Another war on Gaza?

Israel’s assault on Gaza in the winter of 2008-09 killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and injured thousands more. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

In recent weeks an escalation in violence between Israel and Palestinian resistance factions in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip has claimed the lives of more than a dozen Palestinians, the youngest of them 10-year-old Mahmoud Jalal al-Hilu.

Does this escalation increase the likelihood of another large-scale assault on Gaza similar to “Operation Cast Lead” in winter 2008-2009 that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians? There are worrying signs Israel — by its words and deeds — could be laying the ground for an attack.

The ratchet of violence took another turn in the small hours of 2 April when Israel carried out an air attack on the Gaza Strip killing three members of Hamas’ military wing.

Israel did not claim that the three Hamas men were engaged in any hostile activity at the time they were killed (riding in a car), but a statement from the Israeli army alleged that they were “planning to kidnap Israelis over the upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover” — several weeks in the future.

Israel’s latest attack constituted an extrajudicial killing, in which Israel, the occupying power, acted as judge, jury and executioner, issuing allegations for which it offered no evidence, after it had already carried out the death sentence. Under international law, this is a war crime.

Global media tend to report these events as Israeli “retaliation” for Palestinian attacks, but a close reading of Israeli media presents a very different picture: deliberate provocation and escalation by Israel.

On 23 March, Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that, “The current tensions began exactly a week ago when Israel launched an air attack on a Hamas base in the ruins of the settlement of Netzarim, killing two Hamas men. That attack came in response to a Qassam [rocket] fired from Gaza that landed in an open area.” Palestinians responded with a barrage of 50 projectiles into Israel.

Israel then “launched a series of air attacks in which a number of Hamas militants were wounded.” And on 22 March Israeli forces launched the shelling which killed Mahmoud al-Hilu and three other civilians, allegedly in response to mortar fire from an olive grove on the Gaza side (“A small war is starting along Gaza border”).

On 24 March, Issacharoff and Harel observed, “Despite the escalation, Hamas does not seem to want large-scale clashes yet. The organization actually has good reasons to believe that Israel is the one heating up the southern front. It began with a bombardment a few weeks ago that disrupted the transfer of a large amount of money from Egypt to the Gaza Strip, continued with the interrogation of engineer and Hamas member Dirar Abu Sisi [whom Israeli agents kidnapped from Ukraine] in Israel, and ended with last week’s bombing of a Hamas training base in which two Hamas militants were killed. It is noteworthy that Hamas has not fired at Israel over the past two days, even after four Palestinian civilians were killed by errant IDF [Israeli army] mortar fire on Tuesday [22 March]” (“Hamas not likely behind Jerusalem bombing”).

Issacharoff and Harel added in a 25 March analysis that the Israeli attack on the Hamas outpost at Netzarim “is believed to have been authorized by the defense minister and the chief of staff, who should have known there would be people at the outpost during the day and that causing casualties would have different consequences than a routine attack on empty offices. Israel assumed — mistakenly — that Hamas would not respond to the bombing. In fact, Hamas responded by firing 50 mortar shells on Saturday morning” (“Escalation approaching”).

It is difficult to believe, especially in light of the extrajudicial executions on 2 April, that Israeli leaders did not know that killing Palestinians would prompt further retaliation from the Palestinian side. It seems very likely this was their intention.

These events are worryingly similar to the sequence that preceded “Operation Cast Lead.” After a bloody spring of 2008 in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed and injured in Israeli attacks on Gaza, Israel and Hamas negotiated a mutual ceasefire beginning on 19 June 2008. By Israel’s own admission, this mutual truce resulted in a 97 percent reduction in rockets being fired from Gaza over the subsequent four months, and none of the handful of projectiles that were fired were launched by Hamas, nor did they cause any injuries to Israelis.

A mutually agreed ceasefire proved to be the most effective way to achieve the goal Israel claimed was most important: protecting Israeli civilians from rocket fire from Gaza. But on the night of 4-5 November 2008, Israel decided to end the truce. As The Guardian reported on 5 November 2008, “A four-month ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza was in jeopardy today after Israeli troops killed six Hamas gunmen in a raid into the territory” (“Gaza truce broken as Israeli raid kills six Hamas gunmen”).

Then, just as it has with its latest attack, Israel justified the killings with the unverifiable claim that those it killed were involved in a plot to kidnap Israelis.

On 21 March, amid the escalating violence, Hamas’ military wing itself stated that it would be willing to abide by another mutual truce if Israel agreed to one, but Israel showed no interest (“Gaza: Hamas calls for truce,” Ma’an News Agency, 21 March 2011).

