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'Hamas is not stupid'

Last updated on: October 25, 2023 08:20 IST
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'The Israeli government is saying, "OK, leave northern Gaza, because we're going to fight Hamas there".'
'But Hamas is not stupid. They are going to put militants in southern Gaza too. And then what's Israel going to do?'
'At some point are they going to say, 'Leave southern Gaza too because we want to fight Hamas there? Go across the border to Egypt"'?
'That's what people are worried about. Because they fear that once they cross the border into Egypt there will be no coming back.'

IMAGE: Residential buildings in Zahra City in southern Gaza, October 21, 2023, destroyed in Israeli strikes. Photograph: Shadi Tabatibi/Reuters

Kenneth Roth was the executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) from 1993 to 2022 when during his watch, HRW shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, for banning of anti-personnel mines, helped to establish the International Criminal Court and ban children in the military.

Roth has lent his voice to human right violations in Haiti, Myanmar, the Middle East, and Bangladesh and while in office tried, but failed to establish an HRW office in India due to what he says is the 'Modi government's hostility toward human rights groups'.

After quitting HRW last year, he teaches at Princeton University, speaks at college campuses, and writes articles for the press.

Roth's father fled Adolf Hitler's Germany in 1938 just ahead of World War II. Roth was born in the United States and says his opinions on Israel, despite being Jewish, has led to vilification and being called anti-semitic.

In an interview with's Swarupa Dutt, Roth believes Israel is moving towards a one-State solution with Palestine -- there's one state controlling everything with no prospect of a second State or a two-State solution emergent.

Part one of a two-part interview:


US President Joe Biden during his visit to Tel Aviv said that the 'courage, commitment and bravery of the Israeli people is stunning'.
Would these words be more appropriate for Palestinians than Israelis, who are facing incessant bombing of civilian locations in Gaza?

I think the problem with President Biden's visit to Israel is that, he understandably, wanted to stand with Israelis shortly after this horrible Hamas attack, killing hundreds of civilians. And therefore Biden's first message would be one of support and sympathy for the Israeli people. He also recognised that the Israeli government has a right to respond to Hamas.

Nobody's really quarrelling with Israel's right to conduct military operations to retaliate against Hamas fighters.

The problem is that any military operation has to abide by international humanitarian law, which is designed to spare civilians as much as possible from the hazards of conflict.

And these are pretty straightforward rules, you know.

You cannot target civilians.

You cannot fire indiscriminately into civilian populated areas.

You cannot even attack a military target, if the consequences for civilians will be disproportionate.

You cannot besiege civilians and deprive them of humanitarian aid that they need.

So, I wish he was more outspoken about the need to comply with humanitarian law. Biden did focus on the siege, and seems to have been able to negotiate an agreement to allow in to Gaza the initial convoy of 20 trucks

Obviously, that's a small amount of aid for 2.2 million people. It also, for example, does not include any fuel that the hospitals need to run their generators. So this is a limited step, but it's a positive step.

Other than that there were some private expressions urging restraint, there was in fact very little criticism of what has been indiscriminate bombardment by Israeli forces in certain parts of particularly northern Gaza.

So, Biden's comment on the al-Ahli Arab Hospital strike, where he said that it 'appears to be done by the other side'... isn't it a premature rush to judgment, since at that point the Americans had no concrete substantiation?

Biden says he's basing that assessment on US intelligence, but I haven't seen that intelligence. So I don't know how conclusive it is. So I'm not really in a position to say whether Biden was right or wrong to speak publicly, based on only that intelligence. And that's why I think we really have to wait until independent monitors look at the evidence that is collected.

IMAGE: US President Joe Biden, left, during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 18, 2023. Photograph: Miriam Alster/Pool via Reuters

Would you say that the US support for Israel is lethal for both Palestinians and Israelis in that, it will lead to even deeper suffering for both these peoples?

The US government traditionally has been a pretty unconditional backer of the Israeli government despite the fact that they have continued to build and expand settlements in the West Bank. It has continued a punishing blockade of Gaza.

