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Former EU Envoy: Israel’s Forced Transfer of Palestinians in Gaza Would Be a War Crime

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Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, recently retired European Union ambassador to Palestine, says Israeli pain and anger cannot justify war crimes in Gaza, where Israeli bombardment has already killed over 1,500 people. Now with Israel demanding the relocation of 1.1 million people ahead of an expected ground invasion, von Burgsdorff says Israel must adhere to international law and protect civilians. “No matter what Hamas did, it does not justify the incredible use of lethal force without distinction and without proportionality as far as the Palestinian population is concerned in Gaza,” he says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn right now to Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, a former EU, European Union, ambassador to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, served in that post up until July.

Your response to this order by the Israeli military that half the population of Gaza must move within a 24-hour period, starting last night, from the north to the south, Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff?

SVEN KÜHN VON BURGSDORFF: Yeah. Thank you, Ms. Goodman. And, of course, I can fully second what Muhammad Shehada has so well described as the absolute catastrophe which 2 million Gazans are facing.

Let me start by saying I’m fully aware of this deep hate and frustration and despair which befell the Israeli society. And when they speak of their 9/11, of what happened last Saturday, I understand, of course, that view and that emotional tension they are under right now, and that makes it so difficult to have a rational discussion, not only in Israel, but also in Europe and in the U.S.

But we have to be aware that we still are governed by international law. We have left the medieval times. We have rules of conduct for war. We have rules of conduct of how apply humanitarian principles. And no matter what Hamas did, it does not justify the incredible use of lethal force without distinction and without proportionality as far as the Palestinian population is concerned in Gaza. Distinction, proportionality and precaution are sacrosanct principles for the code of conduct of armed hostilities. And Israel, as a democracy, cannot escape that and has to be held accountable. It cannot be that Israel has a carte blanche because terrible acts, brutal, gruesome acts happened to 1,000 or even 1,200 Israelis. That is not the excuse you can use to flatten Gaza.

And let me come back to the point of what you exactly asked. The announcement of the IDF to basically forcibly evict more than 1 million Gazans from their homes in the northern part of the Strip is likely to be criticized by international legal experts as a war crime, if there is no provision made for ensuring humanitarian access and exit and the necessary facilities to accommodate the basic human rights to water, energy, food and physical safety, let alone health. And this is also clearly signed in all international conventions Israel has ratified and is accountable to. So it is unexcusable if the international community does not use its pressure point to hold Israel to account for what they have pledged before the international community to respect.

I understand the emotions, they run very high right now in Israel. I am in retirement right now in France, so I am not now on the post. But I can understand that. But as I said, we all have to uphold international law, international humanitarian law and international human rights law. That is the yardstick. That is the most important measure of conduct for all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, who arrived in Israel today, and play for you a comment she made last year about Russia targeting civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: War crimes. Targeted attacks on civilian infrastructure, with a clear aim to cut off men, women, children of water, electricity and heating, with the winter coming, these are acts of pure terror. And we have to call it as such.

AMY GOODMAN: So, she’s talking about what Russia is doing in Ukraine. Would this also apply to Israel and Palestine?

SVEN KÜHN VON BURGSDORFF: International law applies everywhere. Human rights are universal, indivisible and inalienable. This is the EU position across the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about a statement by Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. He’s got dozens of workers in Palestine. We just spoke to Yousef yesterday from the Jabaliya refugee camp, is where he lives. He came in, talked about the difficulty of even moving to be able to talk to us, to find a space that had electricity. Today we can’t reach people in Gaza. But Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, commented on the Israeli relocation ultimatum of Gaza civilians, saying, “The Israeli military demand that 1.2 million civilians in northern Gaza relocate to its south within 24 hours, absent of any guarantees of safety or return, would amount to the war crime of forcible transfer. It must be reversed,” he said. Your response, Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff?

SVEN KÜHN VON BURGSDORFF: I fully subscribe to the statement of Jan Egeland. As an international legal expert, as a political scientist, as a former diplomat and as a human being, there is no doubt that this has to be respected.

And by the way, let me just underline this: If Israel decides to close its crossings in Kerem Shalom and in Erez, Egypt is bound by international law to open its border crossing in Rafah. And it cannot be that Israel threatens to bomb corridors and transports carrying humanitarian facilities and equipment. It cannot be. This is another war crime if that would take place. Egypt also has to ensure that its obligations towards refugees under international law are fully respected. So, it’s not just ensuring that in the space of the south, if one were actually to displace people, all the facilities are there, fully knowing that this amounts already, this forced eviction, to a war crime, but also the ability for people to be able to exit for humanitarian reasons this highly dense populated strip in Gaza in the south would also need for Egypt to open its borders. And, of course, it has community of providing the necessary provisions to facilitate that people can live there.

Again, this can only be a temporary solution. It cannot be that, as Muhammad Shehada said, we are basically witnessing a second Nakba, whereby the entire Gazan population is forcibly evicted from their homeland, which is Gaza, from their homes. And that is also something I think we have clearly to underline when talking to Israel and when engaging with them on finding a solution.

Let me just say an important thing right now: The key political measure right now is to deescalate and stop any further war crime and try to ensure that the people of Gaza are fully safe and protected. And, of course, I understand that there’s the important issue of freeing the hostages. I don’t know whether it’s 150 or whatever the number is. But it’s very important that this process be done as soon as possible and through negotiations. This is also a very important element which we have to be aware of. So, humanitarian access and exit and freeing the hostages and deescalating are the three key, I think, objectives one has to engage on now.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, former EU ambassador to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, served in that post up until July, speaking to us from France.

When we come back, we’ll speak with Rabbi David Basior. One of his congregants was killed Saturday in the Hamas attack on one of the kibbutzes where he was living in Israel. And we’ll speak with Noura Erakat, Palestinian human rights attorney. Stay with us.

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