One year ago today, Israel launched “Operation Cast Lead”, a murderous full-scale military assault on the small, densely populated, and defenseless Gaza Strip. The operation resulted in the massacre of over 1,300 Palestinians, the vast majority civilians, including hundreds of children.
This includes only those killed directly by military attacks. The actual casualty figure from Israel’s policies towards Gaza, including the number of deaths attributable to its ongoing siege of the territory, is unknown.
The official pretext for the operation given by Israel and parroted unquestioningly in the Western media is that Israel had to respond with force as an act of self-defense against an onslaught of rocket attacks against southern Israel from Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza.
Even if this were true, nations acting in self-defense against armed attacks must respect international law designed to protect civilians in time of war. Israel flagrantly violated the Geneva Conventions and other relevant treaties governing the use of force during the course of its operation, committing numerous war crimes.
But the stated pretext itself does not stand up to scrutiny. Six months prior to the assault on Gaza, Israel and Hamas had agreed to a cease-fire. Under the terms of the truce agreement, Hamas would end its rocket attacks against Israel and Israel would similarly cease attacks against Palestinians in Gaza and lift its siege on the territory.
Hamas, for its part, lived up to its obligations under the truce. It fired no rockets into Israel and actively pressured other groups to similarly refrain from launching attacks.
Israel, on the other hand, never lived up to its obligations under the truce. From the beginning, Israel declared a “security zone” on Gaza’s side of the border and Israeli soldiers repeatedly violated the truce by firing at Palestinians, guilty of merely trying to access their own land.
Israel also never eased its siege of Gaza. Israel controlled (and continues to control) the borders of Gaza, its airspace, and its coast, and has implemented a near total blockade, including preventing by force the delivery of humanitarian goods into the territory.
Rather than easing the siege, Israel continued to let in only minimal amounts of humanitarian supplies (a practice that also continues today), just enough to prevent a total humanitarian catastrophe, thus keeping the population of Gaza in a state of despair and on the verge of human limits, with untold consequences on the health and mental well-being of the Palestinians.
The complete breakdown of the truce agreement came on November 4, when Israel launched airstrikes and a ground incursion into Gaza, killing four Palestinians. This violation of the cease-fire resulted in its effective undoing.
Israel’s official reason for the attack was its claim that militants were digging a tunnel under the border. The more credible explanation, however, was that Israel wanted to provoke Hamas into launching rockets and thus to claim a pretext for the full-scale military assault that Israel had, at that time, by its own account, already been planning.
Indeed, from the beginning of the truce, it appeared Israel’s intent was to provoke a violent response in order claim a pretext for its military assault. While Hamas scrupulously observed the cease-fire, Israel took deliberate actions to undermine it. Besides those already noted, Israel also stepped up operations against Palestinians in the West Bank, such as the assassination of members of Islamic Jihad shortly after the announcement of the truce.
Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza responded to that incident by firing rockets into Israel, but Hamas criticized the attacks and pressured Islamic Jihad to cease, including with the threat of arrests, and the tenuous truce continued to hold, for a time.
A greater and more provocative action was necessary in order to completely undermine the truce, and Israel’s November 4 attack proved to be that action. From that day forward, the so-called “cease-fire” consisted of tit-for-tat attacks on a daily basis, with Israel launching repeated attacks on Gaza and Hamas and other militant groups launching rockets into Israel.
Israel had achieved the pretext it was looking for in order to gain the political cover necessary to wage its assault on the civilian population of Gaza.
And make no mistake; Operation Cast Lead was a war on a civilian population, an extremely murderous act of collective punishment.
The death toll itself stands as an undeniable testament to that, but the manner in which Israel waged its operation also leaves no doubt as to its true objective.
As already noted, Israel claims its operation was designed to end rocket attacks. In truth, it was Israel that deliberately violated and undermined the truce.
Israel also claims its operation was aimed at militants. As evidence of its respect for international law and extraordinary efforts to prevent the loss of innocent life, Israel notes the fact that it dropped thousands of leaflets on Gaza prior to its operations warning civilians to flee the oncoming assault.
But the fact is this is not evidence of Israel’s respect for innocent life, but rather strong evidence that its killing of civilians was deliberate and intended. For starters, civilians, told to flee, had nowhere to go. No place in Gaza was safe from Israel’s attacks. Furthermore, in some cases civilians were told to go to city centers, and, after many had done so, those same locations were then purposefully bombed by Israel.
