...Shattering hopes that an expanded Democratic congressional majority and a new Democratic administration might lead to a more moderate foreign policy, the resolutions put forward an extreme reinterpretation of international humanitarian law, apparently designed to exonerate nations with superior firepower from any liability for inflicting large-scale civilian casualties.
The Senate resolution, primarily written and sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., passed the Senate by unanimous consent on a voice vote. Among the 33 co-sponsors were such otherwise liberal Democratic senators as Barbara Boxer, Calif,; Richard Durbin, Ill,; Carl Levin, Mich.; Sherrod Brown, Ohio; Barbara Mikulski, Md.; and 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry, Mass.
An even stronger House resolution, sponsored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., passed the House by a lopsided 390-5 roll call vote (with 22 members voting "present"). Both resolutions placed the blame for the death and destruction exclusively on the Palestinian side and are being widely interpreted as a rebuke to the international human rights community and the United Nations, which have cited both Hamas and the Israeli government for war crimes.
The resolutions favorably quote Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice extensively, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, regarding responsibility for civilian deaths and for the causes of the conflict. No one else is cited in the resolutions, indicating who Pelosi, Reid and the resolutions' other sponsors see as the authoritative sources of information on international humanitarian law in the region.
Although some analysts are already referring to the Gaza war as "a final and eloquent testimony to the complete failure of the neoconservative movement in United States foreign policy," Pelosi, Reid and virtually the entire Democratic membership of Congress have decided to ally themselves with this failed ideology of the outgoing Bush administration rather than blaze a new trail of moderation and common sense in anticipation of new leadership in the White House. Indeed, Pelosi's and Reid's strategy in pushing through these resolutions may have been part of an attempt to box in Obama -- to force him to continue Bush's hard-right foreign policy. That is, a policy in which, in the name of the "war on terror," fundamental principles of international law are deemed to be expendable.
To the Right of Bush
Some of the language in the resolution put forward by Pelosi, Reid and their colleagues even place the Democratic Party to the right of the Bush administration. For example, while the Jan. 8 U.N. Security Council resolution -- which received the endorsement of Rice and other administration officials -- condemns "all acts of violence and terror directed against civilians," the congressional resolution only condemns the violence and terror of Hamas.
Indeed, just as the Security Council unanimously passed its resolution stressing "the urgency of and calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza," Congress immediately weighed in with language apparently designed to prevent one. The Senate and House resolutions called for a cease-fire only on the condition that it "prevents Hamas from retaining or rebuilding the capability to launch rockets and mortars against Israel." Given that most of these rockets and mortars are of a rather crude design that can be made in local machine shops from scrap metal and other easily obtainable materials, and is therefore the kind of capability that can not really be completely eliminated, it appears that this clause would make a cease-fire impossible. Emboldened by this strong bipartisan support from the legislative branch of its most important ally, Israel rejected the U.N.'s terms for a cease-fire.
Also on Jan. 8, Israeli forces killed two U.N. humanitarian aid workers as they were attempting to provide relief supplies, and the International Red Cross released a strongly worded statement noting that the Israeli military had "failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded." The Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders noted that "Palestinian humanitarian aid and health workers have been killed, and hospitals and ambulances have been bombed." Congress, however, went on record in the resolutions praising Israel for having "facilitated humanitarian aid to Gaza."
Both resolutions "hold Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire," despite the fact that there had been scores of minor violations during the months of the cease-fire by both sides and that Israel had launched a major incursion into the Gaza Strip on Nov. 4, 2008, assassinating several Hamas leaders, an action the Israeli press speculated was designed to provoke Hamas into not renewing the cease-fire when it expired the following month. Israel then tightened its siege on Nov. 5, banning even humanitarian aid from coming through. Hamas appeared willing to renew the cease-fire in return for Israel renouncing further such incursions and lifting the siege, but Israel refused.
While these Israeli provocations do not justify Hamas' failure to renew the cease-fire and certainly not Hamas' decision to once again begin firing rockets into civilian-populated areas of Israel -- which is a war crime -- the language of the resolutions gives a very misleading understanding of the events leading up to the war. Ironically, despite blaming Hamas exclusively for not renewing the cease-fire, the resolutions also claim that returning to the terms of that cease-fire agreement "is unacceptable." Yet these were by no means the most egregious misrepresentations in these Democratic-led congressional initiatives.
Redefining International Humanitarian Law
In perhaps the most dangerous clause of the resolution, the House called "on all nations … to condemn Hamas for deliberately embedding its fighters, leaders and weapons in private homes, schools, mosques, hospitals and otherwise using Palestinian civilians as human shields."
According to international humanitarian law, however, "human shields" require the deliberate use of civilians as a deterrent to avoid attack on one's troops or military objects. Despite repeated calls to the offices of the resolutions' principal Democratic sponsors, not one of them could provide a single example of this actually occurring during the current wave of fighting. Similar accusations in a 2006 resolution supported by Pelosi, Reid and other Democratic leaders during the five weeks of devastating Israeli attacks on Lebanon that summer were later systematically rebuked in a detailed and meticulously researched 249-page report by Human Rights Watch.