Crime and accountability in Gaza

Will Israel be held accountable for its destruction in Gaza? (Matthew Cassel)

Now that the smoke has at least temporarily cleared from Gaza’s skies, credible human rights reports have filtered in describing the utter devastation that took place throughout the course of Israel’s 22 day assault “Operation Cast Lead.” The figures are truly shocking. According to statistics by the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, at least 1,285 Palestinians were killed, of which 895 were civilians, including 280 children and 111 women. Another 167 of the dead were civil police officers, most of whom were killed on the first day of the bombing when they were graduating from a training course. More than 2,400 houses were completely destroyed, as were 28 public civilian facilities, (including ministries, municipalities, governorates, fishing harbors and the Palestinian Legislative Council building), 29 educational institutions, 30 mosques, 10 charitable societies, 60 police stations and 121 industrial and commercial workshops.

Casualty statistics by Palestinian military groups appear to corroborate the number of civilians killed versus militants. According to their respective Arabic-language websites, Hamas lost 48 fighters, Islamic Jihad, 34, the Popular Resistance Committees, 17, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one. It is not known how many fighters Fatah lost, though their participation in the resistance was certainly less than that of Hamas, which clearly led the Palestinian side. These reports should also be considered credible because it is highly unlikely a group would suppress its casualty figures given that their fighters’ deaths are perceived as acts of martyrdom, for which the faction proudly advertises its sacrifices. Family members of dead fighters would also not accept any other classification. We can safely assume therefore that the remaining killed militants were Fatah members, former or current security force personnel, or individuals who took up arms when the fighting erupted.

Information from Israeli sources has also surfaced regarding different aspects of the planning and functioning of the Israeli military during the campaign. It is now known for example that the idea to bomb the closing ceremony of a Gaza police training course was planned and internally criticized within the Israel army months before the attack. According to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz correspondent Barak Regev, “A military source involved in the planning of the attack, in which dozens of Hamas policemen were killed, says that while military intelligence officers were sure the operation should be carried out and pressed for its approval, the [Israeli army’s] international law division and the military advocate general were undecided.” Israel went ahead with the bombing anyway, killing dozens of civil police officers whose limp dismembered bodies were captured in chilling images broadcast the first day of Israel’s campaign.

It was also revealed by Haaretz that “Israel used text messages, dropped flyers from the air and made a quarter of a million telephone calls to warn Gaza residents.” Given that 50 percent of Gaza’s residents are below the age of 16 and are unlikely to have independent telephone lines, a quarter million telephone calls covers a considerable portion of Gaza’s households. This is a backhanded acknowledgment of the fact that almost everybody in Gaza was threatened in Israel’s campaign.

Israeli politicians also appear aware of the devastation they have wrought in Gaza, and the war crimes charges they are likely to face because of their targeting of the civilian population. One minister told Israeli military correspondent Amos Harel “When the scale of the damage in Gaza becomes clear, I will no longer take a vacation in Amsterdam, only at the international court in The Hague.” According to Harel, “It was not clear whether he was trying to make a joke or not.”

How is one to approach the existence of indisputable evidence showing that Palestinian civilians were a deliberate target in Israel’s campaign? This is not the case of “collateral damage,” nor is this the case of one of the most sophisticated and powerful armies operating in one of the most densely populated areas of the world.

The technicalities of the legal cases pressing for war crimes charges should be left to qualified lawyers and human rights workers. Indeed the process is well on its way, with one petition already filed in Belgium. The Israeli government is also set to approve a bill that will grant aid to officers who do face suits for alleged war crimes. The military censor has already issued orders to the press not to reveal the identities of officers involved in the Gaza campaign.

As these debates begin, it’s important to stress three points. First, the policy of targeting civilians in Gaza was nothing new. The medieval siege which was clamped on Gaza since the Hamas victory in the 2006 elections preventing access to fuels, foods and medical supplies, was part and parcel of the same policy directed at the civilian population. Adding the military dimension whereby Israeli army personnel sitting in bunkers in Tel Aviv bomb civilian areas with unmanned drones, is only a difference of degree, not principle.

Second, it is important to point out the modus operandi used in Gaza was entirely predictable, based on how Israeli and American military analysts and journalists were openly discussing the results of Israel’s failed campaign in Lebanon in 2006. For example, Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, visited Israel after the July 2006 war and interviewed its military personnel to assess its setbacks. His subsequent recommendations for correcting Israel’s tactics in future confrontations read like a blueprint for what Israel was doing to Gaza. “From Israel’s viewpoint you have to use force even more against civilian targets,” Cordesman explains. “You have to attack deep. You have to step up the intensity of combat and you have to be less careful and less restrained.”

