The 1949 Geneva Conventions state, in article 54 of its second additional protocol: "Starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited." It is also "prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population." That means that the Israeli army's latest offensive in the occupied territories amounts to nothing less than a war crime. It includes the blockade of the civilian population and their collective suffering; bombing Gaza's $150m power station, depriving 750,000 Palestinians of electricity in the intense summer heat; and, the West Bank kidnapping of 64 members of the political wing of Hamas, including eight cabinet ministers and 22 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. And on 5 July, the Israeli government said it would expand its military operation in Gaza.
Israel has violated another principle of international law in this offensive: proportionality. Article 51 of the protocol forbids "an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated." Can saving one soldier's life justify destruction on this scale?
The Israeli government has negotiated prisoner exchanges several times. For example in 1985, Israel freed 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three soldiers captured by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Negotiations are more likely to obtain the release of Gilad Shalit than military attacks which, on the contrary, risk bringing about his death. Israel knows this: Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz has told the cabinet that military action alone will not secure the release of Shalit.
An editorial in Haaretz on 30 June 2006 said: "Bombing bridges that can be circumvented both by car and on foot; seizing an airport that has been in ruins for years; destroying a power station, plunging large parts of the Gaza Strip into darkness; distributing flyers suggesting that people be concerned about their fate; a menacing flight over Bashar Assad's palace; and arresting elected Hamas officials: The government wishes to convince us that all these actions are intended only to release the soldier Gilad Shalit." The editorial concludes: "As one who knows that all the Hamas activists deported by Yitzhak Rabin returned to leadership and command positions in the organisation, Olmert should know that arresting leaders only strengthens them and their supporters. But this is not merely faulty reasoning; arresting people to use as bargaining chips is the act of a gang, not of a state."
In reality, as the Israeli media has revealed, this offensive was planned a long time ago, and includes the arrest of leading Hamas officials, starting with ministers and legislators. The purpose was not just to get rid of the Hamas government elected in January, but all forms of Palestinian authority. That was the thinking behind the disengagement plan devised by Ariel Sharon and now continued by his successor, Ehud Olmert: In order to draw Israel's borders unilaterally it is necessary to tell the world that there is no Palestinian interlocutor.
This strategy started well before Hamas' electoral victory: Throughout 2005, when Mahmoud Abbas was governing the Palestinian Authority (PA) with a Fatah majority, Sharon systematically refused to negotiate with him and went ahead with the construction of the separation wall -- flouting the ruling of the International Court of Justice. His policy of unilateralism flew in the face of the core achievement of the Oslo accords. This was the conviction that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in bilateral negotiation between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel. The Oslo agreement, signed on 9 September 1993, by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, confirmed that belief, affirming mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO.
The Hamas victory in the January elections made it easy for the Israeli government to heat up its propaganda war on the familiar "there is no Palestinian interlocutor" theme. The United States and the European Union put three conditions on the new Palestinian government: to recognize Israel; stop all armed attacks; and, accept the agreements reached between previous Palestinian governments and Israel. The West then suspended direct aid, greatly increasing the sufferings of the Palestinian population -- who had foolishly voted the wrong way. Meanwhile, the West shows limitless tolerance towards the Israeli government, which refuses to recognize the right of the Palestinians to an independent state, holds the territories it occupied in 1967, uses state terrorism against civilians, and fails to fulfill its responsibilities under the Oslo accords. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European commissioner for foreign affairs, even hailed Israel's unilateral policy as a brave decision.
It is surely no coincidence that the present offensive came just as all the Palestinian movements (except for Islamic Jihad) signed a joint declaration accepting the establishment of a Palestinian state on all the territories occupied in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital -- an implicit recognition of Israel. The Israeli government wanted to stamp out any new Palestinian opening towards peace. It had done the same in 2002, when an Arab summit in Beirut endorsed a plan that proposed recognition of Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state. The Sharon government responded, on the pretext of a suicide attack, with a generalized offensive against the occupied territories.
But Operation Summer Rains, the poetic name of the present Israeli offensive, shows the failure of its unilateral policy. The withdrawal of the Israeli army from the West Bank and Gaza without negotiations with the Palestinians cannot lead to peace. And in the West Bank, where Israeli settlements and Palestinian population are inextricably linked, any unilateral evacuation can only lead to further violence.
Alain Gresh is editor of Le Monde diplomatique and a specialist on the Middle East. His most recent book is L'islam, la République et le monde (Fayard).