UCCS Palestine-Israel teach-in calls for peace to spare civilian lives 

In light of the war between Palestine and Israel, UCCS hosted an event on Nov. 14 intended to generate discussion about the conflict. 

Associate professor G. Carole Woodall coordinated the event and introduced five panelists who gave their stances on how to spare civilian lives and make peace. She said the teach-in was designed to create a starting point in discussion, not cover the crisis in its entirety, and there will be a follow-up event in the spring semester.

Michèle Companion – professor in the department of sociology 

Companion spent the majority of her time addressing the idea of a humanitarian pause. She said the pauses, which call for a temporary ceasefire to allow for humanitarian needs, are a form of political terminology made to make people feel good. 

“The reality of war is death, and it is suffering and it is real,” Companion said. “The idea of a humanitarian pause is just — it offends me deeply because it’s just nothing. It’s just words.” 

Companion shared a couple statistics around the current reality of the war (some numbers have been updated to reflect current statistics): 

  • Almost 1.7 million people have been displaced within the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7. 
  • Nearly 884,000 internally displaced persons in the Gaza Strip are currently in the 154 shelters being run by the United Nations Relief Workers Agency (UNRWA). 
  • 104 U.N. aid workers have been killed in the Gaza Strip, the highest number of workers killed in a conflict in the history of the U.N. 
  • Water desalination plants and pipelines have been bombed, leaving civilians without a way to access clean water.  
  • UNRWA shelters are at nine times their intended capacity.  

Companion tied the majority of these statistics back into the idea that a humanitarian pause could not work, beginning with the loss of UNRWA workers. She explained the workers who would coordinate on the ground have already been killed, meaning any attempt for a pause would fail. 

According to Companion, the destruction of infrastructure has created logistical issues in getting aid to refugee camps. “The roads that are required to move materials and water from point A to point B to get to these refugee camps are no longer existing. There’s no fuel. Even if that aid could get to the refugee camps, there’s no fuel to get them further up the country,” she said. 

According to the NYT, UNRWA workers play a large role in Gaza, where they provide needs to 1.4 million of the territory’s 2.2 million residents. With over 13,000 staff members who work at schools and health facilities, UNRWA is struggling to function due to loss of staff, financial struggles and the disruption of operations from the conflict.   

Companion was concerned about the lack of water leading to a higher rate of communicable diseases, particularly severe diarrheal infections in children under five. Without clean water and enough designated spaces to use the bathroom, she fears infection will spread through refugee camps.  

NBC noted that this displacement can lead to an increased risk of COVID-19, measles and cholera, among other communicable diseases. 

“The more physically vulnerable you are — if you are elderly, if you are already malnourished, if you are young — that will hit you hardest first,” Companion said. “When we lose our elders, and we lose our children, we break chains of history and culture and knowledge.” 

Jennifer Kling –  professor in the department of philosophy 

Kling began by speaking on a recent conference she attended with other philosophers of war and peace. She shared that even among some of the greatest minds in this subject, they were unable to think of any clear answer for this war.   

“It is very, very easy to take a fast stance in the absence of complexities and understanding,” Kling said. “It’s OK to say not right now, because I have to think my way, and I have to feel my way through this.” 

Kling also emphasized that it is important to be wary of those whose first answer is violence. “This is a thing that people put a lot of faith in. They say ‘well, we’ll just kill, and we’ll kill some more and eventually everything will work out,’ and, I promise you, it will not work out,” she said. 

Kling then explained the current conflict through the lens of the three principles of war established by International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which she said are set up to ensure people can live humanely in times of conflict. 

“The first one is that you don’t intentionally attack civilians,” Kling said. “That means everybody who’s a civilian. That means you don’t attack music festivals, that means you don’t attack villages and take hostages who are children. That also means you don’t strike refugee camps, and you don’t strike hospitals.” 

The second principle of IHL is to avoid engaging in disproportionate attacks. Kling explains a disproportionate attack does greater harm than the expected good that could possibly come out of it.  

“You don’t bomb the refugee camps, which contain tens of thousands of people, to kill two terrorists. You don’t do that. That’s a disproportionate attack,” Kling said. 

“Rule three — you don’t use cruel and unusual weaponry,” Kling said. “This is the well-known cluster munition ban, this is the well-known chemical weapons ban, this is the ban on the use of nuclear weapons.”  

“It’s taken us 5,000 years to get three rules of war up and running in international law, so I think it’s worth mentioning,” Kling said. “There are three rules of war, and so far, we know that two of them are being broken.” 

