Israel wanted a
Targeting civilians was a
deliberate part of this bid to
humiliate Hamas and the
Palestinians, and pulverise
Gaza into chaos
January 20, 2009
The scale of Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip, and the almost daily reports
of war crimes over the last three weeks, has drawn criticism from even
longstanding friends and sympathisers. Despite the Israeli government’s
long-planned and comprehensive PR campaign, hundreds of dead children
is a hard sell. As a former Israeli government press adviser put it, in a
wonderful bit of unintentional irony, “When you have a Palestinian kid
facing an Israeli tank, how do you explain that the tank is actually David
and the kid is Goliath?”
Despite a mass of evidence that includes Israel’s targets in Operation Cast
Lead, public remarks by Israeli leaders over some time, and the ceasefire
manoeuvring of this last weekend, much of the analysis offered by
politicians or commentators has been disappointingly limited, and
characterised by false assumptions, or misplaced emphases, about Israel’s
First, to what this war on Gaza is not about: it’s not about the rockets.
During the truce last year, rocket fire from the Gaza Strip was reduced by
97%, with the few projectiles that were fired coming from non-Hamas groups
opposed to the agreement. Despite this success in vastly improving the
security of Israelis in the south, Israel did everything it could to undermine
the calm, and provoke Hamas into a conflict.
Israel broke the ceasefire on 4 November, with an attack in the Gaza Strip
that killed six Hamas members, and the following day severely tightened its
siege of the territory. Imports were reduced to 16 trucks a day, down from
123 daily just the previous month (and 475 in May 2007). Following the
unsurprising surge in Palestinian attacks, Israeli officials claimed that an
all-out war was unavoidable; without mentioning that an operation had been
planned for some months already.
Second, the current operation is only in a limited sense related to both the
upcoming Israeli elections and restoring the IDF’s so-called deterrence.
While it has been pointed out that a hardline approach to Palestinian
“terrorism” can play well with the Israeli public, wars are not necessarily
Israeli politicians’ tactic of choice – the Lebanon war was fought a few
months after one.
Israel is also supposed to be restoring the reputation and “deterrence
factor” of its armed forces, after their humiliation in Lebanon in 2006. Suffice
to say that until this weekend’s unilateral ceasefire, in an aid-dependent
enclave defended by an almost entirely isolated militia, Israel’s operation
had already lasted three times longer than the 1967 war when Israel defeated
its Arab neighbours and occupied the rest of Mandate Palestine.
These three suggested motivations have sometimes reached the level of
assumed knowledge, providing the background for further comment and
reporting. Based on this kind of analysis, then, criticism of Palestinian
civilian casualties is framed as “disproportionate” or “heavy-handed”, but
fundamentally a case of self-defence. It is understood that any democratic
nation would have to respond to terrorist rocket fire, but Israel has gone a
bit too far.
There is, however, no shortage of evidence available that points to rather
different Israeli aims. Estimates for the proportion of civilian deaths
among the 1,360 Palestinians killed range from more than half to two-thirds.
Politicians, diplomats and journalists are by and large shying away from the
obvious, namely that Israel has been deliberately targeting Palestinian
civilians and the very infrastructure of normal life, in order to – in the best
colonial style – teach the natives a lesson.
Given the enormous scale of what Palestinians have described as a “war of
extermination” – it appears that some 15% of all buildings in the Gaza Strip
were completely destroyed or collapsed and there is an estimated $1.4bn
worth of destruction to vital civil infrastructure – it is impossible to list every
atrocity. Israel has repeatedly hit ambulances, medics, clinics, and hospitals,
while last week, aid volunteers who tried to douse a fire in a Red Crescent
warehouse (attacked by Israel) were then shot at by Israeli forces.
UNRWA facilities have also been attacked, including several schools
sheltering civilians – just this last weekend, a civilian refuge was repeatedly
shelled. Last week, the UN headquarters was also shelled, hitting a
vocational centre, a workshop, food warehouse, and fuel depot. Like the
massacre of 6 January, Israeli officials quickly began to produce a confusing
fog of denials, apologies, promised enquiries and contradictions.
Those are just some of the more shocking examples from a military operation
that has targeted everything from schools, money-changers and a bird farm,
to entire apartment blocks, harbours, and a market. Palestinians have been
killed when Israeli tanks fired shells at residential neighbourhoods. Every
day has brought fresh horrors; last Wednesday, for example, 70 unarmed
civilians including 18 children were killed by the Israeli military. This week’s
Observer carried a story alleging Israel bulldozed homes with civilians
inside (not for the first time) and shot those waving white flags. Little
wonder that Israeli officials predicted with concern that “negative sentiment”
towards the state would “only grow as the full picture of destruction
Much of this is widely known, and easily accessible; yet still the analytical
emphasis has remained on Palestinian rockets, Israeli elections, and
deterrence. I would like to suggest three alternative purposes for Israel’s
Operation Cast Lead that go beyond the usual perspectives, and presuming
with Yale professor David Bromwich that “if Israel in 2009 reduces to rubble
a large portion of the Gaza Strip and leaves tens of thousands homeless,
there is a strong chance that this was what it intended to do”.*
The first aim is to humiliate and weaken Hamas. On the one hand, this seems
obvious, but contrary to how the goal is often understood, this is not
primarily to protect the Israeli public – as pointed out previously, ceasefires
and negotiations are far more likely to deliver security for Israeli citizens –
but rather it is a political goal. Hamas had withstood isolation, a siege, mass
arrests, and an attempted western-backed coup. Moreover, cracks were
appearing in the international community’s resolve to parrot Israel’s line on
Hamas. The group, with its resilience and ability to deliver on negotiated
ceasefires, was threatening the chance to make a deal with the Ramallah
“moderates”, and so:
A hammer blow that shattered the movement, launching some of the
resulting splinters in directions that once again put all of them beyond
the pale, was the most effective way to keep at bay those third parties
reaching the conclusion that engaging rather than excluding Hamas
could enhance the prospects of peace.
