Cover Story

Massacre of the innocents

Print edition : August 22, 2014

A Palestinian family fleeing its home in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on August 1, when a ceasefire crumbled only hours after it began. Photo: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announces the ceasefire in New Delhi. Photo: LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

The flattening of Gaza by Israel has nothing to do with Hamas or terrorism. It is about never-ending control over Palestinian land by the occupiers and denying the Palestinians the freedom they have been fighting for.

You take my water

Burn my olive trees

Destroy my house

Take my job

Steal my land

Imprison my father

Kill my mother

Bomb my country

Starve us all

Humiliate us all

But... I am to blame: I shot a rocket back

(Placard displayed in Gaza during the 2012 Israeli military assault on the enclave)

The international community chose to stand aside and watch as Israel continued with its bloodletting in the Gaza Strip for 25 long days and nights. On August 1, United States Secretary of State John Kerry announced in New Delhi that Israel and Hamas had agreed to a 72-hour United Nations/U.S. “humanitarian” ceasefire proposal. Hours before the ceasefire was announced, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he would accept a truce only after the Israeli army completed the destruction of all the tunnels under Gaza. The ceasefire collapsed in a matter of hours. The terms of the short-lived truce, brokered by Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, allowed Israeli forces to remain in the territory they had occupied in Gaza and continue with the military activity of “dismantling tunnels” used by the Palestinian fighters. Two Israeli soldiers were killed in a firefight in one such tunnel in Rafah on the morning of August 1. Israel retaliated with massive force, killing over 70 Palestinians in Rafah. Hamas has refuted Israeli allegations that one of its soldiers was captured. The spokesman for the group said that this was only a pretext for Israel to resume the assault on Gaza.

Earlier, Hamas issued a statement that all resistance forces would abide by the ceasefire “if the other party respects the humanitarian ceasefire”. Talks for a more durable peace were to take place in Cairo, where Israeli and Palestinian delegations were expected to hold separate talks. The Palestinians have said that they will no longer be satisfied with a “quiet for quiet” deal. For a meaningful peace to take hold, they have been reiterating their demand for the lifting of the illegal blockade of Gaza.

The all-out attack by land, air and sea against the narrow strip of land, the most thickly populated area in the world, has been unremitting since it started on July 8. Meanwhile, Western governments have been quick to apportion blame and implement sanctions on Russia after a Malaysian passenger plane was shot down over Ukrainian territory. That matter was also expeditiously taken up in the U.N. Security Council. But the massacre of Palestinians only came up for discussions in the Security Council after the death toll crossed the four-figure mark.

Now it has been reported that the Pentagon was actually replenishing the Israeli armed forces with ammunition so that the killings and devastation of the Gaza Strip could continue unhindered. On July 27, President Barack Obama called for an “immediate and sustainable” ceasefire. It turns out that he was at the same time helping Israel to carry on with its criminal aggression.

The Pentagon spokesman justified the decision to keep U.S. weapons flowing to Israel as it militarily took on a hapless civilian population, destroying hospitals, schools and the only power-generating utility on the Strip. “The United States is committed to the security of Israel, and it is vital for U.S. national interests to assist Israel to develop and maintain a strong self-defence capability,” the spokesman said on July 30 as Israel’s killing spree entered its 22nd day.

Navi Pillay, the U.N.’s Human Rights Commissioner, has been critical of Washington’s role in the ongoing massacre. “They have not only provided heavy weaponry, which is now being used against civilians in Gaza, but they’ve also provided an additional $1 billion for the ‘Iron Dome’ to protect Israelis from rocket attacks,” she said. “No such protection has been given to Gazans to protect them from shelling.” By July-end, more than 1,400 Gazans, most of them civilians, were killed in the Israeli assault. Among those killed were eight U.N. workers. On the Israeli side, 54 soldiers and three civilians were killed. One Israeli soldier, according to Hamas, was captured.

It has evidently not been a cakewalk, as Israeli military planners had expected when they launched their assault. The crude missiles from Gaza now have the ability to reach as far as Tel Aviv. One rocket from Gaza landed just two kilometres from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. American and European airlines had briefly stopped flying to the Israeli capital because of credible threats from Palestinian missiles. Most international flights land at the Ben Gurion Airport. Israel’s reputed “Iron Dome” anti-missile system is after all not as effective as it is claimed. India is said to be among the seven countries lining up to buy Israel’s “Iron Dome” technology.