Israel’s claimed respect for innocent life is also belied by its means of indiscriminate warfare. Israel heavily bombarded civilian population centers. It deliberately and systematically targeted civilian locations with protected status under international law, including schools and hospitals.
Israel also used indiscriminate weaponry, including white phosphorus munitions. The use of white phosphorus is permitted under international law for illuminating the battlefield or creating smokescreens. However, its use as an incendiary weapon (it is also a chemical weapon, in that its incendiary effect is the result of a chemical reaction) is a violation of international law and a war crime, particularly when used indiscriminately against populated areas and civilian locations such as schools, as it was in Gaza.
Moreover, Israel demonstrated extreme contempt for and defiance to the United Nations and the international community by deliberately targeting U.N. sites within Gaza. It targeted U.N. clinics, schools, and other compounds.
Israel attacked humanitarian convoys attempting to deliver much needed supplies to the desperate people of Gaza, and in other cases prevented medical teams, including from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), from reaching victims of its assault, also a war crime.
Israel also deliberately targeted a U.N. warehouse where humanitarian supplies were being stored, attacking the site with white phosphorus munitions, resulting in the warehouse and goods inside catching fire and nearly burning to the ground.
All of these actions by Israel, all well documented and incontrovertible, constitute grave war crimes under the Geneva Conventions and other relevant treaties of international law.
The U.S. Role
Israel’s contempt for innocent life, for the international community, and for international law is perhaps matched only by the U.S. willingness to support Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people.
Simply stated, without U.S. support, none of this could go on.
The U.S. supports Israel financially. Aid to Israel is on the order of $3 billion a year. This money is given, unlike aid to other countries, with no strings attached, and with little to no oversight about how it is to be used.
Even if it is not used directly to finance Israeli policies and activities in violation of international law, such as its ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories, construction of settlements in the West Bank, construction of its “separation barrier” within the West Bank, destruction of Palestinian homes and other property, killing of Palestinian civilians, etc., U.S. financial support allows Israel to free up other funding for these illegal activities. It effectively rewards Israel for criminal actions.
The U.S. supports Israel militarily. And military equipment provided by the U.S. is used by Israel for actions constituting war crimes under international law. The massacre in Gaza was carried out with the help of U.S.-provided Apache helicopter gunships, U.S.-provided F-16 fighter bombers, and U.S.-provided munitions, including white phosphorus and cluster munitions.
This military support to Israel is not only a violation of international law and relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on member states not to provide material support for Israeli crimes, but it is also a violation of U.S. law. Besides international treaties such as the U.N. Charter and the Geneva Conventions constituting “the supreme Law of the Land” under the U.S. Constitution, U.S. law forbids the exporting of military equipment to countries that routinely violate international law and commit offenses against human rights. Yet U.S. military support for Israel continues unabated.
The U.S. supports Israel diplomatically. The principle means by which the U.S. does so is through the use of its veto power in the U.N. Security Council. While Israel was using U.S. military hardware to murder innocent Palestinians, the U.S. was actively trying to stall a cease-fire resolution to give Israel more time to carry out its assault. A watered-down version of the resolution was finally found acceptable to the U.S., which reportedly was ready to vote in favor, but after receiving a call from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while not going so far as to cast a veto, instead abstained rather than cast a vote for a resolution rightfully critical of Israel.
The Role of the U.S. Media
The U.S. mainstream corporate media also play a significant role in the Israeli-Arab conflict, and reporting on Operation Cast Lead provides a useful case study into the nature of its role. To describe U.S. media accounts of Israel’s ongoing atrocities in Gaza as “biased” would be a sore understatement.
Take the reporting of the New York Times, America’s “newspaper of record” reporting “all the news that’s fit to print”. Arguably the most widely read and important newspaper in the world, what the Times reports is regularly picked up by other major media, with the newspaper effectively serving as a trend-setter for the news Americans consume. Its impact on the perceptions Americans have of conflicts such as Israel’s war on the civilian population of Gaza is enormous.
The New York Times’ reporting on Israel’s assault was reminiscent of its reporting on Iraq with respect to that nation’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, prior to the initiation of the U.S. war of aggression against that country based on such lies and deceptions as then reported matter-of-factly by the Times.
