West Asia

Savaging the Gaza Strip

Print edition : June 18, 2021

In Gaza, life amid the rubble where Palestinian homes stood before they were destroyed by Israeli air strikes, on May 23. Photo: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

An anti-Israel rally in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 28. Photo: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

Israel targets the defenceless population of Gaza on the direct orders of Benjamin Netanyahu, who is desperately trying to cling on to power. After a long time, however, the Palestinians are putting up a united front against the occupation and the apartheid policies of the Zionist regime.

Yet another periodic Israeli military assault on Gaza has mercifully come to an end. This year a ceasefire came into effect on May 21 after 11 days of constant bombardment, mainly by the Israeli side which has a surfeit of weapons, many of them recently supplied by Washington. The casualty rate of Palestinians was 20 times than that of Israelis.

It has only been seven years since Israel last went to war against the people of Gaza. The conflict of 2014, which lasted 51 days, devastated the enclave and resulted in the death of more than 2,000 Palestinians, an overwhelming number of them innocent civilians. The United Nations says 142 families were wiped out in 2014. As many as 547 children were killed in that invasion of Gaza.

Like in the latest Israeli attack, the 2014 attack targeted the health and sanitation infrastructure, residential buildings, hospitals and refugee camps in Gaza. Many of the buildings, hospitals and schools damaged in the last war were yet to be fully repaired.

Ever since Gaza came under the control of the Hamas in 2006, the enclave has been under an Israeli blockade that has made life unbearable for its residents. And periodically, Israel subjects the people of Gaza to the most horrendous kind of warfare.

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The Israeli invasions of Gaza in 2008-09 and 2012 killed many more thousands. Israel stages these periodic invasions, brutal as they are, to ensure that the Hamas government is unable to provide the people of the Strip a decent life and any hope for a brighter future. In the 2014 war, entire families of Palestinians along with their houses were wiped out. That pattern was repeated this time too.

Israel’s brute force

According to a Gaza official, a preliminary count showed that 15,000 housing units in the enclave were destroyed. Most of the factories in Gaza’s industrial zone were destroyed along with four big mosques. A United Nations official said that 50 per cent of the drinking water supply in the Strip was affected by the Israeli attacks. In all, 248 people in Gaza, 66 children among them, were killed as a result of Israeli aerial bombings, missile attacks and firing from tanks. More than 1,900 civilians were wounded.

On the other hand, only 12 people in Israel were killed as a result of missile attacks from Gaza. Three of them were foreigners, one a nurse from Kerala and the other two from Thailand. Only one Israeli soldier was killed. The disparity in the mortality rate reflects Israel’s heavy-handedness yet again on the forsaken people of Gaza.

The Israeli security establishment has described the regular display of military strength in Gaza as something akin to “mowing the grass” in Israel’s backyard. These assaults at regular intervals also help the Israeli army test its new weaponry, especially the efficacy of its drone and missile technology, in which it has emerged as a competitor to big arms exporting countries.

Also read: Israel: March of the Right

In 2019, Israel concluded arms export deals worth more than $9 billion, accounting for a substantial portion of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The international arms bazaar likes nothing better than weapons that have proved their worth in actual combat. Israeli-made drones were in the forefront of last year’s war over Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Azeri victory over Armenia was to a great deal credited to the efficacy of Israeli killer drones. In the Gaza conflict, too, drones were used extensively to bomb civilian targets and carry out assassinations of Hamas military and political leaders.

‘War of attrition’

In an article for the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies in 2014, leading Israeli military strategists Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir wrote that Israel simply needed to “mow the grass” once in a while. They concluded that a “war of attrition” would continue against the Hamas for a long time. Writing in the Haaretz newspaper, Zehava Gal-On, a former leftist Israeli lawmaker, however, warned that the “strategy of perpetual war” that Israel had been following seemed to have forgotten that “human beings are also able to talk, not only carry a club”. The Israeli military operations against Gaza are also described as being similar to “shooting fish in a barrel”, a metaphor that describes how defenceless the impoverished population of Gaza is in the face of attacks by the most powerful army in the region.

