Analysis | Israel’s attack on Gaza is the culmination of 66 years of settler-colonialism
Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, July 20, 2014 16:48 - 23 Comments
Israeli officials have claimed that the military invasion of Gaza is a response to Hamas rocket attacks, a legitimate form of self-defence against the group’s indiscriminate firing into civilian areas. To be sure, Hamas’ rocket attacks inside Israel are wrong, and when they kill Israeli civilians, they are war crimes. But who is the real aggressor in this conflict? “Hamas started it”, a friend told me. “Israel is responding to attack.”
According to Barack Obama, “No country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” But which country on earth would tolerate being suffocated, starved and besieged for 66 years in an open air prison involving a brutal military occupation, blockade, and routine deaths?
Never again? The 2 million death toll
According to Dr Gideon Polya of La Trobe University, Palestinian casualties of war violence since 1948 are estimated to range between 80,000 to 100,000, compared to about 4,000 Israeli casualties of (mostly) terrorist attacks. In his academic paper for the anthology, The Plight of the Palestinians: A Long History of Destruction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), Polya further calculates that total number of avoidable Palestinian deaths from “war, expulsion and occupation-imposed deprivation” amounts to about 1.9 million fatalities since Israel’s founding.
Just this February, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Territories – Richard Falk, Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law at Princeton University – submitted his final report to the UN Human Rights Council. Presenting his findings at a news conference in March, he said that Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza bore “unacceptable characteristics of colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.”
Professor Falk pointed out that more than 11,000 Palestinians had lost their right to live in Jerusalem since 1996 due to Israel imposing residency laws favouring Jews and revoking Palestinian residence permits. “The 11,000 is just the tip of the iceberg because many more are faced with possible challenges to their residency rights.” In the West Bank, Israeli policies of “apartheid and segregation” with de-facto annexation of territory are designed to deny the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, while efforts to “change the ethnic composition” of East Jerusalem are supported by the proliferation of illegal settlements.
Despite the IDF’s ostensible disengagement from Gaza in 2005, the coastal enclave remains “occupied” under an unlawful Israeli blockade controlling Gaza’s borders, airspace and coastal waters, which have created food and fuel shortages. This has been accompanied by “continuing excessive use of force by Israeli security forces” and unlawful killings that are “part of acts carried out in order to maintain dominance over Palestinians.”
“It seems incontestable that Israeli measures do divide the population of the Occupied Palestinian Territory along racial lines, create separate reserves for Palestinians and expropriate their land,” Falk concluded in his report. Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to military laws, while Jewish settlers face a civil law system. Israel also violates Palestinians’ rights to work and education, freedoms of movement and residence, and of expression and assembly.
Calibrating the Gaza starvation diet
A US diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks in 2011 quoted Israeli officials saying they wanted to “keep Gaza’s economy on the brink of collapse.” The idea was to ensure the economy was “functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.”
One of the mechanisms to do this was what veteran Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook called Israel’s “starvation diet” for Gaza. Israeli Defence ministry documents obtained by the Israeli human rights group Gisha showed that Israeli officials had calculated the minimum number of calories – so-called ‘red lines’ – needed by Gaza’s population to avoid malnutrition. But as Cook reports, while this figure required allowing in 170 trucks a day, in practice Israeli military officials permitted an average of just 67 trucks per day into Gaza (compared to a daily 400 before the blockade).
“The facts on the ground in Gaza demonstrate that food imports consistently fell below the red lines,” said Robert Turner, operations director of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). No wonder a 2012 UNRWA report forecasts that if Israel’s policies toward Gaza continue, the strip will be uninhabitable by 2020.
Routine murders – just another day in Israel’s open air prison
Amidst such intolerable conditions, the IDF added insult to injury by killing nine Palestinians in Gaza and 27 in the West Bank in 2013. In several incidents, soldiers had shot dead civilians for throwing stones. Despite formal military investigations into some of these incidents, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem criticised the process as deeply flawed since “practically no one is held accountable for the killing of Palestinians,” and therefore the procedure “does not serve as a deterrent and indicates disregard for human life.”
Earlier this year, BTselem documented that five Palestinian civilians “who were not taking part in hostilities” were killed by the IDF near the Gaza perimeter fence. The group noted that “Gaza residents use the area for a variety of patently civilian needs: work-related, recreational walks and demonstrations” and criticised the IDF for “harming people who pose no threat to anyone.”
Then three Israeli boys were kidnapped in early June of this year. As an investigation by the Jewish Daily Forward found, Netanyahu’s government knew almost immediately that the boys had been killed, and who had killed them – but pretended to know neither to justify a brutal crackdown.
“It was clear from the beginning that the kidnappers weren’t acting on orders from Hamas leadership in Gaza or Damascus,” reported Forward. “Hamas’ Hebron branch – more a crime family than a clandestine organisation – had a history of acting without the leaders’ knowledge, sometimes against their interests. Yet Netanyahu repeatedly insisted Hamas was responsible for the crime and would pay for it.”
Thus ensued an 18-day ‘search-and-rescue operation,’ involving soldiers entering “thousands of homes, arresting and interrogating hundreds of individuals.” To justify the operation, Netanyahu “maintained the fiction” that they hoped to find the boys alive “as a pretext to dismantle Hamas’ West Bank operations.”
In the process, the IDF killed more than half a dozen Palestinians – while a Palestinian teenager was burned to death by settlers.
This is the context in which Hamas’ first round of rocket attacks since 2012 was unleashed, and through which we must analyse the process leading up to the IDF’s current ground invasion.
