On September 24, a special session of the Russell Tribunal critically scrutinized Israel’s summer assault on Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, from the perspective of international law, including the core allegation of genocide. The process involved a series of testimonies by legal and weapons experts, health workers, journalists and others, some of whom directly experienced the fifty days of military assault.
A jury composed of prominent individuals from around the world, known for their moral engagement with issues of the day, assessed the evidence with the help of an expert legal team of volunteers that helped with the preparation of the findings and analysis for consideration by the jury, which deliberated and debated all the issues raised—above all, the question of how to respond to the charge of genocide.
The Russell Tribunal on Palestine was inspired by the original Russell Tribunal, which was held in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War. Convened by the great English philosopher Bertrand Russell and presided over by Jean-Paul Sartre, those original sessions assessed charges of war crimes committed by the United States in Vietnam. Subsequent tribunals included the Russell Tribunal on Latin America, which investigated the military dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil and Chile. The first Russell Tribunal proceedings on Palestine, convened in the wake of Israel’s 2008–09 assault on Gaza, were held in four sessions, from 2010 to 2012.
It should be acknowledged that this latest undertaking was never intended to be a neutral inquiry without any predispositions. The tribunal was held because of the enormity of the devastation and the spectacle of horror associated with high-technology weaponry attacking the civilian population of Gaza, which was locked into a combat zone that left no place to hide. The tribunal was also a response to the failures of the international community to do more to stop the carnage, or even to condemn Israel’s disproportionate uses of force against an essentially helpless civilian population that included the targeting of a variety of legally forbidden targets, among them UN buildings used as shelters, residential neighborhoods, hospitals and clinics, and mosques.
Although the tribunal proceeded from the assumption that Israel was responsible for severe wrongdoing, it made every effort to be scrupulous in the presentation of evidence and the interpretation of applicable international law, and relied on testimony from people with established reputations for integrity and conscience. Among the highlights of the testimony were a report on damage to hospitals and clinics given by Dr. Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor serving in a Gaza hospital during the attacks; Mohammed Omer, a widely respected Gazan journalist who daily reported from the combat zone; Max Blumenthal, a prize-winning journalist who was in Gaza throughout Protective Edge and analyzed for the jury the overall political design that appeared to explain the civilian targeting patterns; and David Sheen, who reported in agonizing detail on the racist hatred expressed by prominent Israelis during the assault, which was widely echoed by Israelis in the social media and never repudiated by the leadership in Jerusalem.