Mindless in Gaza

Published : Jun 18, 2004 00:00 IST

The latest Israeli atrocities in Gaza provoke the ire of the international community and a section of Israelis themselves.

MAY 2004 was one of the bloodiest months for the Palestinian people since the Arab-Israel war of 1967. In the second week, the Israeli military entered in force the Gaza Strip and chose the Rafah camp as its special target. The Palestinian resistance blew up two Israeli tanks in Zeitun and Rafah, killing 11 Israeli soldiers and the Israeli Army cordoned off Rafah, one of the impoverished areas of Gaza. The Israeli soldiers who perished were part of the force sent by the Israeli government into Rafah to demolish Palestinian houses. The Israeli action followed soon after Prime Minster Ariel Sharon lost a vote within his Likud Party on the issue of the army's withdrawal from Gaza.

Sharon's plans for Gaza were controversially endorsed by United States President George W. Bush. Sharon had signalled that he was determined to implement his plan of withdrawing troops and Israeli settlers from most of Gaza, but at the same time he did not want the world to interpret the withdrawal as a military defeat at the hands of the Palestinian resistance. The fierce fight put up by groups like the Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade has made the continued presence of the Israeli settlement in Gaza untenable. Sharon thought that by leaving a trail of blood in Gaza he would be able to convince the Israeli hawks that he was leaving Gaza on his own terms.

Israeli forces fired missiles and tank shots into a crowd that was protesting against the random demolition of houses and the killing of children. Palestinian officials say that more than 23 Palestinians died in this incident alone. In all, more than 120 Palestinians and around 20 Israelis were killed in May. For more than a week, Israeli forces went berserk, using Apache helicopters to target civilians in their homes and on the streets. More than 100 tanks were used in the operations, which according to the Israeli government, was aimed at closing the tunnels used for smuggling weapons from neighbouring Egypt. But in their week-long siege of Rafah, Israeli officials could show the media only one "tunnel". Even if Israeli propaganda is to be believed, these tunnels were only used to smuggle in AK-47s to fight the Apache helicopters and F-16s used by the Israeli occupation forces against the Palestinian resistance. Palestinian officials point out that the areas in which the Israeli Army launched its most brutal attacks were several kilometres away from the border with Egypt. According to the Palestinian Housing Ministry, more than 1,800 houses have been destroyed by the Israeli Army in Rafah in the past three-and-a-half years. The American peace activist Rachel Corrie was killed by Israeli forces in Rafah while trying to save a Palestinian house from being demolished. (Frontline, April 11, 2003) Palestinian Deputy Foreign Minister Abd Allah Abd Allah issued an impassioned plea to the international community to intervene immediately and stop the "genocide" in Gaza. Graphic TV footage showed some children and boys with their heads virtually blown off.

The mayor of Rafah described the massacre as "Gestapo-like". He said that the Apache helicopter pilots could see the smallest objects. "The pilots knew that they were slaughtering children and women." Abd Allah characterised the international community's reactions to Israel's "acts of murder and terror in Gaza" as completely inadequate. He said that the Bush administration was aware of what the Israelis were doing in refugee camps such as Rafah. "The Americans know quite well what Israel is doing in Rafah. The fact that they don't even condemn these atrocities suggests that the Bush administration is a culprit in these crimes. We have to call a spade a spade, especially when we find it in the hands of the grave-diggers."

It may have been a coincidence that the murder of innocent Palestinians coincided with the carnage by American forces of Iraqi civilians. A wedding party of more than 40 Iraqis, many of them women and children, were killed by the American occupation forces near the border with Syria around the same time the Israeli Army was on a bloodletting spree in Gaza. However, the wider Arab and Muslim world may be in no mood to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt, perhaps its guilt conscience prompted the Bush administration to take the unprecedented step of not vetoing the United Nations Security Council resolution passed on May 19, criticising the Israeli government's actions in Gaza. Only a few days before this, President Bush had publicly supported Sharon's atrocities. At a fund-raiser organised by an American Jewish group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he said that Israel had the right to defend itself against "terrorism".

