Israeli Massacres: Then and Now

September 15, 2014

By Sanjeev Mahajan

As of 28 Aug, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2104 Palestinians have been killed, of whom 1462 have been identified as civilians, including 495 children. Some 10,000 have been wounded in 50 days of death and destruction that Israel unleashed on the people of Gaza in its latest offensive, “Operation Protective Edge.” At least 400,000 people have been displaced and more than 9,000 homes rendered uninhabitable. During the course of its assault, Israel bombed schools, mosques, hospitals, UN shelters, apartment buildings and ambulances. The Israeli Air Force boasts of having released over 100 one-tonne bombs on Gaza. This “operation” is the third in a series since the 2008-2009 Cast Lead (the second one being the 2012 “Pillar of Defense”), the only difference among them being the scale of brutality in which this one has surpassed all the previous ones. What is the human story behind these antiseptic statistics?

Israel blames this devastation on Hamas, and its oft-repeated and repeatedly discredited claim is that Hamas uses civilians as human shields. But were the four children playing soccer on Gaza beach human shields? According to B’Tselem, all 25 members of Abu Jame’ family, including 18 children, were killed on 20 July when Israeli forces “bombed the four-storey building that is home” to the family. Were they human shields too? On 13 July, eighteen members of Gaza police chief Tayseer al-Batsh’s family were killed in an Israeli airstrike. Were they human shields too? Or how about Salem Shamaly? On 20 July, 23-year-old Shamaly went looking for injured members of his family in Shujaiya, a densely populated suburb in the eastern part of Gaza City, and the site of a prior massacre by Israeli forces. During his search in the rubble, he was fatally shot as he strayed into the sights of an Israeli sniper. Was he a human shield too?

According to conventional wisdom, the “history” of Israel’s latest offensive begins with the abduction of three Israeli teenagers on 12 June. Let’s leave aside the fact that only a perverse moral calculus, which considers Palestinian life worthless would regard this event as a point of departure for Israel’s assault. (After all, countless numbers of Palestinians are routinely kidnapped by Israeli forces.). Is it even true that Hamas was responsible for their abduction and subsequent deaths? As scholar Mouin Rabbani points out, “Despite clear evidence presented to [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] by the Israeli security forces that the three teenagers were already dead, and no evidence to date that Hamas was involved, he held Hamas directly responsible and launched a ‘hostage rescue operation’ throughout the West Bank.”  Israel then went on a rampage in the West Bank, killing at least six Palestinians, carrying out mass arrests (among those arrested were Hamas parliamentarians and former detainees released in 2011) and the demolition of a number of houses, all in order to provoke a response from Hamas in Gaza. On the night of 6 July, when an Israeli air raid killed seven Hamas militants, Hamas finally responded with sustained missile attacks deep into Israel. This was exactly the response Israel was eagerly waiting for, and it used it as a pretext to launch “Operation Protective Edge” on 7 July.

One could be forgiven for predicting that there would be limits to how much death and destruction Israel could unleash in this latest assault. After all, the massive death and destruction Israel had inflicted on Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 had evoked considerable international outrage. Some 1,000 Palestinian civilians were killed back then, and the scenes of destruction were reminiscent of those created by earthquakes. A series of damning reports by reputable human rights organizations (including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and B’Tselem), culminating in the extensive UN investigation known as the Goldstone Report, had indicted Israel for war crimes. So, there was hope that the era of Israeli impunity was coming to an end, and that Israel wouldn’t dare to launch another large-scale massacre. In fact, although Israel did invade Gaza again in 2012, it “only” killed some 100 Palestinian civilians.

However, as scholar Norman Finkelstein observes, things looked different now. A combination of radical changes in the political configuration in the Middle East and a series of golden opportunities that Netanyahu seized with deft alacrity allowed Israel to commit its most prolonged and most horrific mass murder since 2008-2009. For instance, the political upheaval in neighboring Egypt has had a big impact. Whereas long-time Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak had been Israel’s most important regional ally before he was ousted in the course of the Arab Spring, the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government that soon replaced him was close to the democratically elected government in Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood was sympathetic both to the Palestinian cause in general and Hamas’s ideology in particular. In the 2012, the absence of a friendly dictator on Gaza’s southern border, along with the millstone of the Goldstone Report around its neck, did not allow Israel to commit mass murder on the scale of its 2008-2009 assault.

