Lies and Israel’s war crimes

A Palestinian UN worker inspects debris after an Israeli air strike on a UN school in Gaza where civilians were seeking refuge, 17 January 2009. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

This month marked six months since the “official” conclusion to Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip, “Operation Cast Lead.” From 27 December to 18 January, the might of the one of the world’s strongest militaries laid waste to a densely-packed territory of 1.4 million Palestinians without an escape route.

The parallel propaganda battle fought by Israel’s official and unofficial apologists continued after the ceasefire, in a desperate struggle to combat the repeated reports by human rights groups of breaches of international law. This article will look at some of the strategies of this campaign of disinformation, confusion, and lies — and the reality of Israel’s war crimes in the Gaza Strip. Very early on in Operation Cast Lead, the scale of Israel’s attack became apparent. In just the first six days the Israeli Air Force carried out more than 500 sorties against targets in the Gaza Strip. That amounted to an attack from the air roughly every 18 minutes — not counting hundreds of helicopter attacks, tank and navy shelling, and infantry raids. All of this on a territory similar in size to the US city of Seattle.

As the International Committee of the Red Cross noted in a report published in June, “during the 22 days of the Israeli military operation, nowhere in Gaza was safe for civilians,” with “whole neighborhoods” turned “into rubble.” With areas looking “like the epicenter of a massive earthquake,” there is still “half a million tons of concrete rubble” to clear. [1]

By the end of an assault which targeted schools, homes, mosques, university buildings, police stations, ministries and the legislative council building, 3,600 housing units were totally destroyed, 2,700 sustained major damage and 52,000 houses need minor repair, according to a joint UNRWA-UNDP housing survey.

Even though Israel had banned the international media from entering the Gaza Strip to see for themselves what was unfolding, enough visuals and testimonies were getting out of the fenced-in territory for Israel to have what it would call a “PR nightmare” on its hands. Israel’s spinners and spokespersons fell back on a stock set of responses and talking points.

Israel, they insisted, never targeted civilians — its military was the most moral army in the world going to extraordinary lengths to protect the innocent. Hamas, on the other hand, was cynically using human shields, firing rockets while hiding amongst their own people. Israel was said to be acting purely in self-defense — which country, we were asked, would passively tolerate such attacks on its own population?

This latter argument has been ably dealt with elsewhere; this article is more interested in what was happening on the ground in the Gaza Strip. [2] Here the claims of a cowardly terrorist army willing to risk the lives of their own compatriots is key: in order to maintain the fiction that the Israeli army does not target civilians or civilian infrastructure, there must be doubt cast on the “civilian” identity of the dead. So Palestinian fatality statistics are questioned or even scorned — are we sure the dead were civilians? And when this is harder to deny — when the morgues are full of women and children — then the fallback is that the amoral Hamas fighters are to blame for forcing Israel to kill these unfortunates.

Sometimes, however, there were specific incidents of sufficiently immediate shock value — even for the mainstream Western media — that simply repeating the standard propaganda lines was not good enough. In these cases, the Israeli army spokespersons would issue a series of conflicting statements of denial, admission, and counter-claim, all in the hope that enough doubt is sown as to draw the sting out of the charge being made.

Before looking at an example of this, there is one other public relations tactic worth examining, used by Israel’s defenders in the media during and after the assault — citing the Jenin “precedent.” In 2002, according to this standard propaganda line here reproduced in a 16 February Jerusalem Post editorial (“The first casualty of war: Truth”), “a grossly false narrative of massacre and massed [sic] killings was disseminated by Palestinian officials,” and now, in 2009 in Gaza, history was repeating itself, as “the figure ‘1,300 Palestinians killed, most/many of them civilians’ ” becomes “embedded in the public consciousness.”

The comparison with Jenin is instructive, but not in the way Israel’s propagandists suggest: like Gaza this year, Israeli war crimes are denied and obfuscated with a PR operation of moral bluster, claims and retractions. According to Israeli spin, Palestinian “atrocity propaganda” and claims of a massacre in Jenin were disproved when the facts became known. In fact, groups like Human Rights Watch concluded that “many of the civilian deaths” they documented “amounted to unlawful or willful killings by the IDF [Israeli army].” HRW estimated that from 52 Palestinian deaths, at least 22 were civilians “including children, physically disabled, and elderly people.” In the Western media, half a dozen victims in a high school shooting is a “massacre” — as are the suicide bombings inside Israel. But it seems Palestinians cannot be victims of a massacre; only “collateral damage.”

