Gaza: The Waiting Game Has Started

By Rajeshree Sisodia – London

Mohammed El Hour and US new President Barack Obamas’ lives are intertwined.

48-year-old Mohammed sits in his three-room home in Nuseirat camp, Gaza, explaining how his son Abdel Qader will be disfigured for life after being hit in the face by shrapnel when Israeli F16s bombed a house nearby. 23-year-old Abdel Qader lost his lips, his nose, his teeth and broke his jaw during the shelling at the end of last December. He had been helping neighbours flee when he was injured. The F16 and shells that hit Mohammed’s son more than likely came from the US. Thousands of miles away the US’s 44th leader is in the infancy of his presidency.

“Abdel Qader had done nothing, he went to rescue others on the street. I felt very angry and sad. My son will not live a normal life again. His life ended and he will be living with his injuries forever. I was so scared to lose him, but when I saw what happened to other people I felt relieved,” says Mohammed, a father of six in a phone interview. Abdel Qadir, who was taken to Egypt for reconstructive surgery, was injured four days into the latest war between Hamas and Israel.

Days later, Israel declared an uneasy truce. The Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF) F16s, Apache helicopters and shells and Hamas’s rockets stopped screaming through the sky. But only until the next time.

Mohammed adds: “Though there is a ceasefire, but we still feel the war is not finished yet, we still live its pain, I lost both my cousin, and my sister’s husband, it will take a long time to forget what we have been through. We hope to live in peace, but the Israelis don’t understand that we are humans and they don’t want to let us live in peace. There will be no peace until we take all our rights. No one can help us, even the international community. They only sympathize with us, but they do not practice their power to pressurize Israel to stop its war against our children and women.” 

The 22-day-old war in Gaza, which came to end on January 17 when Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire, signaled a new line that has been drawn, or more aptly, a new low. Not just by Israel but also by an international community that looked on as a senseless, three-week long, slaughter took place. Fears the conflict will resume have surfaced in recent days after sporadic violence erupted.

The official death toll will rise as casualties are now being pulled out of the rubble that was Gaza. But B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, quoted the Palestinian Ministry of Health as saying more than 1,205 Palestinians had been killed, of which at least 410 were children and 100 women. Three Israeli civilians and 10 soldiers were killed by Hamas rockets and more than 84 civilians injured.

The IDF, made up of ground forces, airforce and navy, has around 176,500 active personnel, 90 F-16 A Fighting falcons and 3,501 tanks.

It used US-made M825A1 munition rounds containing the controversial chemical white phosphorous (WP), fired by self-propelled Howitzers throughout Operation Cast Lead, the name given by the IDF to this latest war, as it shelled schools, homes, mosques and hospitals. Photographs of M825A1 rounds being stacked on the Gaza-Israeli border published in the international press prove the chemical element was being used.

Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, called for an investigation into whether the IDF had committed war crimes after a United Nations (UN) school – where around 1,800 civilians were seeking refuge – was shelled with WP in Beit Lahiya two weeks ago.

Two brothers, one aged five and the other aged seven were killed and their mother lost both her legs as a result of the attack, he added. Mr. Gunness said [in a phone interview]: “After a direct hit on the UN school, where hundreds of people were taking refuge and the IDF knew where they were and this was preceded by a WP hit, it’s important to have an investigation to see if a war crime has been committed.”

Christopher Cobb-Smith was recently in Gaza as part of a fact-finding team from human rights group Amnesty International (AI). The former UN weapons inspector called for an independent investigation saying, in a statement: "We saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorus, including still burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army."

Though the use of WP is not illegal and many armed forces use the chemical element in flare and smoke producing devices or as an incendiary, the shells also scatter out burning wedges of WP. When the chemical touches skin it can burn through muscle and into the bone and will continue to burn unless deprived of oxygen. Inhaling chemicals produced by WP smoke can also cause severe breathing problems.

