Amnesty International released a report Nov. 5 stating that a five-and-a-half-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas “has brought enormous improvements in the quality of life in Sderot and other Israeli villages near Gaza.” However, it warned that a spate of Israeli and Palestinian attacks and counter-attacks in the previous 24 hours could “once again put the civilian populations of Gaza and southern Israel in the line of fire.”
Seven weeks later, Israel launched a massive military offensive into Gaza that shocked much of the world while gaining widespread support inside the Jewish state.
The Gaza offensive took 13 Israeli lives, including three civilians. Meanwhile more than 1,300 Palestinian lives were lost, more than half of which were civilians, including at least 400 children. At least 5,000 were injured. The price tag for the reconstruction of 21,000 homes, schools, hospitals, mosques and other infrastructure destroyed is estimated at more than $2 billion. The conflict destroyed half of Gaza’s agricultural industry, which provided a quarter of its food.
Gaza is one of the most crowded places on earth; it holds 1.5 million people, half of whom are children under 15. The majority of Gazans are the descendants of Palestinians who were forced to flee during the founding of Israel in 1948. Eighty percent of Gazans subsist on less than $2 a day and depend on the United Nations for basic survival. Israel has imposed a 19-month-long blockade, stopping food, fuel and medical supplies from reaching Gaza despite U.N. pleas that the restrictions be lifted.
Israel stands accused of firing on and killing civilians waving white flags, those it ordered to flee their homes and on aid workers. Israel has also been accused of refusing to let the injured get medical care by impeding and firing on ambulances. A coalition of nine Israeli human rights groups called for an investigation into whether Israel committed war crimes, protesting the “wanton use of lethal force” against Palestinian civilians. The U.N.’s special rapporteur to Palestine said Israel could be in violation of the U.N. Charter, the Geneva Conventions, international law and international humanitarian law. The Israeli explanation for high civilian casualties is that Hamas fighters concealed themselves within the civilian population.
Amnesty International accused Israel of using white phosphorus “in densely populated residential neighborhoods, [which] is inherently indiscriminate,” adding, “Its repeated use in this manner … is a war crime.” Israel has also been accused of using cluster bombs in densely populated areas, as well as using experimental weapons that are illegal under international law, including dense inert metal explosives (DIME) and GPS-guided mortars. A former U.S. Department of Defense official, now with Human Rights Watch, stated, “Experimenting has a different meaning for Americans. We think animal experimenting, but [its use was] indeed a field test.” Israel has dismissed all accusations of using illegal weapons and promised to protect its soldiers from prosecution.
It is difficult to say how many Israeli soldiers and reservists refused to take part in the fighting as the Israeli military was sending military resisters quietly home rather than jailing them and risking puncturing an aura of shared national purpose. One military resister who went public with his opposition was Yitzchak Ben Mocha, who refused to fight in Gaza because, “It’s not a war of defense. … You can’t separate the war in Gaza from the fact that the Palestinian nation is under occupation for more than 40 years.”
A DIFFERENT PATH FORWARD
According to the Israeli group Peace Now, Israel has escalated settlement expansion by 57 percent over the past year. The scope of the Israeli government’s complicity came into focus Jan. 30. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed that a secret database developed by the Israeli military confirms that many settlements are built on private Palestinian land and considered illegal under Israeli law. According to Haaretz, “in the vast majority of the settlements — about 75 percent — construction, sometimes on a large scale, has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued. The database also shows that, in more than 30 settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure (roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas and even police stations) has been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents.”
It has been reported that President Barack Obama may start indirect low-level talks with Hamas, similar to those that the Carter administration held with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the late 1970s. In 1982, Israel responded to the PLO’s willingness to negotiate by invading Lebanon, where the PLO was based, in a war that killed as many as 25,000 people. Twenty-seven years later the PLO’s Fatah party has been reduced to the role of collaborating in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and in spite of 16 years of negotiations it has been unable to stop Israeli expansion onto Palestinian lands.
It has been argued that the objective of Israel’s assault on Gaza was to knock out Hamas because it opposes the Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Jerusalem. According to a leading Israeli expert on the conflict Avi Shlaim, the “definition of terror is the use of violence against civilians for political purposes.” So while Hamas is a terrorist organization, “by the same token, Israel is practicing state terror, because it is using violence on a massive scale against Palestinian civilians for political purposes.”
An internationally-backed peace agreement has been on the table for more than 30 years: the creation of a Palestinian state in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. With Hamas now indicating it is willing to negotiate along these lines, the main obstacle to peace remains the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation, which only the U.S. public has the power to end.
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