This Israeli narrative of the “false massacre” came in useful both in the immediate aftermath of Jenin, and for propaganda purposes during and after Operation Cast Lead. Writing for The Huffington Post on 13 April, Mort Zuckerman asked readers, “Remember another urban myth alleging thousands of citizens massacred in the battle against terrorism in Jenin in 2002 when it turned out no more than 54 died, most of them combatants?” Such an approach forgets Israel’s own role in spreading confusion about casualties, and more importantly does the crucial work of distracting from the documented atrocities.

A good example from Operation Cast Lead of Israel’s PR machine in action is what happened in Jabaliya on 6 January, when Israeli mortar rounds landed in a busy street outside a school run by UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestine refugees) sheltering those seeking a safe haven from the fighting. A number of people inside the school were injured, and dozens of Palestinians were killed and injured in the street.

For Israeli apologists this became a notorious example of the kind of deception they say is so prevalent. Canada’s Globe and Mail featured a story in February alleging that UNRWA officials had helped propagate the claim that Israeli fire had actually hit the school itself (“Account of Israeli attack on Gaza school doesn’t hold up to scrutiny,” 29 January 2009). Subsequently, newspapers like Haaretz and others led with headlines like “UN backtracks on claim that deadly IDF strike hit Gaza school” (3 February 2009).

The reality — which was even buried within the very same articles in many cases — was that UNRWA had always said the attack hit outside the school. In fact, the Israeli military itself, in the immediate aftermath of the strike, said that “it had been returning fire against Palestinian fighters who were shooting mortar shells from within the school” (“UN says school in Gaza where 43 died wasn’t hit by Israeli fire,” The Washington Post, 7 February 2009).

Jonathan Miller, a journalist with UK television’s Channel 4, did an excellent job of exposing this “manufactured controversy.” After noting that UNRWA had “said from the outset that the mortars hit outside the school,” Miller described how “another UN agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in one of its reports on daily incidents, erroneously stated that the mortars had actually hit the school,” something later clarified. (“A tale of two Gaza schools,”, 6 February 2009)

As Miller commented, Israel was “seizing on a minor error buried in an online publication by a UN agency” and using it as “a smokescreen” to divert attention from more serious incidents, such as the deadly white phosphorus attack “on the last day of the war at another UN-run school just 800 yards up the road.”

The one case of a clear lie was highlighted in the report of the UN committee set up by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to investigate attacks on UN property and staff during the hostilities, a 27-page published summary of which was sent to the UN Security Council in May. The first of 11 recommendations by the UN team calls for “formal acknowledgment by the Government of Israel that its public statements alleging that Palestinians fired from within the UNRWA Jabalya school on 6 January and from within the UNRWA Field Office compound on 15 January were untrue and are regretted.”

The truth of what happened in Gaza though has been emerging over recent months in various reports that catalog the multitude of crimes committed by the Israeli army. Crucially, what has been documented is not a series of individual mistakes or “bad apples,” but evidence of Israel’s systematic assault on the fabric of life in the Gaza Strip.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) reported in March on fatalities during the offensive, confirming that there were over 1,400 Palestinians killed. Civilians made up 65 percent of the total, not including the 255 police officers killed by the Israeli army.

In April, Israeli human rights groups including B’Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel released a joint which said that “many civilians were killed in Gaza not due to ‘mishaps’ but as a direct result of the military’s chosen policy implemented throughout the fighting.” [3]

Earlier this month, Amnesty International published its own report into Operation Cast Lead, accusing Israel of committing “war crimes” and “acts of wanton destruction.” Amnesty insisted that the hundreds of civilian deaths “cannot simply be dismissed as ‘collateral damage’ incidental to otherwise lawful attacks - or as mistakes.” “Amnesty details Gaza ‘war crimes,” BBC News, 2 July 2009.

