Mouin Rabbani, Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)
January 7, 2009
Shortly after 11:30 am on December 27, 2008, at the height of the midday bustle on the first day of the Gazan week and with multitudes of schoolchildren returning home from the morning shift, close to 90 Israeli warplanes launched over 100 tons of explosives at some 100 targets throughout the 139 square miles of the Gaza Strip. Within minutes, the near simultaneous air raids killed more than 225 and wounded at least 700, more than 200 of them critically. These initial attacks alone produced dozens more dead than any other day in the West Bank and Gaza combined since Israel’s occupation of those lands commenced in June 1967.
After a week of sustained aerial and naval bombardment encompassing the length and breadth of the Gaza Strip, Israel on January 3 escalated its unprecedented onslaught with artillery barrages and a ground invasion. As expected, this new phase produced an immediate and horrific increase in casualties, particularly among Palestinian civilians, in both absolute and proportional terms. The Palestinian death toll now tops 625. In a number of cases, entire families were wiped out in neighborhoods transformed into free-fire zones.
On January 6, hours after three cousins were killed when Israel bombed the UN-run Asma Elementary School in Gaza City, 46 Palestinian civilians were killed and 100 wounded when Israel shelled the al-Fakhoura school -- also operated by the world body -- in the Jabalya refugee camp. “Shortly after,” the Financial Times reported the following day, “the Israeli military e-mailed journalists a link to a YouTube video purportedly showing militants firing mortars from a UN-run school in Gaza -- but it was dated October 2007.” Protesting “the complete absence of accountability” and calling for an independent investigation into the bloodbath, the UN was, according to the Guardian, “particularly incensed over targeting of the schools, because Israeli forces knew they were packed with families as they had ordered them to get out of their homes with leaflet drops and loudspeakers. It said it had identified the schools as refugee centers to the Israeli military and provided GPS coordinates.”
Meanwhile, Israel’s political objective remains to be clearly enunciated. Under the rubric of achieving a transformation of the security equation in the south of the country, Israeli cabinet members have promoted outcomes ranging from a new ceasefire agreement with Hamas that reflects Israel’s terms, to regime change in the coastal territory, to the outright eradication of the Islamist movement. Similarly, Israeli leaders have wavered between predicting a short, sharp campaign resulting in decisive victory and a long, difficult slog that would bear fruit only with the passage of time.
Fresh memories of Israel’s failed 2006 war on Lebanon have meant that -- across the political spectrum -- the last war is the standard against which virtually every aspect of the current one is being measured. Yet closer examination suggests that the more apt comparisons are with Israel’s 2002 invasion of West Bank cities and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. These operations may also provide better indicators of what is to come in Gaza.
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Mouin Rabbani is an independent analyst based in Amman and a contributing editor of Middle East Report.