Another panelist, Dina Omar, pointed out later in the discussion that white phosphorus, a chemical munition that is considered to be illegal if used against civilians and in highly populated areas, had been used against civilians in Gaza on Oct. 11, according to the Human Rights Watch.  

The organization provided an image showing two artillery shells exploding and creating white lines following thick smoke over Gaza City. They alleged this is indicative of use of white phosphorus and violates the IHL law of taking feasible precautions to avoid civillian inury and loss of life since it was used in a densely populated area. 

Human Right Watch said they had reviewed a video and verified the location and use of white phosphorus, but they did not show the video. The Washington Post verified the video but did not provide it, either.  

In the article from The Washington Post, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) denied the accusation, saying the use of white phosphorus in Gaza was false. Brian Castner, a weapons investigator for Amnesty International, said it was unclear if the incident is considered a violation of the laws of armed conflict.  

Israel was found to have violated IHL laws by repeatedly using white phosphorus over populated areas, killing and injuring civilians back in 2008-09 in Operation Cast Lead, a Human Rights Watch report found

Dina Omar – founding member of National Students for Justice in Palestine 

Omar spoke on the process she believes is being used as a part of Israeli psychological warfare on Palestine. She described the process as a narrative built upon falsehoods, which she says is a systematic colonial technique of violence used to blame victims. 

“Then you issue that [falsehood] or say that out loud, you give that to western journalists, particularly English-speaking media outlets, they spread it like wildfire and then politicians and diplomats parrot the lie, and then a narrative is built. And once that narrative is built, the general public either passively or, some of us, not passively, believe that lie,” Omar said.  

Omar believed the narrative could quickly get out of control and often isn’t disproven until it is too late. “The power goes out. And then journalists are killed. And then destruction ensues. The damage is done, and then, finally, the people who issued the lie admitted that it was a lie in the first place,” she said. 

According to Omar, there are many lies being told to normalize the violence against Palestinians. 

“At the moment that exact opposite is true, is the moment that the numbers we are seeing emerging from Gaza is much less than the current amount of people who are dead,” Omar said. “And that each one of those people are not just a number.” 

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza reported there have been 13,300 people killed as of Nov. 20 since the beginning of the conflict, according to The Times of Israel. 

According to a BBC article, while there has been doubt casted by the IDF and even President Biden regarding the death figures, both the Human Rights Watch and the U.N. said there was no reason to disbelieve the figures released by the health ministry. 

In the article, Barbara Leaf, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said the death figures are very high and could be higher than what is being cited.    

Omar elaborated on the importance of every live being lost in this conflict.  

“They are lives, they have families, there are an entire kinship charts and family trees that have been absolutely eviscerated, and the infrastructure facilitates life, through which we can actually have an accurate portrayal and data about civilian life being lost is currently being destroyed in an attempt to expand the borders of the Israeli national state,” Omar said. 

Rob Prince – spokesperson for the Front Range Jewish Voice for Peace 

From the beginning of his speech, Prince called for a ceasefire. “My interest is really talking about ceasefire,” he said. “I see the notion of a ceasefire as the first step to get out of this mess.” 

Prince believed that a ceasefire would be to the benefit of everyone affected by and displaced by the war. He thinks it would be best for the sake of the emotional and psychological states of everyone involved, and it would stop the high death rates in both Israel and Gaza. 

Prince also felt that a ceasefire must be called in order to prevent an escalation, noting there’s a possibility the conflict becomes a regional war if a ceasefire does not happen soon. 

Prince believed we could find hope in the fact that UCCS is hosting events about the conflict in Palestine and Israel and openly discussing its importance.  

Raphael Sassower – professor in the department of philosophy  

Sassower spoke from his perspective as someone who grew up in Israel and is Jewish. He believed his own experience of feeling as if his identities were combined and stereotyped was applicable to how the general public was treating all sides in the conflict. 

“Not every Jew is a mindless zealot, racist or has genocidal intentions. That not all Jews are Israelis, and not all Israelis are Jews, and that the same should be said for Palestinians. Not all Hamas are muslim, and not all muslims are radical islamists,” Sassower said.  

Sassower spoke on the need for peace, prioritizing the safety of citizens in Palestine and Israel above all else. “[A] ceasefire should be imposed by the United Nations and its members without any excuses or cover-ups,” he said. “No long-term military forces occupying civil spaces can ever be humane, or civil or just.” 

UCCS students and faculty alike filled the panel room Tuesday night on November 14th to engage in discussions on Palestine and Israel. The organizers of the event opened up an overflow room to accommodate everyone who showed up. Photo by Megan Moen.