By Dr. Daud Abdullah
It was a calculated and willful attack on defenseless civilians while they slept. The systematic killing of Palestinian civilians has been central pillar of the Zionist project from its inception. Beit Hanoun joins the long list of mass murder that includes Deir Yassin, Sabra and Shatila and Jenin. The fact that it has continued for so long has been a direct consequence of the indifference of major international players particularly those who aspire to be peace makers.
Faced with widespread international condemnation over their killing of 19 civilians in Beit Hanoun on 8th November Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attributed the crime to a technical fault. What baloney. Surely the shells that landed on the two apartment buildings that fateful morning did not fire themselves. Someone in a position of authority gave the order to fire and someone executed the command. Unadulterated arrogance has since prevented the Israeli Prime Minster from offering a full and unambiguous apology.
Despite its sickening brutality the attack on Beit Hanoun must be seen as part of a wider push by Israel’s political and military leadership to restore their battered image after the recent disastrous invasion of Lebanon. Every subsequent statement by those responsible, especially Olmert, was tailored to placate an angry domestic constituency that was misled to believe the myth of the invincibility of the national army. The first poll conducted after the war on Lebanon showed that only 6% of the Israeli public supported the prime minister.
Realizing that the Israeli public had become more extreme in its posture, Olmert drifted with the wind in that direction and appointed the extremist émigré Avigdor Leiberman as his deputy.
The reaction of the international community to the massacre in Beit Hanoun was predictable. For the 41st occasion the US used its veto to protect Israel. Britain abstained. No sooner had the resolution been aborted before British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared before the James Baker study group on Iraq to declare that without a resolution of the conflict in Palestine many of the conflicts across the region would persist. From a strictly political point of view, Mr. Blair’s assessment can hardly be questioned. What can and must be questioned however is his declared ambition to lead a new Middle East peace initiative. Clearly the chances of success are practically non-existent.
To begin with, Mr. Blair has already committed himself to leaving office. He has now entered the twilight hours of his tenure. No-one in the region, including the Israelis, would take him seriously as he is regarded as a lame-duck prime minister. Additionally, if the British prime minister could not condemn the November 8th massacre in Beit Hanoun how on earth is he going to pressure the Israelis to make the hard decisions needed for peace. Foremost among these is a full withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders and return of the refugees to their homes.
Worse still, Britain’s role in the conflict is much more than diplomatic cover and political appeasement. Since its abstention from condemning Israel in the Security Council on 11th November, legal steps have been taken in Britain against the Blair government for supplying arms to Tel Aviv in breach of its own export guidelines. Britain continues to supply spare parts for apache helicopter gun-ships, computer components and communication equipment to Israel despite clear instructions that this should not be done where there is a ‘clear risk’ that they ‘might be used for internal repression.’ [The Guardian 15/11/06].
No Immunity for Places of Worship
The attack on Beit Hanoun was, it seems, always on the agenda. For better or worse the Israelis were anxiously waiting for the tensions between Fateh and Hamas to escalate. Throughout the last nine months they encouraged everything from workers strikes to personal attacks and destruction of government ministries in order to fan the flames of civil conflict. Thus, when the Palestinians inched toward a government of national unity the Israelis lost all hope and intensified their attacks on Gaza.
In this latest round of aggression Israel completely destroyed An-Nasr Mosque in Beit Hanoun. This historic mosque was built 800 years ago following the battle of “Um An-Nasr" fought between Sultan Mahmoud Qutob’s army and the Crusaders in the area between Gaza City and Asqalan. In the words of the imam of the mosque, Sheikh Shihada Abu Zreiq, the Israeli forces ruined “the house of God".
Destroying places of worship in times of military conflicts is a War Crime under the Geneva Conventions. Article 16 urges the protection of cultural objects and of places of worship. It specifically prohibits “acts of hostility against historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples.”
Undoubtedly, the destruction of An Nasr Mosque was part of a wider upsurge of Israeli criminality conducted in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Olmert, it appears, wanted to send a message to the Israeli public that he is capable of following the path of his predecessor Ariel Sharon who once said, Palestinians "must be hit hard" and "must be beaten" before they should be permitted to talk peace with Israel.
Time would tell what incentives are given to those who wage this campaign today. The mass circulating Arab newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat [12/11/2006] cited a retired Israeli officer, General Ishak ‘Pundak’, in the Israeli daily Maariv that Sharon during his term as head of operation in the Southern Command – Gaza Strip – in 1967 used to reward every soldier that killed a Palestinian with a bottle of champagne.
Ethnic Cleansing Revisited
Ever since the start of the occupation in 1967 Israel has pursued this policy of destroying public property, homes and agricultural lands. During Sharon’s premiership which started in 2001 an estimated 72,150 homes were damaged by Israeli shelling. 7,747 were totally destroyed with overall costs from damages and losses amounting to $479 million. While some may deny, rationalize and find all manner of excuses for this carnage the British writer Johann Hari had no doubt about that ‘Ethnic cleansing’ has indeed returned ‘to Israel’s agenda’ [Independent/13/2006]. Under the spurious pretext of combating terrorism its Occupation Forces have been given a virtual license to pursue this campaign.
The actual aims, though undeclared, are to expand their territorial control, confine the Palestinians to isolated enclaves and break their will to be free and independent. Invariably, it is not just the loss of a house with all its memories that is destroyed. Very often personal papers and documents are also ruined. Such malicious acts have a great impact on the mental state of the victims. The attacks on Gaza that started in June 2006 have been widespread and far reaching affecting; Al Maghazi Camp, Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya, Baldat al Showka, Al Shujaiyah and Hayy Shaykh Ridwan.
Most of the attacks on Palestinian towns and villages take place in the dead of night with huge numbers of tanks under air cover. The target areas are usually ceiled off before being subjected to heavy shelling. A typical operation was recorded at midnight on 24th July 2006 when the army telephoned Muhammad Shaykh Deeb and ordered him to leave his house because they were about to bomb it. They alleged he was hiding weapons for the resistance. Less than one hour after the call an apache helicopter flattened his house. Human rights groups based in Palestine point out that 42 homes were destroyed in this manner since June.
The international community’s indifference and unwillingness to establish a special tribunal to press charges of war crimes against those responsible have encouraged more Israeli aggression. What happened in the Security Council after the Beit Hanoun was to all intents and purposes a signal for the Occupier to continue its murderous campaign. No wonder Israeli officials have since vowed to carry on with the current repressive policy.
Although the assault on Beit Hanoun disrupted the internal negotiations to form a government of national unity it did not derail the process. Quite to the contrary, it instilled a greater sense of urgency on the part of the parties. Now that a framework for this government has been agreed in principle the besieged Palestinian people expect a speedy lifting of the international sanctions. They expect first and foremost the League of Arab States to break the embargo in accord with the decision taken at their foreign ministers meeting in Cairo last month. Without this, the government of Ismail Haniyeh is set to remain in place.
Altogether, Haniyeh’s decision to step down in order to secure the lifting of the international sanctions without compromising any of the national principles would in the long run strengthen his movement’s position. How many leaders in the Arab world would have chosen the wellbeing of his people before his own personal status? Such statesmanship remains a rarity in this region. Yet, when the final curtain comes down on the Hamas led government its successor must expect more demands from the international community if its policies are unacceptable to the Israel, the US and European Union.
-The author is senior researcher at the Palestinian Return Centre, London.