Propaganda devices employed by the Times in this case, as in the case of Iraq, included the use of euphemisms and the selective reporting of facts.
For instance, although the Times did report initially on Israel’s November 4 violation of the truce, it exercised selective amnesia in its subsequent reporting and described only the “breakdown” of the cease-fire and thus failed to inform readers of the single identifiable causal factor for that “breakdown”.
Moreover, the Times accepted without scrutiny and parroted the official line from Israeli officials that its operation was launched in response to rocket attacks by Hamas in violation of the truce, thus implicitly and falsely attributing the failure of the cease-fire to its violation by Hamas.
The Times repeatedly and consistently downplayed the true nature of Israel’s assault on Gaza. In one notable example, the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner wrote in an article that Palestinians had “claimed” that Israel was using white phosphorus munitions, employing this propaganda device to intentionally cast doubt in the mind of the reader as to the veracity of the so-called “claim”.
The truth is that Bronner knew perfectly well this was not a “claim”, but a known fact. He could just as well have written at that time that human rights organizations had criticized Israel for its known use of white phosphorus, rather than attributing it as merely a Palestinian “claim”.
By this time, although reporters were banned from entering Gaza, there was no question that Israel was doing so, including proof in photographs showing the unmistakable smoke trails and incendiary projectiles of white phosphorus being used over residential neighborhoods.
Remarkably, the same day Bronner’s article appeared, another article also appeared, written by his Palestinian colleague Taghreed El-Khodary, the Times’ only correspondent actually reporting from inside of Gaza, who reported on finding white phosphorus casings with markings showing that they were U.S.-made.
In El-Khodary’s reports from Gaza, one could find a more reliable account of what was actually happening on the ground, but even her articles were heavily edited and/or rewritten by the Times’ editorial staff, and it was the dishonest and propagandistic reporting of Bronner and his Jerusalem-based British-Israeli colleague Isabel Kershner that generally typified the nature of the Times’ reporting on the massacre.
Countless other examples abound, but it’s beyond the scope of this article and would be superfluous to continue to list them.
The Role of the American People
In short, Americans reading about the violence in U.S. newspapers or watching it on TV received a heavily distorted account of what was going down.
But this is no excuse for ignorance. The facts are known and available to every American with access to the internet. One may turn to the healthy alternative media in the U.S. One may turn to international media sources, including Israeli sources like the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, or Ynet (Yedioth Ahronoth online). One may turn to human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, or the Israeli group B’tselem.
One may also turn to the report of the U.N. Human Rights Council inquiry into the violence, headed up by the respected international jurist Richard Goldstone, who himself happens to be Jewish (a fact worthy of mention due to Israeli and U.S. charges that the report is biased; in another example of U.S. diplomatic support for Israeli crimes, the U.S. has actively sought to block implementation of its recommendations or any Security Council follow-up actions).
Goldstone himself has concluded that Israel’s actions were targeted at the civilian population of Gaza as an act of collective punishment, and his conclusion is well supported by his final report and the evidence it presents.
The facts are beyond dispute. The conclusions are obvious and incontrovertible. It is well past time that the American people wake up to the realities on the ground in the Palestinian territories. Many Americans already demonstrate the modicum of moral integrity required to speak out against their government’s support for Israeli crimes, but it is not enough.
Without massive public opposition to the U.S. policy of supporting Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people, the crimes will continue. Israel will continue to act with impunity and continue to violate international law under U.S. cover.
The fact of the matter is that the American people have more power in their hands than any other body to bring about an end to the violence and to create the conditions for a just and sustainable peace in the Middle East.
Americans themselves may not realize this truth, but the international community well recognizes it. And the world is watching, and waiting.
Will the American people continue to turn their heads away and wash their collective hands of the affair, deceiving themselves into believing they have no responsibility for what goes on “over there” and that they have no influence to change things, anyway?
Or will the American people cast away ignorance and apathy and demonstrate intellectual honesty, moral integrity, compassion, and strength of will by standing up and acting to pressure their government to change its policies?
The answer to these questions remains to be seen. Only time will tell. In the meantime, the Palestinian people continue pay the price for the willingness of Americans to allow their government to pursue criminal policies contrary to their own interests and antithetical to the very principles of justice and humanity every American would like to think their country stands for.