Talking points and background on Israel's murderous assault on Gaza

Melbourne, December 30, 2008. Photo by by Margarita Windisch

By the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (Canada) and the Palestine Solidarity Committee (South Africa)

December 31, 2008

  • Gaza is the world's largest open-air prison. 1.5 million residents are packed into an area 45 kilometres long x 10 kilometres wide, while Israel controls Gaza's air space and borders. Over 80% of the population are refugees denied their legal Right to Return to the homes and lands from which they were expelled in 1948. Israel also illegally restricts Palestinian freedom of movement into and out of Gaza.  For example, in August 2008, Israel denied three Gazan Fulbright Scholars their basic right to education by having their US entry visas revoked.
  • Gaza has been under complete siege since June 2007, during which time the 1.5 million people of Gaza have been cut off from sufficient fuel, food and medicine. Two weeks ago, the UN reported that Gazans were living without power for up to 16 hours each day; half of Gaza's population was receiving water only once a week for a few hours; 80% of the water in Gaza did not meet World Health Organization standards for drinking; the unemployment rate had risen to almost 50%; only 23 of 3900 industrial enterprises were operational; more than 79% were living below the poverty line; more than 56% were food insecure; and patients with chronic illnesses such as cancer or diabetes could not be adequately treated or cared for.  (See )
  • Since 2001, fewer than 20 Israelis have been killed by Qassam rockets [fired from outside by guerillas]. In three days, nearly 400 Gazans have been killed by Israeli state violence. This is a ratio of 20 Gazan lives for each Israeli life, with the death toll in Gaza certain to increase. In January 2008, UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard stated, "a distinction must be drawn between acts of mindless terror, such as acts committed by Al Qaeda, and acts committed in the course of a war of national liberation against colonialism, apartheid or military occupation. While such acts cannot be justified, they must be understood as being a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation." Israeli government and Palestinian violence can in no way be viewed as symmetrical -- individual Palestinians have chosen to resist their occupiers with largely inneffective home-made rockets, while the Israeli state, which boasts the fourth most powerful military in the world, has responded by collectively punishing the captive population that it illegally occupies. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, collective punishment is a war crime. As the occupier, the burden is on Israel to end its state violence.
  • Israel is an apartheid state. South Africa [and other states] must sever diplomatic ties with Israel and implement sanctions against it until Israel complies with international law. UN General Assembly President Father Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann recently called for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, similar to the one that ended apartheid in South Africa.
[Thanks to Salim Vally from the Palestine Solidarity Committee (South Africa).]

some people came to a place, then say this our promised land. after, they forcefully oust the inhabitans of that place. then they give some peace of land to them but no soverighn power. frequently they will pour missiles and severe bombs on them. impose siege. after that they undertaking enmass killing on them. then describe this act as defence. the inhabitants response descrebe as thug. how is our new world order. insha allah there is end to this cruelty if ther is cyclical ritation of history.


if Israel wishes to survive it must seek an accommodation with the
Palestinians so they can live together in a common land

it will be hard for the Israelis because, with huge subsidy by the USA
they have lived in luxury and treated the Palestinians as house and
economic slaves

but not as hard as it is right now for the Palestinians who are
suffering worse than in the Nazi Ghettos

Israel and the US must recognise Hamas is the rightful elected
Palestinian government and must negotiate with them


Israel's War Crimes

By Richard Falk

The Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip represent severe and massive violations of international humanitarian law as defined in the Geneva Conventions, both in regard to the obligations of an Occupying Power and in the requirements of the laws of war

Even the most naive American voter cannot be expected to see the morally, legally and politically questionable death sentence given to Saddam Hussein a milestone in the Bush Administration's illegal war in Iraq. As the milestones pile up, so do the bodies.

Those violations include:

* Collective punishment: The entire 1.5 million people who live in the crowded Gaza Strip are being punished for the actions of a few militants.

* Targeting civilians: The airstrikes were aimed at civilian areas in one of the most crowded stretches of land in the world, certainly the most densely populated area of the Middle East.

* Disproportionate military response: The airstrikes have not only destroyed every police and security office of Gaza's elected government, but have killed and injured hundreds of civilians; at least one strike reportedly hit groups of students attempting to find transportation home from the university.

Earlier Israeli actions, specifically the complete sealing off of entry and exit to and from the Gaza Strip, have led to severe shortages of medicine and fuel (as well as food), resulting in the inability of ambulances to respond to the injured, the inability of hospitals to adequately provide medicine or necessary equipment for the injured, and the inability of Gaza's besieged doctors and other medical workers to sufficiently treat the victims.

Certainly the rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel are unlawful. But that illegality does not give rise to any Israeli right, neither as the Occupying Power nor as a sovereign state, to violate international humanitarian law and commit war crimes or crimes against humanity in its response. I note that Israel's escalating military assaults have not made Israeli civilians safer; to the contrary, the one Israeli killed today after the upsurge of Israeli violence is the first in over a year.

Israel has also ignored recent Hamas diplomatic initiatives to re-establish the truce or ceasefire since its expiration on 26 December.

The Israeli airstrikes today, and the catastrophic human toll that they caused, challenge those countries that have been and remain complicit, either directly or indirectly, in Israel's violations of international law. That complicity includes those countries knowingly providing the military equipment including warplanes and missiles used in these illegal attacks, as well as those countries who have supported and participated in the siege of Gaza that itself has caused a humanitarian catastrophe.

I remind all Member States of the United Nations that the UN continues to be bound to an independent obligation to protect any civilian population facing massive violations of international humanitarian law--regardless of what country may be responsible for those violations. I call on all Member States, as well as officials and every relevant organ of the United Nations system, to move on an emergency basis not only to condemn Israel's serious violations, but to develop new approaches to providing real protection for the Palestinian people.

Richard Falk is professor of international law at Princeton University and the UN's special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories.



1. This statement focuses on the impact of Israel’s continuing Gaza military campaign, initiated on 27 December 2008, on the humanitarian situation confronting the 1.5 million Palestinians confined to the Gaza Strip. In accordance with the undertaking of the mandate, it confines its comments to issues associated with Israel’s obligations as occupying power to respect international humanitarian law (IHL), which refers mainly to the legal obligations contained in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which sets forth in some detail the legal duties of Israel as the occupying power. The essential obligations of IHL are also considered to be binding legal duties embedded in customary international law. This statement touches on issues of international human rights law (IHR), as well as the implications of severe and sustained violations of either IHL or IHR as raising issues of international criminal law (ICL). It is also necessary to assess the underlying Israeli security claims that the military incursion into Gaza was a ‘defensive’ operation consistent with international law and the United Nations Charter, and that no ‘humanitarian crisis’ existed making the scale and nature of the military force used allegedly ‘excessive’ and ‘disproportionate.’


2. Although Israel has contended that it is no longer an occupying power, due to its withdrawal of its forces from within Gaza, it is widely agreed by international law experts that the continued Israeli control of borders, air space, and territorial waters is of a character as to retain Israel status legally as occupying power.