Even before this war, there has been a 16-year blockade that prevents most people from traveling; prevents much commerce; prevents Gaza from having even an airport or seaport. And the US government has been essentially quiet in the face of this encroachment on Palestinian territory.

US actively funds Israel to the tune of $3.8 billion a year in military aid.

The effect this has had on Israeli conduct is that it has gradually destroyed the possibility of a two-State solution.

If you go to the West Bank, as I've done, and stand on a hilltop, you can see that between the settlements and the outposts and the bypass roads that Palestinian enclaves look like Swiss cheese. These tiny little holes amidst Israeli controlled territory.

What is left is a series of Bantustans -- small enclaves of limited Palestinian self-rule with no prospect of a viable, contiguous state.

Human Rights Watch and every serious human rights group that has looked at the issues, concluded that millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories are living under a regime of apartheid.

We were driven to that conclusion, because when we would point out the oppressive discrimination, some defenders of Israel would say, 'Oh, don't worry, it's temporary. There's the peace process, that'll resolve everything'.

But the peace process is moribund. It hasn't gotten any place for years and years and years. And increasingly, what people are saying is that there is only a one-State reality between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

That is to say, there's one State controlling everything. There's not a prospect of a second State emergent.

And so given that one-State reality, there is a regime of apartheid. And the answer to that apartheid, the way to end it, is to provide equal rights to Palestinians.

The US government is utterly unhelpful. It won't even admit that there is apartheid. In fact that's still a dirty word in Washington, even though any fair assessment would say that it IS apartheid.

I fear that even though Biden criticised Netanyahu and his extremist, far-right government for undermining the independence of Israel's judiciary, and jeopardising Israel's democracy, there is very little commentary on how the Israeli government is treating the Palestinians and there is pretty much a blank cheque from Washington to continue down this disastrous path.

IMAGE: A man inspects the area of Al-Ahli hospital where Palestinians were killed in a blast in Gaza City, October 18, 2023. Photograph: Mohammed Al-Masri/Reuters

A doctor working at the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza calls it 'a massacre by appointment'.
Israel has bombed hospitals earlier. The easiest way out for Israel to increase casualties without actually bombing them, is to ask hospitals to evacuate patients.
Is that what Israel is actually doing here?

While the Israeli order to 1.1 million Palestinian civilians in northern Gaza to evacuate their homes was an ostensible humanitarian gesture, it was done in an utterly inhumane way. And I say that because international humanitarian law does require warring factions to provide effective advance warning, if possible, as part of the effort to spare civilians.

And so in principle, it was the right thing to do to warn people to leave an area that was going to be attacked.

But you can't tell 1.1 million people to leave all at once. Initially, they were given 24 hours.

They are being told to go to southern Gaza where another 1.1 million people are living under siege. This is an impoverished area. It's overcrowded, and they're running out of food, water, they have no electricity. So there's really nothing there to receive these people. And that adds to the inhumanity of this effort.

How is a hospital going to move critically ill patients, when they don't even have electricity and their generators are running out of fuel? That's callous.

Now, the other thing that worries me is this. The last time a warning of this sort was given, was back in 2006, during the Israeli government conflict with Hezbollah, and the Israeli military said to the civilians of southern Lebanon, 'evacuate, because we're going to be bombing'.

Many people fled, but other people stayed, because they were too poor to leave, or they were disabled or fearful. They didn't want to leave their houses, they were elderly. Lots of people have reasons not to flee.

And that does not change the fact that they're still protected civilians.

But the Israeli military, nonetheless, bombed many of the people who stayed on the assumption that anybody who stayed must be Hezbollah. And that was a violation of international humanitarian law.

So my fear is that something similar will happen in Gaza; that the Israeli government feels that it has carte blanche to attack anyone who remains. That's wrong. That's not what international humanitarian law requires. It still requires all precautions to spare civilians, even after an evacuation order has been given.

When Hamas attacked Israel knowing full well there will be bloody retribution, it said it had had enough for 16 years.
During your stint with the HRW you worked in this region. How bad is it really for Palestinians?

It's important to stress that there is a difference between the right to resist occupation by attacking the other side's military, versus what Hamas did.

