free fire zone

Lenin’s Tomb points out something truly remarkable about the ongoing (happy 2009!) carnage in Gaza:  the most widely quoted figure for civilian casualties automatically excludes men. The ABC explains:

The United Nations says 320 people have been killed in Gaza, including 62 women and children, and around 1,400 injured.

“[The 62 figure] does not include civilian casualties who are men, even though we know that there have been some civilian men killed as well,” UN humanitarian affairs co-ordinator John Holmes said.

In other words, the ‘international community’ (to use the most common euphemism for the great and the good) not only accepts that all employees of the elected government in Gaza (such as policemen) are legitimate targets, it extends that logic to any adult man.  Could you imagine the world’s press applying the same argument to white people? But the racism against Arabs is so deeply ingrained that the media sees no problem at all with a tabulation implying that, really, they’re all terrorists, whether they wear a uniform or not.

During the Vietnam War, General Westmoreland famously explained:

The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.

It’s the same sensibility in Gaza and in Iraq. Our lives are precious; their lives are plentiful. That’s why it’s OK if a densely populated urban environment becomes more or less a free fire zone. Bear that in mind when reading Michael Shaik’s excellent article from today’s Age:

When Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006, Israeli officials declared their intention to punish the Palestinians by putting them on a “diet”. The diet was intensified in 2007, following the seizure of power in Gaza by Hamas. Imports and exports were suspended and the supply of food, medicine, electricity and fuel has been alternately reduced to a trickle or cut off altogether.

The result, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency, is that Gaza has become “the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and — some would say — encouragement of the international community”.

Israel’s premise in imposing its diet on the people of Gaza was that they would turn against Hamas when they realised how much worse off they were than their compatriots in the West Bank. Over the past year, this assumption has been utterly discredited.

Since the Annapolis peace summit of November 2007, Israeli settlement construction has accelerated markedly throughout the West Bank and exponentially in Palestinian East Jerusalem. While Fatah’s “security forces” have co-operated with Israel in liquidating Palestinian resistance cells, they have no control over the checkpoints that regulate Palestinian life in the West Bank and are powerless to protect their people from attacks by Israeli soldiers and settlers.

But in Gaza, where the Hamas party has refused to unilaterally renounce the armed struggle, Israel agreed to a ceasefire based on a rough balance of terror. Though hungry and cold, Gaza’s people have until recently enjoyed a security that West Bank Palestinians can only dream about.

On November 4, the ceasefire was shattered by the Israeli Army when it crossed into Gaza to destroy a tunnel and kill six Palestinian militants, calculating (correctly) that the international media would be too focused on America’s presidential election to properly cover the attack.

Its motives for breaking the ceasefire and the recent escalation of its attacks on Gaza are probably due to a number of factors. The first is its wish to restore what Israelis euphemistically call its “deterrence credibility”.

Israel’s generals are known to have felt deeply humiliated by the ceasefire. By seeking a decisive victory over Hamas they hope to re-establish Israel’s military prestige as the region’s mini-superpower.

The second is attributable to domestic political factors. Decisive action against recalcitrant Arabs has always played well with the Israeli public. With an election looming and the opposition Likud party leading in the polls, the Israeli Government’s demonstrated willingness to punish Hamas regardless of civilian casualties has, as Oz-Salzberger notes, turned the tables on Likud “in a uniquely Israeli way”.

The final reason is probably the most obvious but needs to be emphasised: Israel is counting on its supporters around the world to “contextualise” the offensive.

While impossible to disprove, Oz-Salzberger’s assertion that Israel’s attempts to “surgically strike” military targets are being frustrated by Hamas’ strategy of deliberately putting Palestinian children in harm’s way is contradicted by a broad consensus of reports by human rights organisations, which have consistently reported instances of Palestinian civilians being killed by excessive lethal force, while failing to discover a single case of Palestinian militants using children as human shields.

Israel’s decision to launch its surprise attack at 11.30 on Saturday morning when Palestinian children throughout Gaza would be leaving their morning classes or on their way to afternoon classes is also more consistent with its policy of punishing Gaza’s civilian population than with a strategy of surgical strikes.


Jeff Sparrow

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

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

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  1. A quick addendum: the news footage from the initial attacks on the police stations showed prisoners amidst the rubble, something which highlighted the absurdity of the IDF claims (almost universally accepted by the media) that these were somehow embodiments of the regime. Again, in any other context, it would go without saying that police stations holding prisoners on remand were part of the normal civil infrastructure. But in Gaza, apparently, it’s all terrorism, all the time.

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