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An Open Letter to My Fellow Blogger, Daniel Pipes

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January 7, 2009

Dear Dr. Pipes,

After several years blogging "next" to you, as it were, on our blogs on History News Network (hnn.us), it was a pleasure to finally "meet up," at least via satellite, during our joint appearance on al-Jazeera International last night to discuss the situation in Gaza and how academics can effectively contribute to educating the public about the conflict and to helping the two sides move towards peace.

I was particularly pleased that you shared my abhorrence for Hamas's attacks on Israeli civilians and civilian infrastructure and institutions, whether in the form of suicide bombings, or more prominently today, with rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into southern Israel. The latest Hamas rockets, which hit several Israeli schools, has no doubt angered and upset you as much as it has me. Whatever one's position on the legitimacy or legality of the occupation, no group has the right to indiscriminately attack civilians or civilian targets, and all such attacks are war crimes, as numerous international organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the US State Department have repeatedly declared.

At the same time, as an academic who has taught at many universities, I am sure you similarly share my outrage at the Israeli government's direct targeting of Palestinian universities and schools for bombing during this current round of fighting. Indeed, as you are no doubt aware, this has not just occurred during the present conflict, where numerous buildings of the Islamic University of Gaza and other schools (including but not limited to various class rooms, laboratories, and a women's dormitory) have been destroyed, with scores of students killed. You no doubt remember that Israel previously bombed the Islamic University on July 4, 2006. I would like to inform you that California Scholars for Academic Freedom, which published the statement condemning Israel's bombings of educational institutions that we discussed on the show, is now in the process of drafting a new statement that would cover Hamas's attacks on Israeli schools as well as more recent Israeli attacks, such as the attack on an UNRWA school this morning that killed at least thirty people.

More broadly, as you will certainly not deny, Israel has, by its own admission systematically denied or otherwise frustrated the ability of Palestinian students, from pre-schoolers to graduate students, to obtain an education. The methods it has deployed include blockading or otherwise effectively closing Palestinian campuses through curfews and more recently the "Separation Wall" that makes it almost impossible for tens if not hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to move freely across their territories, prohibiting Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza to travel to universities in the other territory, in Israel as well, and also prevented students from accepting grants and fellowships to study abroad.

As you have certainly heard, the last policy has most recently been demonstrated by the well-publicized denial of exit visas to Palestinians who'd won the prestigious Fulbright award to study and do research in the United States. (For a good collection of well-documented reports by the Israeli and international media, and Israeli and international NGOs, you can visit. What makes these policies all the more sadly ironic is, as you pointed out during our discussion on al-Jazeera, that the Islamic University, along with many other Palestinian schools, was actually allowed to be founded by the Israeli occupation authorities during its forty-year occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

As I am confident you are aware, Israel's actions, which are systematic and long-standing in nature and thoroughly documented, are a violation of numerous international laws and treaties to which Israel is bound as a member of the international community of nations (and a UN member as well), regardless of whether it has officially ratified any specific treaty, law or covenant.

These include, but are not limited to, Article 56 of the IV Hague Convention of 1907 , the First Additional Protocol of the Geneva Convention, the Fourth Geneva Convention (more specifically known as the "Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949", the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the principles of Customary International Humanitarian Law.

Together, this body of law clearly mandates that no party to a conflict and directly attack civilian targets, or use indiscriminate force that could reasonably be expected to result in the injury or death of civilians or the damaging or destruction of civilian institutions. Moreover, even when a civilian institution, such as a school or university, has been used for military purposes, it can not be attacked unless its destruction would lead to a clear military advantage on the field of battle, and/or that structure is being used for such a purpose at the time of attack.

I assume you will agree that Israel's attacks on the Islamic University of Gaza and other Palestinian educational institutions failed to meet this criteria, just as did Hamas's attacks on Israeli schools. The Israel attack on on an UNRWA school compound in the Jebaliyya camp, which just occurred as I wrote you this note, and killed over thirty people, is a perfect example of such violations of international law--Launching attacks against or from a school shielding civilians from a conflict are equally war crimes, and both sides must be held accountable for their actions here and in other cases where educational institutions have been involved in the conflict.

In the latest case, the attack on the school compound yesterday that killed forty civilians, Israel has claimed that Hamas was using it as a base for mortar attacks on Israeli soldiers. The UNRWA official on the ground have no explicitly denied this possibility. But let's assume that it might be true. As you are well aware, Israel has prohibited almost all journalists, Israeli and foreign, from entering the Gaza Strip to report on the conflict, just as it has barred international observers, human rights and other humanitarian officials from entering the strip since the conflict began. It is thus very difficult to verify this and similar claims.

