Setting things straight.

Seeing that, in order to discredit the figures and achieve moral superiority while attempting to deflect attention away from the military assault on Rafa, Israel supporters in NZ have seized on reports that casualty numbers in Gaza may be inflated by Hamas (even if corroborated by international agencies), I thought I would recap the truth behind this spin game.

On October 7 Hamas fighters attacked Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. They were initially said to have killed more than 1500 people (mostly civilians), but after scrutiny that figure was reduced to below 1200 (including military personnel). At least some of the deaths attributed to Hamas were later found to be the result of friendly fire from responding Israeli (IDF) forces. Israeli sources claimed that babies were cooked in microwaves, women were sexually tortured and mutilated and that mass rapes were carried out, but that has not been independently substantiated. Scores of hostages (closest reliable count is 250) were supposedly taken back into Gaza, presumably to serve as human leverage in subsequent negotiations with Israel. A few have been released but many of those have died, not just at Hamas’s hands but as a result of IDF assaults on the places that they were being held captive.

Here are some facts. The killing of IDF soldiers by Hamas is not a crime, as it can be classified as the product of clashes between an armed resistance to an illegal occupying force on Palestinian land (one look at the 1947, 1967, 1973 and recent maps of Palestine/Israel demonstrates the steady annexation of Palestinian land regardless of the formal agreements in place). In other. words, as ugly as that sounds, in a fight with an armed opponent IDF soldiers were fair game.

What is a war crime is if Hamas tortured, raped or murdered soldiers after they surrendered. But in order to prosecute the Hamas individuals or units involved would require international recognition of Hamas as a legitimate fighting force acting on behalf of a recognised State or political community. Although Hamas has a political wing that is related to but separate from the armed wing and has been the de facto government of Gaza since its victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections, leading to the 2007 Hamas-Fatah war that resulted in Hamas gaining control of Gaza while Fatah and other Palestinian Authority factions retreated to the West Bank, the International community (read: the West) does not recognise it as a State or government and instead has designated it a terrorist entity because of the irregular warfare operations, including terrorist attacks, conducted by its armed wing. That may be convenient for Israel and its Western supporters, but it makes it more difficult to hold Hamas accountable for the actions of its members, armed and unarmed (because not all Palestinians, or Hamas supporters for that matter, are fighters). So, in spite of the obvious fact that Hamas was a governing entity in Gaza at the time the war started, charging Hamas fighters with war crimes is difficult because they are not seen as representative of any duly constituted political organisation. They are just terrorists, and if one is to believe the Israel apologists, so are the people they are ostensibly fighting for.

Here I must pause for a brief aside about non-recognition. There is irony in non-recognition of Hamas as a legitimate representative of at least some Palestine people. Hamas exists as a political movement with an ideology (nationalist-religious in this case), as well as a physical presence that extends beyond its armed wing. It will not go away just because it is not recognised abroad, is not liked by many, or if its armed cadres are decimated. And it holds equal if not more legitimacy than the Palestinian Authority of which Fatah is part, which is a corrupt gerontocracy that serves as a laptop of the Israelis in the West Bank. Moreover, Israel itself is not like in many quarters and is not recognised by a number of Muslim-majority States, but it certainly exists and is not going anywhere no matter what other’s may wish or think. In addition, the State of Israel was created in part due to the “terrorist” operations of the likes of the Irgun (which was designated as a terrorist organization by the British), so not recognising Hamas because of its irregular warfare activities in the contemporary era is a hypocritical specious reasoning.

The bottom line is this. Non-recognition may be an attempt at de-legitimation and ostracism, but it is more akin to closing ones eyes and putting fingers in one’s ears while shouting “you are not there” to someone you dislike. The reality says otherwise, and in the international arena non-recognition only serves to absolve political actors from assuming full legal responsibility for their actions. Not recognising Hamas as having a legitimate claim when it comes to representing Palestinians is therefore an own-goal (remember, Hamas won the largest plurality in the parliamentary elections of 2006 and would have been required to form a coalition government before Israel, the US and other Western states backed Fatah’s rejection of the results and subsequent armed assault on Hamas in Gaza. This only played into the hands of the hardline Hamas cadres and strengthened their resolve to prevail in the fight against Fatah, which they did. That set up the subsequent chain of events that has led to the current disaster).