3. The quality of this report is undoubtedly diminished by the absence of first-hand observations of the pre-existing humanitarian situation existing in Gaza, which was to be the objective of a mission undertaken by the Special Rapporteur to gather information for use in making a report to the regular session of the Human Rights Council (HRC_ scheduled for March, 2009. This mission was aborted when the Special Rapporteur was denied entry to Israel on 14 December 2008, detained for some 15 hours in a holding cell at Ben Gurion Airport, and expelled on the next day. Such treatment of a UN representative would seem to raise serious issues for the Organization as a whole, bearing on the duties of a member state to cooperate, and to deal with those carrying out UN work with appropriate dignity. It is to be hoped that the government of Israel can be persuaded to reconsider its policy of exclusion that has hampered the work of this mandate. This concern about exclusion has been compounded during the period preceding the Israeli attack upon Gaza, as well during the military operations, by denying access to foreign journalists, a policy that has been successfully challenged in Israeli courts, but as yet with no tangible results. As noted in the New York Times, Israel denies media representatives access to the humanitarian impacts of its military operations in Gaza while encouraging journalists to view any harmful effects of the rocket attacks on civilians in Israel. Even requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross to investigate scenes of supposed humanitarian abuse have so far been refused, e.g. to visit the site of military action in the Gazan town of Zeitan that reportedly killed by deliberate action 60 members of the Samouni family, including several children. According to the ICRC, “the ICRC/PRCS team found four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses. They were too weak to stand up on their own… The ICRC believes that in this instance the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded. It considers the delay in allowing rescue services access unacceptable.” This issue of access is crucial for the work of Special Rapporteurs, and with respect to other country mandates, including Myanmar and Peoples Republic of Korea, and deserves the attention of the HRC, and of the United Nations generally.


4. The rationale for this Special Session is the existence of a humanitarian emergency in Gaza, a set of conditions that has been questioned in many public settings by the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. Ms. Livni contends there is no need for a ‘humanitarian truce’ because there is no humanitarian crisis. She asserts that Israeli has allowed shipments of food and medicine to cross the border, but as UNRWA and other UN officials have observed, these shipments will not alleviate hunger and nutritional difficulties unless distribution becomes possible, which is not the case given the war conditions prevailing in most of the Gaza Strip. To what slight extent this dire circumstance can be addressed by the three hour pause in combat operations announced by Israel on 7 January remains to be seen. Beyond the immediate crisis some underlying features should be noted: about 75% of the population lacks access to sanitary water and has no electric power. Such conditions are superimposed on the circumstances of Gazans resulting from the prolonged blockade that had deteriorated the physical and mental health of the population of Gaza as a whole, leaving some 45% of children suffering from acute anemia. It was also confirmed that sonic booms from overflying Israeli military aircraft prior to December had produced what was described as a ‘contagion’ of deafness among children in Gaza. It was also reliably concluded that up to 80% of Gaza was living under the poverty line, that unemployment totals approached 75%, and that the health system was near collapse from the effects of the blockade. This set of conditions certainly led impartial international observers and civil servants to an uncontested conclusion that the population of Gaza was already experiencing a humanitarian crisis of grave magnitude prior to 27 December.


5. The use of force by an occupying power against the security threats emanating from a population under occupation is permissible within the constraints set by international law. Israel claims that its current military campaign is reasonable and necessary given the scale and severity of the rocket attacks directed at Israeli civilian populations living in the South Israel towns of Sderot and Ashdod, and attributed to Hamas. There are several issues that would need to be resolved in evaluating this claim that have not been adequately discussed to date in either diplomatic settings or by the media. It should be pointed out unambiguously that there is no legal (or moral) justification for firing rockets at civilian targets, and that such behavior is a violation of IHR, associated with the right to life, as well as constitutes a war crime. At the same time, the nature of the offense must be evaluated with the context of its occurrence. For the ceasefire period prior to 27 December, not a single Israeli death resulted from rockets fired from Gaza. Further, since June of 2008 a ceasefire had been observed by both sides, with some infractions taking place, but without altering the willingness of both sides to uphold the ceasefire. During this period Israel had been expected to lift, or at least ease the blockade that had imposed severe hardships on the entire population of Gaza, especially through restraints on the supply of food, medicine and medical equipment, and fuel, but failed to do so.  The acute harm done to civilian Gaza has been repeatedly pointed out by leading UN officials on the ground, including Karen AbuZayed, commissioner of UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that is most directly engaged with the daunting task of meeting the humanitarian needs of Gazans.


6. This blockade in effect for a period of 18 months was unlawful, a massive form of collective punishment, and as such in violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and also a violation of Article 55, which requires that the occupying power ensure that the civilian population has sufficient food and that its health needs are addressed. Such blockade does not alter the character of the rocket attacks, but it does suggest two important conclusions from a legal perspective: first, that the scale of civilian harm resulting from Israeli unlawful conduct was far greater than that of Palestinian unlawful conduct; secondly, that any effort to produce a sustainable ceasefire should ensure that Israel as well as Hamas respect IHL, which most concretely means that Israeli interferences with the access of goods for the maintenance of normal civilian life must end, and cannot be reestablished as a retaliatory measure if some sort of rocket attack occurs in the future. Similarly, if Israel should impose such constraints in the future, it would not provide any legal cover for resumed rocket attacks or other forms of Palestinian violence directed at Israeli civilians. There are some difficulties in attributing responsibility for all rocket attacks to Hamas. There are independent militias operating in Gaza, and even prior to Hamas, governing authorities, including Israeli occupation forces, were unable to prevent all rocket firings despite their best efforts to do so.


7. The Israeli military campaign was also justified by Israeli leaders as an ‘inevitable’ and ‘unavoidable’ response to the persistence of the rocket attacks. Here again it is important to examine the factual setting of Israel’s justifications, which go to the reasonableness of such action and its defensive character. Most accounts of the temporary ceasefire indicate that it was a major Israeli use of lethal force on November 4, 2008 that brought the ceasefire to a de facto end, leading directly to increased frequency of rocket fire from Gaza. It is also relevant that Hamas repeatedly offered to extend the ceasefire, even up to ten years, provided that Israel would lift the blockade. These diplomatic possibilities were, as far as can be assessed, were not explored by Israel, although admittedly complicated by the contested legal status of Hamas as the de facto representative of the Gazan population. This has legal relevance, as a cardinal principle of the UN Charter is to make recourse to force a matter of last resort, making it obligatory for Israel to rely in good faith on nonviolent means to end rocket attacks. Israel’s good faith must be examined in light of the statement of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who wrote on her Ministry of Foreign Affairs website on 4 January that “the intensive diplomatic activity of the last few days aims to alleviate the pressure for a ceasefire, and to allow time for continuing the military operation.”


8. It is also important under international law to determine the extent to which the reliance on force is proportionate to the provocation and necessary for safeguarding security. Here, too, the Israeli arguments seem unpersuasive. As mentioned above, the rocket attacks, although unlawful and potentially dangerous, had caused little damage, and no loss of life during the 2008 ceasefire. To mount a major military campaign against an essentially defenseless society already gravely weakened by the blockade accentuates the disproportion of reliance on modern weaponry in combat situations where military dominance was largely uncontested. It seems significant that Palestinian casualty totals at this time are estimated to be 800+ killed, some 3000 wounded, included many critically, with civilian victims set at about 25% by qualified observers, at least 1/3 of whom are children. In contrast, according to the latest reports, seven Israeli soldiers have died, apparently at least four as a result of ‘friendly fire,’ that is by Israeli firepower wrongly directed. The onesidedness of casualty figures is one measure of disproportion. Another is the scale of devastation and the magnitude of the attacks. It is obvious that the destruction of police facilities, schools, and homes, as well as many public buildings, in crowded urban settings represents an excessive use of force even if Israeli allegations are accepted at face value. As discrediting as is the reliance on disproportionate force, is the lack of connection between the alleged threat associated with Gaza rockets and the targets of the Israeli attacks, giving added weight to the claims that the Israeli use of force is a form of ‘aggression’ prohibited by international law, and certainly excessive in relation to criteria of ‘proportionality’ and ‘necessity.’


