The Israeli newspaper Haaretz described the blitz on Gaza as a ‘massive attack much along the lines of what the Americans termed “shock and awe” during their invasion of Iraq in March 2003′.

That’s right – shock and awe. Nearly six years after the carnage in Iraq, it’s all happening again: an illegal campaign of regime change conducted by besuited politicians who talk earnestly in more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tones about surgical strikes and precision targeting while their high tech weaponry tears ordinary people into tiny pieces. For what it’s worth, the latest figures from Gaza estimate 1400 wounded and 370, at least 62 of whom were civilians. Those numbers will, of course, inevitably climb.

Like the Americans in Iraq, the Israelis insist that they aim only at installations associated with the regime. Captain Benjamin Rutland, a senior IDF spokesman, told The Age:

The targets which have been attacked have been targets associated with Hamas, including command posts, training facilities, weapons manufacturing facilities and weapons storage facilities. The majority of the casualties have been uniform-wearing members of the Hamas terror organisation responsible for attacks on Israel.

The phrase ‘uniform-wearing’ has been carefully chosen, given that the first wave of attacks hit ordinary policemen, many of whom had nothing more to do with Hamas than your average American cop has with George Bush.

But, precisely because Hamas is a popular movement, democratically elected by the Palestinians, almost anything can become a symboli target – like, for instance, a university.

Indeed, despite Captain Rutland, the Israelis seem almost to recognize that they’re fighting an entire population. Amnesty International reports:

Compounding the atmosphere of fear resulting from the Israeli bombardments, Israeli forces have been sending seemingly random telephone messages to many inhabitants of Gaza telling them to leave their homes because of imminent air strikes against their houses.  Such messages have been received by residents of multi-storey apartment building, causing panic not only for those who received the calls but for all their neighbours. Such practice was widely used by Israeli forces both in Gaza and in Lebanon in 2006, but has not been reported since. The threatening calls seem to aim to spread fear among the civilian population, as in most cases no air strikes were carried out against the buildings. If this is the purpose, rather than to give effective warning, this practice violates international law and must end immediately.

(There’s more on this bizarre psychological operation here).

The attack on Iraq involved, of course, more than a single country. But there’s a ‘Coalition of the Willing’ at work in Gaza, too. Israel can contrast its ‘surgical strikes’ with the indiscriminate nature of Hamas’ rocketry because the USA has for decades provided the IDF with the most up-to-date weaponry in its arsenal (one is reminded by the line from the film Battle of Algiers, when the resistance leader why his men hid their explosives in baskets: ‘Give us your planes and we’ll give you our baskets.’) In the current attacks, Israel has been showcasing something called the GBU-39 bunker busting missile, recently developed and delivered by the Americans.

The Israel Air Force used a new bunker-buster missile that it received recently from the United States in strikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, The Jerusalem Post learned on Sunday.

The missile, called GBU-39, was developed in recent years by the US as a small-diameter bomb for low-cost, high-precision and low collateral damage strikes.

But US – indeed, Western – support for ‘Shock and Awe’ in Gaza extends beyond bunker busters. Israeli politicians explain:

Israel is feeling “no real pressure” from the world to end the operation in the Gaza Strip, and the amount of time the international community will sit relatively quietly on the sidelines depends on how things develop, senior diplomatic officials said Sunday.

In other words, the message from the world’s powers is this: get the job done – and try to keep the bad publicity to a minimum.

The other crucial comparison  relates to sanctions. These days, the horrors of the US occupation have obscured the consequences of the sanctions in Iraq. Famously, in 1996, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was confronted by the figure of half million children dead because of those sanctions and responded: ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.’

The Israelis might say the same thing about Gaza where, even before the attacks, Palestinians were already suffering from malnutrition. Naturally, as in Iraq, a prolonged blockade means a population much less capable of enduring the inevitable casualties from air attacks. Again, Amnesty International:

The horrific death toll risks growing due to the unavailability of adequate medical care for the hundreds of injured.  The health sector in Gaza lacks equipment, medicine and expertise at the best of times and has been further depleted due to the prolonged Israeli blockade.  It is now completely overwhelmed and unable to cope with the large number of casualties.

