Target practice?

Print edition : April 20, 2012

Palestinian fire fighters at the site of an Israeli air strike on Gaza City on March 14.-ALI HASSAN/AFP

Israel once again uses disproportionate force, pounding Gaza seemingly in retaliation for attacks that do not seem to have harmed anyone.

With the international community preoccupied with the crisis in Syria, and the West working overtime for regime change there, Israel found it opportune to launch massive air attacks on Gaza. More than 22 people, including children, were killed in the Gaza Strip in the second week of March in four successive days of Israeli attacks. It was the deadliest attack on Gaza by Israel since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. The excuses Israel offered had a familiar ring to them. The authorities in Tel Aviv said Israel was responding to rocket attacks from Gaza. A few rockets were indeed fired into southern Israel, but according to reports they did not cause either physical or materiel damage.

Israel had at first responded with a drone attack on a car whose occupants were Zuhair al-Qaisi, secretary-general of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) in Gaza, and Mahmoud al-Hannani, who had been freed only recently from an Israeli prison. Both died in the attack. The Israeli government claimed that the two men were behind the staging of attacks in Israel through the border with Egypt. In August last year, eight Israelis were killed and 25 soldiers wounded in three cross-border attacks in Eilat. Israel retaliated against the raids almost immediately with an aerial attack that killed the PRC's then secretary-general and five other members.

The latest targeted killings, Israel claimed, were a pre-emptive measure aimed at forestalling another raid by Palestinian militants across the Sinai into Israel. Without bothering to give any hard evidence, Israeli authorities stated that al-Qaisi was assassinated in order to prevent an attack that was in the final stages of preparation. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the Israeli army will hit anyone planning to attack Israeli citizens but admitted that there was no concrete evidence that al-Qaisi was planning an attack against Israel. Recently, several senior military officials testifying before the Knesset's Security and Foreign Affairs Committee said no Palestinians were involved in the Eilat raids from Egypt last August.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated that the air strikes against Gaza would go on indefinitely. He said the government had a clear policy of targeting anyone who plans to harm us, who prepares to harm us, or who harms us. As expected, he had the full backing of the United States in the latest assault. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose heart continues to bleed for Syrians, is seemingly unaffected by the killing of civilians in Gaza. While supporting the right of the Syrian people to resort to armed struggle to overthrow their government, she had scarcely a word for the long-suffering people of Gaza. Instead of urging the Israelis to stop targeting civilians, she condemned in the strongest terms the rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel.

The Arab League, which these days works in close coordination with Washington on key issues relating to the region, did however describe the killings as a massacre. But it has not taken any serious follow-up action so far. The Egyptian authorities claimed in the third week of March that they had managed to broker a comprehensive and mutual truce under which the Israelis agreed to end their targeted killings. However, the Israeli Army's Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, stated that no such blanket commitment had been given and that Israel retained the right to strike at Gaza whenever it perceived a threat. Danny Danon, a parliamentarian belonging to the Likud party, a major constituent of the coalition government, said Israel should target all those in possession of weapons in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government seems to have started the process already. In the latest attacks, Israeli forces once again did not hesitate to target civilian homes and civilian vehicles on the basis of mere suspicion that militants might be present.

After the killing of al-Qaisi, the other militant groups in Gaza, barring Hamas, said they would not abide by the ceasefire agreement with Israel, which has generally held for the past two years. Rockets were fired into Israel, some of them falling in sensitive areas, including residential areas, causing injuries to a handful of civilians. Israeli military authorities said the number of rockets fired by the militant groups exceeded the numbers fired during the Israeli attack on Gaza three years ago. The Israeli government banned the media from reporting the exact locations where some of the missiles landed, given their sensitive nature. The Al Quds Brigade, the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad, said it would continue to respond to Israeli crimes no matter at what price because of Zionist attacks in the Gaza Strip. It also threatened unexpected responses against Israel. Israeli military planners fear that the militant groups have in their possession missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv.

Anti-missile system

According to reports in the Israeli media, the government had carefully planned its attack on Gaza, which was expected to provoke an immediate retaliation from the militant groups. The latest anti-missile Iron Dome system was put in place in Ashdod, Ashkalom and Beersheba before the military assault. Israel claimed that around 20 rockets aimed at these towns were intercepted and shot down by the anti-missile system. But the media in Israel reported that the Iron Dome anti-missile system was not foolproof. The Israeli government also intended to send a message to its citizens that they had nothing to fear from Iranian rockets and missiles because of the effectiveness of the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Zvi Bar'el, a critic of his country's war rhetoric on Iran, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the glorification of the Dome helped Netanyahu mobilise public opinion. For Israelis, there is no better proof that no harm will come to them as a result of an attack on Iran than the performance of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, which has demonstrated a 95 per cent rate of effectiveness. The escalation in Gaza is good for Israel that is, for that part of Israel that wants to strike Iran.

Wounded Palestinian Children at a hospital in the northern Gaza Strip, after an air strike on March 12, which killed two militants and wounded 25 civilians.-REUTERS

Hamas leaders said the latest Israeli attack was a test run for an attack on Iran. New weapons and anti-missile systems were being tested against the hapless citizens of Gaza. Netanyahu, during his recent visit to Washington, drew a link between Gaza and Iran. He claimed that the rocket attacks on Israel were being launched at Iran's instigation and insisted that it bore primary responsibility for them. Playing to the gallery in the U.S., he said he would not allow Iran to use Gaza as a base.

The allegations were without basis. It is well known that in the wake of the Arab Spring, Hamas, which governs Gaza, distanced itself from Iran and Syria, its major backers until 2010. Hamas is in the process of forming a unity government with the Fatah, which controls the West Bank and is today closer to the governments in Cairo, Riyadh, Doha and Ankara. The Hamas leadership is under tremendous pressure from these governments to crack down on the other militant groups such as Islamic Jihad and the PRC operating in Gaza. The new backers of Hamas also want the party to formally recognise Israel. The Hamas leader, Khalid Meshal, said at the beginning of the year that his party henceforth would concentrate on non-violent demonstrations. The Israeli government is not too happy at the sight of top Hamas leaders moving around freely and being feted in neighbouring capitals. In its bid to forestall meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel would prefer Hamas to be painted as an inflexible terrorist grouping.

Meanwhile, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem are being accelerated. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted in the third week of March to appoint a panel to evaluate the effects of Israeli settlement activities on Palestinian human rights in the occupied territories. Again, only the U.S. stood by Israel during the vote. Earlier, the U.N.'s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had released a report showing that Israeli settlers in the West Bank had taken over natural springs from the Palestinians, denying them access to scarce water resources.

Israel's disregard for human rights is exemplified by the plight of a 30-year-old Palestinian woman, Hana Shalabi. She was released from an Israeli jail as part of a prisoner exchange deal after the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was freed last October. But Hana Shalabi and 10 other fellow Palestinians released with her were soon rearrested on the basis of secret charges under a draconian Israeli security law called administrative detention. Since February 18, she has been on a hunger strike to protest against the illegitimate, illegal and immoral detention. Her family and human rights organisations appealed to the international community to intervene on her behalf and also help end the inhuman Israeli practice of detaining people without charges for indefinite periods. Many Palestinians prisoners have been languishing in Israeli jails under this law for more than 12 years. Hana Shalabi's condition is deteriorating rapidly. In the third week of March, she was forcibly taken to an Israeli hospital. Twenty-five other Palestinian prisoners held under the same law have also started an indefinite fast demanding the scrapping of administrative detention.

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