A neat story for the latest round of bloodshed in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories would run something like this: Palestinian terrorists attacked Israeli civilians. Eight Israelis were killed, and Israel responded with strikes that killed Palestinians believed to be responsible for the terrorism. A neat story of terrorism and counter-terrorism where Israel defends itself against terrorism. Then responsible commentary on whether Israel has exercised enough restraint in responding to terrorism.
It may be worth delving deeper, to try to gain some actual understanding of the situation and its dynamics. In March this year, a new round of hostilities broke out. Ha’aretz military correspondents Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff reported that the:
current tensions began exactly a week ago when Israel launched an air attack on a Hamas base in the ruins of the settlement of Netzarim, killing two Hamas men. That attack came in response to a Qassam fired from Gaza that landed in an open area. Hamas then responded with a barrage of 50 mortars on communities south of the Gaza Strip.
launched a series of air attacks in which a number of Hamas militants were wounded. Things worsened yesterday afternoon. After a round of mortar fire on kibbutzim east of Gaza, the Israel Defence Forces fired its own mortars right back at the source of the firing – at the Sajaiyeh neighbourhood east of Gaza City, killing four members of a family, including two children.
They went on to state: ‘Hamas TV repeatedly showed close-ups last night of the body of an 11-year-old boy, Mohammed Jihad al-Halu, who was killed by IDF fire.’
In this context, it should be noted: the Qassam rocket may not necessarily have been fired by Hamas. Other militant groups – including anti-Hamas groups – sometimes fire rockets at Israel from Gaza. However, Israel has reserved for itself the right to bomb Gaza as it sees fit. In December, Israel launched three airstrikes, purportedly in response to a rocket that was fired the previous week. In April, Israel bombed Gaza again, killing three Hamas members. The Israeli army claimed the men who it murdered were planning to kidnap Israelis. As per usual, it did not feel a need to grant any of the men due process, or even present evidence for its claims.
Harel and Issacharoff reported that Hamas denied the allegation, putting the bloodshed into the context of ‘two years of quiet, since Operation Cast Lead’. That is, Hamas had basically maintained a ceasefire, largely preventing other factions from firing rockets into Israel for two years. The bloodshed, however, continued. By 10 April, 100 rockets were fired at Israel, and ‘at least 19 Palestinians’ had been killed. The rockets caused ‘no injuries … but damage to homes and poultry runs in the Eshkol region was extensive. Most fell in open areas’.
Who were the dead Palestinians?
According to the head of emergency medical services in Gaza, Adham Abu-Salmiya, most of those hit were civilians, and among the dead were several women and children. Five Palestinians were killed on Thursday, and 10 on Friday, among them a 45-year-old woman, Najah Kadih, and her 25-year-old daughter, Nadal Kadih, in Khan Yunis, according to Palestinian reports…. Among the dead was also a 10-year-old boy, Wail al-Jaro…. Palestinian sources reported Saturday that a civilian in his 50s, Ahmed Azeituna, was killed by an artillery shell in Jabalya, north of Gaza City.
This is perhaps a significant feature of the mutual attacks, which is rarely noted. Israel killed members of Palestinian militant groups, and also civilians, including women and children. Hamas launched attacks which could have, but did not, harm civilians. It would be strange if this were considered a kind of parity, but it is more usually considered Palestinian terrorism, to which Israel responds.
If this is considered adequate provocation to launch an attack, then surely Palestinians have far greater cause to launch attacks. Amira Hass has reported on Israeli soldiers firing at Palestinians in Gaza who get too close to the Israel-Gaza border, which Israel purports to use as a security buffer.
According to United Nations figures, since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 at least 25 Gazans, six of them children, have been killed by Israeli gunfire on the buffer zone. Another 146 have been wounded. This policy of widening the buffer zone is particularly harmful to farming in the Gaza Strip, since about 35 percent of the territory’s arable land is within the prohibited zone.
