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While Desmond Travers argues for prohibition of certain weapons, ex-head of Shin Bet says forget the past and move on!

While Desmond Travers argues for prohibition of certain weapons, ex-head of Shin Bet says forget the past and move on!

On Monday 8 March, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) hosted a public discussion on the UN’s Goldstone Report and the Peace Process. The panel included Ami Ayalon (former member of the Israeli Knesset and ex-head of the Israeli secret service, Shin Bet), Professor Christine Chinkin (Professor of International Law at the LSE, barrister and co-author of the Goldstone Report), Dr. Karma Nabulsi (lecturer at Oxford University and former PLO representative at the UN) and Colonel Desmond Travers (retired Irish Army officer, member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for International Criminal Investigations and co-author of the Goldstone report).

While Desmond Travers argues for prohibition of certain weapons, ex-head of Shin Bet says forget the past and move on!


Colonel Desmond Travers discusses the expansion of a moratorium on certain weapons of war

By far the most informative speech of the evening was that delivered by Colonel Desmond Travers who observed that the current pattern in Middle Eastern conflicts is that the responses and reactions to violence are escalating. He argued that the technologies that are being developed and employed in the field go too far in the attempt to optimise lethality and damage. We have, he claimed, now reached some kind of “crescendo”. The war in Lebanon in 2006 was seemingly only a precursor to what was to take place in Gaza and that is something that none of us would ever like to see happen again, he said.

Having been a soldier for 42 years, weapons have been his “stock and trade” and he has been on both the firing end and the receiving end of many of them. That is why he has chosen to focus on the weapons used in the Israeli incursion into Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. At the LSE he mentioned four in particular: white phosphorus, tungsten, DIME and flechettes. 

While Desmond Travers argues for prohibition of certain weapons, ex-head of Shin Bet says forget the past and move on!He argued that while these weapons are commonly found in the arsenals of many armies worldwide, and while they are technically legal to use, they should now be condemned and he has called for an urgent discussion about their legality in future conflicts. Col. Travers said that while the Goldstone report made a recommendation that Israel should issue a moratorium on the use of such weapons he is now expanding the call and wants to tell all the armies of the world that such weapons are not acceptable.

1- White Phosphorus

During the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009, said Col. Travers, the images of white phosphorus raining down from the skies over the territory became an instant “iconic symbol on our TV screens”. The artillery shells explode in mid-air and discharge wedges of white phosphorus which then rain down over a wide area, leaving streaks of smoke in their wake. Col. Travers estimates that around 400,000 wedges were released over Gaza in total as he gave the audience a brief description of the hazardous and unforgiving nature of the weapon. White phosphorus is, he said, an extremely volatile and highly toxic chemical which only needs oxygen to activate it. It will burn for as long as it is in contact with oxygen. If deprived of oxygen it can remain dormant for decades while staying active ready to reignite. He explained that there have been cases where even after 50 years in a dormant state, white phosphorus has been seen to reignite when exposed to oxygen. The terrible nature of the burns it inflicts is unbelievable and Col. Travers explained how patients with only 10% surface burns caused by white phosphorus have died as a result of their injuries. The fumes are highly toxic and have been known to harm medical staff while treating the wounded.

White Phosphorus

The smoke from white phosphorus gives off a smell like sweet almonds which, unfortunately, often attracts the attention of small children who go to investigate the smell and then, as they breathe in the fumes, find their respiratory systems under attack.

Col. Travers made the case that white phosphorus should be removed from the arsenals of armies worldwide, not just with regards to its use against civilian populations but also against enemy combatants. As he said, when white phosphorus is used to lay down a smokescreen for attacking forces, it harms the troops who it is “protecting” as they breathe in the toxic fumes as well. He argued that alternatives are available for smokescreens (e.g. red phosphorus), so white phosphorus should be banned outright.

2- Tungsten

Although there is a long tradition of using tungsten in warfare, it is highly carcinogenic. Col. Travers recalled meeting one young man during the fact-finding mission to Gaza who has a fragment of tungsten shrapnel lodged in his spine which doctors have said is too close to the spinal column for them to remove it. However, in addition to the obvious physical damage he is now also at risk of developing cancer and will need to be monitored for the onset of the disease for the rest of his life.

3- DIME – Dense Inert Metal Explosive

DIME is essentially a type of explosive that has a very small but immensely powerful blast radius. It works by packing the explosive device with an inert metal in either shrapnel or powdered form. Powdered metal is the more hazardous of the two as, unlike a piece of shrapnel, once it has exploded into the human body it cannot be removed. Although Col. Travers acknowledges that the Goldstone team found no evidence for the use of DIME by the Israeli army in this particular assault, he said that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that it was used. However, whether or not it was used in Gaza by the Israelis, he appealed for it to be withdrawn from the arsenals of the world’s armies. It is currently probably possessed by the French and British armies as well as many others.