Hamas just slaughtered civilians, abducted civilians, and nothing justifies that. Attacks on civilians are blatantly war crimes. And it doesn't matter how bad things are, nothing justifies that.

So that's why when we talk about context or background, it's important to keep that distinction in mind.

So yes, Palestinians are completely frustrated by the disappearance of the two-State solution; the utter lack of a peace process; and a brutal occupation without end. That's where a lot of the frustration comes from which could give rise understandably to military resistance. It should never give rise to the slaughter of civilians.

IMAGE: People pray in Beirut, Lebanon, October 17, 2023, as they protest after the blast at the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Would you say that Netanyahu's hardline and right-wing politics is the catalyst for the present conflict?

Netanyahu's far right policies are more extreme than other Israeli government policies, but they exist on a continuum. And that continuum has been pretty consistent through governments of both the left and the right.

And that continuum involves gradual expansion of the settlements in the West Bank and the maintenance of the blockade in Gaza. And while the blockade has been pretty much the same, the settlement expansion has accelerated under Netanyahu. But these are differences in degree. They are not differences in kind.

So if you're talking about differences in degree is the Netanyahu government the worst that you have seen?

The settlement expansion has been quite rapid recently. In the West Bank there has been settler violence, where there have been numerous cases of settlers attacking Palestinians, pretty much with impunity, often as the Israeli military looks on.

Then there have been a series of raids by Israeli forces on Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank where Palestinians have been killed.

I'm not sure I could say it's the worst I have seen, I have to think back for that, it's safe enough to say, it's been bad.

In terms of the blockade of Gaza, that's been pretty much continuous. Just recently, I read that some more Gazans were allowed into Israel to work. But these are small numbers.

And it doesn't change the reality for the vast majority of the 2.2 million people in Gaza who can't leave their territory, can't even visit relatives in the West Bank. They can't travel for university studies or for work. There are many Gazans who have never left Gaza, this tiny little strip of land, and that has persisted from Israeli government to Israeli government.

IMAGE: An Israeli soldier sits on a self-propelled howitzer near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, October 12, 2023. Photograph: Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters

Well, the Israel continuum that Hamas uses human shields, how true is that?

Well, it does sometimes happen. 'Human shields' is a technical term -- a desire to deliberately use civilians to try to render a particular home or area untargetable. So sometimes that happens but more often Hamas simply fights from urban areas, endangering people in the process.

It's difficult not to because Gaza is mostly an urban area, so it's fair to say that Hamas does endanger civilians in the way that it fights. But it's important to recognise that it does not absolve the Israeli military of the duty to protect civilians.

So let's say that there are Hamas rockets being fired from a civilian neighbourhood. The Israeli military can very precisely target that rocket, but it doesn't give them permission to target the neighbourhood.

All this talk about human shields is not the end of the story because it doesn't absolve the Israeli military from their duty to protect civilians.

The International Red Cross has said that, even if there are Hamas militants in a building, they cannot be considered a legitimate target, unless they were actively involved in combat operations at the time of the strike.
How often does this actually happen?

The Red Cross definition has to do with the question 'when is an irregular militia member considered a combatant'. It's a technically correct legal answer. At this point where there is an active conflict between Hamas and the Israeli military, I think most people would say that any member of the Hamas militia is a legitimate military target. Not civilians who may be working for Hamas or the civilian ministry, but rather, anybody in uniform who is involved in the fight, can be targeted.

But the bigger concern frankly is, let's say there is a Hamas combatant in a building that still requires the Israeli military to consider the harm to civilians. And we've seen a number of cases where the Israeli military blows up these huge apartment buildings.

In this conflict since October 7, Israel is not even saying why they did it.

But in the past, when this happened, they say, 'Oh, there was a Hamas office where there was Hamas presence'.

Irrespective, the effect is utterly disproportionate for civilians.

In a single swoop, you will have 100 families losing their homes, which is why it is a prohibited, disproportionate attack.

IMAGE: Kibbutz Beeri in southern Israel, which was attacked by Hamas on October 7, 2023. Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters

What would the proportion of Hamas militants be to the civilian population in Gaza?

It's a tiny percentage of the overall Gaza population.