More evidence for the deliberate nature of the wide scale destruction has since emerged. On 23 April, Haaretz quoted “two infantry officers who held key positions during the fighting” who told how “we just leveled neighborhoods.” British journalist Peter Beaumont wrote in May of “the aftermath of a wholesale urban un-planning through military force.” (“Death and devastation in Gaza neatly filed and documented,” The Guardian, 29 May 2009). Returning some weeks later, he noted that Israel’s targets “suggested wider aims” than simply stopping rocket fire — “not least the dismantling of Palestinian institutions.” (“A life in ruins,” The Observer, 5 July 2009)

In June, the BBC reported on the struggle of Gazan industries to rebuild, featuring a family-owned food manufacturer. The businessman, Yaser al-Wadiya, had “photographs of caterpillar tracks amid the ruins of the biscuit factory, which he believes the Israelis finished off with bulldozers after hitting it from the air.” The same story then noted that “the UN’s top humanitarian official, John Holmes, has accused Israel of the ‘systematic levelling’ of Gaza’s industrial area.” (“Gaza industries struggle to rebuild,” BBC News, 26 June 2009)

With such a high proportion of civilian dead, it is no surprise that investigations into Israel’s operation in Gaza have turned up shocking stories — and asked difficult questions. In the introduction to Breaking the Silence’s collection of testimonies by Israeli veterans of the Gaza assault, the group highlighted how the “bad apples” theory was insufficient: “the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians of the Gaza strip were a direct result of IDF policy.”

Just one month after Operation Cast Lead, Palestinian stories were being corroborated by the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who said “there appeared to be a consistent pattern of Palestinian families being killed by Israeli tank shells fired into their homes, apparently as they approached windows or stepped on to balconies.” [4] A delegation of US attorneys visited the Gaza Strip and concluded that “Israeli forces” had indeed “deliberately targeted civilians” during the offensive. [5]

Palestinian testimonies have flooded in of crimes committed by the Israeli army in Gaza, and so have the investigations by human rights groups. At the end of June, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on the use by Israel of aerial drones in attacks that killed dozens of Palestinian civilians. HRW noted that the drones are “one of the most precise weapons in Israel’s arsenal” yet “killed civilians who were not taking part in hostilities and were far from any fighting.”

Also recently, Amnesty International’s detailed study on Operation Cast Lead included cases of “close-ranging shootings” by Israeli soldiers, most of which involved “individuals, including children and women, who were shot at as they were fleeing their homes in search of shelter.” [6] Others were simply “going about the daily activities.” The human rights body reiterated that “wilful killings of unarmed civilians are war crimes.”

A report into the number of children killed by Israel during the war on Gaza (over 300) showed that 38 percent of child fatalities were aged 0-11 years old. The “overwhelming majority” were “killed either whilst inside their own homes or within the near vicinity of their homes.” [7] Here is one story:

At approximately 16:00 on 5 January 2009, Amal Olaiwa and four of her children were killed in the kitchen of their home in Shijaiyeh in the east of Gaza City, when the house was struck by an artillery shell. The shell smashed through a bedroom window and landed in the kitchen, decapitating Amal Olaiwa and killing three of her sons and one of her daughters. Three other members of the Olaiwa family were injured in the attack, including Amal’s husband, Haider, and her eldest son, Muntasser, who both witnessed the attack.

The victims were identified as: Amal Olaiwa, age 40, Motassem Olaiwa, age 14, Momen Olaiwa, age 13, Lana Olaiwa, age 9 and Ismail Olaiwa, age 7.

Pausing on just some of the names of the victims is perhaps a good moment to make one final point. What the Palestinians ultimately need is not more reports, but action. The investigations are invaluable, of course, helping to show up the Israeli spin for what it is. But unless there is action by both the same civil society producing the evidence of war crimes, as well as the politicians, then we can be sure that more Palestinian names will be added to those of the Olaiwa family, and the hundreds more who perished in Gaza.

Ben White is a freelance journalist and writer whose articles have appeared in the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’, The Electronic Intifada, the New Statesman, and many others. He is the author of Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide (Pluto Press). He can be contacted at ben A T benwhite D O T org D O T uk.


[1] “Gaza: 1.5 million people trapped in despair,” International Committee of the Red Cross, 29 June 2009 (accessed 18 July 2009).

[2] See for example, Nancy Kanwisher et al., “Reigniting Violence: How Do Ceasefires End? em>,” The Huffington Post, 6 January 2009; Jim Holstun and Joanna Tinker, “Israel’s fabricated rocket crisis,” The Electronic Intifada, 6 January 2009.

[3] “Independent apparatus needed for investigation of Operation Cast Lead,” B’Tselem, 22 April 2009

[4] “Gaza case studies: Weapons use,” BBC News, 23 February 2009

[5] “American NLG Lawyers Release New Findings that Israel Violated International Law, US Domestic Law in Gaza,” National Lawyers Guild press release, 2 April 2009.

[6] “Amnesty accuses Israel of using human shields in Gaza,” Agence France Presse, 1 July 2009.

[7] “War Crimes Against Children,” Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), May 2009.