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Western governments must not ignore unprecedented warnings from their civil servants

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18 Feb 2024 05:02:47 GMT9
18 Feb 2024 05:02:47 GMT9

To most people, the civil service is a faceless bureaucratic machine working to advise politicians and execute their policies, always operating behind the scenes, out of the public eye, its officials sharing their opinions and analysis within their professional surroundings and not beyond.

Therefore the decision by 800 civil servants in the US and Europe to sign a letter that contains scathing criticisms of the uncritical approach by their governments to the manner in which Israel is conducting its war in Gaza, to the extent that it could make their countries complicit in war crimes, should raise alarm bells.

The letter also needs to be viewed in the context of broader legitimate criticisms about Western double standards when it comes to scrutinizing and upholding human rights conventions and the rules of international law.

The unprecedented nature of such a collective and public expression of exasperation — in terms of the scale, the geographical spread of the signatories, and the timing — points to a deep sense of concern, urgency, and perhaps even despair, that providing Israel with a blank check for its response to the Hamas massacre of Oct. 7 was a colossal mistake.

Moreover, allowing it to continue, both tacitly and explicitly, as the letter warns, creates a “plausible risk that our governments’ policies are contributing to grave violations of international humanitarian law, war crimes and even ethnic cleansing or genocide.”

Anyone accustomed to engagement with civil servants knows that unlike politicians, they tend to favor understatement and nuance, especially when there is a possibility that their thoughts and opinions will become public knowledge.

This was not the case with this letter. Making it public was a deliberate decision and the way in which it was written, signed and published in such a coordinated manner — and the fact that the signatories include about 80 US officials, among them many diplomats — indicates that the officials feel they are not being listened to by the governments that they serve, and do not believe that without external support from the media, opposition politicians, civil society and the general public, they stand no chance of persuading administrations to row back on their harmful policies.

It is not only the respective governments these officials serve that should heed the warnings articulated by their letter. Equally, Israel should see the writing on the wall that its actions are compromising the friendship and support of some of its closest allies.

In the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, expressions of sympathy and compassion poured in from around the world for the losses Israelis suffered at the hands of Hamas, and rightly so. But in a very short space of time, while the brutality of the acts that killed Israelis has not been forgotten, it was quickly overshadowed by the ruthlessness and carelessness displayed by Israeli forces in the course of fighting Hamas, resulting in the killing of civilians in Gaza in numbers that are almost impossible to comprehend and under no circumstances can be justified.

There is a deep sense of concern that providing Israel with a blank check for its response to the Hamas massacre of Oct. 7 was a colossal mistake. 

Yossi Mekelberg

Those initial messages from friendly countries that supported Israel’s right, and indeed obligation, to its citizens to respond to what can only be described as a declaration of war by Hamas, were not a license to use disproportionate and indiscriminate military force in a situation where civilians are caught in the middle and pay the ultimate price, with their lives and those of their loved ones, for crimes they did not commit, and are made to suffer devastation and collective trauma that will take years to heal.

The immediate worry for the senior civil servants that signed the letter is that as Israel faces International Court of Justice accusations of genocide, those countries that provide the country with weapons and ammunition, and even political clout, are also likely to be found complicit in war crimes, if not in a court of law at least in the court of public opinion.

It is also the case that from being a relatively confined war in terms of geography and scope, the conflict has expanded well beyond Gaza, with security, political and economic implications for the West that threaten to destabilize its allies in the region. It has entered the discourse in societies in the most damaging ways.

Between the opportunism and desperation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the “Judgement Day” delusions of his far-right partners, and the widespread collective trauma among the rest of Israeli society, any call for even a temporary humanitarian ceasefire is seen as an attempt to prevent Israel from achieving victory, and therefore saving Hamas from destruction.

For the more sober-minded, stopping the war at this point and building a vision of peace and reconciliation is an imperative. It should start with preventing what is already a humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip from getting any worse by preventing Israeli forces from entering Rafah, where 1.5 million civilians are crowded together, six times more than the population of the southern city before the war began. This could save many thousands of people from certain death.

A ground assault on Rafah could also strengthen the case against Israel in the ICJ, and would make rebuilding Gaza, not to mention relations between Israel and the Palestinians, an even bigger task than the already mammoth challenge on everyone’s hands.

The civil servants who signed the letter are terrified about such a development, from which their own governments would not be able to distance themselves from a share of the responsibility. They are also concerned it would strengthen the allegations that when it comes to guaranteeing human rights and defending defenseless civilians, some groups of people are favored over others, making a mockery of the commitment of governments to defend human rights and apply the rules of international law in an even-handed manner.

In the Netherlands, the public uproar about the indifference their government has displayed toward the loss of Palestinian lives in Gaza led to a court case in which an appeal court ruled last week that the Dutch government should halt shipments of components for F-35 fighter jets to Israel because of its continuing assault on Gaza, which it said risks serious violations of international humanitarian law.

Civil servants are not elected by the people. Political decisions are ultimately taken by elected representatives and should remain within the boundaries of the law. It is legitimate for politicians and their civil service advisers to have differences of opinion.

However, in this particular situation it would be sheer folly to ignore such a unique step taken by many hundreds of political practitioners, who between them have a vast amount of experience and knowledge and, most importantly, are free of ties to any political agenda.

At the end of the day, they acted together to alert the world to the damage being caused to the credibility of the West as a result of its policies on the war in Gaza, and to call for action from nations to promote and uphold an international order based on the cherished values that are central to their own ethos, never mind the rule of international law.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg
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