The Israeli forces also used white phosphorus, a highly injurious substance, during the onslaught. Shells containing phosphorus hit the headquarters of the UN Relief and Works Agency, injuring many people, including children, and setting fire to food and medical supply warehouses. Dozens of Palestinians burned by phosphorus have succumbed to their injuries (http://www.independent.co.uk. January 25, 2009). Israel first denied using white phosphorus at all, then claimed it was used only in uninhabited areas, and then last week announced an investigation into its use.
Dr Ezz el-Din Abulaish, a Palestinian obstetrician who specialises in treating infertility and works at Shifa Hospital near Tel Aviv, lives in the Jabaliya camp in the Gaza Strip. On January 15, when his children were sitting at home, a shell fired by Israeli soldiers came through the wall, killing three of his daughters. Their dead bodies lay strewn all over the room. By the end of operation Cast Lead—as the Israeli government named the onslaught—more than 1,300 Palestinians were dead, of whom 412 were children and teenagers under 18, and 110 were women. The Israeli casualties included 13 dead, of whom three were civilians killed by rockets fired from Gaza, and four were due to “friendly fire”.
There were several complaints from the Red Cross and Israeli human rights agencies that medics and rescue services were prevented from reaching the wounded and dead. One convoy, consisting of an ICRC truck and a Palestine Ministry of Health truck, both carrying medical supplies for hospitals in southern Gaza, and 3 ambulances carrying intensive care patients to Egyptian hospitals, had to turn back after the ICRC driver was shot and injured near a military checkpoint in the centre of Gaza.
Civilian institutions bore the brunt of the onslaught, which lie in ruins. According to Palestinian estimates, nearly 15 per cent of Gaza’s buildings have been completely or partially destroyed, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people fled their homes in the past three weeks. The losses are estimated to exceed $ 2 billion (The Economist, January 24, 2009). On January 15 Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire on January 15, followed a few hours later by a matching announcement by Hamas.
In a predictable turn of events, the United States expressed its unqualified support for Israel. On January 8 a resolution calling for a ceasefire was placed before the United Nations’ Security Council. Interestingly, the US had taken part in drafting the resolution and was expected to vote for it. But when the resolution was put to vote, the American representative abstained from voting, on instructions from the White House. Subsequently, America’s House of Representatives voted on January 9 by 390-5 for a bill declaring “unwavering commitment” to Israel.
Most European countries responded to the Israeli aggression with characteristic indifference and inaction. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel eve went o he extent of saying that the responsibility for the violence in Gaza “clearly and exclusively” lay with Hamas. The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown innocuously called for an end to violence. Barack Obama, President-elect, did not utter a word about the catastrophe and in his inauguration speech on January 20 did not make even a passing reference to the humanitarian disaster in Gaza.
Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State in the Obama administration, and Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, are among the staunch supporters of Israel. During her election campaign, Ms Clinton once remarked that if Iran ever dared to attack Israel, it would be wiped out from the face of the earth. Emanuel’s father had served in the Irgun, the Zionist militia—described as terrorists by Isaiah Berlin and as fascists by Albert Einstein—who waged a campaign of terror and violence against Palestinians as well as the British in 1946-48.
The Economist wrote in a leader in its issue of January 3, 2009 that a war must pass three tests to be justified. A country must have first exhausted all other means of defending itself. The attack should be proportionate to the objective. And it must stand a reasonable chance of achieving its goal. On all three of these tests, Israel is on shakier ground than it cares to admit. France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and Amnesty International have accused Israel of using “disproportionate force”. Navi Pillay, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the killings in Gaza showed “elements of what would constitute war crimes”. Neve Gordon, a professor of politics at Ben Gurion University, said that Israel’s actions in Gaza are like “raising animals for slaughter on a farm” and represent a “bizarre new moral element” in warfare.
