This radical difference can best be illustrated by two diametrically opposed definitions of the aims of War. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition) comments:
"Civilized warfare, the textbooks tell us, is confined, as far as possible, to the disablement of the armed forces of the enemy; otherwise war would continue till one of the parties was exterminated."
Compare this with Adolph Hitler's words:
"The aim of war is not to reach definite lines but to annihilate the enemy physically. It is by this means that we shall obtain the vital living space that we need."(*)
Luckily, Nazi Germany lost the War. But almost sixty years after its defeat in the battlefield, Hitler's concept of war – part and parcel of his overall Weltanschauung – celebrates a rising tide in the global ideological arena. Israel's assassination of Hamas' leader Sheik Ahmad Yassin is a milestone in this process of barbarization of the human kind.
War and Occupation
Following the trauma of World War II, the international community committed the moral standards of the winning Allies to writing. The Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 1950, states that "Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely" (Article 3). A simple derivative of the idea that the aim of war is not annihilation but disablement of the enemy's armed forces.
Furthermore, Articles 47-78 of the Convention protect persons who "find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals," and defines the rights of such "protected persons." Again, the idea is that humanity as a whole should protect people who are at the mercy of an occupying force, since their (army's) defeat does not make them lose their human rights; and that this very idea, as the Nazi occupation had demonstrated, is not always clear to occupying forces, and should therefore be reinforced by an international Convention.
The Convention presents in detail the practical consequences of the aims of war as stated in the Britannica, as opposed to Hitler's war concept of annihilation. Thus,
"The Occupying Power shall permit ministers of religion to give spiritual assistance to the members of their religious communities" (Article 58).
"No sentence shall be pronounced by the competent courts of the Occupying Power except after a regular trial." (Article 71).
"A convicted person shall have the right of appeal provided for by the laws applied by the court" (Article 73).
"In no case shall persons condemned to death be deprived of the right of petition for pardon or reprieve. No death sentence shall be carried out before the expiration of a period of at least six months" etc. etc. (Article 75).
Moreover, the Convention makes special provisions for "protected persons who commit an offence which is solely intended to harm the Occupying Power" (Article 68). This reflects an even older principle of enlightened international legislation, that acknowledges the right of occupied peoples to use force against their occupier. Based upon the principles of the Hague International Convention of 1907 and confirmed in the Nuremberg Tribunal, this determination was essential to forestall Nazi claims that partisans, Ghetto fighters, and other underground resistance forces in the territories occupied by Germany had allegedly been "terrorists": though unarmed civilians should never be harmed, resistance to an occupation, including violent resistance, is legitimate. This too is an implication of the idea that the occupier's might does not make him right, and that every human being has the right to fight for his or her political freedom.
Going through articles 47-78 of the Geneva Convention, it is difficult to find a single article which has NOT been breached by Israel as an occupying force. Article 49, for example – "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies" – implies the illegality of Israel's settlements. However, the assassination of Sheik Yassin reflects a new level of barbarism on Israel's part.
Yassin's killing is a crime on several different levels. Killing an unarmed person is a crime. Killing an old helpless person in a wheel-chair is a despicable crime. But Yassin's murder (together with 8 other innocent Palestinians) is far from just killing an old man in a wheel-chair. Such war crimes, committed by the occupier to "protected" occupied persons – the casual killing of elderly, children, women, invalids, mentally ill, and other unarmed, innocent, harmless and defenceless "protected" civilians – have been the daily bread of Palestinians for years now. But Yassin's assassination, the assassinating of a religious and a political leader, is a crime of a very special kind.
