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Why Tzipi Livni is a peacemaker (and not a war criminal)

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This Wednesday, former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will be visiting Duke, hosted by the Grand American Strategy program. Prior to Livni’s arrival, The Chronicle published a column accusing Livni of committing war crimes. These claims are a gross misconstruction of the truth. To the contrary, Livni is an upstanding peacemaker and a model for all of us at Duke. 

Since the early 2000’s, Livni has been the face of the Israeli peace movement. She began her career as a peacemaker, dedicated to bringing peace between Israelis and Palestinians, in 2005 during the Second Intifada. At the height of this violent period, Livni joined Israeli politician Ariel Sharon in forming Kadima, a new party committed to creating peace. To Livni and Sharon, the violence stemming from Israeli presence in Gaza was untenable. From 2001 to 2005, militant groups in the coastal enclave launched 2,400 rockets at Southern Israeli cities. Sharon and Livni’s plan for ending this violence was bold: remove every trace of Israeli presence from Gaza in hopes of earning peace. This plan, now called the Gaza Disengagement, resulted in the evacuation of 21 Israeli settlements, the relocation of 8,000 Israelis, and the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the territory. As Justice Minister, Livni coordinated the legal and legislative components of this plan, aiming to create a more peaceful and secure future.

Livni reaffirmed her commitment to peace during the 2007 Annapolis Conference, a peace conference brokered by the Bush administration. Livni’s negotiations with the Palestinian Authority led to a joint statement in which the two parties committed to a two-state solution, with Israelis and Palestinians living “side by side in peace and security.” At this conference, Livni accomplished more than just political negotiations with Palestinians. There, she even became friends with the Palestinian negotiating team. "I would vote for you," chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei told Livni, according to the minutes of one 2008 meeting.

In 2012, Livni founded a new political party, Hatnuah, focused on social issues and the peace process. According to the Israeli Policy Forum, “Hatnuah consistently ran with Israeli-Palestinian peace as a mainstay of its political platform, unambiguously endorsing the two-state solution.” 

Fulfilling her promise to push for peace, Livni represented Israel in the 2013-14 Peace Talks, led by the Obama administration. During these negotiations, Livni facilitated the release of 78 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of Israel’s readiness and commitment to peace.

As Donald Macintyre writes in “Tzipi Livni: Agent of change,” “none of this is to depict Livni as a Peace Now dove.” It is critical to understand, however, that Livni has been in Israeli politics for decades, consistently pushing for a two-state solution. This is not something to be taken lightly in an increasingly right-wing and status-quo-driven system.

With Livni’s long history of pushing for peace, why does the October 21 column accuse Livni of war crimes? It comes down to a falsification of the facts surrounding the 2008 Gaza War and a tactic known as lawfare.

Following the 2005 Disengagment from Gaza, the Palestinian Authority held elections in the enclave. In a political upset, the millitant group Hamas beat out the Fatah party for control of the Palestinian Legislature. An affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and designated terrorist organization, Hamas seized control over the Gaza Strip in 2007 and reinitiated a campaign of indiscriminate rocket fire at Southern Israeli cities. 

Though a cease-fire held for several months, fighting broke out in 2008 when Hamas launched 88 rockets in the opening salvos of the First Gaza War. In response to this cease-fire violation, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) launched Operation Cast Lead, a military intervention into Gaza that targeted rocket launch sites and military support infrastructure. 

The controversy lies in where Hamas built their rocket launch sites. According to NATO’s Strategic Report on Hamas activities from 2008-2014, Hamas carried out a policy during the war of launching rockets from civilian buildings in densely populated areas. These included schools, hospitals and mosques. Gazans report that civilians were forced to stay put while Hamas militants attacked IDF soldiers from their homes and that Hamas rocket-launchers were located on top of residential buildings.

This use of human shields presented an ethical catch-22. Israel could either allow rocket fire at its civilians or risk harming Gazan civilians. The IDF addressed this dilemma with policy of “roof knocking.” Prior to striking a target, the IDF would call telephones and drop leaflets, telling the occupants to evacuate. Nonetheless, loss of life still occurred. The Laws of Armed Conflict draw a clear distinction between “incidental” civilian casualties and those that occur out of “the lust to kill.” While individual soldiers may have committed unjustifiable actions and have been rightfully reprimanded, these deaths do not constitute war crimes by the Israeli government. There was no Israeli policy of wantonly targeting civilians.

The Chronicle column cites the UN Goldstone Report as evidence for war crimes. What it leaves out, however, is the follow up to this report. After analyzing further evidence, Chief UN Factfinder Richard Goldstone backtracked on his previous conclusions, writing that if he had known then what he knows now, “the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” Goldstone concludes that “the crimes allegedly committed by Hamas were intentional. Its rockets were purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets.” On the other hand, Goldstone exonerates the Israeli military, writing that “civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy” by the IDF. 

According to the NATO Strategic Report on the war, Hamas’ use of human shields constitutes a tactic known as lawfare—using the legal system to delegitimize an enemy. The report outlines Hamas’ intentional effort to use civilian human shields in order to make Israel inadvertently harm civilians, a fact that could then be used in executing lawfare.  Abu Issa, a Gazan from Tel Awwa recounts how Hamas “wanted the Israelis to fire on our homes so they would be accused of war crimes." Hamas made the conscious decision to sacrifice the lives of Gazan civilians so that activists could point to alleged war crimes and slander Israelis like Livni. 

These “war crimes” did not occur. The allegations referenced by the column were not brought by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court, or any prosecutor for that matter. Rather, they were civil compaints issued by Palestinian legal groups. There is no legitimacy to these claims, which contravene every shred of evidence pointing to Livni’s role as a peacemaker, a woman who has spent her career attempting to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Ezra Loeb (T’22) and Max Cherman (T’20) are executive members of the Duke Israel Public Affairs Committee.

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