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.