Sunday, February 1, 2009

How could this happen in Gaza? – Again

UN observers say there was no safe refuge in Gaza after the Israeli military bombed several schools, hospitals and 20 mosques. The International Committee of the Red Cross described Israeli actions as “shocking” and “unacceptable.” International human rights organizations charged Israel with war crimes over the illegal use of white phosphorous, dense inert metal explosives (DIME) and weapons with depleted uranium. Finally, doctors in Gaza describe the catastrophe as “genocidal attacks.”

Prior to the attacks that began on December 27, UN and human rights reports described the misery caused by the 18-month long Israeli blockade of Gaza as inhumane. Yet the deadly attacks further compounded the misery, resulting in over 1200 Palestinians have been killed and 5300 wounded, nearly half of the casualties are women and children. Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians. 35,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes. Psychologists describe a horrific and widespread trauma that Palestinians will experience long past the dead are buried.

Many people in Kansas City were appalled and sickened by the death and destruction in Gaza. They responded by writing letters to newspapers, calling elected officials, signing petitions, donating money, joining protests, and speaking out in emails and on the Internet. This support for an end to the attacks and blockade showed people are hopeful about a change in US foreign policy. But others strongly support Israel’s military campaign.

Demonize your enemy, Kansas City style

Demonizing your enemy is not a new concept. Israel and the US government have dehumanized Palestinians for decades with US media describing nearly every Israeli attack as simple retribution for Palestinian “terror.” Palestinian supporters demonize Israeli government officials, too, but what sticks in American minds is what the US media reports.

To hear what type of Israel support there is in Kansas City, I attended the conservative Kansas City-based Zenith Boosters Club, which took on the topic of Gaza in January with a presentation by Rabbi Alan Cohen.

The rabbi offered a defense of Israel military policy, typically found in mainstream US media and government, namely, Hamas is part of an international terror network bent on the destruction of Israel. Hamas launched thousands of rockets despite Israel’s “self-restraint, enormous self-restraint,” referring to the attacks that had killed 500 Palestinians and injured thousands by the time of this talk. In other words, Israel had no choice.

The first question after the presentation came from a regular member of the club. He asked why Israel did not apply the genocidal solution of Genghis Khan to the Palestinians. When someone asked the questioner if he meant “move them [the Palestinians] out” of Gaza, he said, “No, I mean exterminate -- wipe them out.” The questioner overlooked the irony of asking a Jewish rabbi if exterminating Palestinians was a viable solution. In response, however, Rabbi Cohen suggested that if Israel is confronted with a real threat that it has a nuclear bomb and would not hesitate to use it.

“Israel wants nothing more than to live in peace, side-by-side” with Palestinians, Rabbi Cohen suggested, citing an oft-repeated line that contradicts the reality of Israel’s attacks, which left Gaza ungovernable.

Another Massacre Denied: “We are not targeting civilians”

Israeli leaders and public relations spokespersons stated from the first day of the Gaza attacks that the military was only targeting Hamas militants, careful to avoid civilian casualties. Pressed with revelations that women and children were a major portion of the casualties, these same officials claimed Hamas was using civilians as human shields.

On January 15, 2009, a single day during the recent attacks, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported “All civilian institutions in the Gaza Strip, including the UN Relief and Works Agency, the International Committee of the Red Cross; medical institutions, civil defense and information institutions, are being targeted by IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces], who are flagrantly continuing to obstruct the work of these institutions, and in doing so are violating humanitarian law.” The International Committee of the Red Cross unearthed 22 bodies from the Al-Samouni family in Al-Zaytoun district east of Gaza City. Israel military bombed the medical compound of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society which includes offices and the five-story Al Quds Hospital. “Three shells hit the Al Quds hospital in the neighborhood, settings its pharmacy building ablaze, trapping 400 patients and staff inside the main hospital building,” according to a Associated Press story on the same day.

Sadly, the Gaza attacks by Israel follow a familiar pattern in other military campaigns. Using a similar justification for disproportionate attacks in Iraq in April and November 2004, US military forces invaded Fallujah for retribution of the killing of private contractors.