Hass wrote about the teenagers shot trying to salvage building materials in the buffer zone. The reason they tried to do so is because since the massive onslaught in Gaza ended in January 2009, Israel has allowed virtually no concrete into Gaza. Israeli human rights organisation Gisha reported ‘the quantity of building materials that Israel has permitted into the Strip since a partial lifting of the closure was announced, in June , is around 4 percent of what is needed’. The blockade has devastated Gaza’s economy, leaving Palestinians desperate enough to risk their lives to try to salvage scrap materials.
It is significant – and revealing – that Israel shooting and killing Palestinians, including children, is not considered adequate provocation to justify Palestinian counter-attacks.
Consider also the report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs [pdf] for the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the week 10–16 August. In the West Bank ten Palestinians, including eight children (aged between 9 and 17), were injured while protesting against the occupation. In an unrelated incident, Palestinians injured a settler woman by stoning her car. Israeli soldiers also damaged 70 olive trees by firing tear gas. They conducted 54 search and arrest operations in the West Bank, and killed a 16-year-old in East Jerusalem. Settlers from the Migron settlement cut down 55 olive trees, burned two more and partially vandalised 10 others belonging to Mikhmas village. This year, OCHA has documented 48 settler-related incidents that led to damage to some 5,800 Palestinian trees. OCHA noted that these attacks occur ‘in the context of the so-called “price tag” strategy, in which Israeli settlers attack Palestinians and their property in retaliation for intended or implemented measures by the Israeli authorities affecting settlements.’
The report also noted the bloodshed in Gaza, immediately preceding the Palestinian attack on Thursday 18 August.
On 16 August, the Israeli Air Force launched air strikes in response to the firing of rockets by armed Palestinian factions towards southern Israel. These targeted a military base inside Gaza City and tunnels under Gaza-Egypt border, killing one armed Palestinian and injuring five other Palestinians, including three civilians. The same day, Israeli forces positioned at the fence shot and killed a 17-year-old mentally-disabled Palestinian while he was approximately 400 meters from the fence. Also, a farmer and a fisherman were injured in two separate incidents when Israeli forces opened warning fire towards them in the context of Israeli restrictions on access to land near the fence(up to 1,500 meters from the fence) and fishing zones (beyond three nautical miles from the shore). Palestinians remain restricted from accessing some 17 per cent of total land area in Gaza, where 35 per cent of Gaza’s agricultural land is located, and some 85 per cent of fishing areas that they were entitled to access under the Oslo Agreement.
It is not hard to imagine how Israel would respond if it were their civilians being killed and injured. Let alone their land being taken, as the Israeli government decries the ‘unilateralism’ of the coming September vote at the UN for declaring a Palestinian state.
Let us continue to the attack on Thursday. Ha’aretz reported that ‘IDF officials believe the goal of the attack was to kidnap a soldier.’ This may seem strange, given that it was supposedly a terrorist attack: how could they kidnap soldiers if they were targeting civilians? According to Al Jazeera: ‘The attacks in southern Israel began around noon, when gunmen strafed a bus on route 12, a desert road which flanks the Egyptian border, about 25km north of Eilat … Reports said most of the passengers on the bus were Israeli soldiers on their way home from their respective bases for the weekend.’ The militants also fired on another bus, and killed four in a civilian car. So it appears that this attack was targeted at both civilians and the Israeli military.
I think one can rightly condemn an attack which at best so willingly put civilian lives at risk. But any such moral condemnation that pretends this is some unique feature of anti-Israel violence is simply absurd. Think of how the attack on Gaza in December 2008 began – with over 230 Palestinians killed in the opening airstrikes. As the Guardian noted at the time, Israel chose ‘to strike on a Saturday morning, when the streets of this impoverished enclave were full, show[ing] the same indifference to human life that Israel charges its enemies with.’ Its targets were police officers – hardly a military target. Yet this was the military component: Israel knew many other civilians would inevitably be killed. Why this is terrorism when committed by Palestinians, and something else – restraint and counterterrorism – when committed by Israel is beyond me.