9. There have also been a variety of allegations made by qualified observers of Israeli reliance on legally unacceptable targets and on legally dubious weaponry that violate the customary international law prohibition on weapons and tactics that are ‘cruel’ or cause ‘unnecessary suffering.’ Among the targets viewed as unlawful under IHL: Islamic University, schools, mosques, medical facilities and personnel (including ambulances). Among weapons that are legally dubious under IHL: phosphorous gas in shells and missiles that burn flesh to the bone; dense insert metal explosives (so-called DIME) that cut victims to pieces, and raise risk of cancer for survivors; depleted uranium associated with deep-penetrating, so–called ‘bunker buster’ bombs used against Gaza tunnels, possibly causing radiation sickness for anyone exposed over a period of centuries.


10. This dimension of ‘unnecessary suffering’ associated with the Israeli campaign has an important feature that has not been given attention. In many contemporary situations of warfare large number of civilians seek to escape from harm by moving away from immediate danger, becoming ‘internally displaced persons’ or ‘refugees.’ But Israel through its rigid control of exit, directly and indirectly, has denied the civilian population of Gaza the option of becoming ‘refugees,’ never an option of choice, but reflective of desperation. Its denial tends to lend credibility that the population of Gaza is essentially imprisoned by Israeli occupation policy. From the perspective of IHL this foreclosure of a refugee option for Gazans is a serious aggravation of the dangers posed for a civilian population, and underscores the gravity of the humanitarian crisis that has existed in Gaza since 27 December. Since the military campaign this situation has dramatically worsened. The comment by Iyad Nasr, with the Red Cross in Gaza City, is expressive of the general understanding: “The size of the operations and the size of the misery on the ground is just overwhelming…”


11. >From the perspective of the Mandate for oPt the following recommendations seem worthy of the attention at this Special Session:

          (1) Resolution requesting restored access for Special Rapporteur to the occupied Palestinian territories as an essential feature of UN monitoring role;

          (2) Resolution seeking General Assembly initiatives with respect to investigating allegations of war crimes;

          (3) Resolution proposing long-term truce based on cessation of rocket launchings from Gaza and unconditional lifting of blockade;

          (4) Resolution requesting Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice to assess legal status of Israeli presence in Gaza subsequent to Israeli ‘disengagement’ in 2005.




Jim Holstun and Joanna Tinker, The Electronic Intifada, 6 January 2009

In The Iron Wall (2001), Israeli historian Avi Shlaim shows that in July 1981, US diplomat Philip Habib brokered a ceasefire between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel. For the next year, the PLO infuriated Israel by refusing to violate the ceasefire and thereby provide an excuse for Israel's long-planned attack on PLO refugee camps and bases in Lebanon. Then, on 3 June 1982, a member of the Abu Nidal organization shot and wounded Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador in London. Abu Nidal, or Sabri Khalil al-Banna, was a Palestinian, but he was anything but a PLO stalwart: "Abu Nidal was supported by Iraq in his struggle against Arafat's 'capitulationist' leadership of the PLO. Abu Nidal customarily referred to Arafat as 'the Jewess's son.' The PLO had passed a death sentence on Abu Nidal for assassinating some of its moderate members who advocated a dialogue with Israel."

The next day, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin called an emergency cabinet meeting. When his advisor Gideon Machanaimi and Avraham Shalom (the head of the General Security Service) began to discuss the nature of the Abu Nidal organization, Begin cut them off: "'They are all PLO.' [Army Chief of Staff] Rafael Eitan was equally dismissive. Shortly before entering the conference room, an intelligence aide told him that Abu Nidal's men were evidently responsible for the assassination attempt. 'Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal,' he sneered; 'we have to strike at the PLO!'"

Two days later, Israel invaded Lebanon, which would kill over 18,000 people, including the massacres of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila, and push Lebanon further into a morass of imperial and sectarian violence. Of course, the lying excuse endlessly proffered for the invasion, enshrined in its nickname "Operation Peace for the Galilee," and obligingly circulated by the American media, was that Israel could no longer be expected to tolerate a constant barrage of PLO rockets across its northern border.

In Israel's recent rush to invade Gaza, we witness the same predisposition to violence, the same aching aggravation with Palestinian peace offensives, and the same willingness to conflate all resistance, all frustrations, into a single enemy: "They are all Hamas!" And we see that Hamas, like the PLO, refused to oblige Israel with a single provocative act. For more than four months after 19 June 2008, Hamas refrained from any military actions that might endanger the negotiated truce or "calm" with Israel.

The evidence for this is ready to hand. For example, the Wikipedia entry on the events of the summer, "List of rocket and mortar attacks in Israel in 2008" (revised 4 January 2008), based almost exclusively on Israeli newspapers and government sources, confirms that there were no rocket or mortar attacks claimed by or plausibly attributed to Hamas during the calm. This can also be verified by surveying archives of news reports from the period.

The few that were launched, none of them causing any casualties, were claimed by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, by Islamic Jihad, by "the Badr Forces," or by nobody. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called repeatedly for a cessation of rocket fire, and denounced those factions who broke the truce. A Hamas spokesman criticized Fatah for allowing the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is affiliated with Fatah, to fire rockets. Meanwhile, Israeli occupation forces' murders and settler pogroms continued unabated on the West Bank. They included an attempt by a settler to fire a homemade rocket toward the Palestinian village of Burin, which nearly killed another settler. During the lull, then, Israeli settlers fired more rockets (i.e., one) than did Hamas.

In a document entitled "The Hamas terror war against Israel," The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides striking visual evidence of Hamas's good faith during the lull. It reproduces two graphs drawn up by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center:

Monthly distribution of rockets hit

Monthly distribution of mortar shells

The graphs show that the total number of rocket and mortar attacks shrank from 245 in June to 26 total for July through October, a reduction of 97 percent. Even this was not enough for Israel, which violated the truce by imposing a terror-famine in Gaza for most of these months. But despite these violations, Hamas refrained from launching rockets until Israel definitively cancelled the truce on the night of 4-5 November by sending an Israeli commando squad into Gaza, where it killed six Hamas members. Hamas responded with 30 rockets.

These charts proved too revealing for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the night eve of 4 January 2008, as Israeli occupation forces launched a ground assault on Gaza, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs removed them from its website, substituting an almost illegible graph in which the labels obscure the data, while the caption does all it can to hide the de facto end of rocket and mortar fire during the calm, until 4 November.

This document was also titled "The Hamas terror war against Israel." But a Korean webpage has cached the original document, preserving the evidence of Israel's sticky-fingered hasbara, or propaganda.

Clearly, the Israelis violated the truce in order to increase the number of Qassam attacks, not to end them. Qassams provide Israel with its best shot at its favorite media role of plucky little David fighting the Palestinian Goliath. And by nimble revision of its webpage, the Israeli MFA is able to turn cause into effect -- turning the retaliatory Hamas Qassams of 6 November into the cause of Israel canceling the truce on 4 November, and smashing it flat on 19 December.

We have heard, and we will continue to hear, a droning litany of "Qassams! Qassams! Qassams!" The repetition will be difficult to resist, but for all of us who remember the reiterated US lies about Iraq of 2002-2003, whether with pride for our skepticism or shame for our credulity, a good first step might be for us to think "WMDs!" every time they say "Qassams!" Like the US Coalition of the Willing, Israel's Operation Cast Lead has not let the absence of actual provocation get in the way of a good bloodbath. Indeed, chronology itself proves no obstacle, as Israeli commandos, Apaches and F-16s retaliate for rocket attacks that haven't occurred yet. In the immortal, influential and profoundly depraved words of neoliberal crusader Michael Ignatieff, "Against this kind of enemy ... it makes sense to get our retaliation in first."

