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HRW Condemns Israel’s Collective Punishment on Gaza, Urges Biden to Help Restore Humanitarian Aid

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Israeli soldiers and settlers have cracked down on the occupied West Bank since Hamas’s shocking attack on Israel on October 7, killing at least 55 and arresting over 700 Palestinians, including several prominent lawmakers. “People are worried. All of this is unprecedented,” says Sari Bashi, program director at Human Rights Watch in Ramallah. Bashi is co-founder of Israeli human rights group Gisha, which works against apartheid policies that affect Palestinians, and urges U.S. lawmakers to address the human rights violations that led to this conflict. “No U.S. policy toward Israel-Palestine will be successful if it doesn’t address the abuses on the ground.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We head now to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed at least 55 Palestinians in the West Bank since Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel October 7th. Israeli authorities have also arrested over 700 Palestinians, several prominent lawmakers, including Aziz Dweik, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

To talk about the situation in the West Bank and the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, we’re joined by Sari Bashi, program director at Human Rights Watch, co-founder of Gisha, the leading Israeli human rights group promoting the right to freedom of movement for Palestinians in Gaza.

Sari, if you can talk about the entire situation, the imminent invasion of Gaza? You just heard Raji Sourani. And also talk about what’s happening in the West Bank. In the last year, approximately — it’s a bit more, but a Palestinian a day has been killed since the beginning of the year.

SARI BASHI: Yes. Thank you.

And I’m sorry to say that since October 7th in Gaza, Israeli airstrikes have killed, on average, 100 children a day. And that’s the statistic that stays with me.

So, this latest escalation began on October 7th, when Hamas-led fighters entered Israel and committed unspeakable war crimes against Israeli civilians. They massacred partygoers at an outdoor dance party. They entered homes, in some cases burning the homes, in other cases shooting families. And they took hostage men, women, older people, children, people with disabilities. Appropriately, the U.S. government and people in the United States condemned those acts, because they were unspeakable crimes against civilians that have no justification.

So the answer cannot be for the Israeli government, with the backing of the American government, to then target and harm civilians in Gaza. I am particularly concerned about the collective punishment of civilians in Gaza. The Israeli military cut food, electricity, water and fuel supplies on October 7th, which is contributing to the humanitarian catastrophe. And the Israeli military is engaging in — is dropping explosive weapons in densely populated areas with wide area effects. So, when you do that, when you drop bombs on crowded urban centers, it is predictable that you will kill civilians. It is predictable that you will kill children. And that’s what’s happening. Gaza is the size — about the size of the U.S. city of Philadelphia. It’s 2.2 million people. Nearly half of those people are children.

And that’s something that we need to see more of the United States government addressing. We’ve heard thus far general comments about the need to respect international humanitarian law. We need very specific directives for the Israeli government to immediately restore food, fuel, electricity and water supplies and to stop dropping weapons in densely populated civilian areas.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sari Bashi, I wanted to ask you — the prime minister, Netanyahu, has urged the Palestinians in Gaza to flee to Egypt if they want to avoid the horrors of the bombing and the invasion. Isn’t this itself a form of ethnic cleansing? After all, Israel is not telling the Palestinians, “Hey, if you want to escape the bombing and the invasion, move into Israel or be transported to the West Bank.” After all, even Putin, in his invasion of Ukraine, ended up admitting 1.2 million Ukrainians into Russia to avoid the worst impact on them of the war itself.

SARI BASHI: So, the first thing to say is that the countries that are neighboring Gaza — Israel and Egypt — have an obligation to open their borders and let people who are fleeing for their lives enter. Not to do that risks violating the principle of non-refoulement. When you have mothers with children who are trying to save their children’s lives, Israel and Egypt need to open their borders and let that happen. But the Israeli evacuation order risks forcible transfer. The Israeli military has called on half the population in Gaza in the north to go to the south, and Israeli military officials have also called on people in Gaza to flee to Egypt.

Now, for people in Gaza, Gaza is — 70% of the people living in Gaza are refugees from what is now Israel. Some of the older people who fled Friday, Saturday from northern Gaza to southern Gaza, they remember fleeing the Israeli army 75 years ago. They remember the homes they left behind in what is now Israel. And they remember that they were never allowed to come back, although international law defends the right of return for all refugees, whether they’re Ukrainians trying to resume — to return to areas that have been liberated from Russian occupation or under Russian occupation, or people from Gaza coming back after the army has left.

