Students at Duke University in North Carolina repeatedly interrupted an event last Wednesday featuring Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister who was subject to an arrest warrant issued by the UK and criminal complaints in two more European countries for her alleged role in war crimes committed during the 2008-09 Cast Lead invasion of Gaza.
The Duke Chronicle reports around two dozen protesters interrupted Livni at the event, with one student standing and shouting that Cast Lead “was a massacre” before the ex-minister could answer her first question. As soon as the first protester paused, more students stood and shouted at Livni. Some of them read names and held photos of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces. A few minutes later, the protesters began to leave the auditorium while chanting “shame” and “you don’t belong here” to Livni.
“You know what’s a shame? It’s a shame that we cannot have this discussion,” Livni countered, dismissing the demonstrators as “not willing to listen to the truth.”
Cast Lead horror
As foreign minister, Livni was a key member of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security cabinet during Israel’s three-week Cast Lead assault on Gaza. The invasion and bombing campaign killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. Of these, over 900 were civilians, including more than 300 children. Whole Palestinian families were wiped out, both by aerial bombardment and, in the case of the Samouni family, by being ordered into a building that was then shelled. Invading Israeli troops shot dead Palestinians ranging in age from children to octogenarians, some of whom were waving white flags of surrender. Israel troops also routinely used Palestinians — often children — as human shields.
Additionally, Israel blocked the United Nations from delivering life-saving food and medical care to desperate and besieged Gazans. Shockingly, Israeli forces attacked and killed humanitarian aid workers in a convoy clearly flying the UN flag, leading to a suspension of aid. Two UN schools harbouring hundreds of shell-shocked refugees were bombed by Israel, killing dozens of civilians and horrifically wounding others with white phosphorus, a chemical and incendiary weapon banned for use against civilians that burns flesh through to the bone and cannot be extinguished with water. In the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City, emaciated children too weak to stand on their own huddled beside the rotting corpses of their mothers.
“Israel is a country that when you fire on its citizens it responds by going wild,” Livni explained as the offensive raged, “and that is a good thing.”
Wanted for war crimes
After 22 days of hellish attack from air, land and sea, Israeli troops withdrew into Israel, singing and dancing as they left behind an utterly devastated Gaza. They could afford to sing and dance — the war had cost the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) only 10 lives, four of them the result of “friendly” fire. Three Israeli civilians also died. The ratio of Palestinian to Israeli dead was more than 100:1.
As newly-inaugurated US President Barack Obama remained silent following the slaughter, Livni, who had spearheaded an aggressive public relations offensive in an attempt to counter growing global condemnation of Israel’s actions, stoked international outrage by defending her — and her country’s — conduct in the war. However, her attempted justifications sometimes sounded more like admissions of guilt, for instance when she said that “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded.”
In 2009 a British court issued an arrest warrant for Livni days before she was due to speak at a London event, forcing her to cancel the trip. Livni’s office responded to the warrant by asserting she was “proud” of all her decisions during the war. The warrant was subsequently withdrawn; however, in January 2017 the Belgian Justice Ministry announced Livni would be detained and interrogated in connection with Gaza war crimes ahead of a scheduled visit to the country. Livni again canceled a trip to avert capture. Later that year, a war crimes lawsuit was filed in Switzerland over Livni’s role in Cast Lead. In 2019, former prime minister Ehud Olmert also had to cancel a scheduled visit to Switzerland after he was notified that he faced arrest there over alleged Cast Lead war crimes.
JVP: Duke ‘complicit’ in Israeli crimes
Students spoke out for and against Livni ahead of her appearance at Duke, whose student newspaper, the Duke Chronicle, published duelling opinion pieces in the days leading up to the visit. While Ezra Loeb and Max Cherman of the Duke Israel Public Affairs Committee (DIPAC) denied that Israeli forces committed war crimes and hailed Livni as a “peacemaker,” Lama Hantash of Students for Justice in Palestine blasted her as “an unapologetic war criminal with blood on her hands.”
“Hosting [Livni] for a lecture minimises the lives and deaths of her victims while encouraging future reproductions of her crimes,” wrote Hantash. Beth Bruch, Gabriel Baldasare and Mark Sfeir of the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which advocates the non-violent boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, wrote that by hosting Livni, Duke “becomes complicit in Israel’s ongoing project of ethnic cleansing” in Palestine.