In any event, killing, raping and abducting civilians are crimes against humanity even if the actions of the Hamas fighters are not technically classified as war crimes when it comes to their treatment of IDF soldiers. Remember that it is not the method or instrument of violence that defines a war crime or a crime against humanity. Nor is it the number of victims. Instead, it is who commits atrocities (war crimes are committed by military forces) and who is targeted. Regardless of who the material authors may be, for there to be war crimes or crimes against humanity, the victims must be defenceless. In the case of Israelis attacked by Hamas on October 7, most but not all of them were, so the scale of the atrocities was significant and cannot be downplayed.

In response, Israel unleashed a scorched earth collective punishment approach to the residents of Gaza, and has meted out come collateral punishment to Palestinians in the West Bank as well. Some see the IDF military campaign in Gaza as genocidal in intent–and it may well be–but at a minimum it is ethnic cleansing in effect: entire swathes of Gaza have been cleansed of their inhabitants. The NZ apologists for the IDF approach want to make it seem that 15,000 or 20,000 Palestinian dead is significantly different than 30,000 or 40,000 dead claimed by Hamas (never mind the wounded and maimed or those now enduring mass starvation due to Israeli (including Jewish settlers!)) interference with aid convoys. But at the same time they use the malleable 1200+/- Israeli body count to argue that the IDF response is proportionate to the October 7 attacks. They also clamour for the release of the Israeli hostages but are silent about the thousands of Palestinians detained by Israel since October 7. It seems that Israel also understands the hostage-taking-as-leverage game. Perversely, for the Israel supporters scale and scope of dehumanisation only matters when the numbers favour a particular victimisation narrative. In other words, 1200 Israeli dead is comparable with 20,00 rather than 40,000 Palestinian dead, so moral equivalence applies. That is not a winning argument.

That is in large part due to the fact that collective punishment is illegal under international law and classified as a war crime, most specifically Convention 4, Article 33 of the Geneva Convention. The same convention, article 34, notes that the taking of hostages is prohibited, even if it does not specify the means by which hostages are taken by belligerents (presumably the 3,000 or so Palestinians held in “administrative detention” without charge by the Israelis since October 7 would fit into this category regardless of the institutional/legal facade used to cloak their real status). So although only Israel is guilty of violating the convention when it comes to collective punishment, both sides are in violation of the Geneva Conventions when it comes to hostage taking.

That brings up the truth of the matter. Both Hamas and the IDF have committed war crimes and/or crimes against humanity. Both have committed serious breaches of international law. Fiddling with and sniping about numbers do not alter this fact. Moral relativism does not alter this fact. Trying to comparatively scale and scope the atrocities does not alter this fact. No amount of spin alters this fact.

Most of all, both Israel and Hamas apologists cannot escape this fact.

19 thoughts on “Setting things straight.

  1. Much food for thought here, Pablo. Thank you.

    Hoping your boy is making good progress.

    Best regards,

    Di Trower

  2. Thanks Di,

    I just have had enough with the moral relativism of both sides. And it makes me really angry to watch the West (not just the US but mostly the US) refuse to step in and level effective sanctions on Israel in order to stop the slaughter. And then there is the silence or passive-aggressive weirdness of the Muslim world, especially the Arab oligarchies who are more afraid of Iran the coming to the aid of a defenceless people. And of course those who see Hamas as a useful pawn in a larger game and who do not give a darn about the Palestinian people. Gosh, the world sucks.

    My son continues his remarkable recovery. He has some minor psychological issues–a sort of PTSD–like not wanting to get back on his bike for fear of crashing and tearing his chest scar, but in general he is doing very well. He has put on weight and grown an inch or so since he was released from Starship 2 months ago. In fact today he returns from a school camp on Kawau Island in which physical activities are the focus. Fingers crossed on his ongoing progress. Cheers!

  3. I’m so happy to hear that wonderful news about your son, Pablo. What an extraordinary recovery he’s made. I wonder if the PTSD-like symptoms might dissipate with time as he continues to be healthy & well? I hope so anyway, but it
    is certainly understandable under the circumstances.

    It’s lovely news and I often think of him.

  4. Thanks Di,

    You give me hope for humanity, but then again, we are not the future..

  5. KR,

    We are at a major inflection point in world affairs, with the old Western-dominated “liberal” international order now being challenged and under threat by an emerging constellation of emerging powers (many post-colonial in nature) from the so-called “Global South” (more an ideological construct than a geographic designation). The difference with the dates you mention that that now the world has nukes, AI, robotics and autonomous weapons, space as contested terrain, cyber warfare–the list goes on. This makes for what I called elsewhere here in KP the “moment of friction,” where norms and rules are honored in the breach and a Hobbesian state of nature begins to take shape as conflict becomes the main systems regulator in the absence of institutional consensus on how the system should be governed/managed. The institutions themselves are under siege, so the default option is to prioritize national interests and power at the expanse of others. Not good.

