By Sayed Dhansay – South Africa
"Please excuse my ignorance as I only really know what I’ve read in the papers. From what I can gather, Hamas broke the ceasefire by firing first, right? If not, what is the real story?"
These were the words of a friend of mine to me recently, the confusion at the recent carnage in the Gaza Strip evident in her tone. She, like the majority of the western world has been left puzzled by the horrific scenes emanating from Gaza on the one hand, and the conflicting Israeli narrative portrayed by most western news outlets on the other. Aside from unleashing unrelenting military firepower on the people of Gaza, Israel has undertaken an equally aggressive offensive on another front – that of the mainstream media.
In the words of IDF spokeswoman, Major Avital Leibovich, “The blogosphere and new media are another war zone and we have to be relevant there”. This strategy has been evident over the past 11 days, with Israeli government and military officials defending their savage attacks on international news networks with more zeal and determination than ever before. Despite sickening images of whole families being pulled from the rubble of their destroyed homes and Gaza’s bloodied children being dragged into the severely under resourced hospitals, Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni insists that “there is no humanitarian crisis” in Gaza.
Israel’s PR machine is working overtime, and with the faithful support of America and European nations and their associated media networks, they are winning the battle in some quarters. It is for this reason that I wish to dispel some of the myths and lies being used by Israel to justify this atrocity and which are unfortunately being sold wholesale to the world.
Myth 1: “Hamas broke the ceasefire by firing rockets into Israel.”
Hamas and Israel entered into an Egyptian brokered ceasefire just over six months ago. As part of the deal, Hamas was to halt rocket fire into Israel and in turn Israel agreed to open the crossings into Gaza to allow the shipment of vital food, fuel and medical supplies into the impoverished strip. Not only did Hamas halt rocket fire, but they also managed to curb rocket fire by other Palestinian factions for the most part. Israel however, maintained its 18 month old siege on Gaza and kept the crossings closed, allowing only a trickle of aid in on a few rare occasions. This was evidenced by the fact that the UN was forced to suspend food aid on more than one occasion to Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants, of which approximately 50% of the population is dependent on. In addition, Israel barred chronically ill patients from exiting the strip to seek medical attention in either Egypt or the West Bank. As a result, over 230 patients died from what in most cases may have been treatable complications. To top this all off, Israeli forces carried out land and air incursions into Gaza, killing members of Hamas and other factions. When the truce expired on 18 December, Hamas decided not to renew it as Israel had not kept its side of the bargain, and the people of Gaza were only worse off. In retaliation for Israeli air strikes, Hamas resumed rocket fire into Israel.
Myth 2: “Hamas is a terrorist organisation holding the population of Gaza hostage, and is bent on the destruction of Israel.”
While this is a particularly popular mantra of the Israeli Prime Minister’s spokesman, Mark Regev, Hamas was in fact started as a charitable Islamic organisation, establishing schools, mosques, clinics and providing other social services to the people in occupied Gaza. Only later, in response to the continued occupation of Palestine and associated war crimes of the Israeli forces, was the military wing of Hamas established. While Hamas has never recognised the legitimacy of the state of Israel, its political leadership has in recent years suggested that it would consider a two state solution based on the pre-1967 borders with Israel. Israel however refuses to negotiate, citing their unwillingness to deal with a “terrorist organisation”, when in fact the real reason is because they would have to give up their illegal settlements in the West Bank, now home to some 250 000 illegal settlers. While the Israeli propaganda machine insists that the poor innocent people of Gaza are being held hostage by Hamas, they fail to mention that Hamas was democratically voted in to power by the people of Palestine. An election, which by the way, was described by former U.S president Jimmy Carter and his team of international observers as “one of the cleanest and fairest he had ever witnessed”. Israel however refuses to recognise the democratically elected authority of the Palestinian people, while repeatedly claiming to be the only true democracy in the Middle East.
Myth 3: “Israel sought peace by disengaging from the Gaza Strip in 2005.”
While Israel markets the removal of its troops and dismantlement of its settlements in Gaza as some magnanimous and praiseworthy gesture of peace and love toward the Palestinians, it is in fact quite the contrary. Israel never really disengaged from Gaza, it merely changed its tactics. Although there were no longer troops inside, the IDF still exercised full control of Gaza by land, sea and air. It controls the land borders and uses its navy to enforce a naval blockade of Gaza’s shore, restricting Palestinians to within 6 nautical miles of the shore, while international law allows Gaza sovereignty over 20 nautical miles off its coast. In addition, Israeli gunboats persistently block aid ships attempting to dock in Gaza, even though they are clearly not trespassing in Israeli territorial waters. Furthermore, settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank has increased rapidly since the Gaza “disengagement”, lending great suspicion to Israel’s apparent aim of promoting peace with the Palestinians. And lets face it, the military occupation of Gaza was illegal under international law to begin with, as it still is. Israel therefore deserves no credit for disengaging from what was an illegal and inhumane practice in the first place.