4- Flechettes   

FlechettesFlechettes are dart-like projectiles. As many as 80,000 flechettes can be packed into a single shell which is then fired from a tank causing mass casualties. Each flechette is approximately 4cm long and they travel at great speed. On impact with the flesh they tumble through the skin and as the flesh resists the impact the flechettes break up into tiny pieces which then become lodged in various parts of the body. According to Col. Travers, in his opinion these weapons “should be considered for removal from the arsenals of the armies of the world”.

Depleted Uranium

Desmond Travers ended his talk by discussing the use of depleted uranium by the world’s armed forces. Although he did not say that depleted uranium was definitely used by Israel he said that it “may” have been used. If you consider the fact that Israel was partly targeting underground tunnels, they would want their munitions to achieve maximum penetration. Hence, they would have wanted to harden their munitions and therefore “may” have used depleted uranium to serve that purpose. If that is the case there will be many potentially toxic consequences and he said the world now has an obligation to check that the environmental situation in Gaza is not worsened by those potential side effects. Birth deformities are just one potential consequence. Although Col. Travers did not mention it in his talk, there have in fact already been many reports of birth defects in Gaza recently, something that many people have already attributed to the use of toxic weapons by Israel.

Professor Christine Chinkin – A holistic mandate.

Presumably in response to Zionist criticisms that the Goldstone Report was anti-Israel from the start, Professor Christine Chinkin spoke of the importance of the “holistic mandate” of the fact-finding mission. She pointed out that to begin with only the “occupying power” (Israel) was to be investigated and only the violations committed in Gaza. Judge Goldstone is said to have felt that this was too one-sided and felt the need to expand the scope of the mission’s mandate. It was therefore re-worded and expanded to include all of the violations that “might” have been committed between 27th December 2008 and 18th January 2009. They took out the words “occupying power” and therefore included within the scope of the investigation Palestinian violations as well. They further expanded the geographical remit of the mandate so they could look at the issue of rockets being fired into Israel as well and not just the issue of Israel’s assault on and invasion of Gaza.

She explained how the peace process is typically conducted by the elites far away from the victims and that is why she felt that it was very important for the Goldstone team to hear from the victims themselves by setting up a series of public hearings in Gaza and Geneva. Geneva was chosen so that Israelis could have their say outside of Israel; the Israeli government had refused point blank to co-operate with the UN investigation.

Ami Ayalon – “We should not look for justice”

I was supremely unimpressed by Ami Ayalon (the ex-head of Israel’s Shin Bet Secret Service). Although he made it clear that he was not speaking on behalf of the Israeli government, he could have reasonably been expected to put up some sort of defence for the Israeli position. He did not however.

While Desmond Travers argues for prohibition of certain weapons, ex-head of Shin Bet says forget the past and move on!

His position was basically that you cannot discuss the Goldstone Report and the Peace Process in the same meeting (despite the fact that that was the precise title of the discussion at which he had been invited to speak). Instead, he argued that you would have to convene two separate events, one to discuss each subject. He said that each topic requires a different kind of debate. A debate on Goldstone would need a panel of experts in international law and civil rights but this would not create peace. “They use the language of blame and guilt,” Mr. Ayalon argued, and they “deal with events from the past” but “to try and create peace we have to jump far ahead into the future”. He went on, “We have to adopt a dictionary of responsibility, not blame and guilt.” While we each blame the other side, we have to “create a new dictionary,” he said, “a dictionary of responsibility.” Amazingly, Ami Ayalon said, “We should not look for justice” (a standard argument employed by aggressors). Instead, we have to look for “fairness and honesty”. Few would disagree with the latter. To the evident disbelief of some of the more vocal members of the audience, he claimed that he had been against the Israeli offensive from day one and had tried to do everything he could so stop it as soon as possible.

While Desmond Travers argues for prohibition of certain weapons, ex-head of Shin Bet says forget the past and move on!Dr. Karma Nabulsi – Two models for peace.

Karma Nabulsi began by stating that she disagreed with Mr. Ayalon’s assertion that one could not discuss both the Goldstone Report and peace at the same time. International law, she said, is in fact an essential component for bringing about peace. She said that there were two models that people use to bring about peace: peace through law and peace through power and force. The Goldstone Report speaks of many ways to bring about peace through law. She said that it is the Israeli resistance to the idea that international law can help bring about peace that is the reason why there is no peace process now. The cause of the conflict must be addressed if peace is to be achieved and this includes consideration of issues such as the right of return of Palestinian refugees and so on… The only reason for the continuation of this conflict generation after generation is Israel’s disregard for international law and its insistence on holding on to power through force.

In the Question and Answer session, Colonel Travers was asked specifically about some of the comments he made in an interview with the Middle East Monitor recently and he stood by his responses.

This was not a debate with a vote at the conclusion of the presentations. However, it was very clear that the Goldstone Report and the case for Israeli accountability tied to justice for the Palestinian people and the arguments therefor prevailed.

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