When the history of the war on Gaza is written, Hamas's remarkable restraint during the lull, as Israel attempted to starve Gaza into submission, will form an important prelude to what Joseph Massad has called the heroic Gaza Ghetto Uprising. But for the moment, it's vital to remember that what we are witnessing in Gaza is not Israeli retaliation, but an act of unprovoked Zionist genocide using American-made weapons, based on a bloody lie about Qassam barrages obligingly circulated by American media. The question for Americans to ask now is this: what must we do, with our American-made mouths, brains, and bodies, to stop it?

Jim Holstun teaches world literature at SUNY Buffalo. He has previously written "Nonie Darwish and the al-Bureij massacre" for The Electronic Intifada. He and Joanna Tinker live in Buffalo, New York.

Media advisory

The Blame Game in Gaza
Erasing Israeli actions to fault only Hamas

January 6, 2009

The Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip that began in late December have reportedly killed over 500 Palestinians, many of them civilians and children. As is often the case, U.S. corporate media's presentation of the events leading up to this dramatic escalation in violence have laid the blame for the violence mostly with Hamas, whose rocket attacks on Israel are often cited as the cause for the current Israeli attacks.

In many media discussions about the events that led to the fighting, emphasis is placed on Hamas' decision in late December to allow a cease-fire agreement with Israel to expire, or the group's failure to adequately suppress rocket attacks into Israel during the cease-fire.

A USA Today timeline (
1/5/09) explained, "In November, the truce frays as Hamas rockets continue to land in Israel, which closes several border crossings and kills militants building tunnels Hamas was using to smuggle weapons and other goods into Gaza." On NBC Nightly News (12/27/08), Martin Fletcher explained that "a six-month truce ended this week and Palestinians fired rockets into Israel, as many as 60 a day. Israeli leaders said enough is enough."

A Washington Post editorial (
12/28/08) announced that Hamas "invited the conflict by ending a six-month-old ceasefire," while Post columnist Richard Cohen (1/6/09) was much blunter: "It took no genius to see the imminence of war. It takes real stupidity to blame it on Israel."

The Dallas Morning News (
12/30/08) agreed emphatically in an editorial titled, "Blood on Hamas' Hands": "The pictures of the civilian victims of Israeli airstrikes-- especially children-- are heart-rending. But let's keep straight whose fault this tragedy is: Hamas, the fanatical Islamists who rule Gaza and who have used the land as a launching pad for firing rockets into Israel."

The New York Times' December 28 lead declared, "The Israeli Air Force on Saturday launched a massive attack on Hamas targets throughout Gaza in retaliation for the recent heavy rocket fire from the area." The next day, Times reporter Stephen Farrell asked (
12/29/08), "Why did Hamas end its six-month cease-fire on December 19?" He argued that the "rejectionist credo" of Hamas made this step all but inevitable.

These accounts fail on several grounds. For starters, the cease-fire agreement from June through mid-December was credited by many for ratcheting down the violence-- rocket fire into Israel dropped significantly and claimed no Israeli lives during the truce. (Prior to that, rocket and mortar attacks since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in late 2005 had killed 10 Israelis-- After the cease-fire expired, rocket attacks increased, though no Israelis were killed until after the Israeli attacks were launched; four have been killed since then (Agence France-Presse, 1/6/09).

Interestingly, as the truce expired, the New York Times published an article (
12/19/08) that began with a typical corporate media formulation-- Palestinians are attacking, Israel is retaliating-- before noting that Hamas was "largely successful" in curtailing rocket fire into Israel: "Hamas imposed its will and even imprisoned some of those who were firing rockets. Israeli and United Nations figures show that while more than 300 rockets were fired into Israel in May, 10 to 20 were fired in July, depending on who was counting and whether mortar rounds were included. In August, 10 to 30 were fired, and in September, 5 to 10."

The Times article, by Ethan Bronner, noted that what Hamas expected in return from the Israelis never arrived:

But the goods shipments, while up some 25 to 30 percent and including a mix of more items, never began to approach what Hamas thought it was going to get: a return to the 500 to 600 truckloads delivered daily before the closing, including appliances, construction materials and other goods essential for life beyond mere survival. Instead, the number of trucks increased to around 90 from around 70.

Bronner also added that "Israeli forces continued to attack Hamas and other militants in the West Bank, prompting Palestinian militants in Gaza to fire rockets," which produced Hamas response attacks. The Times continued:

While this back-and-forth did not topple the agreement, Israel's decision in early November to destroy a tunnel Hamas had been digging near the border drove the cycle of violence to a much higher level. Israel says the tunnel could have been dug only for the purpose of trying to seize a soldier, like Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli held by Hamas for the past two and a half years. Israel's attack on the tunnel killed six Hamas militants, and each side has stepped up attacks since.

This straightforward recitation of events is rarely heard in much of the rest of the media coverage of the violence in Gaza-- including in the Times, since Israel began its full-scale assault. But for many consumers of U.S. media, history is made irrelevant; a Time magazine piece (1/12/09) began:

Two sounds dominate the lives of Israelis living near Gaza: the wail of a siren and, 25 seconds later, the whistling screech of an incoming rocket fired by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. That gives Israeli families just enough time to dive for cover-even as they pray the rocket will miss.

At 11:30 a.m. on December 27, a new sound filled the azure Mediterranean sky: the rolling boom of Israeli bombs and missiles slamming into Gaza.

Israeli airstrikes in Gaza are anything but "new," but presenting them as such--and pairing that presentation with an Israeli family sheltered against an incoming Hamas rocket--gives a wildly misleading impression of a conflict where the deaths and suffering are overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

War of Choice: How Israel Manufactured the Gaza Escalation, Steve Niva, FPIF, January 7, 2009

Israel has repeatedly claimed that it had "no choice" but to wage war on Gaza on December 27 because Hamas had broken a ceasefire, was firing rockets at Israeli civilians, and had "tried everything in order to avoid this military operation," as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni put it.

This claim, however, is widely at odds with the fact that Israel's military and political leadership took many aggressive steps during the ceasefire that escalated a crisis with Hamas, and possibly even provoked Hamas to create a pretext for the assault. This wasn't a war of "no choice," but rather a very avoidable war in which Israeli actions played the major role in instigating.

Israel has a long history of deliberately using violence and other provocative measures to trigger reactions in order to create a pretext for military action, and to portray its opponents as the aggressors and Israel as the victim. According to the respected Israeli military historian Zeev Maoz in his recent book, Defending the Holy Land, Israel most notably used this policy of "strategic escalation" in 1955-1956, when it launched deadly raids on Egyptian army positions to provoke Egypt's President Nasser into violent reprisals preceding its ill-fated invasion of Egypt; in 1981-1982, when it launched violent raids on Lebanon in order to provoke Palestinian escalation preceding the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; and between 2001-2004, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon repeatedly ordered assassinations of high-level Palestinian militants during declared ceasefires, provoking violent attacks that enabled Israel's virtual reoccupation of the West Bank.

Israel's current assault on Gaza bears many trademark elements of Israel's long history of employing "strategic escalation" to manufacture a major crisis, if not a war.

Making War 'Inevitable'

The countdown to a war began, according to a detailed report by Barak Raviv in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, when Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak started planning the current attack on Gaza with his chiefs of staff at least six months ago — even as Israel was negotiating the Egyptian brokered ceasefire with Hamas that went into effect on June 19. During the subsequent ceasefire, the report contends, the Israeli security establishment carefully gathered intelligence to map out Hamas' security infrastructure, engaged in operational deception, and spread disinformation to mislead the public about its intentions.

