West Asia

Terror from the skies

Print edition : August 08, 2014

In Gaza City, Palestinians look at a missile fired by an Israeli aircraft. In the background is a house that was destroyed in an earlier air strike. Photo: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

In the town of Khan Yunis, after an air attack on July 8, people inspect the remains of a house belonging to a member of Hamas. Photo: SAID KHATIB/AFP

A Palestinian confronts an Israeli soldier during a demonstration against the Israeli military action in Gaza. Photo: Nasser Ishtayeh/AP

People in Gaza are gripped by fear, the streets are empty and the shops are closed as the Israeli offensive continues unabated.

ON July 8, the Israeli government launched a major military offensive against the Gaza Strip. Operation Protective Edge slammed this Palestinian enclave—365 square kilometres of land that holds 1.8 million people. Within a few days, Israel dropped hundreds of tonnes of explosives on Gaza, destroying its infrastructure, killing hundreds of people and injuring over a thousand. Children lay amongst the dead. Half of Gaza’s Palestinians are children, so this is to be expected. But these children had barely begun their lives—Mohammed Malake (1), Saher Abu Namous (4), Abdullah Abu Ghazal (5) and Ghalia Deeb Jaber Ghanem (7). A father hugged his dead child, crying, “Wake up son, I brought you a toy.”

The destruction was widespread—a mosque here (al-Nour, al-Farouq), a hospital there, schools and homes in between. Most homes in Gaza lost their electricity and water supply and sewerage services were disrupted. “The human impact of the conflict in Gaza is incalculable,” says Chris Gunness of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is tasked with provision of services to the Palestinian refugee population. Israeli bombs hit three hospitals—Kamal Adwan, European Hospital and al-Shifa Hospital. Bodies come in a stream into the hospitals. Medical personnel continue to work despite a lack of basic supplies and electricity. A geriatric hospital took a warning missile from Israel, and a centre for disability in Beit Lahiya was struck (two girls died).

Jens Laerke of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said, “Our aid workers on the ground report that people in Gaza are gripped by fear, the streets are empty and the shops are closed.” Gaza, in other words, has gone into the hibernation of terror.

The noise is formidable. Sawsan, a young woman, describes the scene: “The terrifying chorus. The shrill of a rocket. Silence. F16s grazing the sky. Silence. Deafening explosion. Bleak night.” This is poetry. Gazans are familiar with it.

Operation Protective Edge comes in a long series of similar attacks—Operation Pillar of Defence (2012), Operation Cast Lead (2009), Operation Hot Winter (2008), Operation Autumn Clouds (2006), Operation Summer Rains (2006), Operation Days of Penitence (2004) and Operation Rainbow (2004). These are just the major military campaigns over the course of the past decade.

The story is the same. Israel lets slip the dogs of war, allowing its massive military force complete freedom to level Gaza. The casualties are high, the infrastructural damage is total. International noises of protest are made, but these are muted and they have no impact. Since Israel cannot subdue them completely, the Palestinians continue to resist and the cycle continues. The night sky is painted red and orange. “The sky is nothing but unclear,” says Dalia Lababidi, a freelance translator in Gaza. “Clouds of smoke covering the sky.” It could have been 2012 or 2009.Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, grew amongst the desperate masses in Gaza largely, but also in sections of the West Bank. Palestinians have waited since 1948 for some kind of a political settlement. A burst of guerilla activity in the 1970s suggested that they might force Israel to the negotiation table, but geopolitics did not favour them. Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel, removing in the flash of a signature the most significant armed threat to Israel in the region—the Egyptian army. The Egyptians accepted $2 billion from the United States government each year to honour Camp David (1979), the treaty that ended their contest against Israel. This meant that the Israelis had an asymmetrical relationship with the Palestinians—unable as they were to mount a successful challenge to Israeli military and political domination in the region. The Oslo agreement of 1994 was the surrender document from the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). It accepted its subordinate role to Israel. Into this gap came Hamas.

Founded in 1987 during the time of the first Intifada, or uprising, Hamas was tolerated by Israel as long as it turned its guns against the already tired PLO. The movement drew from amongst the pious membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, helped along by the network of mosques, and from the disaffected youth whose rising in 1987 confirmed that the PLO—exiled in Tunis—had been cut off from the street. Hamas grew in strength, sweeping up frustrated PLO activists, drawing in the flotsam of Gaza’s slums and providing the means to fight the Israelis after 1994 when the PLO seemed too exhausted to take charge of the struggle. Hamas’ rhetoric recalled the days of PLO militancy. But it was not alone; alongside it was the resolute Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Popular Resistance Committees. They kept the flame of resistance alive.

Through a combination of a subordinate Palestinian Authority and continued construction of Israeli settlements on lands slated for a future Palestinian state, Israel had hoped to euthanise Palestinian nationalism. Hamas, the PFLP and the Popular Resistance Committees suggested otherwise. It was towards their destruction that Israel prosecuted a series of wars against Gaza, where Hamas is strongest. In the West Bank, the Israelis attempted to break the spirit of Palestinian resistance by the imprisonment of political radicals and by the creation of a series of spatial barriers (walls and checkpoints) to break the spirit of the population. If life was made increasingly difficult, the Palestinians might depart the lands controlled by Israel. In 1976, the Koenig Memorandum urged the government to “examine the possibility of diluting existing Arab population concentration”, namely, to urge by gun or discomfort the emigration of Palestinians to Jordan or Egypt. As Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, said in 2001, “It is forbidden to be merciful to [Palestinians]. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable.”

