ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 9, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 41
Columns - Inside the glass house  

Israel's 'H' word and Ban's 'T' word spell duplicity

By Thalif Deen at the united nations

NEW YORK - When Israel's Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai threatened the Palestinians with "holocaust" -- defined as the destruction or slaughter on a mass scale -- he crossed a line drawn by the Jews themselves who claim to hold a monopoly of that dreaded word.

The mass killings in modern times, including the murder of some two million Cambodians in 1975-1979 and about 800,000 Rwandans in 1994, could never be categorized as a "holocaust" because of the political taboo imposed by Jews. As most Jewish scholars and politicians claim, only the mass murder of some six million Jews by the Nazi regime during 1938-1945 can be rightfully described as a holocaust.

Israeli Arabs demonstrate against Israel's offensive in Gaza. The sign reads "Children above the siege". REUTERS

Last week the Israeli Deputy Defence Minister warned that the escalating violence against Israel by the Palestinian group Hamas, based in Gaza, could trigger a deadly response from the Israelis, including a veiled threat of the extermination of Palestinians.

"The more Qassam [rocket] fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger 'shoah' because we will use all our might to defend ourselves," the minister warned, using the Hebrew word "shoah" for holocaust.

As the London Guardian pointed out last week, that word is "rarely used in Israel outside discussions of the Nazi extermination of Jews during the Second World War, and many Israelis are loath to countenance its use to describe other events." But the use of that "H" word did not generate any significant public condemnations — at least not from the United Nations or the Security Council, which are quick to pass strictures on countries such as Iran, Myanmar, Sudan or Cuba either for human rights abuses or other violations of accepted international norms.

Asked for a comment from the usually non-committal Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, his spokesperson told reporters: "No. He doesn't have any response to that." As the carnage continues in Gaza, the recent violence has resulted in the deaths of at least 120 Palestinians (including 29 children and six women) and three Israelis (including one civilian). The killing of eight students in Jerusalem on Thursday has increased the Israeli toll to 11.

What is at issue is the continued disproportionate use of military force by Israel, mostly against unarmed civilians, including women and children. At the same time, there is a rigid Israeli embargo on humanitarian supplies to Gaza. The League of Arab States has condemned the Israeli attacks as "crimes against humanity" and punishable by the International Criminal Court in the Hague or sanctions by the Security Council.

But none of them apply to the Jewish state which remains immune from punishment by the international community thereby exposing its own political hypocrisy. Since the three veto-wielding permanent members, namely the US, France and Britain, have continued to remain as the saviours of Israel, the Security Council has remained impotent on the killings of Palestinians — even as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has been described as the "worst" since Israel occupied the territory in 1967.

In an attempt to be "even handed", the secretary-general has condemned the violence on both sides. But he does not make a distinction between "terrorist acts" by Hamas against Israel, and what some Palestinians call "acts of state terrorism against civilians" by the Israeli government. That controversy triggered a give-and-take at a UN press conference last week between a reporter and the secretary-general's spokesperson.

Question: In the statement on Gaza, he (the secretary-general) mentioned Hamas attacks as terrorist attacks. Why is he really categorically clear about it, whereas in other areas, he doesn't mention the same word terrorist attacks, with the absence of any definition of terrorism in the United Nations?

Spokesperson: Well, there are agreements on acts of terrorism, no agreement on terrorism itself; as you know, it has not been defined by Member States. So, there is nothing more I can say on this. Question: Why did he use this term only when it came to Israel, but not to other parts of the world?

Spokesperson: No, I think he has used it before. I can clarify this and get other information for you, but I don't have anything more to add on the issue of defining terrorism. It is defined by Member States, it is defined by convention. They never agreed on a definition of terrorism.

Correspondent: He did not describe Israeli attacks on civilians in Gaza - whole areas were obliterated, whole families killed -- and they were not considered as terrorist attacks. But a rocket from Gaza into any Israeli territory was considered by him as terrorist attack.

Spokesperson: I will take note of your statement.
Question: It's a double standard, isn't it?
Spokesperson: I will take note of your statement.
Question: It's not a statement. It's a question [talkover]..
Spokesperson: It's not a question.
Question: We need an agreed broad definition of what terrorism is here.
Spokesperson: Well, the Secretary-General cannot himself define terrorism.
Question: So, how can he describe something as terrorism?
Spokesperson: He has used the term in the context of acts of terrorism. He has not defined an organization or anyone as being a terrorist organization, or as a terrorist group.

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