This revelation doesn't confirm that Israel intended to start a war with Hamas in December, but it does shed some light on why Israel continuously took steps that undermined the terms of the fragile ceasefire with Hamas, even though Hamas respected their side of the agreement.

Indeed, there was a genuine lull in rocket and mortar fire between June 19 and November 4, due to Hamas compliance and only sporadically violated by a small number of launchings carried out by rival Fatah and Islamic Jihad militants, largely in defiance of Hamas. According to the conservative Israeli-based Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center's analysis of rocket and missile attacks in 2008, there were only three rockets fired at Israel in July, September, and October combined. Israeli civilians living near Gaza experienced an almost unprecedented degree of security during this period, with no Israeli casualties.

Yet despite the major lull, Israel continually raided the West Bank, arresting and frequently killing "wanted" Palestinians from June to October, which had the inevitable effect of ratcheting up pressure on Hamas to respond. Moreover, while the central expectation of Hamas going into the ceasefire was that Israel would lift the siege on Gaza, Israel only took the barest steps to ease the siege, which kept the people at a bare survival level. This policy was a clear affront to Hamas, and had the inescapable effect of undermining both Hamas and popular Palestinian support for the ceasefire.

But Israel's most provocative action, acknowledged by many now as the critical turning point that undermined the ceasefire, took place on November 4, when Israeli forces auspiciously violated the truce by crossing into the Gaza Strip to destroy what the army said was a tunnel dug by Hamas, killing six Hamas militants. Sara Roy, writing in the London Review of Books, contends this attack was "no doubt designed finally to undermine the truce between Israel and Hamas established last June."

The Israeli breach into Gaza was immediately followed by a further provocation by Israel on November 5, when the Israeli government hermetically sealed off all ways into and out of Gaza. As a result, the UN reports that the amount of imports entering Gaza has been "severely reduced to an average of 16 truckloads per day — down from 123 truckloads per day in October and 475 trucks per day in May 2007 — before the Hamas takeover." These limited shipments provide only a fraction of the supplies needed to sustain 1.5 million starving Palestinians.

In response, Hamas predictably claimed that Israel had violated the truce and allowed Islamic Jihad to launch a round of rocket attacks on Israel. Only after lethal Israeli reprisals killed over 10 Hamas gunmen in the following days did Hamas militants finally respond with volleys of mortars and rockets of their own. In two short weeks, Israel killed over 15 Palestinian militants, while about 120 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel, and although there were no Israeli casualties the calm had been shattered.

It was at this time that Israeli officials launched what appears to have been a coordinated media blitz to cultivate public reception for an impending conflict, stressing the theme of the "inevitability" of a coming war with Hamas in Gaza. On November 12, senior IDF officials announced that war with Hamas was likely in the two months after the six-month ceasefire, baldly stating it would occur even if Hamas wasn't interested in confrontation. A few days later, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly ordered his military commanders to draw up plans for a war in Gaza, which were already well developed at the time. On November 19, according to Raviv's report in Haaretz, the Gaza war plan was brought before Barak for final approval.

While the rhetoric of an "inevitable" war with Hamas may have only been Israeli bluster to compel Hamas into line, its actions on the ground in the critical month leading up to the official expiration of the ceasefire on December 19 only heightened the cycle of violence, leaving a distinct impression Israel had cast the die for war.

Finally, Hamas then walked right into the "inevitable war" that Israel had been preparing since the ceasefire had gone into effect in June. With many Palestinians believing the ceasefire to be meaningless, Hamas announced it wouldn't renew the ceasefire after it expired on December 19. Hamas then stood back for two days while Islamic Jihad and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militants fired volleys of mortars and rockets into Israel, in the context of mutually escalating attacks. Yet even then, with Israeli threats of war mounting, Hamas imposed a 24-hour ceasefire on all missile attacks on December 21, announcing it would consider renewing the lapsed truce with Israel in the Gaza Strip if Israel would halt its raids in both Gaza and the West Bank, and keep Gaza border crossings open for supplies of aid and fuel. Israel immediately rejected its offer.

But when the Israel Defence Forces killed three Hamas militants laying explosives near the security fence between Israel and Gaza on the evening of December 23, the Hamas military wing lashed out by launching a barrage of over 80 missiles into Israel the following day, claiming it was Israel, and not Hamas, that was responsible for the escalation.

Little did they know that, according to Raviv, Prime Minister Olmert, and Defense Minister Barak had already met on December 18 to approve the impending war plan, but put the mission off waiting for a better pretext. By launching more than 170 rockets and mortars at Israeli civilians in the days following December 23, killing one Israeli civilian, Hamas had provided reason enough for Israel to unleash its long-planned attack on Gaza on December 27.

The rationale for war

If Israel's goal were simply to end rocket attacks on its civilians, it would have solidified and extended the ceasefire, which was working well, until November. Even after November, it could have addressed Hamas' longstanding ceasefire proposals for a complete end to rocket-fire on Israel, in exchange for Israel lifting its crippling 18-month siege on Gaza.

Instead, the actual targets of its assault on Gaza after December 27, which included police stations, mosques, universities, and Hamas government institutions, clearly reveal that Israel's primary goals go far beyond providing immediate security for its citizens. Israeli spokespersons repeatedly claim that Israel's assault isn't about seeking to effect regime change with Hamas, but rather about creating a "new security reality" in Gaza. But that "new reality" requires Israel to use massive violence to degrade the political and military capacity of Hamas, to a point where it agrees to a ceasefire with conditions more congenial to Israel. Short of a complete reoccupation of Gaza, no amount of violence will erase Hamas from the scene.

Confirming the steps needed to create the "new reality," the broader reasons why Israel chose a major confrontation with Hamas at this time appear to be the cause of several other factors unrelated to providing immediate security for its citizens.

First, many senior Israeli political and military leaders strongly opposed the June 19 ceasefire with Hamas, and looked for opportunities to reestablish Israel's fabled "deterrent capability" of instilling fear into its enemies. These leaders felt Israel's deterrent capability was badly damaged as a result of their withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and especially after the widely criticized failures in the 2006 Israeli war with Hezbollah. For this powerful group a ceasefire was at best a tactical pause before the inevitable renewal of conflict, when conditions were more favorable. Immediately following Israel's aerial assault, a New York Times article noted that Israel had been eager "to remind its foes that it has teeth" and to erase the ghost of Lebanon that has haunted it over the past two years.

A second factor was pressure surrounding the impending elections set to take place in early February. The ruling coalition, led by Barak and Livni, have been repeatedly criticized by the Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, who is leading in the polls, for not being tough enough on Hamas and rocket-fire from Gaza. This gave the ruling coalition a strong incentive to demonstrate to the Israeli people their security credentials in order to bolster their chances against the more hawkish Likud.

Third, Hamas repeatedly said it wouldn't recognize Mahmud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority after his term runs out on January 9. The looming political standoff on the Palestinian side threatens to boost Hamas and undermine Abbas, who had underseen closer security coordination with Israel and was congenial to Israeli demands for concessions on future peace proposals. One possible outcome of this assault is that Abbas will remain in power for a while longer, since Hamas will be unable to mobilise its supporters in order to force him to resign.

And finally, Israel was pressed to take action now due to its sense of the American political timeline. The Bush administration rarely exerted constraint on Israel and would certainly stand by in its waning days, while Barack Obama would not likely want to begin his presidency with a major confrontation with Israel. The Washington Post quoted a Bush administration official saying that Israel struck in Gaza "because they want it to be over before the next administration comes in. They can't predict how the next administration will handle it. And this is not the way they want to start with the new administration."