Back in December, before both the end of the six-month truce and the start
of Operation Cast Lead, foreign minister Tzipi Livni stated that an extended
truce “harms the Israel strategic goal, empowers Hamas, and gives the
impression that Israel recognizes the movement”. By the end of the month,
Livni would be telling a press conference that “Hamas wants to gain
legitimacy from the international community” and stressing that it is
“important to keep Hamas from becoming a legitimate organisation”
(apparently winning a democratic election isn’t enough to confer legitimacy).
Just as Israel chose “blood over diplomacy” in order to avoid enhancing
“Hamas’s image as a responsible interlocutor”, so this weekend, Israel chose
a unilateral ceasefire for the same reason, “hoping to send the message that
Hamas is not a legitimate actor”. A war begun in order to delegitimise Hamas
would not make way for a ceasefire in which Hamas was a partner at the
Hence Israel decided to shortcut the Egyptian-driven efforts at securing a
ceasefire, and opt for a unilateral approach that allows Israel, the US,
Egypt, Mahmoud Abbas, Britain – in fact, every interested party, except the
Gaza Strip authorities – to work together on an apparent solution. It is
also worth pointing out that the unilateral nature of the ceasefire frees Israel
to define an infringement or collapse on its own terms.
The second aim of Israel’s war is to teach a lesson to the Palestinians in Gaza,
and elsewhere, that the only way to avoid the wrath of the Israeli military
is to accept Israel’s idea of a two-state solution, a generous concession to be
gratefully received by Abbas and fellow moderates. It is a reflection of
the approach outlined by the IDF chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, in 2002 that
“the Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their
consciousness that they are a defeated people”.
On 4 January, Israeli President Shimon Peres said that Hamas needed “a real
and serious lesson”; days later, he was more explicit, reportedly declaring
Israel’s aim to be “to provide a strong blow to the people of Gaza so that
they would lose their appetite for shooting at Israel”. The next day, the
Washington Post also described how Israeli officials were hoping that the
attacks would mean “that Gazans become disgusted with Hamas and drive
the group from power”.
This Israeli strategy was previously deployed in Lebanon in 2006, when
senior military commanders redefined civilian villages as “military bases”
which would be subjected to “disproportionate force” causing “great damage
and destruction”. As I previously noted, the lessons learned in Lebanon
were not just wrong, but criminal: a retired IDF major general and former
adviser to the prime minister, Giora Eiland, reflected in a paper that
“the destruction of homes and infrastructure and the suffering of hundreds
of thousands of people are consequences that can influence Hezbollah’s
behaviour more than anything else”.
Ironically, the same Peres who now justifies collective punishment, in 2002
chastised Avigdor Lieberman for suggesting that the IDF should bomb
civilian targets, warning the minister that such a tactic would be a war crime.
The last three weeks show that proposals made by Israel’s political
extremists and originally considered outlandish, do not take long to become
Deliberately targeting civilians and vital infrastructure for political purposes
links smoothly, into the post-conflict phase, with the Israeli and US plan
to try and rescue the deeply discredited image of the Palestinian Authority
through a politicised reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. As US state
department spokesman Sean McCormack coyly put it, the “military solution”
must be followed up by investing in infrastructure and helping the
population “so that they can make a different kind of political decision”.
The third aim of Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip is to further “catastrophise”
the territory, reducing the capacity for continued existence to the barest
of minimums – perhaps to bring about “an end to the persistence of Gaza’s
ordinary people in wanting the chance of a peaceful and dignified life”. One
obvious benefit to Israel of pulverising “civilian Palestinian infrastructure”
is that “people who lack collective institutions and are reduced to scrabbling
for their very survival are easier to dominate”.
Yet, there is more going on here. Israel seeks to turn the Gaza Strip into a
depoliticised humanitarian crisis, always on the brink of catastrophe, always
dependent; its population reduced to ration-receiving clients of international
aid. Yitzhak Rabin famously wished that Gaza “would just sink into the sea”,
but perhaps the best Israel can do is to share the problem with the
international community, possibly to the extent of troops on the ground.
Increasingly focusing on Egyptian responsibility is also part of this, whether
in terms of arms smuggling, aid supplies, or for some, direct rule.
In all of this, the Gaza Strip has become a laboratory for future possible
scenarios in the West Bank (where a process of “development-isation” and
NGO-funded occupation is well established). All three of these Israeli
aims – to delegitimise and sideline Hamas, to persuade Palestinians to give
up their resistance and to shirk responsibility for a shattered Gaza Strip –
require the deliberate commission of war crimes and gross human rights
abuses. As time will tell, they are also doomed to fail.
* “Self-Deception and the Assault on Gaza,” David Bromwich, Huffington
Post, January 16, 2009
Ben White is a writer living in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He has spent several
summers in Palestine/Israel based in the West Bank and written extensively
on the Middle East.