Using WP deliberately against civilians or without taking precautions to protect civilians is a violation of general rules of International Humanitarian Law, according to legal experts at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Faced with this evidence, Israel’s stance on its use of WP was inconsistent. After initial denials, the IDF said it used munitions in line with international law but refused to give details about the kinds it used. Both the IDF and Hamas were also reported by AI to have taken up fighting positions in or near Palestinian homes, using people as human shields, which is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Israel’s use of heavy artillery in residential areas of Gaza also violated the prohibition under the laws of war against indiscriminate attacks, according to campaigners at Human Rights Watch. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the IDF used cluster bombs in its attacks on Gaza in the run-up to the ground invasion, a continuation of the IDF’s tactics two years ago. People in Lebanon still face the daily threat of unexploded cluster bombs after the IDF used cluster munitions in its 2006 war against Hezbollah.

The deliberate firing of rockets by Hamas and Israel into civilian areas without aiming at a military target was also illegal under customary International Humanitarian Law. Though it does not seem likely on this occasion, violations of IHL have been prosecuted in the past. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY) was set up in the Hague in 1993 to prosecute people who had committed ‘serious violations’ of IHL. Several key members of the Bosnian Serb army were among those to have been convicted and sentenced. The UN Security Council also has the power to establish a tribunal to investigate Hamas’ and the IDFs’ actions. But that also seems unlikely given that all the permanent UN Security Council member states would have to support the inquiry.

Closing borders and banning foreign journalists from entering the area during the conflict was self-defeating for Israel as well as a disgusting attempt at censorship. The space for lies and half-truths to be pedaled and to fester unexposed by both sides widened. Details about the war did seep out, with the help and courage of Palestinian journalists. But claims of atrocities being committed by both sides could not be independently checked. Economic blockades placed by Israel in Gaza have made life for ordinary Palestinians a living hell. The enforced isolation, which has trapped Gaza’s 1.5million people for around 18 months before this last war started, is a collective punishment of people that is illegal under the Geneva Convention.

But legalities aside, we should question the morality of such behaviour and examine what the chances of an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes and an end to the suffering both Palestinians and Israelis endure are.

Politically and militarily, the IDF and Hamas have both claimed success. Israel’s aim was to stop rockets being fired at civilians in southern Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian factions including the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah, the party led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. To do this it needed to destroy Hamas’s military capability. The IDF says it found more than 100 smuggling tunnels along the Philadelphi corridor, used to cargo weapons to Hamas from Iran via Egypt. The number of rockets fired into Israel during the war also fell from as many as 100 each day in the early stages to up to 20 daily.

Bringing the war to an end, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters: "We have reached all the goals of the war, and beyond. If our enemies decide to strike and want to carry on then the Israeli army will regard itself as free to respond with force.” He had the backing of many Israelis; a poll in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz showed 78 per cent of people asked believed Operation Cast Lead was a success. In terms of Israel flexing its military muscle, it most probably was. But by any other sane, humane benchmark, it is nothing more than a tragic indictment of how low people can sink.

Fawzi Barhum, Hamas spokesman, stood firm. Gaza’s government wanted all the IDF troops out and Gaza’s borders reopened. He said: "The Zionist enemy must stop all its aggression, completely withdraw from the Gaza Strip, lift the blockade, and open the crossings. We will not accept the presence of a single soldier in Gaza." Hamas has between 15,000 and 20,000 fighters. The rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza at civilians in southern Israel were home-made Qassam rockets and Grad or ‘Katyusha’ rockets, made in Iran and smuggled into Gaza via Egypt through the Philadeplhi corridor. Both weapons are inaccurate and short-range.

But rocket fire into southern Israel continued during the war and Israeli civilians have been targeted by Hamas again. Meanwhile, Gaza’s people have been thrown into a deeper humanitarian hell. More than 4,000 buildings have been destroyed, 50,800 people are homeless and 400,000 are without running water. The UN has launched an apeal to raise US$610million it says is needed to piece Gaza back together. It is a public relations coup that will play straight into Hamas’s hands.

The IDF is also no closer to finding captured soldier Gilad Shalit, the 22-year-old staff sergeant taken hostage by Palestinian militants in a cross border raid in June 2006 who has been held hostage by Hamas since. His safe return is an issue that has touched a nerve in Israel. IDF soldiers in Gaza in the recent war were reported in Haaretz to have left graffiti in Palestinian homes saying ‘Gilad we were here’. The upshot is that Hamas has survived to see Israeli soldiers leave, it still controls the Gaza Strip and has gained worldwide legitimacy.