The final comparison between Iraq and Gaza involves the nature of the regime under attack. With Iraq, we were repeatedly told that Saddam refused all efforts for a peaceful resolution, most famously expelling the UN weapons’ inspectors. In reality, the attack had been planned months earlier – and the inspectors were pulled out at the US’ insistence.

In Gaza, the argument is that Hamas, an organisation of terrorist fanatics, unilaterally broached the cease fire and has rejected all of Israel’s overtures for peace. Again, none of that is true.

Lenin’s Tomb puts it like this:

Despite an international blockade and opprobrium from the Israeli leadership, Hamas repeatedly signalled its willigness to accept a two-state settlement. It imposed a unilateral ceasefire on its own cadre, refusing to be drawn by repeated Israeli provocations. A crippling blockade, habitual violence and naked attempts to destabilise the elected government did not deter Hamas from this course. Only this year, after a US-Israeli sponsored armed coup attempt in Gaza, a successful putsch in the West Bank, and repeated incursions by the IDF, Hamas offered Israel a ten year ceasefire if it could abide by the terms of a two-state settlement: this offer, just like every other peace overture, was contemptuously dismissed. And now, most recently, a ceasefire agreed on in June has been flagrantly overturned by Israel. No one noticed, at least no one who writes for a newspaper.

The April offer, in particular, is worth reiterating, since it’s quite remarkable.

The leader of Hamas said Monday that his Palestinian militant group would offer Israel a 10-year “hudna,” or truce, as implicit proof of recognition of Israel if it withdrew from all lands it seized in the 1967 Middle East War.

Khaled Mashaal told The Associated Press that he made the offer to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in talks on Saturday. “We have offered a truce if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, a truce of 10 years as a proof of recognition,” Mashaal said.

In his comments Monday, Mashaal used the Arabic word “hudna,” meaning truce, which is more concrete than “tahdiya” – a period of calm – which Hamas often uses to describe a simple cease-fire. “Hudna” implies a recognition of the other party’s existence.

As recently as 23 December, Hamas was still making similar offers.

Hamas would consider renewing a lapsed truce with Israel in the Gaza Strip, but wants guarantees the Jewish state will halt incursions and keep border crossings open for supplies of aid and fuel, a spokesman said today.

One doesn’t have to admire Hamas’ political philosophy or strategic orientation to recognize that it’s not an amorphous expression of innate evil, firing missiles at Israel just for the hell of it. Given that the blockade of Gaza is illegal and has been condemned by just about every reputable human rights organisation in the world, Hamas’ insistence on the opening of the border seems entirely reasonable.

Or, at least, it would if such things were ever discussed. Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald highlights an encounter on the US talk show ‘Meet the Press’ which sums up the way that the conflict usually gets reported. The Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, appeared on the show and was confronted with the following questions.

How long will the offensive last?
A lot of people are watching what’s playing out, this air assault, and wondering why now?
What is Israel’s goal right now? Is it to re-establish the cease-fire, or is it to invade Gaza and remove Hamas from power?
Foreign Minister, aren’t you making the case for pushing Hamas from power? The cease-fire, according to Israel, simply hasn’t worked. It hasn’t stopped the bombing of Sderot and Israel in the southern areas. So only the replacement of Hamas by Fatah, by more moderate leaders, appears to be the only answer.
Is it acceptable to Israel for Hamas to remain in power in Gaza?
I know you were in Egypt this past week, you met with Hosni Mubarak. What did you hear in the course of those meetings–the foreign minister of Egypt has criticized Hamas–and what is your message to the Arab world this morning?
The Bush administration has been supportive of the campaign so far in Gaza but has warned Israel about avoiding civilian causalities. What kinds of consultations have you had with Secretary of State Rice?
But if the goal is to change realities on the ground, to change the behavior of Hamas, how much international condemnation is Israel prepared to accept and at what level of civilian casualties?
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, thank you very much for your time.

As Greenwald comments, ‘the only time Gregory [the host] challenged her at all was, in essence, to demand that Israel take even more aggressive action.’

Once more, it’s exactly the sort of media coverage we saw over Iraq.  And we all know how that ended.


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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