  6. Hola Pablo.
    Your posts are good, your comments often depressing (KR above).

    So pleased to hear about your son, I too think of him often – when you post – and hope he is doing good.

    … Goodness, we have enough problems here in the global south (I am using that term in an original way – pure geographics … but with a hint of the more current meaning – just for fun, understand :-) … without having to think of the turmoil in the Middle East, not least of all possible outcomes there – which one just cannot fathom and could not predict at the moment. (Will Israel overwhelm Gaza, with most of the Western world’s approval, even tacit. And what will happen then?)

    PS a curious question – did you suggest in your last podcast with Selwyn, or on here recently, that NZ was part of the Global South (geo-politically speaking).

    Best regards.

  7. Hi Barbara,

    And much thanks for the thoughts about the boy. I am not a believer but his recovery, other than some trepidation about engaging in rough and tumble physical activity, has been nothing short of miraculous.

    Although I do not remember suggesting it, I think your question about NZ being “of the South” is worth considering. Of course NZ sees itself as part of the Global North due to its colonial and post-colonial histories, but if one takes measures such as type of exports and trade in general (NZ sells primary goods and gets value added goods in return), content of domestic economic activity, income concentration and the like, it seems to be better classified as a member of the Global South. But since the current usage of Global South is ideological rather than geographic, NZ prefers to see itself
    “of the North” rather than of the South. You can make of that what you will but I see a hint of racism and cultural superiority in that attitude, and I do not think that I am alone in that belief given the actions of certain NZ elites towards matters “of the South” such as indigenous rights and representation.

    In fact, every time I head a NZ commentator, politician or some other yokel talk about not wanting to be like a “banana republic” I just cringe. One only need to consider the response to Cyclone Gabrielle or the Christchurch earthquakes (and much more) to realise that some Kiwis suffer from what can best be described as cultural myopia and a superiority syndrome that is not deserved.

    That was one reason why former Foreign mInister Mahuta pushed so hard for a Maori and Pacifika component to NZ foreign policy, for which she received much opprobrium and derision. She tried to make some small steps towards embracing the Global South but they were ridiculed, reviled and now have been largely undone by Winston Peters (the ultimate coconut!) and his Anglo-phone advisors.

    Anyway, given the shifting tides in international affairs these days, it might be worth considering steering the NZ waka’s course a bit into the current flow from the South rather than clinging to the receding ebb tides of the North.

  8. Only last night I was reading about the difference in figures released by the Gaza Health Ministry. The 34,000 plus recorded deaths is accurate. The lower number (circa 15,000-20,000) was explained the number of those killed who have had their identify confirmed. And there is still an estimated 10,000 plus missing, presumed buried in the rubble.

    Thanks you for the account of how war crimes v crimes against humanity apply. Two facts you discuss that seem to be fudged by the Minister of Foreign Affairs is the differentiation between Hamas v IDF on October 7 and Hamas v civilians on the same day, and only recognising the hostages held by Hamas and other Palestinians from 7 October.

    I suppose some of those hostages are prisoners of war? Or does the non-recognition you speak of mean that the members of the military held by Hamas cannot be categorised as prisoners of war (and subject to the applicable Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war)?

  9. Cherry picking from the comments section about the global south.

    This is my wish list for the future of New Zealand

    The sooner NZ climbs on board with BRICS / Global south and ditches the collective west, the better .

    We are small, insignificant and far away. We are an economic colony of Australia
    Our inclusion in the 5 eyes security is nothing more than a token gesture, and for me a symbol of our subservience

  10. Edward,

    There is a term in the comparative politics and colonial history literatures called “servitor imperialism” that refers to subjugated countries (say Scotland and Wales) that serve the colonial master by repressing their own people on the master’s behalf and who send their sons (and now daughters) to their master’s foreign wars, such as at Gallipoli. The NZ political elite exhibit this attitude, but the master in question is now an Anglophone alliance network centred on the US.