King Abdullah of Jordan warned that displacement of Palestinians to Jordan and Egypt is a red line. Egypt has said Gazans should move to the Negev desert which is a hostile environment. Why are Arab nations so reluctant to help?

I think they want to help in the sense of getting humanitarian aid to the Palestinian civilians in Gaza. They want to help in terms of trying to curtail Israeli bombardment of civilians.

But what they really worry about is that if they were to admit a bunch of Palestinian refugees, say into Egypt's northern Sinai region, it would be a one-way deal. Israel would let them out quite willingly but would never let them back.

And there's precedent for this in 1948, in what Palestinians called the Naqba, the catastrophe. In many ways, the Israeli military would like nothing better than to solve the Hamas problem by emptying Gaza. That would mean that there's nobody left there to attack Israel.

It would help with the demographic problem, because if indeed there is a one-State reality now, then the percentage of Jews versus Palestinians is roughly 50:50.

If Israel could wipe 2.2 million Palestinians off that demographic balance sheet, that would be useful for it, given this one-state reality and its desire to maintain Jewish dominance in demographic terms.

So those are the reasons why Egyptian government and the Jordanian government are utterly distrustful of accepting large numbers of Palestinian refugees, because they think they these people, even though they might want to go back, once the fighting stops, the Israeli government would not let them go back. And that there would be another Naqba.

IMAGE: Palestinians who were killed in Israeli strikes in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, October 18, 2023. Photograph: Mohammed Salem/Reuters

So the reluctance of Gazans to leave their homes and move south is because they fear another Nakba, or that they have nowhere to go?

There are two things in terms of moving from the north to the south. First, there's this ongoing bombardment, then there's the lack of humanitarian aid or facilities in the south to receive 1.1 million Palestinians, which is double the population in the south, overnight. So that's the immediate problem.

The concern about a Nakba does not arise from moving from northern Gaza to southern Gaza. It would arise if people were pressed to cross the border.

And that is the worry.

The Israeli government is saying, 'OK, leave northern Gaza, because we're going to fight Hamas there'. But Hamas is not stupid. They are going to put militants in southern Gaza too. And then what's Israel going to do? At some point are they going to say, 'leave southern Gaza too because we want to fight Hamas there'? 'Go across the border to Egypt'?

That's what people are worried about. Because they fear that once they cross the border into Egypt there will be no coming back.

IMAGE: A protest in support of Palestinians in Gaza, outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 22, 2023. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

Whether it's the Ukrainian war or the recurrent clashes between Israel and Palestine, how relevant is international opinion or bodies like the UN or HRW or UNHRC or the ICC? They don't seem to have any teeth.

I don't think so. If you look at the International Criminal Court, which embodies international efforts to defend humanitarian law -- it's been much slower than I would want it to be. But it has been very active in Ukraine. It sent 40 investigators into Ukraine and its already charged (Russian president Vladimir) Putin and one of his associates with war crimes. Clearly more charges have to come.

In a situation like Ukraine, where the Russian military is very deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, it's pursuing a war crime strategy, an utterly illegal way to fight a war.

There has been activation. And so you see the International Criminal Court involved. You see the UN Human Rights Council creating a commission of inquiry. You see the General Assembly expelling Russia from the Human Rights Council, and repeatedly condemning what it's done. So there's been active involvement there.

The International Criminal Court when it comes to Israel, Palestine, has been much slower. There is an open investigation. Karim Khan, the current prosecutor, has been in office now more than two years, and from what I can tell, doesn't want to pursue it because it's been too controversial. And the effect of that is an atmosphere of impunity that only encourages more war crimes.

Hamas thinks they can get away with it because nobody's getting prosecuted. The Israeli military feels that they can get away with indiscriminately bombing civilians in Gaza or endlessly expanding settlements in the West Bank, which is also a real crime, because nobody gets prosecuted.

So I do feel that the inaction with respect to Israel and Palestine has been harmful and has created an environment of impunity that only encourages more abuse.

And I would hope that this latest round of fighting and atrocities will spur Karim Khan, to finally stop slow walking his investigation and to begin a very vigorous investigation and ultimately prosecutions

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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