What does 'never again' actually mean?

The Israeli flag projected onto the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in a show of solidarity
The Israeli flag projected onto Berlin's Brandenburg Gate in a show of solidarity (image: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance)

History puts Germany on Israel's side. For the same reason, Germany must defend international and human rights. This is now a dilemma. A value-driven foreign policy would do well to remember the universalist understanding of 'never again'

By Daniel Bax

'Never again' – a statement that found worldwide support after World War Two and the German genocide of the European Jewry. But what does this 'never again' stand for precisely? Never again war and genocide?

That was the primary motive resulting in the foundation of the United Nations in October 1945, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the adoption of the first Geneva Refugee Convention in 1951. Or was it primarily intended to mean that something like this should never again happen to Jews? This conviction led to the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 and continues to define its security doctrine to this day.

These two views don't have to contradict each other. But never before have the different interpretations of 'never again' contrasted as sharply as they do now. On the one side is an Israeli government which, after the terrible massacre by Hamas, feels entitled to do whatever it takes to restore its idea of security. On the other side – the principles of humanitarian international law and human rights being defended by human rights organisations and institutions such as the UN.

Destroyed buildings after Israeli attacks on targets in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Destroyed buildings in the wake of Israeli attacks on targets in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (image: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

Attacks on churches, hospitals and mosques

In the ongoing war in Gaza, the Israeli army seems to be acknowledging very few red lines; Israeli leaders have on multiple occasions made it clear that the principle of proportionality and the protection of the civilian population are not their top priorities. Israel's President Isaac Herzog held the entire population of Gaza responsible for the actions of Hamas. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu uses religious language to frame the war as a battle with absolute evil with no room for nuance. When commenting on his forces' military strategy, Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari said: “The focus is on destruction, not on precision.”

Words such as these are backed up by deeds. Israel blocked supplies of water, electricity, fuel and medication – affecting everyone living in the Gaza Strip, not just Hamas. In late October, the Israeli army bombed the densely populated Jabaliya refugee camp in the north of the Gaza Strip. 

The justification – the operation was targeting a Hamas leader. In mid-November, the army stormed the Al-Shifa hospital in northern Gaza and ordered its evacuation because Israel suspected that a Hamas command centre was hidden beneath it. Israeli bombs are hitting residential areas, mosques, churches, hospitals and schools. This casts doubt on the sense and purpose of Israel's military strategy.

Record number of children and journalists killed

But Israel's warfare is having devastating consequences. After seven weeks, Palestinian sources are saying that the number of dead in the Gaza Strip has already risen to the record number of more than 12,000, including more than 5,000 children – more children than have perished in all of the world's other conflict zones over the past four years, according to Save the Children. The World Health Organisation is also warning that the threat of starvation and disease in the Gaza Strip will become more acute as a result of the blockade.

More than 100 staff working for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) have died after six weeks of war. This makes it the deadliest conflict ever for the UN in search a short period of time. That's why in mid-November, flags were flown at half-mast at the UN headquarters in New York. 

In addition, since the start of the war until mid-November, 48 journalists have been killed, most of them in Israeli airstrikes – more than in any other war over the past three decades, says the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. In response, the French organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has filed a war crimes complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. 

Many of the journalists were killed along with their entire families, among them the Palestinian reporter Mohammed Abu Hattab, who acted on Israeli warnings ahead of the invasion and fled the north with his relatives. But in the Gaza Strip, nowhere is safe anymore.

Children crowd around a food bank near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Children crowd around a food bank near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (image: AP Photo/Hatem Ali/picture alliance)

Israel's interpretation of 'never again'

Meanwhile in the West Bank, radical settlers are treating resident Palestinians with increasing brutality – in the shadow of the ongoing war. Some 200 Palestinians have been killed there in recent weeks. Videos of Israeli soldiers humiliating and abusing Palestinian prisoners are doing the rounds on TikTok.

In view of these developments, Chancellor Olaf Scholz's claim at the EU summit in Brussels in late October that he has no doubt that the Israeli army is observing international law appears naïve.  And at the UN General Assembly a short time before, it seems short-sighted for Foreign Minister Baerbock to abstain from voting together with the right-wing governments of Italy and the UK, instead of voting with two-thirds of all nations including EU partners France and Spain, for an "immediate, durable and sustainable truce", unimpeded humanitarian aid for Gaza and the "release of all captured civilians". 

On 16 November owing to abstentions by veto powers the UK and the US, the UN Security Council was able to agree for the first time to call for humanitarian pauses and corridors in the Gaza Strip.

The German government is one of the few appropriating the Israeli reading of 'never again'. But this approach is making things too easy. Of course, Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas' brutal terror attack that resulted in the gruesome deaths of more than 1,200 of its citizens. But that defence does not have to happen in its current form, especially as it is also endangering the lives of Israeli hostages.

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Value-driven foreign policy

Even U.S President Joe Biden warned the Israeli government against making the same mistakes made by the United States after 9/11. This war cannot be won through brute military force alone.

For this reason, the German government should remember the other, universalist meaning of 'never again' and insist on international law and the respect of human rights. It should listen to human rights organisations and defend international regulations. 

And it should ensure that the ICC in The Hague pursues possible war crimes being committed by both sides in this Middle East conflict. Such action could be taken against both Israeli politicians and officers as well as members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Germany should support investigations of this kind.

The fact that it has so far refrained from doing so, is contributing to a culture of impunity that facilitates new war crimes and ultimately harms the security of Israel. A value-driven foreign policy should look different. The asserted rights of the stronger party cannot be left unchecked and allowed to run rampant on a global scale.

Daniel Bax

© Qantara.de 2023

Translated from the German by Nina Coon