At one point in the aerial attack this time, 60 Israeli military aircraft struck in unison at a target in Gaza. Israel’s chief patron, the United States, allowed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to carry on the bombing of Gaza for nine days. Even the flattening of iconic high-rise buildings, including the one that housed the offices of the American-owned Associated Press and the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera, did not move the decision-makers in the West to openly call for a halt in the bombing of a defenceless people.

In all, 184 residential and commercial properties were destroyed, including 33 buildings housing media personnel. The Israeli army units specifically targeted Palestinian reporters for assassination. Yousef Abu Hussein, a journalist working for the Voice of Al-Aqsa Radio, was killed by an Israeli missile attack on his home. The International Federation of Journalists has issued a statement holding Israel responsible for the killings and said that it was part of Israel’s continued attempts to silence journalists and the media.

United States’ charade

The Joe Biden administration continued with the charade that Israel “has the right to defend itself”. Most observers of the region and residents of Gaza say that the targeting of civilians this time by the Israeli military was much more intense than earlier. In many cases, civilians were not even warned to leave their houses before it was bombed.

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From the Israeli perspective, the bombings of high-rise buildings in Gaza looked spectacular; Israeli television showed them repeatedly, with the anchors and many of their guests providing racist commentary and boasting about the Israel military’s prowess.

A week before the attack on Gaza, the Biden administration had announced a $735 million weapons sale to Israel. Washington gives Israel $3.8 billion in military support to Israel every year. As Senator, Biden had claimed that the annual military aid to the Jewish state was the best investment Washington had made in the region and that there was no need to be apologetic about it. As Israel pounded Gaza and civilian casualties rose, Biden, in a telephonic conversation with Netanyahu, “reiterated his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself from indiscriminate rocket attacks”. Biden blocked the efforts of China and Russia in the U.N. Security Council to bring about a ceasefire. Notably, the U.S. has used its veto power in the Security Council 42 times in the past 70 years to protect Israel from resolutions censuring its conduct.

Blockaded Gaza

The Israeli government and its large number of apologists in the Western media want the world to believe that the latest war launched on the blockaded and crowded Gaza Strip, measuring just 140 square miles (363 square kilometres), housing more than two million mostly impoverished people, was a response to the rocket attack from militant groups in the Strip. Almost two-thirds of the population in Gaza are registered as “refugees”. Some 600,000 still live in refugee camps. Nearly half the population of Gaza are children. The Israelis did not spare even some of the refugee camps this time.

The unemployment rate in Gaza is over 50 per cent, the highest in the world. Half the population there depends on food aid from outside. Most of the problems ordinary Gazans face are due to the blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza, turning it into a virtual open-air prison.

Worst, the attack took place at a time when the enclave was battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Israel bombed the only COVID testing facility in the territory. Despite it being the occupying power, Israel did not provide any vaccines to Gaza. Because of Israeli bombing, Gazans had to take refuge in crowded bomb shelters and schools. The authorities there fear an outbreak of the pandemic at a time when it is desperately trying to look after the injured and repair the tremendous damage done to the infrastructure. The water supply system and the electricity grid, which at the best of times was scarcely able to meet the needs of the people, have been once again badly damaged in the bombings.

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Lynn Hastings, the U.N.’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Palestine, who visited Gaza after the ceasefire came into effect, said that the Israeli blockade on the enclave should be immediately lifted and the territory should be allowed to join with the rest of Palestine. “I witnessed the despair of families whose homes have been completely destroyed,” she said. Lynn Hastings said that she saw firsthand the damage done to Gaza’s infrastructure, including healthcare services, water sanitation pipelines and agricultural warehouses by wanton Israeli bombing.

Seizing the opportunity

Militant groups in Gaza indeed fired a few of their comparatively primitive rockets into Jerusalem on May 10 as the Israeli atrocities on the Palestinians in Jerusalem, Israel and all over the occupied West Bank rose dramatically. Most of the rockets the Hamas and the Islamic Jehad forces fired from Gaza fell either into the open desert or were intercepted by Israel’s anti-missile “Iron Dome”. Some of the rudimentary rockets and missiles from Gaza did penetrate the much-publicised “Iron Dome”, which was supposed to be virtually unbreachable.

