen weapon sales and transfers despite no advancement, or in some cases a worsening, of human rights. Bahrain and Egypt have been two of the countries without significant headway on rights development that have regained weapons from America, with various NGO’s expressing outrage.
While the US has reiterated their devotion to the progression of human rights, its benevolent image is being tainted by supporting nations committing war crimes, failing to strongly speak out against such actors, or providing aid to those states that fail to implement human rights reform. America’s support of Israel and its failure to take a tougher but balanced stance on the conflict creates more global opposition to any criticism or attacks that rest mainly on Palestine. It boosts the condemnation and calls for accountability on Israel to equalize the seemingly disproportionate opprobrium.
In terms of Israel, the UN and several NGOs have released reports and investigations on alleged war crimes and attacks against Palestinian civilians and military targets. Much like Saudi Arabia, Israel has used, and refused to discontinue, broad attacks against populated areas and collective punishment on the people of Gaza. Human Rights Watch conducted an investigation into four Israeli strikes that resulted in civilian casualties whether part of a specific target or a general airstrike. With such attacks constituting a war crime under international law, HRW found that Israel “has presented no information to show that it was attacking lawful military objectives or acted to minimize civilian casualties.”
The Israeli military has claimed that “civilian members of Hamas or other political groups who do not have a military role are “terrorists” and therefore valid military targets,” including family homes thought to, but not proved to, house militants or act as a stronghold.
The four attacks investigated by the HRW all took place in the month of July of 2014, resulting in:
- Nine civilians killed during an attack on a cafe (July 9th)
- Two municipal workers killed due to a strike in the Bureij Refugee Camp (July 11th)
- Seven civilians and one member of the Qassam Brigades during an attack on the Khan Yunis refugee camp (July 10th)
- Two civilians killed and two injured during an attack on an apartment building (July 9th)
From July 7th to July 15 of that year, 138 civilians were killed and over 1,200 homes were destroyed due to indiscriminate attacks by Israel. That number has greatly increased since then.
For Abrams not being able to recall an event where Israel struck a refugee camp and killed 40 people all at once, The Battle of Jenin in 2002 may fit the requirements, though the number of casualties reported have varied.
Hamas has certainly been a perpetrator of war crimes, especially against the people of Gaza. Amnesty International has documented the group carrying out arrests, kidnappings, and torture against civilians who oppose Hamas or are seen as supporting Israel. While Israel has accused Hamas of operating inside of civilian buildings and risking lives, UN investigators in 2014 were unable to verify these claims, “owing to the denial by Israel of access to Gaza; fears by Palestinian witnesses of reprisal by armed groups and local authorities, in particular when providing information remotely; and challenges faced by Palestinian human rights organizations in documenting alleged violations by Palestinian armed groups.” The international community and the United Nations should strongly condemn and punish Hamas should they be found using civilian centers to launch attacks. Hamas has also employed the use of indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israel, with roughly 1,500 rockets fired in 2014 as reported by Israeli media.
A 2015 skirmish between the two caused the deaths of 67 Israeli soldiers and 6 civilians, as well as over 2,100 Palestinians (1,400 of them civilians).
What becomes dangerous now is the increase of militant activities from other Islamic groups in the Gaza strip. Hamas has pointed fingers at rival factions and have even received threats from ISIS which seeks to overthrow the group and instill their strict brand of Sharia. Attacks made against Israel and Palestinian civilians risks being seen as under direction of Hamas or untraceable to one specific group. It creates the issue of failing to identity the specific source of violence or agitation starting up future conflicts or attacks on civilian populations in both nations.
In the UN report on the 2014 Israeli-Palestinian conflict, investigators found that civilians on both sides suffered greatly at the hands of Israeli and Palestinian forces which failed to take the necessary precautions to minimize casualties.
Both Palestine and Israel have and continue to dismiss any accusations of war crimes as biased and unfair, evoking a sense of victimization that allows the perpetuation of violence against innocent civilians and the avoidance of responsibility of the after effects caused by war. The same can be said in regards to Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, both of which have done their best to justify and rationalize indiscriminate attacks against and militaristic use of Yemeni civilians. It’s absurd to say that a certain group or state is not receiving any condemnation, but rather it is accurate to say that the condemnations are either too quiet and unnoticed or loud and extremely vocal. While no one single organization has the privilege of appearing unbiased and neutral when reporting war crimes, accusations and investigations across the board, noticed or not, should be seriously considered and evaluated rather than dismissed or demonized.
Photo Credit: The Telegraph