    I beg to differ on 5 Eyes. Although it further cements NZ’s servitor imperialist role, it does bring security and diplomatic benefits to NZ. Very few small countries get the early warning against threats, global coverage of events, access to technologies and insight into the dynamics within foreign States that 5 Eyes provides. The problem is that the NZ public does not see these benefits and the NZ intelligence community has in the past ignored, misused or proven incompetent when handling the information that they receive via 5 Eyes.

  11. Andrew,

    Interesting question about whether the captured IDF prisoners held by Hamas, if they are still alive, should be considered prisoners of war. I would assume that because they were in uniform and engaged in military activities when captured, they should be considered as such and protected by the Geneva Conventions. Whether Hamas is a recognised government entity is irrelevant because it is the status of the captive that defines his/her status. For their part, civilians (“protected persons” in the Geneva Convention parlance) cannot legitimately be captured in war (declared or not), so they can only be hostages, not POWs. In other words, military personnel captured by irregular armed fighters in a cross-border raid should be classified as POWs regardless of who the irregulars are fighting for, while civilians captured in the same raids should be properly seen as hostages. Taking captured military (say, after they surrender or are wounded, disarmed and are no longer able to fight) as prisoners of war is a legitimate activity on the part of belligerents. Taking hostages is not. A good comparative referent is the Taliban during their war against ISAF in Afghanistan. Both they and their military opponents for the most part adhered to Geneva Convention standards concerning the treatment of prisoners, although we are certainly aware of some of the more egregious transgressions committed by both sides.

  12. Thanks for the reply about 5 eyes. Your comments about our intelligence community competency speaks volumes

    Below is a list taken from The daily blog. Do we need all of these ??

    The SIS (Secret Intelligence Services)
    The GCSB (Government Communications Security Bureau)
    The NSG (National Security Group)
    The Police Intelligence Unit
    The CNSN (Cabinet National Security Committee)
    The ODESC (Officials’ Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination)
    The SIB (Security and Intelligence Board)
    The CTCC (Counter-Terrorism Coordinating Committee)
    The NICC ( National Intelligence Coordination Committee)
    The IAD (Intelligence and Assessments Directorate)
    The NRU (National Risk Unit)
    The NSPD (National Security Policy Directorate)

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  14. Edward,

    You missed at least one: the National Assessments Bureau (NAB) located in the DPMC. Moreover, many ministries (like Customs and Immigration, but also MBIE, DoC) have their own intelligence units, so the problem of duplication within this bureaucratic alphabet soup is worse.

    The Review on intelligence chaired by Dame Patsy Ready and Sir Michael Cullen a few years back (I was invited to speak to them, which was nice) advised that the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC) should be streamlined and better integrated at an operational level. The Royal Commission on the Christchurch Attacks advised the same thing, noting that various intelligence “shops” were overly “siloed” and not well set up to share information at all, much less in real time. Although the Commission’s Report whitewashed systemic and individual failures, reading between the lines allows us to see, among other things, that the Police and the SIS were not on the same page when it came to responding to early tip offs about the killer’s activities, and in fact did not really respond at all when they could and should have.

    Recent revelations about foreign-operated equipment inside the GCSB, NZIC not informing politicians and private citizens about PRC hacking breaches of their email accounts and some ongoing strangeness at the SIS when it comes to surveillance, all indicate that most of the concerns addressed by the ready/Cullen and Royal Commission Reports have not been actioned, and perhaps not even addressed.

  15. Interested in your comments on this Pablo.

    There is a caveat at the end – but it still does not seem enough.
    And you have spoken in the past about defence force budgets, spending – problems with retention.
    Perhaps as Mr Hunter (above) is also eavesdropping on your blog he might have a comment too.
    It seems he does not have enough to talk about, that he is inspired (lol) to quote you, on a semi-regular basis.

    Lay on, Mr Hunter :-)

    Personally as a woman, mother, and having lived in dodgy (mouldy) houses – I feel for the writer of this article.
    Bravo for her writing about it – some of the root problems with our armed services.

    Just as an aside, when Cyclone Gabrielle was in full force last year, I went up to our bridge, which is within 50 or so metres of our house and covers a small stream which has basically become a drain for a large part of PN’s stormwater … it fills up very quickly and when it rains heavily, I keep an eye on it. So on the bridge I met a young woman, with 2 toddlers. And it transpired her husband was in the RNZAF (Ohakea), a helicopter unit, and he had flown up that morning to Hawkes Bay to help with rescue, and relief. She did not know when he would be home. In the meantime, because the Manawatu River was swollen with rain from the Hawkes Bay and Tararua (it also fills up very quickly) the kindergarten her older child attended had closed – she said it was routine, when the River gets high – the kindergarten is adjacent to the river. I felt for her; and I have never forgotten that encounter.
    What do you say to servicemen who risk their lives, are sent at short notice, whose families are affected (and they are invariably young families) not sure when they will be home … and after 10 years receive only $80k in renumeration (I’m not sure which part of the armed forces that applies to – army?). I was grateful to talk to her, it made the situation with Gabrielle so much more real, more threatening, and personal. Of course I have not seen her since, there has not been the danger ….

