Operation Cast Lead, two years on

Two years ago, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began the indiscriminate slaughter it named Operation Cast Lead. Some 1400 people were killed, thousands more wounded and displaced. Hundreds of sad people marched in Gaza in commemoration.

See here for the reasons Israel attacked Gaza.

Here I write about why the Mavi Marmara (the Gaza flotilla) incident may have been good for Israel, because it distracted the world from Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report.

I wrote here about attempts to try Tzipi Livni as a war criminal, which apparently did not go anywhere.

And here I wrote about how Israel’s culture legitimised Cast Lead (and other violence in Israel’s name).

Gaza is still under blockade, which means little rebuilding gets done. Things had been relatively quiet along the Gaza border for the past two years until recently, when more rockets have been fired from Gaza, Israeli air strikes have followed, and thus tensions are higher. There are fears (or hopes?) that another Cast Lead-like massacre might be “necessary”. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff, said Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and “holds the Hamas terrorist organisation solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip”, which means the IDF does not distinguish between rockets fired by Hamas or by any other group.

It is sad that this crime will go unpunished, and that it may even repeat itself.

"Ismail, Abed and Leila don't go to the infant clinic anymore"

Why probe the Gaza flotilla?

The UN has announced it will launch a probe into what happened at the Gaza “Freedom Flotilla” incident. Nine Turks were killed two months ago when Israeli soldiers boarded one of the vessels. We know that. Why are they probing any further?

Perhaps the move is to embarrass Israel. It is the latest in a long series of attacks on Israel by the UN and many Arab states. These attacks have grown so numerous and disproportionate to all the other terrible things that happen in the world that they have become meaningless and counterproductive. The incident may have been a debacle, but what effect will a committee investigation have? Even if it produced a report showing that Israel’s leaders were the most devious people in the world, would they change? Would a new round of voting be held immediately, followed by the election of a flock of doves? More likely, Israelis who are not doves themselves would become self-righteous and more entrenched in their defiance than ever.

Perhaps this probe is intended to benefit Israel. Until a few months ago, people were still talking about Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report. Now, they have been distracted by a shiny object and have bitten the hook. Operation Cast Lead was truly a disaster, bad for Israel’s already tarnished image and a nightmare for the Gazans who lived through it. The Gaza flotilla incident was an accident. As such, the government of Israel is taking up the probe commission idea with gusto, offering its choice of investigator for this “independent” investigation. The probe can thus be seen as a way to show Israel is complying with international commissions and has nothing to hide. Just don’t mention the Gaza war.

Or perhaps the probe is to provide work for bureaucrats. Either way, if the UN wants to do good, why does it not focus on the big things? The 1400 dead in Gaza from Cast Lead only a year and a half ago have gone unapologised for. The blockade of Gaza continues to cripple the economy and freedom of 1.5m people. The occupation and settlement building continue in the West Bank. This was never supposed to be about a few dead Turks who were presumably just provoking Israel with the flotilla in the first place. Israel will be seen as making one concession and pressure on it will abate, while its hardcore opponents will not change their stance whatever happens. The UN is just wasting its time.

The Real Reasons for Operation Cast Lead

Whenever one reads in newspapers about Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s War on Gaza of December and January 2008-9, it is usually referred to as a war against Hamas. This is a misconception.

Most Israelis will tell you that the reason the IDF attacked Gaza was to stop the rocket fire coming from Gaza on a daily basis. There are measures the state could have done stopping short of a war if it had wanted to, but Israel has little incentive to take them. As I have said many times, Israel has all the power in this relationship. Nothing demonstrates this fact better than the Qassam rocket. According to the Israeli government, 1750 rockets and 1528 mortar bombs were fired into southern Israel from Gaza in 2008. The fatalities these bombs caused were very few in number (22 since 2000), so few in fact that official Israeli statistics focus on the number of rockets fired and the “close to 30%” of residents of Sderot, the town that was usually the target of Qassam rockets, who suffered shell shock. (Israel accuses Iran of supplying Qassam rockets to Hamas. If this is true, which is probably is not, it illuminates how little threat Iran poses to Israel.) Is shell shock really worth killing 1400 Palestinians?

