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When is ‘a Humanitarian Pause’ Genocidal?

Do CounterPunch, 24 de Novembro 2023
Por RICHARD FALK



Photograph Source: rajatonvimma ///
VJ Group andom Doctors – CC BY 2.0

The ‘humanitarian pause’ is supposed to start on November 24 and last for four days. Israel’s Prime Minister and leaders of Israel’s unity government pledge to renew their ‘war’ when the pause ends, and resume pursuing its objectives in Gaza until all are achieved.

We, the public, are not told very clearly about the attitude of Hamas toward the pause but we can imagine that any relief from Israel’s devastating 24/7 attacks brings welcome relief, yet carries with this sense a continuing resolve by Hamas to resist Israel’s oppressive occupation of Gaza, and its preferred outcome that seems to include ethnic cleansing and permanent forced evacuation from northern Gaza leaving what remains of the Palestinian in southern Gaza to be dependent on UN relief efforts, which in turn depend on funding that comes from those ‘humanitarian’ governments guilt-ridden by their positive entanglement with Israel’s month-long genocidal onslaught.

We know something about ‘the fog of war,’ its hidden motivations, its devious methods and justifications, and its subtle unacknowledged change of goals, but most of us trust mainstream media despite the ‘discourse fog,’ that is, the partisan use of language and ‘facts’ to twist ‘the hearts and minds’ of viewers and readers in. Even when, as during this period since October 7th, the events and images are so rending, there is a deliberate, unacknowledged, perhaps automatic, to create perceptions of ethical symmetry between antagonists and indulge ‘war is hell’ reactions in which both sides are locked in a death dance.

The rhetoric of ‘humanitarian pause’ is illustrative of a media disinformation campaign designed to affirm certain attitudes and stigmatize others. For instance, the Israeli pledge to resume the war after this brief interlude of relative calm rarely includes critical comments on the sinister nature of this commitment to reengage Hamas by recourse to genocidal warfare. In contrast, when released hostages report humane treatment by their captors this is either belittled or altogether ignored, whereas if released Palestinian prisoners were to make analogous comments about how they enjoyed Israeli prisons their words would be highlighted. We can only imagine the harsh response of Western media outlets to Russia’s participation in a comparable pause in the Ukraine War, dismissing any humanitarian pretensions by Moscow as cynical state propaganda.

Unless properly addressed the whole provenance of ‘humanitarian pause’ is misunderstood. Remember that Israel’s political leaders went ahead with such an alternative only when it was made clear that Israel had no intention of converting the pause into a longer-range ceasefire, to be followed by ‘day after’ negotiations as to the viability of continuing occupation and a new agreement as to governance arrangements for Hamas. Rather than sustaining their nationalist cult by dismissing Hamas as ‘terrorists’ the security of Israel might be enhanced by treating Hamas as a legitimate political entity, which although guilty of violations of international law, is far less guilty than Israel if a fair evaluation is made, and some account is taken of Hamas’ long-term ceasefire diplomacy is considered as a preferable security alternative.

In retrospect, I understand better the rationale behind this apparently genuine Hamas efforts, which I received first-hand evidence of due to extended conversations with Hamas leaders living in Doha and Cairo while I was UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories a decade ago. Israel could not take seriously what appeared to be beneficial from its security perspective of such Hamas initiatives or the 2002 Arab Peace Proposal issued in Mecca. Both Hamas and the Arab proposal conditioned peace on withdrawal from the Occupied Territory of the West Bank, which has long been in the gun sights of the settler wing of the Zionist Project, and consistently given priority over Israeli security by its leaders, long before Netanyahu’s Coalition made this unmistakably clear when it took over in January of 2023. Israel never accepted the internationally presumed notion that a Palestinian state would include the West Bank and have its capital in East Jerusalem.

It is this unwillingness to take account of the master/slave structure of prolonged occupation that gives a specious plausibility to both sides’ narratives embodying the delusion that Israel and Occupied Palestine are formally and existentially equal. Such narratives equate, or invert, the Hamas attack with the Israeli genocidal onslaught that followed, regarding the former as ‘barbaric’ while the latter is generally sympathetically described as Israel’s reasonable and necessary entitlement to defend itself. Variations of such themes are integral to the apologetics of former US mediating officials such as Dennis Roth or liberal Zionist casuists such as Thomas Friedman.

A final observation relates to the inappropriateness of the word ‘humanitarian’ as a way to understand the motivations of Israel. Of course, Israel seeks both security for its Jewish citizens, including the settlers, but when forced to choose privileges its as yet unrealized territorial ambitions. The current unity government of Israel only accepted the pleas of the hostage families and succumbed to pressures from Washington when its several security services and military commanders gave reassurances that Hamas could not take tactical advantage of the pause, and that the Israel campaign could resume within the pre-pause unrestrained parameters after it was over. In other words, the pause was politically motivated as a way of seeming responsiveness to domestic and external humanitarian pressures without the slightest show of responsiveness to the governments throughout the Global South that called for a ceasefire to halt genocide and by the enraged protesters in city streets in all parts of the world. The ‘humanitarian pause’ as the deal has been presented is totally an initiative rooted in the Global West, admittedly with support from a scattering of autocratic governments elsewhere. We do not know why Hamas went along with such a plan, but a safe conjecture is that it sought some days of relief from Israel’s tactics of devastation and may have wanted to reduce its responsibilities of caring for children and injured or elderly hostages under such dangerous circumstances.

As the ‘humanitarian pause’ goes into effect, it is bound to create surprises and impart a greater understanding of the ‘fog of humanitarianism.’ What it should not do is to induce complacency among those who honor the commitment of the Genocide Convention to do all in their power to prevent the crime of crimes and punish its most prominent perpetrators.


Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global law, Queen Mary University London, and Research Associate, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB

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