An uncertain ending

As the conflict rages to an uncertain end, it's important to consider Israeli military historian Zeev Maoz's contention that Israel's history of manufacturing wars through "strategic escalation" and using overwhelming force to achieve "deterrence" has never been successful. In fact, it's the primary cause of Israel's insecurity because it deepens hatred and a desire for revenge rather than fear.

At the same time, there's no question Hamas continues to callously sacrifice its fellow Palestinian citizens, as well as Israeli civilians, on the altar of maintaining its pyrrhic resistance credentials and its myopic preoccupation with revenge, and fell into many self-made traps of its own. There had been growing international pressure on Israel to ease its siege and a major increase in creative and nonviolent strategies drawing attention to the plight of Palestinians such as the arrival of humanitarian relief convoys off of Gaza's coast in the past months, but now Gaza lies in ruins.

But as the vastly more powerful actor holding nearly all the cards in this conflict, the war in Gaza was ultimately Israel's choice. And for all this bloodshed and violence, Israel must be held accountable.

With the American political establishment firmly behind Israel's attack, and Obama's foreign policy team heavily weighted with pro-Israel insiders like Dennis Ross and Hillary Clinton, any efforts to hold Israel accountable in the United States will depend upon American citizens mobilizing a major grassroots effort behind a new foreign policy that will not tolerate any violations of international law, including those by Israel, and will immediately work towards ending Israel's siege of Gaza and ending Israel's occupation.

Beyond that, the most promising prospect for holding Israel accountable is through the increasing use of universal jurisdiction for prosecuting war crimes, along with the growing transnational movement calling for sanctions on Israel until it ends its violations of international law. In what would be truly be a new style of foreign policy, a transnational network that focuses on Israeli violations of international law, rather than the state itself, could become a counterweight that forces policymakers in the United States, Europe, and Israel to reconsider their political and moral complicity in the current war, in favor of taking real steps towards peace and security in the region for all peoples.

Steve Niva, a professor of International Politics and Middle East Studies at The Evergreen State College, is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He is currently writing a book on the relationship between Israel's military violence and Palestinian suicide bombings.

Columbia Journalism Review

January 08, 2009 04:21 PM
War of the Words

How descriptions of Hamas shape our understanding of the Gaza conflict

By Katia Bachko

As the extent of physical damage and human suffering in Gaza comes into sharper focus, one aspect of the current conflict remains frustratingly unclear. Who or what is Hamas, exactly?

Definitions vary depending on which news outlet you consult. Al Jazeera English calls Hamas “the Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip,” while the New York Post refers to “the Islamic militant group Hamas.” The New York Times sometimes calls Hamas “the militant Palestinian group” and sometimes adds a little more context with “Hamas, the Islamist militant group that governs Gaza.”

The Associated Press describes Hamas in terms simultaneously objective and subjective (my emphasis):

Some Arab states are pressing for a cease-fire to be included in a U.N. Security Council resolution, but both Israel and the U.S. are wary of any move that might give Hamas—which they consider a terrorist organization— legitimacy equal to that of a member of the United Nations.

Ultimately, these definitional disagreements all come back to the question of Hamas’s legitimacy. And the level of that legitimacy differs depending on who you ask. Looking at the group’s complicated recent history, it’s not hard to see why. In January 2006, Hamas won a majority of seats in Palestine’s parliamentary elections—but the West refused to recognize Hamas’s majority government. In early 2007, after a year’s worth of fighting, Hamas and rival party Fatah formed a unity government—which disintegrated that June after Hamas seized control of Gaza in a brief and bloody battle. That same June, prime minister Ismail Haniya was dismissed by president Mahmoud Abbas—but Haniya refused to accept the dismissal, leading to the rise of two parallel governments—one controlled by Hamas, one controlled by Fatah—each claiming to be Palestine’s legitimate governing body.

It’s a complicated history—which goes to underscore the inadequacy of the simplistic labels being deployed by the press during the current conflict. Precision reporting is essential during wartime, when misinformation flows freely and all sides want to win the war for public opinion. But journalists continue to frame Hamas primarily as a terrorist organization. This may suit the U.S. and Israel’s purposes; but according to the Council on Foreign Relations, these definitions of Hamas are limited in scope:

Is Hamas only a terrorist group?

No. In addition to its military wing, the so-called Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade, Hamas devotes much of its estimated $70-million annual budget to an extensive social services network. Indeed, the extensive social and political work done by Hamas—and its reputation among Palestinians as averse to corruption—partly explain its defeat of the Fatah old guard in the 2006 legislative vote. Hamas funds schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues. “Approximately 90 percent of its work is in social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities,” writes the Israeli scholar Reuven Paz. The Palestinian Authority often fails to provide such services, and Hamas’s efforts in this area—as well as a reputation for honesty, in contrast to the many Fatah officials accused of corruption—help to explain the broad popularity it summoned to defeat Fatah in the PA’s recent elections.

At present, American papers’ reflexive use of the words “militant organization,” or some variation thereof, closely mirror the U.S. government’s political stance on Hamas, which is that it’s a “terrorist organization.” But the phraseology is simply too stark, given the complexity of forces at play in this decades-old conflict. This isn’t to say that Hamas’s violent history ought not be included in the public record. The organization is believed to be behind more than 500 deaths—via suicide bombing, short-range rockets, small arms fire, and other means—since 1993.

But the line between Hamas and the Palestinian people can be hard to locate. As Economist correspondent Gideon Lichfield argues in a recent New York Times op-ed:

In the longer term Israel will have to accept that Hamas is no fringe movement that can be rooted out and destroyed, but a central part of Palestinian society.

The terminology of terror works to unfairly lump Hamas together with other militant and ideological groups. And this compression is simply not accurate, given the substantial power struggles and divisions among the region’s power players.

The historical long view may be helpful in tempering the public’s and press’s understanding of Hamas. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was once considered a terrorist group by most governments, but is now treated as a legitimate governing body in Palestine by the press, despite the fact that, in 2004, the U.S. Congress again declared PLO to be a terror organization. One day, Hamas, too, may be recognized by the international community as a legitimate government.

But the press shouldn’t wait for that day. Journalists are already hampered by distance in reporting the Gazan point of view, given that they are physically excluded from covering the fighting. Incomplete descriptions of Hamas make it harder still for readers to make sense of it all—and create the additional distance of misunderstanding. Journalism’s task is to elucidate, not obscure the truth, and, in the case of Hamas, a short label hardly tells the whole story.


Jim Lobe and Ali Gharib, The Electronic Intifada, 8 January 2009

WASHINGTON (IPS) - Consumed by coverage of the 4 November presidential election, US mainstream media ignored a key Israeli military attack on a Hamas target that some Palestinians claim marked the effective end of the ceasefire between the two sides and set the stage for the current round of bloodletting.

While the major US news wire Associated Press (AP) reported that the attack, in which six members of Hamas's military wing were killed by Israeli ground forces, threatened the ceasefire, its report was carried by only a handful of small newspapers around the country.

The 4 November raid -- and the escalation that followed -- also went unreported by the major US network and cable television new programs, according to a search of the Nexis database for all English-language news coverage between 4 to 7 November.

But the military action, which was followed up by an aerial attack that killed at least one other Palestinian, appears to have dealt a fatal blow to the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire that had taken effect 19 June and largely held for some four and a half months.

In retaliation for the attack, Hamas launched some 35 Qassam rockets into Israeli territory 5 November which, in turn, provoked Israel to severely tighten its then-17-month-old economic siege of the Palestinian territory.

"While neither side ever completely respected the ceasefire terms, the Israeli raid was far and away the biggest violation," said Stephen Zunes, an expert on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the University of San Francisco.

"It was a huge, huge provocation, and it now appears to me that it was actually intended to get Hamas to break off the ceasefire," he added.