As expected, Netanyahu seized the opportunity to order a full-scale bombardment of Gaza. But he was careful this time not to order the army into the enclave like on two previous occasions. He did not want Israeli body bags to return at a time when he was desperately trying to cling on to power.

The Hamas leadership in Gaza had warned the right-wing government of Netanyahu that it would not remain a passive bystander if Palestinians were not allowed to offer prayers peacefully in the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramzan and if the Israeli state continued to encourage the forcible takeover of Palestinian residential areas in East Jerusalem and other parts of Israel and the occupied territories.

Also read: Israeli violence in Gaza: Shooting an angel

On April 13, on the first night of Ramzan, 27 days before the first rocket was fired from Gaza, Israeli security forces entered Al Aqsa, the third holiest mosque for Muslims in the world and forcibly removed the caretakers and cut the cables that broadcast prayers to the faithful in the city. This illegal and high-handed action by the Israeli authorities, no doubt on the direct orders of a politically and legally beleaguered Netanyahu, was an important factor that led to the latest attack on Gaza. The incident in the Al Aqsa Mosque happened at a time when Netanyahu was fighting for his political survival. Loss of the Prime Minister’s post would have meant a speedy trial for him on serious corruption charges and possible prison time.

Sheikh Jarrah incident

The Israeli government followed up its provocative actions in the Al Aqsa Mosque by closing the iconic Damascus Gate, one of the main entrances into Jerusalem, where Palestinians gather to break their fast during Ramzan. The Palestinians viewed this move as yet another slap on their faces. Concurrently, there was a move by the Israeli authorities to evict the remaining Palestinian residents in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. An Israeli Supreme Court Bench was scheduled to give a decision on the issue in the middle of May. After the recent Palestinian upheaval on the streets and the war against Gaza, the court has postponed the hearings.

The Palestinians, however, drew a connection between Sheikh Jarrah and the preceding events in the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Damascus Gate. Israeli laws allow Jews to claim land that their forefathers owned before the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. The millions of Palestinians who were forcibly dispossessed and uprooted from what is now Israel cannot even return to the land they were born in.

Within Israel too, Netanyahu has encouraged extreme right-wing groups such as the ‘Torah Nucleus’ movement to move aggressively into cities and towns that have a sizeable Palestinian presence. Violence has flared up in cities such as Lod with Jewish mobs attacking Palestinians. Cases of mob lynching were reported after the attack on Gaza started.

According to The New York Times and other news outlets, Jewish vigilantes who had been organised on social networks targeted Palestinians in Israeli cities. On April 21, barely a week after the Al Aqsa incident, an extreme right-wing Jewish group that advocates the expulsion of the remaining Palestinians from Israel, staged a rowdy demonstration, marching through central Jerusalem, chanting “death to Arabs” and attacking Palestinian pedestrians.

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On May 4, Mohammed Deif, the military head of the Hamas, issued a “final warning” to Israel to “stop the aggression” against the people of Sheikh Jarrah. Israel, for obvious reasons, chose to ignore the threat. The Hamas was also stepping into the political void that the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) led by Mahmoud Abbas had created by its ineptness and opportunism. Mahmoud Abbas, the P.A. President, had on a flimsy pretext cancelled the much-delayed general elections that were to be held in April this year in the occupied territories, fearing defeat at the hands of the Hamas. The Hamas leadership was keen to show the Palestinian people that unlike the P.A., it was willing to confront Israeli colonialism, even with the limited military means at its disposal.

Six days after its final warning, the Hamas fired its first rockets on Jerusalem. The decision, it seems, was taken after the Israeli police raided the Al Aqsa Mosque again on May 7 and confronted the worshippers brutally with stun grenades, rubber-tipped bullets and tear gas. In the clashes that followed, hundreds of Palestinians were injured, many seriously on the last Friday of Ramzan. Muslims, particularly Palestinians, viewed the Israeli action as an insult to their religion and identity. There was a belated effort of sorts by the Netanyahu government to partially tone down the tensions by ordering Jews to stay out of the Al Aqsa compound. Israel’s Supreme Court also postponed its hearing on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions.