Fighters belonging to Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other resistance groups have apparently gained more expertise in urban warfare, as is evident from the number of Israeli military casualties. Some experts say that the capability of Hamas and other resistance groups is now comparable to that of Hizbollah. The Israeli military has now suffered its biggest casualty after the attack on Lebanon in 2006. Israel lost 130 soldiers and 30 civilians in the month-long war against Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Netanyahu, who had brushed aside pleas for a ceasefire from the U.S., has started talking about a new formula—“reconstruction for demilitarisation”—in Gaza. Even Netanyahu, seeing no end to the heroic resistance by the people of Gaza, has acknowledged the need “for social and economic” relief for the Strip, otherwise known as the “biggest open air prison” in the world.

Israel occupied Gaza after the 1967 war. It decided to withdraw its settlers and troops in 2005. Gaza has not known peace or tranquillity since then as Israel, the occupying power, immediately imposed its wide-ranging blockade of the enclave that is about one-third the area of New York City. It restricted fishing and farming zones, drastically curtailed exports and imports, prevented the mobility of the populace by making exit permits scarce. Gaza had to depend on Israel for most of its electricity and water supply.

Israel tightened its blockade on Gaza from 2006 after Hamas won the general elections in occupied West Bank and Gaza. After the electoral victory of Hamas, Israel was joined by the U.S. and the European Union, which also slammed severe sanctions on the Strip and the West Bank simply because they had voted Hamas to power. The sanctions were partially lifted when talks for a unity government between Hamas and the Fatah collapsed in 2007 and the Fatah regained sole administrative control of the West Bank.

Demonising Hamas by characterising it as a “terrorist” organisation, Israel started accelerating its game plan for the scuttling of the two-state scenario envisaged in the Oslo Accord. After the temporary breakdown in Palestinian unity and the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas where it has its political base, Israel has carried out three large-scale military assaults on Gaza—in 2009, 2012 and 2014. The current one has, of course, caused the most widespread devastation.

More people have been killed and the infrastructure, rudimentary as it was, has been flattened. Top U.N. officials now say openly that what Israel is doing in Gaza is a “war crime”. Israel was accused of war crimes during “Operation Cast Lead” in 2009, but not a single Israeli official has been charged. Israel, like the U.S., is for all practical purposes exempt from international law. After Israel deliberately continued targeting homes, hospitals and U.N. facilities, Navi Pillay once again condemned Tel Aviv’s “deliberate defiance” of international law. She was speaking the day after Israeli forces targeted a U.N.-run school where 3,300 displaced Gazans had taken refuge. Nineteen people, many of them children who were sleeping next to their mothers, were killed in that attack. Twenty-two medical facilities have been damaged. More than a quarter of Gaza’s arable land was deemed a “buffer zone” for residents of the Strip by the Israelis before the current conflict began. Now, after the latest invasion, 44 per cent of the narrow Strip is under the Israeli army’s control.

So far, more than 500 children have been killed in the Israeli blitzkrieg. The latest victim is a premature baby, who was pulled out of the womb of her mother as she lay dying, hit by an Israeli bomb. The hospital in which she was being treated ran out of medicines. On July 20, 19 members of a single family in Khan Younis were killed after an Israeli jet targeted the home of Abu Jami, director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, who has been helping traumatised victims of violence in Gaza. July 20 was the single bloodiest day in Gaza: over 100 people were killed by Israeli bombs and firing. Forty-three per cent of the population in Gaza is under 14. In the last decade and a half, Israeli forces have been responsible for the killing of over 1,400 children in the occupied territories, more than 1,000 in Gaza alone. In the current assault, over 70 per cent of those killed have been civilians.