When Israel launched its current military offensive against Hamas-controlled Gaza 27 December, most major US media outlets -- and particularly television and newspaper commentators -- blamed Hamas for breaking the ceasefire by continuing rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli territory and refusing to extend the ceasefire on its current terms beyond its formal 19 December expiration.

"Israel's air offensive against the Gaza Strip yesterday should not have been a surprise for anyone who has been following the mounting hostilities in the region," said the lead editorial in the Washington Post the day after Israel began its massive air assault, "least of all the Hamas movement, which invited the conflict by ending a six-month-old ceasefire and launching scores of rockets and mortar shells at Israel during the last 10 days."

This explanation of events corresponded to a major Israeli public-relations effort that placed top government officials on US network and cable news programs. In an appearance on NBC's widely viewed Sunday morning talk show Meet the Press, as the military offensive got underway, for example, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, also a candidate for prime minister in the 10 February elections, set forth her government's basic narrative.

"About a half a year ago, according to the Egyptian Initiative, we decided to enter a kind of a truce and not to attack Gaza Strip," Livni said. "Hamas violated, on a daily basis, this truce. They targeted Israel, and we didn't answer."

But that narrative omitted any mention of the critical 4 November raid, and no Palestinian guest, such as Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian lawmaker and human rights activist from Ramallah, appeared on the program to rebut her claim.

In an interview on CNN two days later, on 31 December, however, Barghouti charged that Livni's version of events was "incorrect." He accused Israel of breaking the truce and pointed directly to the 4 November operation in Gaza as the catalyzing incident.

"Two months before [19 December], Israel started attacking Rafah, started attacking Hamas ..." he declared, adding that Israel's failure to lift its commercial embargo against Gaza also violated the Palestinian understanding of the original truce terms.

Indeed, Barghouti's focus on the 4 November attack as the main cause of the ceasefire breakdown was implicitly supported by a lengthy report released the following day by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a private Israeli group. It divided the ceasefire into a "period of relative quiet between 19 June and 4 November," when "Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire," and "the escalation and erosion of the ... arrangement" which it dated to "4 November [when] the [Israeli army] carried out a military action close to the border security fence on the Gazan side..."

It further noted that Hamas began firing rockets and missile shells "in retaliation" to which Israel responded by closing its border crossings and sharply tightening its siege against Gaza. From that point, the ceasefire that had effectively held for the previous four and a half months was never fully restored.

That version of events was not entirely missing from the US press. Indeed, a New York Times "analysis" published 19 December acknowledged that "[w]hile this [escalation] did not topple the agreement, Israel's decision in early November to destroy a tunnel Hamas had been digging near the border drove the cycle of violence to a much higher level."

But the Times itself, like virtually all of the US media, had missed the likely impact of the 4 November attack on the ceasefire's fate at or even shortly after it took place. In its late edition 5 November, the newspaper ran a 422-word article datelined Jerusalem that reported Israel's military operation and the fact that Hamas had retaliated with mortar fire.

One day later, The Washington Post devoted a similar amount of space to a Reuters report whose headline suggested that the truce had been put at risk by the previous day's exchanges.

But while the US media, distracted by an historic election at home, largely skipped over the significance of the 4 November Israeli raid, several English-language foreign news organizations did publish articles on the event, suggesting that the raid could very well have doomed the ceasefire.

A story in the British newspaper The Guardian on 6 November said the truce was "in jeopardy" after the strike. Another British paper, The Independent, said on the same day that the ceasefire "was foundering yesterday after Israeli special forces entered the besieged territory and fought Hamas."

A piece for the Canadian news service Canwest on 6 November said that "the fragile peace [of the ceasefire] was shattered overnight by an Israeli raid in Gaza." The Age newspaper of Australia also headlined its story on the raid itself as "Ceasefire in danger of collapse."

AP's 5 and 6 November stories used similar wording in its stories, but they went largely unpublished in the US where media attention was focused virtually exclusively on the historic election results.

The Nexis search found no reference to the raid in the transcripts of any television public-affairs broadcast during the period, a particularly significant omission given the fact that about 70 percent of US citizens say their main source of international news comes through that medium.

"[T]hat 4 November raid, in very real sense, hardly exists in the mainstream media's collective memory," said Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting's activism director Peter Hart, noting that Israel may have been aware that the election would drown out coverage of its raid.

"It does not take much effort to go back and find it, but reporting contextual information that would undermine Israel's rationale for these attacks is not exactly the kind of thing the US corporate media do very often. The fact that there are only a handful of exceptions is telling -- the dominant narrative in the press is unsurprisingly one that supports the Israeli position."

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2009).

Hamas's violations are no justification for Israel's actions.

Israel's current assault on the Gaza Strip cannot be justified by self-defense. Rather, it involves serious violations of international law, including war crimes. Senior Israeli political and military leaders may bear personal liability for their offenses, and they could be prosecuted by an international tribunal, or by nations practicing universal jurisdiction over grave international crimes. Hamas fighters have also violated the laws of warfare, but their misdeeds do not justify Israel's acts.

The United Nations charter preserved the customary right of a state to retaliate against an "armed attack" from another state. The right has evolved to cover nonstate actors operating beyond the borders of the state claiming self-defense, and arguably would apply to Hamas. However, an armed attack involves serious violations of the peace. Minor border skirmishes are common, and if all were considered armed attacks, states could easily exploit them -- as surrounding facts are often murky and unverifiable -- to launch wars of aggression. That is exactly what Israel seems to be currently attempting.

Israel had not suffered an "armed attack" immediately prior to its bombardment of the Gaza Strip. Since firing the first Kassam rocket into Israel in 2002, Hamas and other Palestinian groups have loosed thousands of rockets and mortar shells into Israel, causing about two dozen Israeli deaths and widespread fear. As indiscriminate attacks on civilians, these were war crimes. During roughly the same period, Israeli forces killed about 2,700 Palestinians in Gaza by targeted killings, aerial bombings, in raids, etc., according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

But on June 19, 2008, Hamas and Israel commenced a six-month truce. Neither side complied perfectly. Israel refused to substantially ease the suffocating siege of Gaza imposed in June 2007. Hamas permitted sporadic rocket fire -- typically after Israel killed or seized Hamas members in the West Bank, where the truce did not apply. Either one or no Israelis were killed (reports differ) by rockets in the half year leading up to the current attack.

Israel then broke the truce on Nov. 4, raiding the Gaza Strip and killing a Palestinian. Hamas retaliated with rocket fire; Israel then killed five more Palestinians. In the following days, Hamas continued rocket fire -- yet still no Israelis died. Israel cannot claim self-defense against this escalation, because it was provoked by Israel's own violation.

An armed attack that is not justified by self-defense is a war of aggression. Under the Nuremberg Principles affirmed by U.N. Resolution 95, aggression is a crime against peace.

Israel has also failed to adequately discriminate between military and nonmilitary targets. Israel's American-made F-16s and Apache helicopters have destroyed mosques, the education and justice ministries, a university, prisons, courts and police stations. These institutions were part of Gaza's civilian infrastructure. And when nonmilitary institutions are targeted, civilians die. Many killed in the last week were young police recruits with no military roles. Civilian employees in the Hamas-led government deserve the protections of international law like all others. Hamas's ideology -- which employees may or may not share -- is abhorrent, but civilized nations do not kill people merely for what they think.

Deliberate attacks on civilians that lack strict military necessity are war crimes. Israel's current violations of international law extend a long pattern of abuse of the rights of Gaza Palestinians. Eighty percent of Gaza's 1.5 million residents are Palestinian refugees who were forced from their homes or fled in fear of Jewish terrorist attacks in 1948. For 60 years, Israel has denied the internationally recognized rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes -- because they are not Jews.