But the police raided the mosque compound three days later and again used stun grenades and rubber bullets against Palestinians who had gathered to prevent right-wing Israelis from entering. Jewish extremists claim that they have the right to enter the Al Aqsa as the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest spot, is also located in the same area. The heavy-handed methods used by the Israeli police against unarmed Palestinians were telecast all over the world. It was on the same evening that the first rockets from Gaza landed in Jerusalem.

It was not as if the Hamas was itching for a fight and gave Israel an excuse to “mow the lawn” once again. As a Palestinian writer who is critical of the Hamas wrote in the The New York Times, any political party that controlled Gaza would have had no option but to react to the Israeli government’s actions against the Palestinian people in late April, which included attempted ethnic cleansing and the denial of fundamental rights during Ramzan.

Both sides claim victory

After the ceasefire was announced, mainly thanks to the efforts of Egyptian diplomats, both sides were quick to claim victory. The ceasefire both sides agreed to “was mutual and unconditional”. Netanyahu boasted that the Israeli army’s operations against “terror groups” in Gaza was “an exceptional success”.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, on the other hand, claimed that Israel had been “dealt a painful and severe blow that will leave its deep marks”. The Hamas spokesman said that the truce was conditional on Israel suspending the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and ending the incursion of Israeli security forces into the Al Aqsa Mosque compound. Haniyeh said that Israel had failed to obtain any of its objectives in the latest military campaign against the armed resistance in Gaza. Many Israeli politicians, many from the right wing, said the ceasefire was “a humiliating capitulation” for the Netanyahu government.

Also read: Palestine’s voice

What cannot be ignored, however, is that the Palestinians had after a long time put up a united front against Israel. The Palestinian Street had been unfathomably quiet in recent years. There was not much of a protest after the U.S. government moved its embassy to Jerusalem (2018) or after a few Muslim states led by the United Arab Emirates signed the “Abraham accords” with Israel (2020), normalising relations with the Jewish state. But last month, the Palestinian factions seem to have united. A broad unity among Palestinians is now clearly visible, with the P.A. too coming out in support of the actions of the Hamas.

Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories successfully implemented a one-day general strike in solidarity with Gaza as the bombardment of the enclave continued. The massive street protests in the occupied territories are now threatening to turn into another “intifada” against the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the apartheid policies implemented by the Zionist regime in Israel. As many as 28 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli security forces in the protests in the occupied territories.

The kind of resolve the Palestinians have shown in confronting their oppressors has not been seen since the days of the Oslo agreement. The bogey of Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation will no longer divide the Palestinian people. They know that the Hamas only entered the fight under intense pressure from the Palestinian and Arab Street after the blatant display of high-handedness by the occupation forces in Jerusalem and other towns and cities.

On May 15, amid the bombardment of Gaza and the lynching of Palestinians by right-wing Jewish mobs that were bussed in from the occupied West Bank, Palestinians celebrated the 73rd anniversary of “Al Nakba” (the catastrophe), the day on which they were dispossessed of their land by the Jewish settlers and the state of Israel came into being.

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It was not only the Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories who commemorated the anniversary with protests. Palestinians in Jordan and Lebanon marched to the Israeli border to show their continuing solidarity with the Palestinian cause and a send a message to the world that they have not given “up on their right to return” to their homeland.

It will, of course, be a long and difficult struggle ahead for them. Three days after the ceasefire was declared, the Israeli police and Jewish extremists stormed the Al Aqsa compound again. The Israeli security agencies have started a new crackdown by arresting hundreds of Palestinians who had protested against the events in Sheikh Jarrah, Al Aqsa and Gaza. On May 25, Israeli security personnel executed Ahmed Fahd, a young Palestinian, in broad daylight in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The Israeli government is replicating the policies of former settler regimes such as the ones in South Africa and French Algeria. However, history has shown that colonial projects are doomed to disintegrate.

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