Security Council Resolution 1544, which was passed by 14-0, expressed "grave concern at the continued deterioration of the situation on the ground in the territory occupied by Israel since 1967" and condemned "the killing of Palestinian civilians that took place in the Rafah area". The resolution called on Israel to "respect its obligation under international humanitarian law, and insists, in particular, on its obligation not to undertake demolition of homes contrary to that law". The day after the resolution was passed, Israeli forces pushed deeper into Rafah and actually escalated the killing and demolitions. The resolution contains no mechanism for enforcement. Israel knows that as long as it has Washington's tacit backing, it fears no serious consequences.

Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry has also been careful to not offend the powerful Jewish lobby in American politics. He too has been making statements justifying the Jewish state's right to use indiscriminate force against civilians in the occupied territories. After the events in Rafah, public opinion within Israel seems to be changing. Israeli Justice Minster Yosef Lapid said in the last week of May that the violence perpetrated by the Israeli military in Rafah reminded him of the Holocaust in Germany. Lapid, himself a Holocaust survivor, was quoted by Israeli officials as saying that a picture of an old Palestinian woman on the rubble of her home in Rafah reminded him "of my grandmother in the Holocaust". Lapid said that there "is no forgiveness for people who treat an old woman in this way". Lapid is no peacenik and is known for his hard line views. On May 15, more than 150,000 Israeli demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv to demand the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. It was the result of the first serious effort by the Left in Israel in more than four years to send a serious message to their government.

Earlier the mayor of Rafah, Said Zurub, described the events happening in his town as similar to what Hitler had "done to the Jews". In a thought-provoking article entitled "Symbolic Genocide", an Israeli Professor of Sociology at the Ben Gurion University, Lev Grinberg, said: "Unable to recover from the Holocaust trauma and the insecurity it caused, the Jewish people, the ultimate victims of genocide, are currently inflicting a symbolic genocide upon the Palestinian people." Grinberg describes symbolic genocide as the systematic destruction and eradication of Palestinian symbols, its national leaders and political institutions. "It is a dangerous policy. It poses an existential threat to the Palestinian people, but also to the state of Israel and its citizens, thereby endangering the entire Middle East [West Asia]."

INDIA too has condemned the atrocities committed by the Israeli occupation forces in Gaza. When the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led government was in power, the pronounced pro-Israeli tilt in foreign policy resulted in cautious statements concerning Israel. With the NDA out of power, the Indian Foreign Office was quick in issuing a strong statement criticising Israel. Condemnations are not enough for the Palestinian people. They want the state of Israel to be held accountable for its grave violations of international law, which include extrajudicial executions, severe restrictions on freedom of movement and the construction of the "separation wall". The international community has so far only stood aside and watched as Israel continued with its illegal acts in the occupied territories. Mainly because of Israeli actions, two-thirds of Gaza's population of 1.3 million live in abject poverty. Many Palestinians believe that the real goal of Ariel Sharon is to destroy as much of the Gaza Strip as possible so that the creation of a viable Palestinian State is jeopardised. It is also meant to be a warning to the Palestinians living in the West Bank that they too will be subjected to inhuman treatment if they keep demanding the implementation of full Palestinian statehood.

When the Israeli occupation forces were venting their fury on Rafah, an Israeli Court convicted the Palestinian leader, Marwan Barghouti, on May 21, on murder charges. He now faces life imprisonment. Barghouti, one of the popular resistance leaders, is the seniormost Palestinian leader in Israeli custody. He refused to acknowledge the right of the Israeli Court to try him, saying that he was illegally abducted from the West Bank city of Ramallah. In a statement, Barghouti said that the Israeli court that sentenced him was a "tool used by the Israeli security to keep committing crimes against the Palestinian people and to give legitimacy to these crimes".

Barghouti, whom many think will one day succeed Arafat, called on the Palestinians "to continue the struggle".

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