As our discussion on al-Jazeera ended you expressed your belief that Israel's claims were far more reliable than Hamas's. As for me, having spent some time in war zones, I can attest from personal experience that one accepts the claims of governments or rebel/insurgent groups without supporting evidence at one's peril.

And since as academics we are trained to be skeptical of all claims that can't be supported by empirical evidence, I'm sure you will join me in demanding that Israel immediately allow journalists and international observers and monitors into Gaza.

After all, if Israel has nothing to hide, it can only help in presenting its case to the world to have as many witnesses to the war as possible to document its actions. Needless to say, Israel's claim that it is only trying to protect journalists, however laudable its intent may be, is unacceptable. Journalists and other observers well know the risks of their jobs, and war reporting has a long and honorable history--and sadly, many martyrs.

Let me quote a contact of mine on the ground at the UNRWA compound in Gaza, who explained that even if there were fighters inside it, "under the Geneva conventions if there's a civilian institution that militants have taken over, anyone who wants to attack has to let civilians leave. Thus, if the IDF claim is true, the IDF should have contacted the UN and told them to get the civilians out of there because militants created a legitimate target. What the IDF was not allowed to do under international law is just go in and bomb indiscriminately." Moreover, it's unclear to them who the attack was against and who was targeted or whom the so-called terrorists named by the IDF were and whether they were even legitimate targets. It could well be that their deaths constituted an extrajudicial execution, also a violation of international law. In order to get to the bottom of this, UNRWA will be calling for an impartial investigation, not just for the IDF, but, in my contact's words, "because if militants have taken over schools to do bad things, we want that to stop."

I'll go further and propose here that you and I offer to help put together a non-partisan "Truth Commission" that would in the full light of day investigate not just the attack on the UNRWA school, but also the various claims by both sides as to who conclusively broke the truce between them. As someone who closely follows Israeli analyses of the conflict, you will no do doubt join me in calling attention to the December 31, 2008 Report of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center titled "Six Months of the Lull Arrangement Intelligence Report."

This report would seem to challenge the official Israeli claims, repeated without question by the mainstream American media, that it was "Hamas who broke the truce," as it explicitly states that after the June 19 truce "there was a marked reduction in the extent of attacks," that the truce was only "sporadically violated by... "rogue terrorist organizations... Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire," and that "the escalation and erosion of the lull arrangement, November 4 to the time of writing, December 17," was the result of the IDF carrying out "a military action close to the border" that killed 7 Hamas operatives allegedly building a tunnel (Report, p. 1, paragraph 4, available here as html and pdf:. Again, since there was no international monitoring or verification allowed, we have only Israel's side of the story, and as impartial scholars, we cannot accept any parties' story without confirmation. Agreed?

I'm sure between us we can come up with a suitably broad group of scholars, policy-makers, international legal experts, NGO officials and concerned citizens, who together would have the credibility to help Israelis, Palestinians, and the world community achieve some clarity about what has happened in Gaza, what sanctions the international community should impose on the two sides if any for conduct during the fighting, and most important, how to prevent this disaster from happening again.

Finally, I hope that you will join me in calling on President Bush and President-elect Obama to continue their condemnation of Hamas's attacks on Israel, and at the same time urge them both to hold Israel to the same standard as they are holding Hamas.

After all, there is no rational or legitimate reason why Israel--or any country or political power--should not be held to a looser legal and moral standard than its adversary. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, echoing our own Declaration of Independence, declares in its Article 1: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." There is no reason for Palestinian or Israeli lives to be considered less worthy of protection than the other.

Whether our individual views about how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can or should be resolved, I am confident you will agree that the best way to create an atmosphere in which honest and fruitful negotiations about the future of the Occupied Territories can take place is to hold all sides to the conflict--including the United States, which has provided Israel with the bulk of the weaponry used in this war--to the same standard of scrupulous adherence to international law.

I look forward to working with you to build a common voice of people of good-will to demand that the government of Israel and Hamas agree to an immediate cease-fire, to allow for the provision of medical and humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need of such care, and to agree to foreswear violence and other violations of international law as they move forward towards negotiating a viable final settlement to this century old conflict.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these issues.

Sincerely,

Mark LeVine