My concern is that while it’s acceptable, and in some cases advisable, for warring parties to issue warnings, those warnings are only effective if there are safe ways for civilians to avoid harm. So, when you tell a million people to evacuate but there’s no safe place to go to and no safe way to get there, that’s not an effective warning. And another thing that the United States government should do very clearly is to call on the Israeli government to cancel the evacuation order and to take all measures to protect civilians who remain in the north. There are many people — men, women, children, older people, people with disabilities, hospital patients — who either cannot or will not leave the northern Gaza, and they retain their protections under international law.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk to us about how Palestinians in the West Bank are being impacted as a result of the continuing conflict in Gaza?

SARI BASHI: So, here, people are mostly worried. There have been road closures. Workers have not been allowed to enter Israel for their jobs. There have been increased military activity in the West Bank, including incursions and arrests. You mentioned arrests of people who expressed support for the attacks on October 7th. Businesses who engaged in that have been closed at night, with the Israeli army coming in. For the most part, people are worried.

All of this is unprecedented. The attacks that Hamas-led fighters committed against Israeli civilians on October 7th are unprecedented. It was the worst massacre of civilians in Israeli history. And the level of harm, targeted harm, that the Israeli military is inflicting on civilians in Gaza is also unprecedented.

At Human Rights Watch, we’re trying to hold open a narrow space for universal basic principles of humanity. It is never OK to commit unspeakable war crimes against civilians, as was done in southern Israel on October 7th. And that in no way justifies committing war crimes against civilians in Gaza.

And for Americans who are confused by all of what’s going on, I would suggest you just remember that very basic principle that civilians need to be protected, and then encourage your elected representatives to remind the U.S. government of that principle, because the United States government is providing $3.8 billion in annual military aid to Israel, and it’s rushing even more weapons here right now. It has a responsibility to rein in the attacks on civilians, to call on Israel to cancel the evacuation order and protect civilians in Gaza and to immediately restore humanitarian supplies to civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the difference between your experience on the West Bank, as an Israeli Jewish lawyer, and your husband’s experience, as a Palestinian professor, a resident of Ramallah, for people to understand? And also this issue — you know, Jake Sullivan recently said, just a few weeks ago, Biden’s national security adviser, that it’s been quieter in the Middle East than any time in 20 years. This is the time that at least a Palestinian a day was being killed. And talk about settlers and the army.

SARI BASHI: Yeah. I think part of the concern — and I know Raji was addressing that when he talked about root causes — is that some of the root causes of the violence, including what Human Rights Watch and many other groups have called apartheid, are invisible to U.S. policymakers. We have a situation where U.S. policymakers are very busy brokering normalization deals between the most right-wing Israeli government in history and dictatorial Arab governments, and it’s not paying attention to what’s happening on the ground.

For decades, the Israeli authorities have engaged in systemic repression of Palestinians, including not allowing people in Gaza, refugees in Gaza, to return to their homes in what is now Israel, and including a punishing closure for the last 16 years that has not allowed appropriate supplies to enter and leave Gaza and has not allowed people to travel. And that’s part of the reason why people in Gaza were so vulnerable even before this violence began.

In addition, the Israeli government is privileging Israeli Jews over Palestinians. And that’s the essence of the crime against humanity of apartheid, when you commit inhumane acts and engage in systemic repression in order to privilege one group over another. So, I’m Israeli Jewish, American, as well. My partner is Palestinian. And I can do things that he can’t do. I can travel quite freely. And even though his mother is a refugee from what is now Israel, he can’t pass areas that are off limits to Palestinians. I have excellent rights. I have health. There are cities in Israel being built for Jews only, and also in the West Bank, settlements being built for Israeli Jews only, while Palestinians are hemmed in, unable to build cities, and their homes are being demolished for lack of permits that are almost impossible to get. The Israeli authorities are engaging in forcible transfer, where they remove Palestinian communities in the West Bank to make room for settlements. All of these are part of the root causes of the violence.

And the only thing I can hope is that U.S. policymakers will realize that it’s not quiet here. There’s terrible abuses going on. You just have to listen to what people on the ground are telling you, and adjust accordingly. No U.S. policy toward Israel-Palestine will be successful if it doesn’t address the abuses on the ground, first, second and third.

AMY GOODMAN: Sari Bashi, we want to thank you for being with us, program director at Human Rights Watch, co-founder of Gisha, the leading Israeli human rights group promoting the right to freedom of movement for Palestinians in Gaza.

Next up, we go to a former Israeli peace negotiator. His recent interview on BBC went viral. Back in 20 seconds.

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