On Thursday 19th March, the ANU College of Law hosted former head of the International Law Department of the Israeli Defense Forces, Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, in an event titled Asymmetric Conflicts: Applying the Rules. Despite the academic and factual controversy that has surrounded the content of this talk, both within Israel and internationally, Ms Sharvit-Baruch was provided a platform to argue that Israeli actions against Palestinian civilians during Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009) were legitimate and are defendable under international law.
How should we judge the Law School’s decision to host a talk that aims to legitimise the killing of 900 unarmed civilians, including 300 children during Operation Cast Lead? Some would argue that academic freedom is contingent upon moral integrity, whereby academic expression does not come at the expense of more fundamental human rights, such as legitimising actions that lead to large civilian deaths. Others would suggest that academic analysis, irrespective of its moral consequences, should be given a platform for expression.
If we put aside the moral integrity of Ms Sharvit-Baruch’s talk, there still remains a need to question whether academic standards have been met. There is an expectation that academic expression be comprehensive and critical, that arguments be made cogently, not through a selective choice of sources, but through rigorous engagement with documented investigations and thoughtful response to alternative interpretations. Such accountable academic engagement was unfortunately lacking from Ms Sharvit-Baruch’s presentation, with her academic analysis based upon the assertion of “facts” inconsistent with independent research conducted by international organisations ranging from the United Nations to human rights groups.
Throughout her talk, Ms Sharvit-Baruch referred to unspecified “Israeli investigations” into civilian causalities and cited a table from Wikipedia to support her argument that targeting civilian areas, including private homes, schools, hospitals and buildings hosting United Nations agencies, constituted proportional and appropriate responses to the armed aggression of Hamas and that instances of civilian death were “mistakes” which “happen” in situations of asymmetric conflict. As an academic event, the use of Wikipedia as a source is questionable, and while it is reasonable that Israeli sources be used, there is need to ask why these sources weren’t directly referenced, and why the speaker failed to engage with and respond to a wider range of international investigations.
Of particular concern is the lack of engagement with the 2009 UN Fact Finding Mission and the 2011 McGowan Davis Report, which have suggested, along with numerous human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, that the actions of both Israel and Hamas amount to war crimes – with Israeli crimes grossly exceeding in number and severity those of Hamas. In the few instances where reference was made to these reports, it was to dismiss human rights and human rights law as irrelevant frames of analysis for approaching Israeli actions in Gaza.
Given the selective use of sources and the clear disdain shown for human rights based analysis, there is reason to question whether this talk adheres to standards of academic accountability and integrity. There are also questions surrounding the motivations behind hosting an academic speaker whose analysis puts forth exclusively the viewpoints of the Israeli state.
In situations of asymmetric conflict, it is common for expression to be given to analysis that defends the actions of the dominant power. It is also common for such expression to avoid the kinds of rigorous scrutiny that analysis challenging state narratives often receives. If Ms Sharvit-Baruch has an academic right to legitimise civilian deaths through her application of international law, then surely she also has an academic responsibility to acknowledge human rights as an internationally respected frame of academic inquiry and to engage with international findings that have documented Israeli human rights abuses in the context of military actions in Gaza.
As students it is important that we are concerned with the academic integrity of events held at our university and question the frames of analysis they both use and exclude – particularly when their subject matter concerns the lives and human rights of civilian populations.
Natasha Lennard is the President of ANU Students for Justice in Palestine