OpEd | Gaza: Don’t Blame the Victims


Israeli narratives and talking points concerning multiple assaults on Gaza are designed to obscure the context of a brutal occupation and blockade and to marginalize the Palestinians as extremist and irrational. Typical explanations given by Israel and her apologists are that the assaults on Gaza are simply self-defense in response to unprovoked rocket attacks, that Israel makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties and that high numbers of civilian casualties are due to Hamas using civilians as human shields. This narrative works well with an audience that is relatively uninformed and a compliant press. There is, however, enough available factual evidence and scholarship to scrutinize Israeli explanations. How well do Israeli claims stand up to critical scrutiny?

The 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was, in practical terms, repulsed by Hezbollah. During this attack the Israelis extensively bombed civilian residential areas and infrastructure. Dahiya, a southern suburb of Beirut, was leveled. I was exposed to the extent of this when I was in Beirut in 2010. An Israeli general bragged about the extent of destruction and indicated that massive bombing would send a deterrent message. The Israeli military policy of massive disproportionate force and targeting of civilian infrastructure is now known as the Dahiya doctrine. Israel also claimed that targeting civilian areas was because Hezbollah was hiding among civilians, effectively using them as human shields. However, investigation of over 94 incidents by Human Rights Watch concluded that Israel “conducted the war with reckless indifference to the fate of Lebanese civilians” and refutes the claim that Hezbollah used civilians as human shields. On the ground, evidence indicated that most rockets were stored in unpopulated areas and fired from positions outside villages.

Israel’s failure to establish “deterrence” based on the Lebanon assault kept deterrence as a remaining objective in the run up to the 2008 assault on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead). Another problem for Israel was evolving Hamas political positions increasingly aligned with world views and moving toward acceptance of a state based on 1967 borders and a peace agreement. After a series of clashes, Israel accepted a cease-fire proposal by Hamas in June 2008 in which Israel would relax the blockade and Hamas would stop launching rockets. Hamas was careful to adhere to the ceasefire and made every effort to enforce it on other Gazan organizations. Israel simply reneged and did not significantly relax the blockade, instead conducting a military raid on November 4, 2008, breaking the ceasefire. The pretext given was the discovery of a tunnel under construction. It should be noted that under the blockade, tunnels have become an important means of bringing in food and commerce. It was only then that Hamas responded with a rocket barrage that did little or no damage. Having successfully provoked a rocket barrage, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead and the Dahiya strategy became operational.

During Cast Lead about 1,400 Palestinians were killed, the vast majority of whom were civilians, including about 350 children. In comparison, the total Israelis killed were three civilians and 10 military (four from friendly fire). The Israeli claim that the number of civilian casualties was due to Hamas using civilians as human shields was investigated by Amnesty International (AI). AI found no evidence that rockets were launched from residential buildings when civilians were present and that locations where Palestinian fighters confronted Israelis were mostly determined by Israeli movements. No cases of Hamas using human shields were found but several instances of Israeli soldiers using Palestinian children as human shields were uncovered.

The longest and most brutal of multiple Israeli assaults on Gaza was the 51-day Operation Protective Edge launched on July 8, 2014. An important political context was significant movement of Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority towards a unity government. Hamas did not object to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, as representative of the new unity government, accepting the three major preconditions for political engagement: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and recognition of previous agreements. The issue for Israel then became how to undermine the prospect of a Palestinian unity government. It was then that three Israeli teenagers were abducted and killed in the West Bank. Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli leadership knew the teens were already dead and that Hamas leadership was not responsible, Israeli forces went through the West Bank on a rampage, arresting hundreds without charge, demolishing homes, restricting movement and killing or injuring a number of Palestinians under the guise of “rescuing” the teens. Israel also conducted multiple military raids and air strikes in Gaza before Hamas was finally provoked into launching its first rocket barrage in 19 months. Having achieved a pretext for another assault on Gaza, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge.

U.S. taxpayers financing humanitarian disaster in Gaza

Casualty figures for Gaza were about 2,100 killed (70 percent were civilians and 550 children) and 11,000 wounded. Neighborhoods were leveled, hospitals and schools destroyed and economic infrastructure severely damaged. Again, Israeli claims of Hamas using human shields were refuted by human rights organizations and claims that the Israeli military used restraint were contradicted by subsequent testimony of Israeli soldiers.

Comparing the ordinance used by Hamas and Israel adds considerable clarity. The vast majority of rockets used by Hamas are primitive, inaccurate and carry small warheads. Their effect is more psychological and symbolic than military. In contrast, Israel uses powerful modern munitions. During Operation Protective Edge, Israel fired about 50,000 artillery and tank shells, launched hundreds of F16 strikes dropping 2,000 pound bombs, and many more drone and helicopter attacks. All together, roughly 21,000 tons of high explosives were used on targeted areas including some of the most densely populated areas in the world. A 2,000 pound bomb can level a building and create a crater 15 meters wide and hurl lethal fragments over 350 meters. Not only were the targeted areas densely populated, but the Palestinians living in Gaza are trapped with nowhere to go. Yet, our media seems to only talk about a reign of rockets over Israel while ignoring the profound devastation of Gaza. It is a “look at this, not that” game of distraction that obfuscates the reality of what is happening.

It is important for the reader not to forget the essential context of the above events. Israel is an occupying power that has obligations under international law to protect the civilian population of Gaza. However, Israel is doing just the opposite. The blockade is, in fact, an ongoing act of war intended to degrade the basic conditions of the very population Israel is obligated to protect. There is an inability to rebuild infrastructure, 43 percent unemployment, food insecurity, electricity blackouts lasting 20 to 22 hours per day, restrictions on fishing, a dire shortage of critical medicines, 95 percent of water is undrinkable, frequent denial of travel permits to get cancer treatment and the list goes on and on. This is an intentional manmade humanitarian disaster largely paid for and supported by our tax dollars. We, as Americans, bear significant responsibility. It is time for people of conscience to speak out.

Dr. John Nixon is a retired pathologist in Peoria who has traveled extensively in the Middle East.

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