    Kind regards.

  16. Thanks Barbara,

    That is a sad story but it is also a perennial problem for the NZDF. I wound up talking last week to media about the latest Defense budget injection–including NZ$164 million for personnel costs–that included purchasing housing in Devonport and upgrading existing housing elsewhere. I noted that militaries are only as good as the morale of their soldiers, sailors and airforce personnel, and that the personal sacrifices of often very young people when it comes to time away from home etc. was a major factor in the problems of recruiting and retaining quality people. All too often the NZDF brass and MoD managers focus on equipment and strategies but not on those who have to operate and implement them. Moreover, much of what is done in the military is highly skilled labour–say, marine engineers or aircraft mechanics–and although the services are a great place to learn a specialised skill or trade, NZDF personnel are grossly underpaid when compared to the private sector. For that reason many leave as soon as their initial commitments are over, something especially true for enlisted personnel. That leaves knowledge gaps in the force that are hard to fill quickly.

    That is troublesome because although officers formally run the show just like managers in a business, it is the sergeants, petty officers and other Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) that know and actually do the real business of military operations, that is, the day-to-day work of soldiering/sailoring in combat and in peace, much like secretaries and administrative assistants actually run a business on the ground (not in the executive suites). In fact, officers are largely expendable, but an experienced NCO is a valued asset whose loss can be devastating to both morale and operational efficiency of the units in which they serve.

    Much attention is placed on specialised units like the SAS and aviation wings, but the NZDF is a large complex machine with many component parts, many economic and political clients, many supply chain linkages, many mouths to feed and many non-uniformed relatives of the troops under its command (who need to be housed, clothed and fed adequately given the added burdens placed on them by military service of their NZDF relative). Just like the old saying goes than an Army marches on its stomach, it is the human resources of the NZDF that are paramount when it comes to its performance. Unfortunately, this has been a traditionally neglected aspect in Defense budgeting, something that I hope that this otherwise horrible government will seek to redress as a matter of priority.

    Oh, one other thing. Tom Hunter has been a mostly respectful blog adversary for a few years now. He tends to disparage me on rightwing blogs, sometimes quite personally and unpleasantly (which I see as posturing for his RW mates), but has been respectful here and for the most part when referencing me on No Minister. He is a well-read guy, albeit in a blinkered way, unlike the prejudiced retrogrades that he ends to associate with (some exceptions duly noted). Plus, he had the decency to send best wishes when my son was seriously ill, which as you know because you and others expressed similar concern and support, was very much needed in my household during those rough times.

    For that reason I do not see him as an ideological enemy but more as a cantankerous contrarian when it comes to progressive thought. I can live with that.

  17. Thanks Pablo.
    Who – which media outlet – did you speak to, I will look for it.

    It is funny how at the present time focus on our military might (?) and spending and commitment has become much more to the fore – with the upheavals in the geopolitical balances of the world. The wars.
    And while I know both this govt and the previous spent/are spending more on defence, it seems in the current context they need to spend a whole lot more.
    I cannot see that happening with all the cuts to other areas they are making.

    In times of disaster, emergency, (and war ?), we depend upon these people.
    It seems through the thoroughness of their training, the fact that they can be ordered to go in to any situation, among other things, they are so much more dependable – vis the latest report into Civil Defence’s (sorry, forget their new name) response to Cyclone Gabrielle, the one run from the Beehive basement – just released. Latter had comms breakdowns, all sorts of issues, the whole 9-yards…

    You do not suggest any specific remedies …
    I guess it all boils down in the end to $$$, throughout all areas of defence.
    Will this govt redress this, I just don’t know … so many things a comin’ at them … (its their karma ….I know you’ll like to hear that lol)

    Kind regards :-)

  18. Barbara,

    I was on TVNZ and RNZ a week ago. They were short and aired during news bulletins so may not be archived.

    As for remedies, I have ideas but no voice in the matter.

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