However, by now, Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi has been ousted in a bloody coup, and the ruling military junta headed by Abdel Fattah el Sisi is virulently hostile both to the Palestinian cause in general and Hamas in particular. As Khaled Abu El Fadl observes, “Sisi’s government, in the same way it declared that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization, has declared Hamas to be a terrorist and banned organization, and closed down its offices in Egypt, … and arrested and tortured many Palestinians associated with the organization in Egypt. Sisi also embarked on an unprecedented systematic program of finding and destroying Gaza’s tunnels connecting it to Sinai, and locked down the border with Gaza to an extent unparalleled since the blockade of Gaza.” Hamas’s close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood had further forced it to sever its relations with Syria which is hostile to the Brotherhood’s ideology. This time around, Hamas’s isolation was therefore almost complete, the only regional state power supporting it being Iran.

Since Egypt was now once again Israel’s ally, one of the crucial constraints that had been imposed on Israel’s military machine had been lifted. Yet, again as Finkelstein notes, Israel still hesitated to send ground troops into Gaza, until, on the evening of 17 July, it felt sufficiently emboldened by two critical factors. First, on 15 July, Israel was able to send the message that, whereas it had accepted a cease-fire proposal, Hamas had rejected it. However, this so-called Egyptian initiative was a farce. Not only had it been drafted by the wholly discredited Tony Blair — “based on ideas he discussed with the Israelis and then suggested to the Egyptians, who then endorsed his proposal and introduced it as an Egyptian one” — but it basically affirmed Israel’s right to suffocate 1.7 million Gazans until Hamas raised the white flag. Second, on 17 July, the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine gave Israel a golden opportunity that it seized with gusto: for a few blessed days, Gaza was no longer the number one news story, and Israel’s hand was freer than it would otherwise have been.

If the invocation of self-defense was a pretext, what were the real reasons for Israel’s prolonged offensive against Gaza? The real point of departure of Israel’s depredations, as Finkelstein shows, was the formation of the Palestinian unity government at the end of April 2014. Much to Israel’s chagrin and surprise, the US and EU continued their engagement with the new government, in spite of Hamas’s participation in it. With Operation Protective Edge, Israel sought to demonstrate that Hamas is an irredeemably evil terrorist organization, even if it was democratically elected and even if it accepted being part of a unity government led by the ever pliable and ever reliable collaborationist tool of Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas.

Unfortunately, the US and EU, far from deploring this transparent propaganda, echoed Netanyahu’s self-defense mantra, and thus helped prolong the manifold horrors Gazans had to endure. Thousands were killed and many more thousands wounded before Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama finally found on 3 August, after repeatedly perorating that Israel had the right to defend itself, that enough blood had been shed. The moment the US government publicly criticized Israeli conduct, Netanyahu knew it was time to withdraw. The killing of the American journalist James Foley on August 19 provided yet another sliver of opportunity to Israel to relentlessly bomb Gaza for a few more days, and satisfy its blood lust. After the dust settled, Israel realized that it could not achieve any of its professed goals – stopping of the rocket attacks from Gaza, and the destruction of all the tunnels from which Hamas operated. In a cease-fire brokered in Egypt, Israel was forced to agree to ease the blockade it has imposed (and progressively tightened) on Gaza since 2007.

Israel claims that the blockade is necessary to prevent Hamas from acquiring and building sophisticated armaments, and hence essential for its security. It is not the first time Israel has turned reality on its head. While all human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have  condemned the blockade as inhumane and as the collective punishment of an entire population, international law does not prohibit an occupied people from using armed force against the occupier in its struggle for self-determination.

