Last month, one of us spoke to a group of visiting church leaders from the United Kingdom. On the whole this was a thoughtful group with the usual spectrum of know-nothings at one end to fairly well informed and engaged individuals at the other. And all the political viewpoints you might expect.
One of these clerical individuals, though from the UK, is currently based in the Holy Land and ministers to one of the tiny-and-getting smaller local Christian communities. Not that Israelis Jews have any special problem with people of other faiths establishing their churches and teaching their creeds here. But as some of our readers will know, this land includes people who are not Israeli Jews, and some of them have a far more aggressive viewpoint when it comes to tolerating people of confessions different from their own.
The minister and his wife later joined us for dinner. During what turned out to be a pretty tense exchange of views, they expressed deep anger for what they believe Israelis are doing to the beleaguered Arabs of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. They also observed that they had had a hard time trying to find Israeli Jews with whom they could have ordinary conversations in the five months they have lived here.
Both of those viewpoints caused us some astonishment. We'll focus only on the first for this item.
The couple had visited Gaza a day before our suburban Jerusalem encounter. And what they wanted us to know about that excursion was that Israelis treat the Gazans terribly. The gates between Gaza and Israel are closed for much of the time, causing great inconvenience, and this was deliberate. In fact, it was part of what they called collective punishment.
We pretty largely failed in trying to have them see a context to these awful things. As we see it, that context includes thousands of rocket, mortar, sniper and knife attacks on Israelis, Americans, fellow Gazans and practically anyone else and anything else. Plus routine acts of murder, pillage and systematic demonization and elmination of all traces (human, institutional and material) of anyone or any thing different from the Hamas-dictated norm.
The church couple couldn't have been less interested in contextualization of what they say is deliberate, systematic humiliation.
Personally, through being connected by blood to parents, aunts, uncles and other close family members who themselves survived the Nazi nightmare, the concentration camps, the death squads (our children's grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family, lived most of his life with a Wehrmacht bullet embedded in his upper leg) and the liquidation of the Jewish communities of Europe, we have an allergic reaction to people applying the term "collective punishment" to what's happening in Gaza.
Words matter. And abusing words is a step away from abusing - but we mean really abusing - people. But somehow as the frustration and passions of Israel's enemies keep rolling along and growing in intensity, the abuse and misuse of key terms gets more and more offensive.
Which brings us to an op ed appearing in an Irish paper today:
Role of Hamas in 'collective punishment'
OPINION: Fri, Aug 15, 2008
ON MAY 27th, 1942, the Deputy Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, was assassinated by the Czech underground as he drove to his office in Prague, writes SEÁN GANNON (chairman of Irish Friends of Israel).
In an effort "to make up for his death", the SS rounded up the residents of the nearby village of Lidice. Some 200 men were immediately executed. The women were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp where most subsequently died; 80 per cent of their children were gassed at Chelmno in July.To which we say the collective punishment collective will remain unmoved.
Two years later, a partisan bomb killed 33 members of an SS police battalion as it marched through central Rome. In reprisal, the city's Gestapo chief, Herbert Kappler, ordered that 10 Italians be executed for every dead German. The following day, 335 people were taken down to the Ardeatine Caves and shot in the back of the neck.
Such were the type of atrocities that the framers of the Fourth Geneva Convention had in mind when they outlawed "collective punishment" in 1949. Article 33's stipulation that no person "be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed" refers to the active imposition of criminal penalties in reprisal for another party's guilt.
Therefore, its constant invocation by critics of Israel in the context of its lockdown of Gaza represents little more than a cynical exploitation of the language of international law, part of a well-established strategy which seeks to de-legitimise Israeli security detail by defining it in terms of policies properly opposed by all right-thinking people: "apartheid" (the security fence); "war crimes" (the targeted killing of terrorist leaders); even "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" (almost every IDF operation).
For example, the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign claims that Israel's rather erratic restrictions on electricity and motor fuel exports to Gaza constitute "collective punishment" and a violation of international law.
However, the legality of economic sanctions in conflict situations is enshrined in the UN Charter despite their unavoidable impact on civilians. The UN embargo against Saddam Hussein's regime caused enormous suffering among ordinary Iraqis while its sanctions against al-Qaeda and the Taliban had what the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs called "a tangible negative effect" on the lives of innocent Afghanis. Yet no one accuses the Security Council of imposing "collective punishment".
Furthermore, although the Fourth Geneva Convention does not technically apply to its conflict with Gaza (which is neither a high contracting party nor, despite Israel's control of its borders, Israeli occupied territory), Jerusalem is fully compliant with its requirements.
The convention does not obligate the supply of goods and services to enemy populations (Israel rightly declared Gaza a "hostile entity" in September 2007) other than "essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended for children under 15, expectant mothers and maternity cases".
The 1977 First Additional Protocol does not list electricity or fuel among the "other supplies essential to the survival of the civilian population", for which transit must be facilitated. In any case, even these can be embargoed where there are serious grounds for believing they will be intercepted by enemy forces. And although this is obviously happening in Gaza (Hamas seized 14 truckloads of Red Crescent relief last February and has been repeatedly accused by the Palestinian Authority of diverting fuel destined for Gaza's power station and hospitals to its own private depots), Israel continues to allow the transfer of hundreds of tonnes of aid into the territory each week.
Israel's travel ban on Gaza students with overseas scholarships has also been described as a form of "collective punishment". Condemning this policy on these pages, the former director of the Irish Fulbright Commission, John Kelly, highlighted the case of seven Fulbright scholars whom he suggested were denied permission to travel to the US to study because three of them were affiliates of Gaza's Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold linked to a number of recent terrorist offences. Three of the 14 Fulbright scholars who applied to leave Gaza this year were indeed refused for security reasons. But the central issue is not whether such students pose a risk in themselves but whether access to an overseas college education represents "an exceptional humanitarian cause" for which Israel should break its legitimate blockade. As the universal right to an education does not extend to higher studies, it clearly does not.
This is undoubtedly a tragedy for the hundreds of students in receipt of foreign university fellowships barred from leaving Gaza, and Israel is presently reviewing its policy and examining applications on a case-by-case basis.
But ultimate responsibility for the plight of those denied permission to travel lies not with the Jerusalem government, but with their own Hamas rulers who, in waging an indiscriminate terrorist war against all Israelis, are the region's real perpetrators of "collective punishment" crimes.
They have little historical context, no sense of proportion when countenancing the deaths carried out deliberately and enthusiastically by a terrorist regime and - sorry to say - a dysfunctional moral sensibility.
But most of all, they simply don't know how to distinguish among humiliation, deliberate humiliation and hate-driven terrorist murder. This makes their wrong-headedness something much more dangerous, much more sinister, than simply being ill-informed.