But we should not be surprised by the dirty businesses of war and politics. The only power that can initiate real change is Washington DC. The US is the world’s largest arms exporter and Israel’s biggest political, financial and military ally. The Bush administration gave Israel more than $21 billion in security assistance, including $19 billion in direct military aid under the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programme. The US also transferred $10.611 billion in weapons to Israel through its Foreign Military Sales programme in the decade up to 2007, according to the US Department of Defense.

It’s no surprise then that Israel has 226 US F-16 fighter and attack jets, more than 700 US-supplied M-60 tanks, 6,000 US armoured personnel carriers as well as countless US transport planes, attack helicopters, bombs and missiles.

Barack Obama, at his inauguration speech in Washington DC last month said: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility … To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

The US will be judged on its healthy arms industry and the destruction US policy has helped to wreak in the Middle East. Despite his rhetoric, Obama does not look likely to change the status quo on Capitol Hill anytime soon. Doing so would be political suicide.
 
“There are no indications that the substance of US policy towards Israel, massive military aid and accelerated weapons sales, is likely to change under Obama. He has made no speeches and offered no policy proposals that hint at reduction of assistance,” said Frida Berrigan, Senior Program Associate at the Washington DC-based public policy institute the New America Foundation’s Arms and Security Initiative. “The style might change. There are reports out that George Mitchell, former Senator and Middle East peace negotiator, might be tapped to serve as Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell is knowledgeable, experienced and trusted in the region and his participation could signal a new commitment to pursue a real peace agreement. But, in the past, ‘peace agreements’ have come with new pledges of military aid, not reductions or re-evaluations.”

Though the US supplies more than 75 per cent of Israel’s arms, France, the UK, Germany and Serbia also sell weapons to Israel. Syria and Iran fund Hamas and Tehran, allegedly helps smuggle weapons into Gaza.

Back in Nuseirat camp, Gaza, Taher al Assar, 37, a father-of-four, is equally convinced the US will do little to help Palestinians. In a phone interview he says: “The democratic parties and the conservative parties inside the US are always supporting Israel. I don’t think the new US administration will do anything different. The President of the US has no big power. It’s only the US administration that has the power and the Congress that has the power. Even if Obama has the intention to be different he would not be able to be different. I think he will want to show that he is strong and with Israel and do is best to convince the US administration that he is a good friend of Israel and a good guy.

“What will happen after this war? Another war? Another truce? If we don’t have a political solution to this, we will have another war. I feel sorry for the civilians who are targeted in Israel, here, everywhere but it does not mean that our rockets which come from Hamas or other factions have the same power as the F16s and Israeli tanks which really kill everything.

“Using an F16 inside a camp is a crime, killing kids, anywhere, with a normal bullet is a crime. The war is a crime. Making my kids afraid is a crime. Nobody is treating us as human beings. Why should my children be waiting for their deaths every night?  They think that our problem is humanitarian. It’s not. It’s a political problem. We don’t have hope with the international community to change things for us in the future. We are always used. We are poor. We have home-made rockets. It does not mean we have power. It was not our war but a regional war between people who support Israel, Iran, Syria or America. Pressure will be used again. Gaza will be attacked again and again and the blockade will continue. This is the reality which we believe in.”

He and his family are part of a sea of 1.5million souls in Gaza, swimming against a current of barbarity that would seldom be tolerated elsewhere in the world. Israel has a right to exist. Its people have the right to live peaceful lives without fear of rocket bombardments and violence. But so do the Palestinians.

So now a waiting game has started. Unless a political solution is brokered, it is only a matter of time before war comes to Gaza’s streets again and more Palestinian and Israeli blood is shed. Oblivious to all this Ehud Olmert was smiling as he told reporters last month “We won”. He will be happy with his performance as elections are due this month [February]. But in reality, there are no winners; not Hamas, not the IDF, not Kadima and not the people of Gaza or Israel.

The space for political dialogue and an end to the violence, death and misery, shrinks with each new shell and rocket that is fired, with each new tear a mother sheds for her dead son. But then perhaps that’s the goal.

– Rajeshree Sisodia is a British freelance reporter and photographer specializing in human rights and social issues. She was based in New Delhi for four years until the end of 2008 – during which time she covered south Asia for various publications and websites including the South China Morning Post, the New Statesman and Al-jazeera’s English language website. She continues to work as a freelance based in London. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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