The inhuman blockade that Israel has imposed on Gaza since 2007 is the major point of contention between Hamas and Israel. Although Israel has formally restricted the movement of Palestinians since June 1989, and has put trade restrictions on the Gaza Strip since the breakout of the second intifada in 2000, more severe economic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority were imposed by Israel and the “Middle East Quartet” following the January 2006 legislative elections that brought Hamas to power. Throughout 2006, the Karni crossing remained only partially operational, causing Palestinian losses of $500,000 a day. Basic food commodities were severely depleted, bakeries closed and food rationing was introduced.

In March 2007, the Palestinian Legislative Council established a national unity government. According to conventional wisdom, a more severe blockade of the Gaza Strip was imposed by Israel in response to the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in a putsch against Fatah, known as the Battle of Gaza. However as the author David Rose shows in his article, it was Fatah in cahoots with Israel and the United States which attempted a coup against Hamas, and touched off a bloody civil war in Gaza leaving Hamas stronger than ever.

In September 2007, the Israeli cabinet voted to tighten the restrictions on the Gaza Strip. The cabinet decision stated, “the movement of goods into the Gaza Strip will be restricted; the supply of gas and electricity will be reduced; and restrictions will be imposed on the movement of the people from the Strip and to it.”

In October 2012, an Israeli court forced Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) to release a document that detailed “red lines” for “food consumption in the Gaza Strip” during the 2007 blockade. The document calculates the number of calories necessary to keep Gazans from malnutrition and avoid a humanitarian crisis. According to Gisha, an Israeli human rights group, senior army officers developed mathematical formulas to determine the quantity and types of food Gaza residents would be allowed to consume. In fact the number of truckloads allowed into Gaza was less than stipulated in the calculation. The United Nations said that if the policy was intended to cap food imports, it would go against humanitarian principles. Israeli officials now acknowledge the restrictions were partly meant to pressure Hamas by making the lives of Gazans difficult.

In June 2009, on the second anniversary of the blockade, 38 United Nations and non-governmental humanitarian organizations issued a joint press release calling for “free and uninhibited access for all humanitarian assistance in accordance with the international agreements and in accordance with universally recognized international human rights and humanitarian law standards.” At the time of the press release, according to Gisha, the amount of food entering Gaza was just about a quarter of the pre-June 2007 figures.

In the aftermath of the 2012 Israeli offensive “Operation Pillar of Defense”, a ceasefire agreement was announced by Mohammed Kamel Amr, the then Foreign Minister of Egypt, and Hillary Clinton, the then US Secretary of State. One of the key terms of the agreement was that Israel would ease the blockade by “opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements, and targeting residents in border areas and procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the cease-fire”. However even before the ink was dry, Israel had already violated these terms by shooting dead a Palestinian farmer and wounding another 19. Their only crime was to take Israeli promises at their face value when they dared to venture into Israeli established “buffer zone” inside Gaza’s border to pray. On 28 November, Israel opened fire on two fishing boats off the coast of Gaza and detained nine Gaza fishermen, although they were six miles off the coast – the limit within which, according to the cease-fire agreement, Gazan fishermen could sail.

Since Israel is a serial and brazen violator of all the previous cease-fire agreements, it is highly unlikely that it will adhere to the most recent cease-fire terms unless an effective mechanism is put in place that ensures compliance by all parties.

Unless Israel is held legally accountable, it won’t be long before it launches another “operation” with another sick name, resulting in yet more suffering, death, and destruction. It is often true that law in general and international law in particular is used to justify the depredations of the powerful and to punish the weak. But even something as effete as international law must have some semblance of fairness, otherwise it loses all legitimacy in the eyes of the wretched of the Earth. In other words, feeble though the law is, oftentimes it is the only antidote to Thucydides’s cynical dictum, “The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must”. The international community has so far either been impotent in the face of Israel’s periodic devastation of Gaza, or as in the case of the United States, has actually abetted it. The Israeli elite must be made to realize that international law applies as much to them as it does to other countries, and that the era of Israeli impunity is over.

The edifice of international law that has been assiduously constructed over the past six decades is unambiguous enough to characterize Israeli depredations in this most recent and all previous massacres as war crimes. Once the Israeli war criminals realize that they can be hauled before an international court and be made to pay for their crimes, a small but important step towards a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict will have been taken.

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