university welcomes "war crimes" colonel
on Gaza civilians sanctioned by military
By Jonathan Cook in Nazareth (click here for related
10 February 2009
Cook argues that the appointment of an Israeli officer who provided
legal cover for war crimes in Gaza to a teaching post at Tel Aviv
University adds weight to a growing campaign in Europe and the US
to impose an academic boycott on Israel.
The Israeli government has moved quickly to quash protests over the
appointment of the army's senior adviser on international law to a
teaching post at Tel Aviv University. Colonel Pnina Sharvit-Baruch
is thought to have provided legal cover for war crimes during the
recent Gaza offensive.
Government officials fear that recent media revelations relating to
Col Sharvit-Baruch's role in the Gaza operation may assist human
rights groups seeking to bring Israeli soldiers to trial
A Spanish judge began investigating Israeli war crimes in Gaza
under the country's "universal jurisdiction" laws this month, and a
prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague is
considering a Palestinian group’s petition to indict Israeli
Meanwhile, the furore – by highlighting the close ties between the
army and Israeli universities – is adding weight to a growing
campaign in Europe and the US to impose an academic boycott on
Israel, say activists.
Tel Aviv University's decision to hire Col Sharvit-Baruch to teach
international law prompted protests from staff after the local
media published details of the military planning for the Gaza
More than 1,300 Palestinians were killed during the operation, the
majority of them civilians, and thousands were injured.
According to critics quoted by the Haaretz newspaper, Col
Sharvit-Baruch and her staff manipulated standard interpretations
of international law to expand the scope of army operations to
include civilian targets.
Leading the protest is Haim Ganz, a law professor who has called
the colonel’s approach to international law "devious jurisprudence
that permits mass killing". In a letter to the university,
Professor Ganz said he was lodging "a moral protest against a state
of affairs where somebody who authorized these actions is teaching
the law of war".
Last week Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, threatened to cut
government funding for the law faculty should Col Sharvit-Baruch's
appointment not proceed. The university's president, Zvi Galil,
phoned the cabinet secretary to reassure the government, saying
Prof Ganz's opinions were not shared by most staff.
Other academics have rallied in support of Col Sharvit-Baruch,
accusing her critics of waging a McCarthyite campaign against
According to the Israeli media, she personally approved the first
wave of air strikes in Gaza that targeted a police graduation
ceremony, killing at least 40 cadets.
Although police forces have civilian status in international law,
and are therefore protected from military reprisal, Col
Sharvit-Baruch is reported to have revised her opinion of the
attack’s legality during the many months of planning.
In addition, she is said to have "relaxed" the rules of engagement,
approved widespread house demolitions and the uprooting of
farmland, and sanctioned the use of incendiary weapons such as
white phosphorus over the densely populated enclave.
She also offered legal justification for the targeting of buildings
in which civilians were known to be located as long as they had
been warned first to leave. Schools, mosques and a university were
among the many civilian buildings shelled by the Israeli army
during the 22-day operation.
Her decisions have been widely criticized by international human
rights organizations as well as by international law experts in
Professor Yuval Shany, who teaches public international law at
Hebrew University in Jerusalem, called her interpretation of the
rules of war "flexible." Regarding the strike against the police
cadets, he said: "If you follow that line, there is not much that
differentiates [the cadets] from [Israeli] reservists or even from
16-year-olds who will be drafted [into the Israeli army] in two
Col Sharvit-Baruch's predecessor, Daniel Reisner, noted that her
staff had stretched the accepted meanings of international law. The
army's operating principle, he added, was: "If you do something for
long enough, the world will accept it."
Orna Ben-Naftali, the dean of law at the College of Management in
Rishon Letzion, said the army's conduct in Gaza had made
international law "bankrupt." "A situation is created in which the
majority of the adult men in Gaza and the majority of the buildings
can be treated as legitimate targets. The law has actually been
stood on its head."
But despite the protest at Tel Aviv University, most academic staff
in Israel supported Col Sharvit-Baruch's appointment, said Daphna
Golan, a programme director at the Minerva Center for Human Rights
at Hebrew University. "I think even Prof Ganz has been frightened
into silence by the backlash.”
The episode, she said, highlighted the intimate relations between
the army and universities in Israel, as well as the dependence of
the universities on army funding.
She noted that there were many special programmes designed to
favour army and security personnel by putting them on a fast track
"Most of the professors in the country’s Middle East departments –
the "experts on Arabs" who shape the perceptions of the next
generation – are recruited from the army or the security services,"
Omar Barghouti, a coordinator of the Palestinian Campaign for the
Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, said Col Sharvit-Baruch's
employment was a further indication of the "organic ties" between
Israeli institutions and the army.
"This just adds one more soldier to an already very long list of
war criminals roaming around freely in Israeli universities,
teaching hate, racism and warmongering, with impunity," he
He noted that calls for an academic boycott were growing in the
wake of the Gaza offensive.
Al-Quds University, with campuses in East Jerusalem and the West
Bank, severed its contacts with Israeli universities last week. It
had been the last Palestinian university to maintain such
At the same time, a group of US professors announced that they were
campaigning for an academic boycott of Israel – the first time such
a call has been heard in the US.
Mr Barghouti said an "unprecedented" groundswell of popular opinion
was behind new campaigns in countries such as Australia, Spain,
Sweden, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand.
Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His
latest book is "Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in
Human Despair" (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net
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