Myth 4: “Israel has a right to defend itself, is only targeting Hamas infrastructure and is avoiding civilian casualties.”
Certainly, any country has the right to protect its citizens. However, while doing so, it cannot inflict massive collective punishment on the civilian population of another.
Israel’s aerial bombardment and subsequent ground invasion of Gaza represent a disproportionate and heavy handed response of epic proportion. While the Israeli air force boasted that it had dropped over 100 tonnes of bombs on Gaza on the first day of the offensive alone, the Israeli PR campaign was reassuring the world that no civilians were being targeted. How this is physically possible in the most densely populated civilian area in the world, one cannot fathom. Even though Israel continues to bar international journalists from the area, the reports out of Gaza soon confirmed this. Homes, apartment blocks, schools, clinics, hospitals, universities, government buildings, mosques – nothing and nobody was spared. Over 700 air strikes in the first seven days had reduced much of Gaza to rubble and set the territory “back decades in time”, as promised by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak. By then, the ground offensive had not even begun.
A few days into the ground offensive, 43 Palestinian civilians were killed as Israeli tank shells slammed into a UN run school in the Jabaliya Refugee Camp, even though the Israeli military has the exact GPS co-ordinates of all UN buildings in the Strip.
UNRWA’s Gaza Chief, John Ging described the conduct of the IDF in Gaza as “wanton aggression” and expressed his dismay at the “shocking brutality” of the injuries being treated at Al-Shifa Hospital. The latest reports from Gaza doctors are that banned weaponry including cluster bombs, white phosphorous and depleted uranium are being used against the civilian population causing horrific injuries. Add to this the fact that Gaza is without water and electricity most of the time and one can see just how ridiculous the claim that civilians are not being targeted is. Furthermore, Israel maintains its blockade of Gaza’s border crossings, giving civilians nowhere to seek refuge from the continuous bombardment. While some may argue that Israel has the right to protect its citizens, so do the Palestinians. International law however dictates that this must be done in a proportional manner with special care being taken to avoid civilian casualties – something which Israel has clearly displayed its disregard for.
Myth 5: “The situation in Gaza is a war, or conflict.”
The notion that the most recent events in Gaza is a “war” or “conflict” would suggest that Hamas and Israel are two comparable powers, when in fact, quite the opposite is true. Israel is generally regarded as the fourth largest military power in the world receiving billions of dollars in direct military aid from the U.S annually including the most sophisticated weapons and technology. Contrast this to Hamas’ Qassam rockets, which are rather modest home made projectiles manufactured from the most basic materials and have a relatively short firing range, often missing their targets and causing few fatalities. Ironically, these rockets are fired at the same towns and villages that were ethnically cleansed of Arabs in order to pave the way for the creation of Israel in 1948. While it’s easy for the international community to condemn Gaza “terrorists” for firing rockets into Israel, do people ever ask themselves how 1.5 million people, mostly refugees, found themselves banished into the overcrowded open air prison that is Gaza? Contrary to the alarmist public cries of Israel’s leadership, it knows full well that Hamas cannot possibly destroy Israel from within Gaza. The disparity in the military strength of the two sides is best illustrated via the respective casualty counts. In the last eight years, Qassam rockets have killed 20 Israelis, including the four killed since Israel launched this latest offensive. At the time of writing, Israel had killed 917 Palestinians in 16 days, and wounded over 4000. This latest massacre by Israel thus appears to be more about repairing the IDF’s tarnished image post their 2006 defeat in Lebanon, as well as electioneering by Israel’s weak and divided political leadership prior to their upcoming elections. Tragically, they have chosen the people of Gaza as their political football.
Myth 6: “Israel has the support of moderate Arab states in its war against Hamas.”
During its latest campaign in Gaza, this has been one of Israel’s primary arguments in support of its actions. While Israel might have the tacit approval of a handful of Arab leaders with their own selfish political and economic interests at heart, it certainly doesn’t have the support of the masses. In fact I would say that the widespread anger and frustration that has swept across the Arab and Islamic world in the last few days has made the glaring gulf between these so-called leaders and their respective peoples more clear than ever before. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets of every major capital across the globe in an unprecedented show of sympathy and support for the Palestinians and their cause. And while the Arab League and Palestinian Authority has started looking increasingly impotent and even complicit in this crisis, popular support for Hamas has only grown stronger. Despite its best efforts to bomb Hamas into oblivion, Israel has by its own hands only served to further popularise the movement the world over. This coupled with the dwindling support of the “moderate” Arab governments by their people will force Israel to recognise Hamas as a serious regional player and eventually enter into negotiations with the movement.
Where and how this vicious cycle of violence ends cannot be determined. What is certain however, is the unbreakable will of the Palestinian people in their quest for the simplest of things in life – their basic human rights of existence, freedom and self-determination. Those rights which we all too often take for granted. While we may not be able to stand beside them on the battlefield, we will keep fighting this war – the war of truth. The war to ensure that those who have fallen have not done so in vain.
– Sayed Dhansay volunteered for the ISM in the West Bank in 2006. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.