If there are two things the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have, they are intelligence and high technology. Having good intelligence means knowing where your targets are. In war, legally, you are supposed to have clear objectives, including the people you are trying to kill, and only kill those people specifically. Intelligence helps you locate the people you want to kill and modern weapons technology helps you target them. If the IDF were really after Hamas targets, why did they kill more than 300 children, 100 women and 200 police officers? (You can find all the figures on page 90 of the UN Fact-Finding Mission Report.) Why did they kill as many as 100,000 chickens? (Ibid., 205) The IDF plainly considered everyone and everything in Gaza a legitimate target.

Operation Cast Lead was not even really a war. A war is generally between two sides, two opposing armies that both have the chance to win. Cast Lead was more like a massacre. Those who call Cast Lead a war generally consider that, since 13 Israelis died during the fighting, since there were casualties on both sides, it must be a war, just a little uneven. But neither Hamas nor any other Palestinian group has anti-aircraft weapons, or precision rockets, or anything that could defend them against such an attack. Given that the number of Palestinians killed is 100 times the number of Israelis, let us look at the Israeli casualties. Three of them were civilians. They were killed by rockets fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip. The rockets that are fired from Gaza are usually said to be fired from Hamas, but they could have been fired by anyone. Hamas is not only a terrorist group, it is also a political party and a charity. Ten of the casualties were Israeli soldiers, though four of them were from friendly fire.

If you would like to know what kind of “war” Cast Lead was, go to Breaking the Silence. Breaking the Silence is an Israeli NGO that has Israeli soldiers speak about their experiences in the Occupied Territories. IDF spokespeople accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields, which is illegal under international and Israeli law and of course highly immoral. The UN Fact-Finding Mission found no evidence that Hamas used human shields, but Breaking the Silence has testimony that the IDF did. Soldiers have said the amount of destruction was “insane” and “incredible“. “You drive around those neighborhoods, and can’t identify a thing,” said one soldier. “Not one stone left standing over another. You see plenty of fields, hothouses, orchards, everything devastated. Totally ruined. It’s terrible. It’s surreal.”

For a final example, consider al-Quds hospital. Al-Quds hospital was part of the Palestinian Red Crescent. While the IDF gave slight warnings, mostly with warning pamphlets, about other attacks, there were no warning they would attack the hospital. Hundreds of civilians had gathered there seeking shelter from the rain of fire around them. There were no armed groups there. The targeting of hospitals is illegal under Articles 18 and 19 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions. The IDF used high-explosive artillery and white phosphorus in and around the hospital. The use of white phosphorus in densely populated areas is also illegal, as it is an indiscriminate weapon that spreads over a wide area and burns like acid through the flesh of anyone that it touches. And al-Quds was not the only hospital the IDF targeted. In short, it is clear that the real targets were not members of Hamas but everyone. The more people killed and terrorised, the better.

The objectives of Operation Cast Lead were twofold. First, to demoralise Gazans and force them to rise up and reject Hamas. Israel attempted to do the same thing in 2006 against Hezbollah in Lebanon but, as history will tell you, when a foreign power attacks, the locals rally round the tough-talking, security-promising party, not reject it. Second, because of its perceived failure in Lebanon two years earlier, Israel wanted to restore its deterrent capacity. In other words, Israel wanted to show to any potential enemies, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Iran, that it would be willing and able to strike hard and fast, to kill a thousand people without blinking an eye, and get off scot free.

For more on where this terrible situation came from, please see my essay “Paving the Road to Gaza: National Role Conception and Operation Cast Lead“.

The good news is that newspapers and commentators are still talking about this war. Ending the culture of impunity that Israel and all other human-rights offenders enjoy is necessary to live in a world of peace and justice.