Cordesman’s conclusions derived from his belief that Israel’s “deterrence” had suffered serious erosion throughout the course of the second Palestinian intifada and especially during the July 2006 war. In the latter case, the support provided by the Lebanese civilian population to Hizballah was seen as instrumental in the movement’s ability to embed itself locally before and during the war. This enabled it to build up a formidable civilian and military infrastructure, and importantly, to deprive Israel of sufficient intelligence regarding its activities. As The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman explained, deliberately attacking civilians was necessary in order “to educate” them not to allow Hizballah to operate from their areas. If they don’t learn the lesson, their areas would be bombed again. Israel also tried to teach Palestinians a lesson in Gaza again, though its students are still just as unlikely to get the point.

That this military doctrine could have been identified, criticized and stopped before it was allowed to be put into action one more destructive time, leads to the third and final point. A military strategy that overtly embraces tactics aimed at bludgeoning a civilian population into submission, could not stand on its own were it not for a deeper more sinister logic which has prepared the acceptance of such crimes in advance — both vis-a-vis the international community and domestically within Israel. Here there are many culprits, and even more accomplices. But it suffices to say that the dehumanization of Palestinians in general, and those in Gaza in particular, reached unconscionable levels in years past.

During the first Palestinian intifada, the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously wished that “Gaza would just sink into the sea.” During the second intifada, Israeli chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon defined the Palestinians as a threat akin to “cancer” which Israel was applying “chemotherapy” to, but one day might be forced to use “amputation.” He also emphasized that Israel’s strategy towards the Palestinians needed to “burn into consciousness” their own defeat as a people.

After the January 2006 election of Hamas, and particularly after the Islamic movement’s take over of Gaza as it sought to pre-empt a US-sponsored coup against it, the rhetoric against the Palestinians of Gaza was ramped up to feverish pitches. Gaza became “Hamastan, Hizballahstan and al-Qaedastan” wrapped into one, according to Ya’alon, with Iran at Israel’s southern doorstep. The people of Gaza were to be put “on a diet,” according to Dov Weissglas, an adviser to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “but not to make them die of hunger.”

The list of dehumanizing quotations is long and demeaning. If these ideas were restricted to the confines of Israeli military and political circles, while they would remain reprehensible, they could at least be contained. The problem is that they have been allowed to flourish throughout the US beneath the much broader discursive umbrella of the “War on Terror.” Principled opposition to the farce of this “war” has virtually been non-existent within the Republican and Democratic parties. All we heard during last year’s election campaign was how one party was going to fight it better than the other. No mainstream media organization has also dared to expose the “War on Terror” as a tool to implement American imperial ambitions, despite the acknowledgement by the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, that invasion of Iraq was about oil.

All of a sudden the Palestinian question, whose basis is rooted in a classic anti-colonial nationalist struggle having to do with fighting an occupation for freedom and self-determination, is transformed into a pathogen which must be eradicated. How easy is it to forget that substantial numbers of countries throughout the world today only achieved independence after bitter armed struggles against occupation and their colonial masters. How convenient to elide that Europe itself had to believe in and organize an armed resistance to occupation when Nazism covered more than half of its landmass.

The transformation of the Palestinian struggle from its colonial birth, to its modern day public execution broadcast on CNN is facilitated through an insipid daily process whereby Palestinians, and people who look and sound like them — non-English speaking Arabs and Muslims — are constantly imagined and reproduced through a litany of military experts, commentators, Hollywood movies, drama series and even video games. The goal is to divide, stereotype and dehumanize at all cost, because providing nuance, history and context is the cardinal sin of the current corporate media age. America and Israel need terror to end now. Arabs and Palestinians need to accept their fate as subhuman entities, who become the object by which other countries erect their deterrence, as though it were a question of national virility.

Gaza never had a chance. It has always been the slum of slums, with its million and a half residents crammed into a plot of land with no real means of sustaining itself. After 60 years of dispossession, and 41 years of military occupation, who was really listening to the residents of its eight refugee camps, 40 percent of whom are unemployed, 80 percent of whom live on UN handouts? Who needs to ask these questions anyway? Palestinians know they have Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni looking after their best interests. During the war, she openly declared that what was happening in Gaza was good for the Palestinians.

Serious questions of accountability lie embedded in how Israel was allowed to deliberately target Gaza’s civilian population. The world’s ability — or inability — to address these questions leaves a stark dichotomy difficult to avoid: either the world upholds a moral stance that civilians are an illegitimate target in war, by which account Israel’s political and military leaders must be tried and sentenced for their crimes. Or the world allows this principle to be violated, as it was in Gaza, and accepts the consequences of a world in which power and violence definitively determine right from wrong.

Toufic Haddad is a Palestinian-American journalist based in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. He is also the co-author of Between the Lines: Israel, the Palestinians and the US “War on Terror” with Israeli author Tikva Honig Parnass, published by Haymarket Books, 2007. He can be reached at tawfiq_haddad AT yahoo DOT com.

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