Eight Israelis were killed. Israel’s response has killed 15 Palestinians so far. The military wing of Hamas briefly ended its ceasefire with Israel, operative since the Gaza attack in January 2009. There has since been a barrage of rockets fired at Israel, which has killed one Israeli. It is not clear who was responsible for the attacks on Thursday. Hamas has denied responsibility, as has the Popular Resistance Committees. The PRC said, ‘We salute [the operation] and we are proud of it, but we do not claim it.’ It is hard to imagine why they would deny responsibility for an attack they supported, if they were responsible. Israel initially blamed the PRC, but has since backtracked from this claim. Considering that Israel has killed at least five militants from PRC in retaliation for the attack, it is worth pondering on what basis Israel kills Palestinians in response to such attacks.
Israel also insisted that they would hold Hamas responsible for the attack. The Prime Minister’s spokesperson declared he had ‘very, very precise information that they came out of Gaza. We have no doubt.’ It has since turned out – according to Egyptian paper Al-Masry Al-Youm – that at least 3 of the attackers were Egyptian.
Besides the immediate bombings, which killed a Palestinian child, Israel also bombed ‘central Gaza, hitting a power plant and causing a power outage in the Nuseirat refugee camp.’ As is usual with Israel, it has resorted to collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza. Israel responded to the attack by closing ‘the Kerem Shalom border crossing until further notice.’
Israeli government ministers have stressed to the Israeli public that vengeance will be wrought on Gaza. Defence Minister Ehud Barak declared: ‘Gaza is a source of terror, and we will take full-force action against them … There will be a price tag to this event … Gaza will be severely hit.’ Recall the above OCHA report on settler terrorism to understand the traditional meaning of ‘price tags’.
Israel openly declaring an intention to harm the entire population of Gaza has not shocked a world used to such declarations, and actions. It is simply worth noting from the narrowest perspective of the self-interest of Israeli Jews, such tactics have never worked before, and will not work in the future. The bloodshed will continue as long as Israel maintains its occupation of the occupied territories.
It is also worth putting the military attacks in domestic Israeli context. At the end of July, Richard Silverstein warned of the fear that Israel would ‘seek a military distraction to relieve the pressure generated by the social protest movement.’ Israel has been rocked by hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding social justice; the largest protests in Israel’s history, which have threatened to oust Netanyahu. Since the attacks, the protests have dwindled to no more than a few thousand, and weekend protests were cancelled altogether. It seems the attack may prove a boost for the Netanyahu government, which was facing a serious crisis.
Perhaps the most significant new element of the attack on Thursday was in relation to Egypt. The attackers entered Israel from Egypt: evidently, the Egyptian army is not currently as zealous in serving Israel as it once was. However, Egypt did report that it killed two of the Palestinian fighters in the Sinai, and the Israeli army was reportedly ‘in close contact with the Egyptian army throughout.’ Despite this, an Israeli helicopter during the course of the fight killed five Egyptian police. This has caused considerable outrage in Egypt, with protests and strong statements from its leading presidential candidates. The most popular man in Egypt right now is a man who climbed the Israeli embassy to take down its flag.
For now, the Egyptian military is continuing to preserve Egypt’s relations with Israel – they had threatened to withdraw their ambassador, but wound up abstaining from the move. Yet the Egyptian public remains furious, and it is not clear Israel expressing ‘regret’ will satisfy the Egyptians.
What this means for the future is yet to be determined. If Egypt is not willing to police its border as vigilantly as Mubarak did for the sake of Israel’s security, there could easily be an increase of attacks on Israel from Egypt. Israel could well decide to hold the Egyptian government responsible for any such lapses. This could even result in another Arab–Israeli war. There is more to be said, but the least that can be said is that these are ominous signs.