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British Prime Minister David Cameron has long professed himself a ‘passionate friend of Israel’. He is also a passionate supporter of the Conservative Friends of Israel, whose meetings he has repeatedly addressed and whose long-time director, Stuart Polak, he awarded with a peerage. Cameron is reputed to be an intimate friend and ally of Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu—or, as Cameron prefers to call him, ‘Bibi’. Even on those rare occasions where they disagree, Netanyahu refers to the British prime minister warmly as ‘[m]y friend’. When Netanyahu was re-elected in March 2015, Cameron congratulated him by telephone, and ‘looked forward to working with’ his government. When Cameron himself won re-election in May 2015, the Netanyahu government was overjoyed. One senior Israeli diplomat gushed, ‘Cameron is much closer to Netanyahu’s thinking than people realise’. How does this ‘passionate friend[ship]’ manifest in practice?
In 2006, when senior Conservative official William Hague dared to criticise Israel’s attacks on Lebanon as ‘disproportionate’, the Conservative Friends of Israel reportedly ‘complained in person to David Cameron’ and thereby ‘obtained a promise that the word would never be used again’. In 2011, Cameron’s government amended UK law on universal jurisdiction to shield from legal accountability visiting Israeli officials, such as Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who had been credibly charged with war crimes. He now assures Israeli officials: ‘[my] country is open to you and you are welcome to visit any time’. His stated rationale for shielding Israeli criminals from prosecution echoed Jeremy Corbyn’s explanation for meeting with representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah: ‘we want to get the Peace Process moving’. During Israel’s summer 2014 assault on Gaza, Cameron repeatedly affirmed ‘the UK’s staunch support for Israel’ and ‘underlined Israel’s right to defend itself’.
In today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron savaged Corbyn for having referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as his ‘friends’, and repeatedly demanded that Corbyn withdraw the remark. Norman Finkelstein—leading authority on the Israel-Palestine conflict—what are your thoughts on Cameron’s demands?
Does Cameron keep better company than Corbyn? Let’s look at the record. In 2006, armed hostilities broke out between Israel and Lebanon. In the course of those hostilities, Israel killed 1,200 Lebanese, of whom 1,000 (80 percent) were civilians. Hezbollah killed 160 Israelis, of whom 40 (25 percent) were civilians. If you look at the numbers, whether absolutely or relatively, who, prima facie, was the bigger war criminal? In the final 72 hours of the conflict, when the war was effectively over as the Security Council had already passed a ceasefire resolution, Israel dropped as many as four million cluster sub-munitions on South Lebanon. It was the densest use of cluster sub-munitions in the history of warfare. Entire civilian villages were saturated. It was a war crime on a mind-boggling scale.
If Corbyn shouldn’t have referred to Hezbollah as his ‘friend’; and if one attaches equal value to each human life; and if war crimes are war crimes regardless of the address from which they originate—in other words, if facts rather than demagoguery serve as the basis of one’s moral calculus, wasn’t the Tory embrace of Israel incalculably worse?
Consider now Gaza. Parts of Gaza are among the most densely populated areas on the planet. 80 percent of Gaza’s population consists of refugees and descendants of refugees, while more than half the population consists of children under the age of 18. Gaza has been under military occupation for a full half-century, and it’s suffocated under an illegal and immoral blockade for the past decade. Even David Cameron has described Gaza as a ‘prison’. In the past 12 years, Israel has launched not less than eight murderous operations against the overwhelmingly refugee and mostly child population herded in this prison. In 2008, after it broke a ceasefire that Hamas was ‘careful to maintain’ (Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center), Israel launched Operation Cast Lead or, what Amnesty International called, ‘22 days of death and destruction’. In the course of this assault, Israel dropped white phosphorous, a substance that reaches 800 degrees Celsius, on a humanitarian warehouse, a school and two hospitals (al-Quds hospital and al-Wafa hospital). It destroyed 6,000 homes, and it left 1,400 Gazans dead. Up to 1,200 of these were civilians, 350 of them children. After the attack, Israeli soldiers described what happened as akin to ‘a child playing around with a magnifying glass, burning up ants’, and a ‘PlayStation [computer] game’. One of the principal architects of this massacre was then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni. The day after Cast Lead was over, Livni boasted on Israeli television, ‘Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded’. Later, she declared that she was ‘proud’ of her decisions during the invasion, and would ‘repeat’ every one of them.
Human rights organisations such as Amnesty called on governments to utilize the provision for universal jurisdiction in international law to prosecute war criminals like Livni. The U.K. was the principal venue in which this provision of international law was tested. What did Cameron’s government do? It revised domestic U.K. law so as to shield Livni and her cronies from criminal prosecution.
In July-August 2014, Israel launched another murderous assault on Gaza. This time it destroyed, not 6,000 homes, but 19,000 homes. This time it killed, not 350 children, but 550 children. How many Israeli children were killed? One. A ratio of 550:1. How many Israeli homes were destroyed? One. A ratio of 19,000:1. While Hamas fired ‘bottle rockets’—as Foreign Affairs journal described them—at Israel, Israel dropped as many as twenty thousand tonnes of explosives on Gaza. Israeli soldiers who did combat duty subsequently described the ‘insane’ and ‘crazy’ amounts of firepower used in Gaza, and testified that the formal and informal rules of engagement were to ‘shoot to kill’ at ‘anything that moves’.
Notwithstanding these serial atrocities, Cameron feels no shame, and displays no embarrassment, in warmly embracing Israel and its criminal leaders. But, when Corbyn designates Hezbollah and Hamas as ‘friends’, so as to facilitate a process—blocked at every turn by the lunatic Netanyahu government—for resolving the conflict, he’s crucified and browbeaten into issuing an apology. If Corbyn owes the British public an apology for the company he keeps, and if, as Cameron seems to believe, one is guilty by virtue of the company one keeps, then Cameron clearly needs to put in a stint behind bars—or, better still, in Gaza.