The Huffington Post, January 13, 2009 - One by one the justifications given by Israel for its latest war in Gaza are unraveling.
The argument that this is a purely defensive war, launched only after Hamas broke a five-month old ceasefire has been challenged, not just by observers in the know such as former President Jimmy Carter, who helped facilitate the truce, but by center-right Israeli intelligence think tanks, the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, whose December 31 report titled "Six Months of the Lull Arrangement Intelligence Report," confirmed that the June 19 truce was only "sporadically violated, and then not by Hamas but instead by... "rogue terrorist organizations." Instead, "The escalation and erosion of the lull arrangement" occurred after Israel killed half a dozen Hamas members on November 4 without provocation and then placed the entire Strip under even more intensive siege the next day.
According to a joint Tel Aviv University-European university study, this fits a larger pattern in which Israeli violence has been responsible for ending 79% of all lulls in violence since the outbreak of the second intifada, compared with only 8% for Hamas and other Palestinian factions.
Indeed, the Israeli Foreign Ministry seems to realize that this argument is losing credibility. During a conference call with half a dozen pro-Israel professors on Thursday, the NY Consul General focused more on the importance of destroying the intricate tunnel system connecting Gaza to the Sinai, claiming that such tunnels were "as big as the Holland and Lincoln tunnels," proof of which was the "fact" that lions and monkeys had been smuggled through them to a zoo in Gaza (in reality, the lions were two small cubs, who were drugged, thrown in sacks, and dragged through a tunnel on their way to a private zoo.
The claim that Hamas will never accept the existence of Israel has proved equally misinformed, as Hamas leaders explicitly announce their intention to do just that in the pages of the Los Angeles Times (as did deputy political head Mousa Abu Marzook in a January 6 Opinion article), and to any international leader or journalist who will meet with them.
The claim that Israeli forces have gone out of their way to diminish civilian casualties, long a center piece of Israel's self-image as an enlightened and moral democracy even during war, are falling apart with each new family, 10, 20, and 30 strong, buried under the rubble of a building in Gaza. Anyone with an internet connection can Google "Gaza humanitarian catastrophe" and find the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Territories and read the thousands of pages of evidence documenting the reality of the current fighting, and the long term siege on Gaza that preceded it.
The Red Cross, normally scrupulous in its unwillingness to single out parties to a conflict for criticism, sharply criticized Israel for preventing medical personnel from reaching wounded Palestinians, some of whom remained trapped for days, slowly starving and dying in the Gazan rubble amidst their dead relatives. Meanwhile, the United Nations has flatly denied Israel claims that Palestinian fighters were using the UNRWA school compound bombed on January 6, in which forty civilians were killed, to launch attacks, and has challenged Israel to prove otherwise.
And numerous flippant remarks by senior Israeli politicians and generals, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and General Dan Harel declaring their intention to leave "not one Hamas building standing" in Gaza, and refusing to make a distinction between civilian people and institutions and fighters --"Hamas doesn't... and neither should we" is how Livni puts it -- offer are being seen, rightly so, as admission of war crimes.
Indeed, in reviewing statements by Israeli military planners leading up to the invasion, it's clear that there was a well-thought out decision to go after Gaza's civilian infrastructure -- and with it, civilians. The following quote, from an interview with Major General Gadi Eisenkot in October, is telling:
We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these [i.e., entire villages] are military bases," he said. "This isn't a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized.
Causing "immense damage and destruction" and considering entire villages as "military bases" are absolutely prohibited under international law. Eisenkot's description of this planning in light of what is now unfolding in Gaza is a clear admission of conspiracy and intent to commit war crimes, and when taken with the comments above, and numerous others, renders any argument by Israel that it has tried to protect civilians and is not engaging in disproportionate force unbelievable.
On the ground, the evidence mounts ever higher that Israel is systematically violating a host of international laws, including but not limited to These include, but are not limited to, Article 56 of the IV Hague Convention of 1907, the First Additional Protocol of the Geneva Convention, the Fourth Geneva Convention (more specifically known as the "Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949", the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the principles of Customary International Humanitarian Law (see here).
None of this excuses or legitimizes the firing of rockets or mortars by any Palestinian groups at Israeli civilians and non-military targets. As UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk declared in his most recent statement on Gaza, "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." But by the same logic, Israel does not have the right to use such attacks to launch an all-out assault on the entire population of Gaza.
In this context, even Israel's suffering from the constant barrage of rockets is hard to pay due attention to when the numbers of dead and wounded on each side are counted -- almost 700 Palestinian dead and thousands wounded, versus 3 dead Israelis civilians and a few dozen wounded since December 27. Any sense of proportion is impossible to sustain with such a calculus....
Around the world people are beginning to compare Israel's attack on Gaza, which after the 2005 withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlers was turned literally into the world's largest prison, to the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Extremist Muslims are using internet forum to collect names and address of prominent European Jews with the goal, it seems clear, of assassinating them in retaliation for Israel's actions in Gaza.
al-Qa'eda is attempting to exploit this crisis to gain a foothold in Gaza and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, as well as through attacking Jewish communities globally. Iran's defiance of both Israel and its main sponsor, the United States, is winning it increasing sympathy each passing day. Inside Israel, the violence will continue to erode both democratic values in the Jewish community, and any acceptance of the Jewish state's legitimacy in the eyes of its Palestinian citizens.
And yet in the United States -- at least in Washington and in the offices of the mainstream Jewish organizations -- the chorus of support for Israel's war on Gaza continues to sing in tight harmony with official Israeli policy, seemingly deaf to the fact that they have become so out of tune with the reality exploding around them....
Mark LeVine received his BA in comparative religion and biblical studies from Hunter College. His MA and Ph.D. were done at New York University's Department of Middle Eastern Studies. There he focused on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and modern Islamic religious and political thought and movements. His new book, Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil, was just published by the Oxford-based Oneworld Publications. His dissertation, Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, is published by the University of California Press.