Exactly a year ago, in winter (summer, in that hemisphere) 1901, Horatio
Herbert Kitchener, commander of Britain's imperial forces in South Africa,
launched a wide-reaching policy of closures and crackdowns, with the
aim of "liquidating" Boer (Afrikaner) terrorists who refused to succumb
after being vanquished on the battlefield, and had initiated a guerrilla
war against their conquerors. Conquered lands in South Africa were divided
into zones surrounded by intimidating checkpoints and watchtowers. Tens
of thousands of British soldiers combed and "cleansed" these zones: farms,
villages and crops were razed and destroyed and the "noncombatant"
population(women and children) were sent to concentration camps (the etymological
roots of the term stem from this context, not the Nazi camps). Some 20,000
inhabitants of these camps, of a total population of 120,000, perished
from hunger and disease. The enlightened world (insofar as such a community
existed at the start of the 20th century) watched, and was aghast at
the barbaric acts perpetrated by the army of a state which feigned adherence
to humanitarian norms and values. Expressions of revulsion didn't influence
the British government, which claimed that it was acting in self defense
and that it was the "terrorists" who transgressed the "rules of war."
The Boers (who themselves were hardly saints) surrendered in the end.
But not too many years passed before they emerged as the true victors
- they became masters of all of South Africa, until the establishment
of the current multiracial state.But Lord Kitchener's closure and crackdown
was swamped by the sea of blood that washed across the globe in the
twentieth century, and was almost forgotten. When compared to the acts of genocide,
annihilation of entire populations, and other horrific atrocities that
have transpired since that time, the remote events of 1901 appear almost
like routine police activities. Yet, even then, troubled parts of the
enlightened world responded to the contemptible acts by trying to promulgate
behavioral norms, prohibitions and punitive measures which would deter,
or at least condemn, those who committed such crimes.
Those who formulated the Hague convention of 1907 denounced Kitchener's
encirclement and closure policies, stipulating that a "conqueror shall
take all the measures in his power to restore, and ensure, as far as
possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely
prevented, the laws in force in the country," (article 43) and condemning
collective punishment procedures, asserting, "no general penalty, pecuniary
or otherwise, shall be inflicted upon the population on account of the
acts of individuals for which they cannot be regarded as jointly and
severally responsible" (article 50).
After the atrocities of the Second World War, the Geneva convention
Reacting to atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia, the international community
took a further step and created a global framework to uphold fundamental
human rights, featuring a permanent world court with authority to rule
on war crimes and impose direct, personal responsibility on those who
ordered the perpetration of such crimes.
While the international community has completed a long journey in its
efforts to institute humanitarian norms, one state is obstinately trying
to turn the clock back a century. Were Lord Kitchener to rise from the
depths of the North Sea (where he met his end), he would give his stamp
of approval to the IDF's "bronze" plan, which divides the conquered
territories into 64 "land units," each one designated for "local, selective treatment."
Kitchener would evince "understanding" regarding the barbaric closure
of Ramallah, averring that it has been imposed in "self defense." The
First Earl of Khartoum would be stunned to learn that he was accused
of war crimes because of the concentration camps he established. Then,
as now, generals appear to heed the same logic; then, as now, there is
the same patronizing contempt for norms which have been enshrined in
Why, indeed, should we gripe about barbaric acts if political leaders
furnish them with support, and if the public which elected those leaders
relates with serene composure to such acts? Though some chords of
reservation and criticism have been struck, such complaints have been articulated
primarily for utilitarian and public relations concerns. Will the closure
work? Will it aggravate hatred and hostility; will it damage Israel's
image? Is its "selective usage" warranted under the pretext of "thwarting
terror and preventing the killing of Israelis" - as though atrocious
acts perpetrated by the enemy justify barbaric measures which lower one
to the enemy's own level, and bring on the collapse of moral and
During the last intifada, then IDF chief of staff Dan Shomron declared:
"There are things which one does not do, not in a society such as our
own. If you do them, you will divide the people." Ultimate, red line
limits have been erased in the course of the current intifada; and the
majority in Israel are not rattled by wanton transgressions of "rules
of war," or by war crimes. Things have reached such a wretched stage
that, when the day of reckoning comes, anyone who hasn't raised his voice
in protest today against the barbaric acts carried out in his name will
not be able to say that he had no hand in the bloodshed.
What is being done in the territories is simply forbidden. To safeguard
against such acts, people have established laws and norms; those who
wish to return to the norms current a century ago ought not to be surprised
when they are treated as pariahs - indeed, as ghosts from bygone days.
* The author is the former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kolleck.
This column was published in Ha'aretz, 15 March.