Bending the law to kill
So far, the IDF has killed more than 400 Palestinians, 80% of whom are civilians, and wounded 2,000; while two Israelis have been killed (one by ‘friendly’ fire). Israeli officials claim that they are targeting Hamas military installations. “According to the army, since the start of the entire operation, 200 ‘command and control centres’ and 43 ‘Hamas regime buildings’ have been hit,” notes British journalist Ben White. “The former is often a euphemism for someone’s family home; the latter includes government ministries.”
But over 1,300 Palestinian homes have been destroyed by Israeli bombs. By implication, assuming the claim is true in the first place, the IDF’s own figures imply that only 243 of these have been remotely connected to Hamas.
Israel’s military track record suggests worse. White highlights a Ha’aretz report from 2009 which revealed that “IDF officers were receiving legal advice that allowed for large numbers of civilian casualties and the targeting of government buildings.”
“The people who go into a house despite a warning do not have to be taken into account in terms of injury to civilians, because they are voluntary human shields,” said one senior official of the international law division (ILD) of the Israeli Military Advocate General’s Office. “From the legal point of view, I do not have to show consideration for them. In the case of people who return to their home in order to protect it, they are taking part in the fighting. If someone stands in front of a tank in order to block its progress, he is participating in warfare.”
The dean of the Faculty of Law in the College of Management, Prof Orna Ben-Naftali, argues that such distorted applications of international law have eroded “distinctions between types of conflicts or between civilians and combatants” so as to “validate the use of almost unlimited force in a manner that is totally at odds with the basic goal of humanitarian law. Instead of legal advice and international humanitarian law minimising suffering, they legitimise the use of force.”
As a consequence, “the majority of the adult men in Gaza and the majority of the buildings can be treated as legitimate targets. The law has actually been stood on its head. It has ceased to fulfill its purpose, and so we have to admit that it has gone into dissolution procedures ahead of bankruptcy.”
All of Gaza is the enemy
Multiple credible independent investigations into IDF conduct have proven it deliberately targeted civilians. In the wake of Operation Cast Lead, the Jerusalem-based Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) found that the IDF had adopted a more aggressive combat doctrine based on two principles – “zero casualties” for IDF soldiers at the cost of deploying increasingly indiscriminate firepower in densely populated areas, and the ‘Dahiye Doctrine’ promoting the targeting of civilian infrastructure to create widespread suffering amongst the population with a view to foment opposition to Israel’s opponents.
One Israeli soldier cited by PCATI said: “If we detect anything that should not be there – we shoot. We’re told the air force distributed flyers telling everyone to go to Gaza City. If beyond this line any people are detected – they are not supposed to be there.”
“In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents. It was simply urban warfare in every way,” said another.
The basis of this approach was clarified in March 2009 when the IDF’s rules of engagement policy was outlined to the Knesset Committee for Foreign and Security Affairs:
“The troops will be preceded by a ferocious pillar of fire. After the shooting, the warnings, anyone remaining in the area, in one of the most densely populated urban sites in the world is either a terrorist or knows the price to pay.”
This policy was the result of what Major General Gadi Eisenkott – commanding officer of the IDF’s Northern Command – described as the IDF’s ‘Dahiye Doctrine’ in October 2008:
“What happened in the Dahiye Quarter of Beirut in 2006, will happen in every village from which shots are fired on Israel. We will use disproportionate force against it and we will cause immense damage and destruction. From our point of view these are not civilian villages but military bases. This is not a recommendation, this is the plan, and it has already been authorised.”
Elaborating on Eisenkott’s comments, a paper by IDF Colonel Gabriel Siboni for the Institute for National Security Studies – a Tel Aviv think-tank headed by ex IDF military intelligence chief General Amos Yadlin which reflects Israeli military thinking – advocates that the IDF must respond to hostilities
“with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses… Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand a long and expensive reconstruction processes. The strike must be carried out as quickly as possible, and must prioritise damaging assets over seeking out each and every launcher. Punishment must be aimed at decision makers and the power elite… and should target economic interests and the centers of civilian power that support the organisation… This approach is applicable to the Gaza Strip as well.”
In 2009, then deputy prime minister Eli Ishai explained further the rationale: “We have to determine a price tag for every rocket fired into Israel. If for every small attack we will strike at the infrastructure or houses – the firing will stop.”
The impact of IDF doctrines and rules of engagement in Gaza and the West Bank have been extensively documented in the over 950 testimonies of former IDF soldiers “who represent all strata of Israeli society and cover nearly all units that operate in the Territories.”
“Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still explained as extreme and unique cases. Our testimonies portray a different, and much grimmer picture in which deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of orders and the rules of engagement, and are justified in the name of Israel’s security,” reads the website of Breaking the Silence, the Israeli NGO founded in 2004 by a group of soldiers who served in Hebron. “While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny that what is done in its name.”
IDF spokespeople attempt to legitimise the wanton destruction of civilian life in Gaza by blaming Hamas for using human shields. But these claims remain largely unsubstantiated. In its 2009 investigation, Amnesty International “did not find evidence that Hamas or other Palestinian groups violated the laws of war to the extent repeatedly alleged by Israel. In particular, it found no evidence that Hamas or other fighters directed the movement of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks.”
On the contrary, Amnesty found that the IDF itself was using Palestinians as human shields: “Amnesty International did find that Israeli forces on several occasions during Operation ‘Cast Lead’ forced Palestinian civilians to serve as ‘human shields.’” (pp. 48, 75)
As Israel accelerates its ground invasion of Gaza, IDF forces slaughtering largely anything in their path, it is clear that their goal is not simply deterrence of Hamas, but the comprehensive punishment of Palestinians through the indiscriminate destruction of civilians and civilian infrastructure – a continuation of 66 years of occupation and colonisation.
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