Israel’s seemingly constant and deliberate provocation of violence along the border with Gaza comes against a backdrop of belligerent statements and propaganda exercises by Israeli leaders. On 15 March, Israel intercepted a ship en route from Turkey to Alexandria in Egypt, which it alleged without providing evidence, was carrying arms destined for Gaza.

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio on 23 March that Israel may have to carry out another large scale attack on Gaza to topple Hamas, adding, “I say this despite the fact that I know such a thing would, of course, bring the region to a far more combustible situation.”

Culture minister Limor Livnat warned, according to Haaretz, Israel might have no choice but to carry out “Operation Cast Lead 2.”

Shalom, reversing the facts and laying the blame for the escalating violence on the Palestinians, put the possibility of a renewed war on Gaza in an overtly political context. Hamas, the vice premier claimed, according to Haaretz, “might have opened a new front with Israel ‘to stop any possibility of dialogue among the Palestinians or to come to the intra-Palestinian negotiation in a far stronger position’ ” (“Netanyahu: Israel will continue to operate against terrorists in Gaza,” 23 March 2011).

In other words, according to Shalom, it is the continued strength of Hamas that prevents an intra-Palestinian reconciliation on terms favorable to the Israeli-backed Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) of Mahmoud Abbas.

Whether Israel is deliberately laying the ground for a new assault on Gaza, or stumbles into one — if the current escalation does not stop — any such attack must be understood in political terms. It would be an effort to finish the unfinished business of destroying Hamas and any other island of Palestinian resistance.

The commitment of any significant Palestinian group to resistance — political or military — remains a major obstacle to the full legitimation of the warm embrace between Israel and the Abbas-led PA, whose extent was recently laid bare in the Palestine Papers. Indeed the relationship is so friendly that last October the top echelons of the PA in Bethlehem received then Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi — who commanded Operation Cast Lead — as their honored guest, even providing him with a guided tour of the Church of the Nativity (“Israeli army chief visits Bethlehem,” Ma’an News Agency, 3 October 2010).

Ironically, Hamas remains much less intransigent than Israel, as evidenced by the movement’s repeated offers of ceasefires which Israel rejects or violates; its constant noises about “reconciliation” with Abbas without insisting that the latter terminate his “security” relationship with Israel; and its embrace of the defunct “two-state solution.” Despite these unacknowledged political concessions, Hamas retains a military capability that Israel is unwilling to tolerate either as a challenge to itself, or to the PA.

Until now, there have been good reasons to believe Israel would hesitate to launch a new major military assault on Gaza. It is still suffering the diplomatic and political fallout of Cast Lead, including the UN-commissioned Goldstone report, as well as its massacre of nine activists aboard the Mavi Marmara during last spring’s Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

Without exaggerating the risks, the constraints on Israel may be loosening. In the wake of the revolution in Egypt and amid the political upheaval in the Arab world, some Israelis may think they have a “last chance” to act in the interregnum before a new and less friendly government is seated in Cairo. Western and Saudi military interventions in Libya and Bahrain respectively have also provided new respectability to using military force for political ends.

International complicity also continues to send Israel a clear message that its impunity is guaranteed. The Obama administration’s recent veto of a UN Security Council resolution that merely restated US policy on Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank was one sure sign that Israel still has a blank check from the United States.

Tragically, the biggest contributor to renewed confidence in Israel that it could once again get away with murder in Gaza, may be Judge Richard Goldstone himself. Israeli leaders have seized on his apologetic 1 April op-ed in The Washington Post as vindication and proof that Israel never committed war crimes in Gaza, and was the victim a “blood libel,” as Jeffrey Goldberg, former Israeli occupation army volunteer and The Atlantic blogger put it.

While Goldstone was clearly trying to appease Zionists who subjected him to an intense campaign of personal vilification and ostracism his article did not in fact repudiate one single concrete finding in the report that bears his name (“Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and war crimes,” 2 April 2011).

Two important analyses of Goldstone’s op-ed, and how it is in no way a repudiation of the Goldstone report, appeared on Mondoweiss on 2 April: “What the Goldstone op-ed doesn’t say” by Yaniv Reich, and “Goldstone op-ed praises Israeli investigation of Gaza war crimes, but UN committee paints a different picture,” by Adam Horowitz. Goldstone’s op-ed is the personal opinion of one person. The Goldstone report, an official UN document authored by a commission, remains a compendium of acts by Israel — and indeed by Hamas — uncontradicted by any new evidence, much less by Israel’s self-serving “investigations.”

Yet as we have sadly learned so many times, proper analysis and respect for basic facts have little bearing in the “fog of war,” especially when Israel is that party that launches that war.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and is a contributor to The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict (Nation Books).