Although Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, it continues to tightly regulate Gaza's coast, airspace and borders. Thus, Israel remains an occupying power with a legal duty to protect Gaza's civilian population. But Israel's 18-month siege of the Gaza Strip preceding the current crisis violated this obligation egregiously. It brought economic activity to a near standstill, left children hungry and malnourished, and denied Palestinian students opportunities to study abroad.

Israel should be held accountable for its crimes, and the U.S. should stop abetting it with unconditional military and diplomatic support.

Mr. Bisharat is a professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.


Media Advisory

International Law Seldom Newsworthy in Gaza War

Israeli justifications often cited uncritically


U.S. corporate media coverage of the Israeli military attacks that have reportedly killed over 900--many of them civilians--since December 27 has overwhelmingly failed to mention that indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets are illegal under international humanitarian law.   

Israel's recent aerial attacks on Gazan infrastructure, including a TV station, police stations, a mosque, a university and even a U.N. school, have been widely reported. Yet despite the fact that attacks on civilian infrastructure, including police stations, are illegal (Human Rights Watch, 12/31/08), questions of legality are almost entirely off the table in the U.S. media.

Only two network evening news stories (NBC Nightly News, 1/8/09, 1/11/09) have even mentioned international law--a mere 3 percent of the total stories that NBC, ABC and CBS's newscasts have broadcast on the Israeli military offensive since it began on December 27.

The largest circulation daily newspaper, USA Today, has made only one reference to international law, according to a search of the terms "international law," "humanitarian law," "war crime" or "laws of war" in the Lexis Nexis database of U.S. newspaper stories mentioning Israel and Gaza since December 27: That single reference was an op-ed (
1/7/08) by a spokesperson from the Israeli embassy in Washington who criticized Hamas violations.

Much of the media coverage has echoed Israel's terminology. Early reports on the fighting spoke of Israel destroying "Hamas targets," bolstering the Israeli position that anything connected to Gaza's government was a legitimate target. "Israel's attacks on Hamas, its leaders and its institutions in Gaza intensified today," ABC's David Muir reported (12/29/08). NBC Nightly News (12/28/08) explained: "Warplanes pounded strategic locations in Gaza for the second day: a prison, a mosque used to store weapons, a Hamas TV station and dozens of other targets. The Israelis attacked the Islamic University, which is a strategic, a moral and a cultural key point for Gaza."

While places of worship are singled out as a kind of civilian object protected under the Geneva Protocols, a mosque used to store weapons could be a military target--though it is unclear what independent confirmation NBC had that allowed the network to state this claim as fact. A prison not directly used in the military effort would be a civilian object, and TV stations are normally considered civilian objects as well (FAIR Media Advisory, 3/27/03). While it is unclear what NBC means in calling the university a "strategic" key point, targeting an object on the basis of its "cultural" value is specifically forbidden under the Geneva Protocols.


A lengthy Washington Post report (12/30/08) likewise recounted Israel's target lists largely without question:


While previous Israeli assaults on Gaza have pinpointed crews of Hamas rocket launchers and stores of weapons, the attacks that began Saturday have had broader aims than any before. Israeli military officials said Monday that their target lists have expanded to include the vast support network that the Islamist movement relies on to stay in power in the strip. The choice of targets suggests that Israel intends to weaken all the various facets of Hamas rather than just its armed wing.


That description was followed by quotes from two Israelis. The Post went on to explain Israel's targeting, each time offering the Israeli rationale with barely a hint of skepticism: "In the Israeli offensive, one of the first targets was a police academy, where scores of recruits were preparing to join a security service that Hamas uses to enforce its writ within Gaza."

As two op-ed pieces in the London Guardian pointed out (12/27/08, 1/3/08), under international law, police officers are classified as civilians, and targeting them is thus illegal (see also Human Rights Watch, 12/31/08). Though the Post did not mention this, it did see fit to point out that "the Israeli military has said the police are fair game because they are armed members of Hamas's security structure and some moonlight as rocket launchers."

Similarly, the Israeli attack on the Islamic University was presented in a way that would justify the attack: "The university was once known as a bastion of support for the mainstream Palestinian Fatah movement, but it gradually fell under Hamas' sway, and many of the movement's top leaders are alumni. Hamas heavily influences the curriculum and uses the campus as a prime recruiting ground."

The idea that leaders of a military or government force being alumni of a particular school makes that school a military target is not one U.S. media would take seriously in most contexts. The CIA often recruits officers from Yale; does that make Yale a legitimate military target?

New York Times report (12/31/08) punted on the issue of legality:


In the debate over civilian casualties, there is no clear understanding of what constitutes a military target. Palestinians argue that because Hamas is also the government in Gaza, many of the police officers who have been killed were civil servants, not hard-core militants. Israel disagrees, asserting also that a university chemistry laboratory, which it claims was used for making rockets, was a fair target in an attack this week, even if it could not show conclusively that those inside the laboratory at the time where engaged in making weapons.


If Israel is attacking civilian institutions without showing evidence that they are in fact military targets, it's unclear why news reports would suggest that that meant that no one knows what a military target is. But the Times persisted:


The ambiguity was evident at the intensive care ward in Shifa Hospital.... There were 11 patients. One was a pharmacist, Rawya Awad, 32, who had a shrapnel wound to the head. Several were police officers. It was impossible to know the identities of many of the others. But there were several children in another intensive care unit on Tuesday. Among them was Ismael Hamdan, 8, who had severe brain damage as well as two broken legs, according to a doctor there. Earlier that day, two of his sisters, Lama, 5, and Hayya, 12, were killed.


That "ambiguity" was matched days later (1/4/09), in a vivid account from a Gaza hospital that discovered mostly civilians being treated--which the paper called "both harrowing and puzzling." The paper added:

The casualties at Shifa on Sunday--18 dead, hospital officials said, among a reported 30 around Gaza--were women, children and men who had been with children. One surgeon said that he had performed five amputations.... In recent days, most of those arriving at Shifa appeared to be civilians. On Sunday, there was no trace here of the dozens of Hamas fighters that the Israeli military said its ground forces had hit in the past few hours in exchanges of fire. The exact reason was not clear.... But at Shifa, most of the men who were wounded or killed seemed to have been hit along with relatives near their homes or on the road. Two young cousins and a 5-year-old boy from another family were killed by shrapnel as they played on the flat roofs of their apartment buildings.

Given the population density of Gaza and the completely predictable civilian death toll usually associated with aerial bombing and urban warfare, the civilian toll is anything but "puzzling." 

But the New York Times continued to grant Israel a pass on the legality of its attacks, though often the arguments were difficult to parse. Times reporter Steven Erlanger (1/11/09) noted that "Israeli officials say that they are obeying the rules of war and trying hard not to hurt noncombatants but that Hamas is using civilians as human shields in the expectation that Israel will try to avoid killing them."

That would seem to be at odds with what Erlanger also reported about an alleged Hamas "trap" in one Gaza apartment building:

According to an Israeli journalist embedded with Israeli troops, the militants placed a mannequin in a hallway off the building's main entrance. They hoped to draw fire from Israeli soldiers who might, through the blur of night vision goggles and split-second decisions, mistake the figure for a fighter. The mannequin was rigged to explode and bring down the building. 


That account--which Erlanger seems to find plausible--would suggest the opposite of what Israeli officials are saying about avoiding attacks on civilians; if a "mannequin in a hallway" would appear to Israeli forces to be a military target and hence "draw fire," then presumably virtually any Gazan--who typically live in buildings, many of which have hallways--would be taken as such as well.