Israel’s policymakers call Rabbi Yosef’s strategy “moving the law”. The theory is that if Israel periodically bombs Gaza, this would degrade Hamas’ military capability and demoralise the population into submission. Israel seeks a periodic issue, often trivial, to launch a massive assault on Gaza. In 2008, when Hamas fired its erratic and largely useless rockets into Israel, Israel responded with Operation Hot Winter. In 2012, Israel entered Gaza to destroy a tunnel, provoked a rocket attack and then launched Operation Cast Lead. Each provocation by Israel resulted in an action from Hamas that then allowed Israel to “mow the lawn”. This is the outline of Israel’s policy on Gaza.

Outrage at Hamas’ rockets is by now part of the cliche. But after the 2012 ceasefire, Hamas did not fire any rockets into Israel. In early January 2013, however, a Palestinian farmer, Mustafa Abu Jarad, was shot and killed by Israeli troops on the border. The Jerusalem Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, showed that of the ceasefire violations, “Palestinian launches have been rare and sporadic and occurred almost always after successive instances of Israeli ceasefire violations.” Nonetheless, when Israel begins its operations, it routinely says that it is retaliating to Palestinian rockets (which in 2014 have taken no Israeli lives to date).

Israeli politicians have rhetorically conflated Hamas with everything bad that ever happens in the region— “Hamas” has come to stand in for the devil. With Gaza reduced to Hamas, 1.8 million people who live on the Gaza Strip are made responsible for Hamas. This is a classic definition of the doctrine of collective responsibility, illegal by international law.

On June 12, three Israeli teenagers (Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah) were picked up and then killed. On June 30, their bodies were found north-west of Hebron. These teenagers lived in a settlement in Gush Etzion in the West Bank. Who kidnapped and killed them is unclear. What is clear is that there has been increased tension between the settlers and the Palestinians over the course of the past two decades. In 2012, 27 Foreign Ministers of the European Union (E.U.) released a statement expressing “deep concern regarding settler extremism and incitement by settlers in the West Bank. The E.U. condemns continuous settler violence and deliberate provocations against Palestinian civilians. It calls on the government of Israel to bring the perpetrators to justice and to comply with its obligations under international law.” The violence against the teenagers is perhaps rooted in the context of settler extremism. Even this, however, is speculation. We do not know who killed the teenagers, and the Israeli searches in the West Bank —putatively fact-finding—revealed little to the public.

Evidence of “settler extremism” came in the abduction and brutal killing of the Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdair. It appears that Abu Khdair had been torched and then buried alive. His cousin, Tariq, was then brutally assaulted by the Israeli police at a demonstration for Abu Khdair. These demonstrations took place in Shuafat, a Palestinian refugee camp that is encircled by Jewish settlements. It has been tinder for such a crisis. “I hope your death brings victory to Palestine,” said Abu Khdair’s mother, Suha, as his body was laid to rest.

The Israeli government sent in its military to the West Bank to conduct Operation Brother’s Keeper. As Human Rights Watch noted, “The military operation included unlawful use of force, arbitrary arrests, and illegal home demolitions. During raids on Palestinian towns, refugee camps and villages, Israeli forces shot and killed at least five Palestinians and arrested and detained at least 150 more without charge.”

Any assault in the West Bank follows this pattern—a surge of troops go into the homes of Palestinians, arrest those whom they deem to be a political threat, destroy and steal property and shoot anyone who resists their incursion. There has been a suggestion that the Israeli government knew that the teenagers were already dead, and yet they used the excuse to search for them in order to arrest and intimidate Palestinians in the West Bank.

Israel blamed two men, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu Aisha, for the abduction, who the Shin Bet (Israeli intelligence) said were linked to Hamas’ Hebron network. But this is tenuous. The Qawasmeh family is a vast clan with a reputation for trouble. They have regularly been responsible for trying to undermine any attempt by Hamas to sustain a ceasefire. It is well known that the Qawasmeh clan does not take orders from the political leadership of Hamas, and so the latter is hardly to be held responsible for the actions of the former. Rather than conduct a police investigation into the abduction and killing of the teens, Israel sought to punish anyone associated with Hamas and then Gaza itself. The teenagers’ death allowed Israel to “mow the lawn”.

The outcome

Israel said that it would strike Hamas targets in Gaza. It accused Hamas of using human shields to protect its operatives. Israel struck a number of homes of what it considered to be Hamas operatives. These homes house entire clans. When an Israeli bomb hit them, the sociology of Gaza meant that the bomb did not just kill a “terrorist”, but it killed an entire family. “Why did they kill my entire family?” asks one survivor. “The missile fell on my family with no warning.” Afana, Al-Batsh, Karawe, Ghanem, Al-Halabi, Hammad, Haj—these are the names of some of the families hit by the bombs. Seven dead here, 18 dead there.

“I sleep for a short while,” says Mohammed Suliman. “Two hours pass before successive blasts hit my area. Glass shatters. I wake up scared. My wife, Leila, screams.” Thousands of Palestinians have rushed to the Rafah Crossing to get into Egypt. Eighty per cent of Gaza is made up of refugee families. They are used to fleeing.

Hamas’ political chief, Khaled Meshal, shuttled between Qatar and Turkey in search of a road to a ceasefire. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not interested. “No international pressure,” he said, “will prevent us from acting with all power.”

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