US congressional representative Jim McDermott, a critic of the attacks, reported “US forces cut off Fallujah’s water and electricity. About 200,000 residents were forced to flee…. Public buildings, mosques and residences were subjected to assault by air and ground forces. Convoys sent by the Iraqi Red Crescent were turned away from attending to the injured. The means of attack employed against Fallujah are illegal and cannot be justified by any conceivable ends.” [1]

A member of the Brussels, Belgium Tribunal Committee reported that “everything that moved became a target and even ambulances weren’t spared. An ambulance was hit by a missile right before our eyes and completely burned out.” [2]. The report also documented use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous in the attacks. The Central Health Centre in Fallujah was bombed by US forces on November 9, killing “40 patients and fifteen health workers.” US forces claimed the hospital was controlled by insurgents and used as a “center of propaganda.”

Placing the Israeli attacks in perspective, there is only one way to describe events that occurred recently in the Gaza Strip – Israel engaged in a planned, deliberate massacre of Palestinian people.

The massacre in Gaza, like the massacre of 1700 civilians in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, should be investigated and adjudicated in an international court.

Occasionally a massacre reveals the depth to which officials deny responsibility. In an attack in El Salvador in 1981, soldiers from the US-trained Salvadoran government Atlacatl Batallion killed “733 peasants, mostly children, women and old people” in a supposed raid against anti-government rebel forces. The first US newspaper reported on the massacre six weeks later. The Salvadoran government denied the reports, then US Assistant Secretary of State Eliot Abrams stated the reports “were not credible,” and the Wall Street Journal criticized the stories.

Yet the truth about the US role was clear as reported by author Mark Hertsgaard, "What made the Moraz├ín [El Salvador] massacre stories so threatening was that they repudiated the fundamental moral claim that undergirded US policy. They suggested that what the United States was supporting in Central America was not democracy but repression. They therefore threatened to shift the political debate from means to ends, from how best to combat the supposed Communist threat — send US troops or merely US aid? — to why the United States was backing state terrorism in the first place." [3]

Who broke the truce? Why try to destroy Hamas?

“The breakdown of a truce between Hamas and Israel had been observed for several months by both sides. The truce was maintained by Hamas despite the failure of Israel to fulfill its obligation under the agreement to improve the living conditions of the people of Gaza. The recent upsurge of violence occurred after an Israeli incursion that killed several alleged militants within Gaza” on November 4. [4]

This was not a war against Hamas, but an all-out campaign to destroy Palestinian civil society, a campaign to destroy Palestinians’ ability to govern and protect themselves. Witness the destruction of all government buildings in Gaza, including police stations, prisons, courthouses, and businesses. Gaza society was on the verge of collapse because of an 18-month Israeli blockade – before the latest attacks. One resident said “Whatever capacity we did have to run our affairs is no longer there.”

The US bears a huge portion of responsibility for perpetuating the catastrophe when it “blocked approval of a statement demanded by Arab countries calling for an immediate cease-fire and expressing serious concern at the escalation of violence.” [5] In a similar pattern the US blocked a ceasefire resolution on the second day of the Lebanon/Gaza crisis in 2006, which resulted in over 1000 Lebanese deaths, 400 Palestinian Gazan deaths, and over 100 Israeli deaths. An early ceasefire would have greatly reduced deaths.

Let’s be clear – rockets from Gaza should have stopped -- but let’s also be honest by acknowledging Hamas’ limited capacity to threaten Israeli society. The right approach is to negotiate a truce, leading to an end to the occupation and long-term resolution to the conflict.

In one of the most brilliantly argued explanations for Israel’s military attacks, Henry Siegman, former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, wrote “Why then are Israel’s leaders so determined to destroy Hamas? Because they believe that its leadership, unlike that of Fatah, cannot be intimidated into accepting a peace accord that establishes a Palestinian ‘state’ made up of territorially disconnected entities over which Israel would be able to retain permanent control. Control of the West Bank has been the unwavering objective of Israel’s military, intelligence and political elites since the end of the Six-Day War.” [6]

Matt Quinn

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[1] Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1/11/2005
[2] Brussels Tribunal report, 12/20/2005
[3] On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency, Mark Hertsgaard, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1988
[4] Richard Falk, UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 12/30/2008
[5] Kansas City Star, AP report, 1/3/2009
[6] “Israel’s Lies,” Henry Sieman, London Review of Books, 1/29/2009 - http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n02/sieg01_.html