Israel’s atrocities in Gaza prompt unprecedented political fallout
“Carnage” in Gaza – “the killing of children and the slaughter of civilians”. Not the words of a Palestinian spokesperson but rather French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Australia’s FM Julie Bishop condemned what she called “shocking” and “indefensible” incidents, with “hundreds of innocent people” killed.Just two examples of how Israel’s strongest allies have criticised the conduct of ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in unprecedentedly harsh terms. In the UK specifically, there has been an undeniable sea-change in the way that self-declared ‘friends’ of Israel have drawn a red line – adding their voices of criticism to more vociferous condemnation heard at numerous, large-scale demonstrations.
More on this in a moment. For now let us recap the devastation visited upon the Gaza Strip where, in the words of Human Rights Watch, Israel has killed “very large numbers of civilians” with “advanced weapons”. In the most recent update, Gaza’s Ministry of Health reported a death toll of 1,893 Palestinians, including 430 children. In one single F-16 strike on July 30, 19 children were killed. A further 9,805 Palestinians have been wounded, including almost 3,000 children. At least 122 families have lost three or more family members in the same attack, killing a total of 652 civilians in those strikes alone.
Many of the wounded are suffering from serious burns, or face life-long disabilities (physical as well as mental). In a fenced-in, blockaded territory, Israel’s attacks displaced almost 30 percent of the population. Israel has destroyed or severely damaged more than 10,000 housing units – many more have sustained less serious damage.
Shops, mosques, government buildings, all lie in ruins – the power plant is out of action, and 134 factories were destroyed. A low-end estimate cost of the damage is $5 billion. The health sector is in a state of emergency, while Amnesty International yesterday released evidence of the Israeli military conducting “deliberate attacks against hospitals and health professionals“. Nor were journalists immune: 13 Palestinian media workers were killed during the course of the attack.
The evidence of atrocities is mounting. One of the defining horrors of this attack has been the targeting of family homes – close to 1,000 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged by Israeli airstrikes. Reporting on the issue, the Associated Press said that the Israeli military did not respond to repeated requests “to explain in detail why even one of [the homes] was targeted”.
Earlier on in the operation, Israeli NGO B’Tselem noted how the Israel military itself had “acknowledged” conducting attacks that were “illegally aimed at homes that were not military targets”. A senior officer, commenting on the bombing of a senior al-Qassam Brigades figure’s house, said: “You call it a home, we call it a command centre and a military post for all intents and purposes”.
As Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard put it, the Israeli military’s “combat doctrine…redefines what constitutes a legitimate target for attack” so that it includes “houses belonging to Hamas commanders and operatives” (it should be noted homes have also been hit lacking even this ‘link’).
Another example of Israel’s war crimes – the intense and indiscriminate attack on Rafah on August 1, when the Israeli military killed an estimated 130 Palestinians, mostly civilians, after soldier Hadar Goldin was feared captured. Haaretz referred to “dozens of innocents killed” in a “massive use of force” – another item reported “the demolition of houses with bulldozers and very aggressive artillery, aerial and tank fire“. The Givati brigade responsible is commanded by Ofer Winter, who had told his soldiers prior to the ground invasion they were “engaged in a war to ‘wipe out’ an ‘enemy who defames’ God.”
Then there is the devastation of Shuja’iyya, when IDF officers boasted of “taking off the gloves” and tanks received orders “to open fire at anything that moved”. A brutal attack which, in the words of Israeli analyst Ron Ben-Yishai, was the very “essence of the deterrence” sought by Israel in its battering of Gaza. In Khuza’a, Israeli forces fired on and killed fleeing civilians, with a “furious assault” that left “whole streets flattened” and “its nine mosques…in pieces”. And so it goes on.
A report in Haaretz a week ago said that more than 30,000 artillery shells had landed in Gaza, in addition to the then-4,000 “targets” struck by airstrikes. It is vital to recall, when considering the bigger picture of Israel’s military operations, that the army’s own legal advice strips civilians of their protected status, in what has been described as “a ‘targeted assassination’ of the principles of international law“.
Meanwhile, Israel is preparing for the anticipated legal ramifications of its war crimes – a reasonable expectation given the calls already made by the likes of Amnesty International for an arms embargo, as well as the UN Human Rights Commission inquiry.
According to the Israeli media, for domestic consumption officials describe the damage done to Gaza “as the main deterrent” – but “play down this claim in the international arena”, as they are “aware the destruction will have serious political ramifications”. On July 10, a military source claimed that when “Gaza residents see the great damage to the Strip“, it “will speak for itself”.
The Israeli military has already established a team “in case the army is accused of war crimes” consisting of senior army officials, as well as representatives of the Foreign and Defense Ministries. Their remit also includes “organizing a diplomatic and public relations offensive“.
They will have their work cut out. In recent weeks, Israel’s image has taken a battering in Britain. The public has taken a clear stand on what it thinks of the Gaza attack, while politicians and pundits from both the Right and centre-left have condemned the killing of Palestinian civilians. Palestine has shaped the domestic political agenda in a way perhaps never seen before.
‘Tory war over Gaza‘, ran a front page headline in The Times, in the aftermath of Sayeeda Warsi’s resignation. A self-defined pro-Israel Conservative MP spoke out against the “swift, and terrible, elimination of so many Palestinian lives, homes, hospitals and schools”. Newspapers have focused on the arms trade, as campaigners and senior politicians alike call for an embargo.
From celebrity tweets to Jon Snow’s emotional broadcasts – this summer would appear to be a watershed moment in how Israel is perceived, and treated, in the UK. No wonder that the Israeli embassy has almost begged for help in its embattled propaganda drive, while the country’s defenders issue desperate-sounding “choose which side you are on“-style pleas.
Take a step back from the summer’s bloodshed and remember where things stood in the spring. An intransigent Israeli government was winning few friends abroad, as the US-led peace process died on its feet. Israeli settlements in the West Bank were increasingly the target of mainstream anger and boycotts, as a growing chorus warned that Israeli colonisation policies had made a Palestinian state impossible. BDS campaigns were growing, in trade unions, faith communities, and on campuses.
Israel already stood charged with systematic violations of international law, apartheid, and institutionalised discrimination, even before the barbaric attack on the Gaza Strip. Now with the evidence of new war crimes there for all to see, Israel’s isolation will only increase, and, despite the predictable backlash, Palestine solidarity campaigning will take a significant step forward.
Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer and activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel. He has been visiting the region since 2003 and his articles have been widely published in the likes of The Guardian’s Comment is free, Al Jazeera, Electronic Intifada, New Statesman, Salon, Christian Science Monitor, Middle East International, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and others. He currently works as a writer and researcher for Middle East Monitor and Journal of Palestine Studies.
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