The destruction of Gaza’s only power plant on July 29 means that water purification plants and sewage pumping stations will not be able to operate. The water in Gaza is otherwise undrinkable. It is estimated that it will take at least a year for the power plant to be functional again. Many Israelis are gloating. A public opinion survey revealed that 85 per cent of the population in the Jewish state does not want a ceasefire. An Israeli Member of Parliament, Ayelet Shaked, belonging to Israel Home, a right-wing party which is part of the ruling coalition, called for the elimination of the Palestinian people. “The entire Palestinian people is the enemy. In wars, the enemy is usually an entire people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and infrastructure,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator, has said that more than 440,000 people have been displaced by the fighting and hundreds of thousands more were without food and other basic necessities. The Gaza Ministry of Health spokesman said that one in eight people in Gaza had been displaced. During a four-hour humanitarian ceasefire announced on July 30, Israeli forces shelled a crowded market in Shujaiyya, killing 17 people, including a well-known Palestinian journalist. Philippe Krahenbuhl, the top U.N. refugee official in Gaza, said that the territory was “on a precipice” and called for the immediate lifting of the “illegal blockade of Gaza”.

The current invasion was prompted by the successful formation of a Palestinian unity government in April this year. The peace talks brokered by the Americans had broken down by then after the Israeli government had gone on a settlement-building spree in West Bank and East Jerusalem. Hamas, friendless in the region and with chances of the blockade being lifted on Gaza getting bleaker with the regime change in Egypt, had made significant compromises while agreeing to a unity government with its political rival, the Fatah. None of the major political figures of Hamas was represented in the new Palestinian Cabinet. Hamas had indicated that it was also open to new elections in Gaza that could have led to a change in government there.

The Palestine Authority (P.A.) President, Mahmoud Abbas, fed up with the stonewalling and intransigence of the Israeli government, refused to be led up the garden path anymore by the Americans and the Europeans. He was firm in his decision to continue with the unity government. Israel then started preparations for another massive assault on Gaza.

On May 15, Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinian teenagers. Before that, since the beginning of the year, a total of 24 Palestinians were killed by Israelis. The killing of three Israeli teenagers in Hebron in June in the occupied West Bank was the excuse Netanyahu was looking for to up the ante. The Israeli Prime Minister knew that the three were killed soon after they disappeared, but he whipped up a national hysteria in Israel by pretending that the boys were alive and were being held hostage.

Israel was quick to blame Hamas for the killings, though the organisation denied any role in the abductions. A Palestinian teenager was lynched in revenge in East Jerusalem by Jewish zealots. Netanyahu used the killings of the three Israeli citizens as an excuse to launch the latest military rampage. In the past, too, Israel has used the killing of its citizens as pretexts to launch large-scale military invasions.

In 1982, the assassination of the Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov in London was the excuse for launching a full-scale invasion and occupation of Lebanon. Beirut was destroyed and southern Lebanon was occupied for 18 years. In 2006, the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers along the border with Lebanon triggered another attack on Lebanon. The three attacks on Gaza from 2008-09 have followed the same pattern. Every time an Israeli soldier or civilian is killed, Israel has a tendency “to mow the lawns” along its borders.

A few days after launching his latest assault on Gaza, Netanyahu was honest enough to state his real intentions for starting the massacre. “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” he said in an address to the nation in Hebrew.

Dov Weissglass, the key adviser of Ariel Sharon, had admitted that Israel’s military disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was actually a manoeuvre to prevent a two-state solution. “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively the whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, is removed from our agenda,” Weissglass told the newspaper Haaretz in 2004.

The flattening of Gaza, in short, has nothing to do with Hamas or terrorism. It is about never-ending control over Palestinian land by the occupiers and denying Palestinians the freedom they have been fighting for. Mahmoud Abbas, speaking for all Palestinians, issued a heartfelt appeal as Israel was trying to bomb the civilian population into submission.

“The time has come for everyone to raise their voices and tell the truth clearly, and powerfully, in the face of the Israeli killing and destruction machine. The oppressing occupation forces have crossed every line and broken all the laws. They have deviated from all standards of human and international morality in their ferocity and barbarism. We will go anywhere in order to stop the aggression and the confiscation of our legitimate rights, and we will hunt down those who commit crimes against our people, no matter how long it takes. These crimes will not go unprosecuted or unpunished,” the Palestinian leader said.