Assassinations are clearly prohibited by Article 23b of the Hague Regulations, 1907. Even the American policy bans political assassinations. A political or religious leader (at least a leader of a voluntary movement, like Yassin actually was) stands for his direct supporters, and also for all the political or religious entity he is part of. He is singled out not as an individual, but as a symbol and a representative of his masses, be it political supporters, religious believers, or, as in Yassin's case, both. Yassin was targeted as a symbol of the Palestinian people's religion, culture, society, and institutions. Remember that Hamas is not just a terror organization, as the US and Israel want us to think, neither is it just a political party; Hamas runs an entire network of schools, clinics and social welfare, in a society impoverished to the point of starvation by decades of exploitation and years of strangulation. The issue is not liking or disliking Yassin's religious conviction; nor it is the fact that Israel itself had encouraged and supported the rise of Hamas in the 1980s, hoping to weaken Arafat's PLO. The crux of the matter is what Israeli political sociologist Lev Grinberg called "a symbolic genocide": "Because the world will not permit total annihilation, a symbolic annihilation is taking place instead." The message of this atrocity is this: Israel's war is not aimed at disabling the armed forces of the enemy, but at its annihilation, at least symbolically.
Yassin was a religious leader, but no saint. He resisted the occupation, which was his basic right. On the other hand, he supported a cease fire, and just a few weeks ago he offered to take civilians out of the circle of violence, an offer dismissed by Sharon's government. He surely instigated violence, he may have been responsible for terrorism. He may have shared Hitler's concept of war, rather than the Britannica's. If this was the case, he could and should have been arrested and put to trial. People are innocent unless the opposite is established in court. Killing a person without a trial – not a person carrying a bomb, not an armed person in combat – is terrorism, is barbarism. When those who claim to fight off terrorism and barbarism become barbarian terrorists themselves, they lose their own claim to justice.
Israel arrested Yassin in the past; it didn't even try to this time. Perhaps for lack of evidence, perhaps because of the Israeli army's contempt for the rule of law. But above all, Yassin's killing was meant to change the rules of the game: to signalize that the aim of this war is to annihilate the enemy, not just to defeat it, and that from now on, everything is possible. To this end, killing helpless Yassin in his wheel-chair, heading home after a night of prayer, was a much more effective message than, say, killing the armed and uniformed layman Arafat. The message is: Israel has no moral nor legal boundaries whatsoever. Israel can target elderly and invalids, political leaders and religious clerics. If we can kill Yassin, says Jerusalem, we can kill everyone; No judge, no morality, no convention and no law can stop our missiles.
From Jerusalem to Washington
The United Kingdom, whose memory of World War II is still vivid, noticed this major leap to Barbarism and condemned the assassination. The American reaction, however, was confined to the usual disgusting clichés about "Israel's right to defend itself" and "urging both sides." Under the Bushites – whose ancestors had no scruples doing business with Hitler – Israel has become the spearhead in reviving the ideology defeated in World War II. Within a few years, Israel turned from an arrière garde fighting outdated wars for outdated causes into the avant garde of barbarism, followed closely by the USA. The whole arsenal of barbarism of Israel's occupation – the physical, tactic, strategic, linguistic, and ideological arsenal – is doing its way from Gaza to Baghdad, from Megido Prison to Guantanamo Bay, from the Jerusalem Post to the Washington Post.
"A Constitutive Event"
Following the assassination, Israeli military echelons quoted in Ha'aretz (23.3.04) called it "a constitutive event," one that would make History. Indeed. Unless a global reaction against this barbarism emerges – not an Al-Qaeda type of reaction, which shares this very barbarism, but something like the recent Spanish example; unless we renew the struggle for the legacy of the Allies who won World War II, and get rid of all those responsible for the barbarisation of the human kind, Israel's assassination of Sheik Yassin may enter history as the moment in which Hitler's concept of war for annihilation, of contempt for the basic convictions and conventions of humanity, celebrated its triumph, shared and imposed by the axis of Sharon, Bush and Bin Laden.
Ran HaCohen teaches in the Tel-Aviv University's Department of Comparative Literature, and is currently working on his PhD thesis. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. HaCohen’s semi-regular “Letter from Israel” column can be found at AntiWar.com, where this article first appeared. Posted with author’s permission.
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