The blockage of Gaza and the backlash
Israel has blamed Hamas—which has controlled the Gaza Strip since June 2007—for provoking it into the current military action. The facts, however, belie Israeli claims. A five-month truce between Israel and Hamas was in place, which came to an end on December 19, 2008. Israel first broke the ceasefire on November 4 when its bombardment killed six Palestinians in Gaza and again on November 17 when another military raid killed four more Palestinians.
Secondly, the rudimentary home-made rockets and mortar bombs—which ostensibly provided the excuse for the Israeli attack (but which barely killed a dozen Israelis in the past three years)—were a desperate response by the Palestinian fighters to the economic blockade imposed by the Israeli authorities on the Gaza Strip in November 2008. Even during the truce, Israel prevented humanitarian aid from entering Gaza. If Israel had ended the blockade, Hamas may have renewed the truce. The former British ambassador to Israel, Jeremy Greenstock, said that had Israel lifted its blockade of Gaza, the Hamas rockets would have stopped. “I fear Israel is making a two-state solution more remote. Is that the real political objective of the attack?”, he asked.
Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip in the beginning of November last year amid fresh violence between Palestinian fighters and Israeli troops. The blockade, which has put the 1.5 million residents of the Strip under severe hardships, has been condemned by the United Nations as well as international NGOs. The United Nations’ top human rights official recently said the restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities have deprived Palestinians of basic human rights. The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navis Pillay, called for “dignity and basic welfare” to be restored to the people affected by the blockade. In the second week of November, Israel bowed to international pressure and allowed some industrial fuel to be delivered to Gaza’s sole power plant. But after a few days Israel again sealed off the territory.
People continue to suffer from daily electricity blackouts and shortages of cooking gas, fresh food and water. People queue up for two or three hours for bread, but sometimes there is no cooking gas or flour, so they have to return empty-handed. Serious fuel shortages have led to widespread power cuts across Gaza city. That, in turn, has caused problems in pumping water to homes, and sewage to treatment plants. Quite often, nearly 40% of people in the city have no access to running water in their homes.
The Independent published on 15 November, 2008 extracts from a leaked report of the Red Cross, which revealed that the Israeli blockade of Gaza had a devastating effect on the people and had led to a steady rise in chronic malnutrition. The report said the heavy restrictions on all major sectors of Gaza’s economy were causing “progressive deterioration in food security for up to 70% of Gaza’s population”. That, in turn, was forcing people to cut household expenditure down to “survival levels”. The report revealed that people were selling assets, slashing the quality and quantity of meals, cutting back on clothing and children’s education, and were depending on dwindling loans and handouts from slightly better-off relatives.
In the urban sector, in which about 106,000 employees lost their jobs after the June 2007 shutdown, about 40% were classified as “very poor”, earning less than ? 87 a month to provide for an average household of seven to nine people.
In agriculture, on which 27 per cent of Gaza’s population depends, exports have stopped and, like fisheries, there has been a 50% fall in incomes since the siege began.
Palestinian Arabs: A legacy of dispossession and humiliation
In 1948, when the state of Israel was created, more than half the native population of Palestine, some 750,000 people, either fled in terror or were forcibly driven out of the land of their birth. More than 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed. In 1953, the Israeli parliament retroactively declared about 120,000 hectares of captured Palestinian territories to be state property, to be used later for either new Jewish settlements or for security purposes. The six-day war in June 1967 forced some 250,000 Palestinians to migrate and brought the remaining 22% of Palestinian territories under Israeli control.
The Palestinian population is estimated to be around 10 million, more than half of them being refugees and their descendants. About five million Palestinians live in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, comprising nearly 20% of the country’s population. It is estimated that by around 2060, the Palestinians will account for half—if not more—of Israel’s population. This demographic development will put an end to the dream of having a state with a majority Jewish population.
The Palestinians living in Israel continue to bear the brunt of oppression and humiliation. Nearly one-fourth of Palestinians have lost their ancestral homes. In the West Bank about a third of the Palestinian population lives in camps. In the West Bank—which makes up nearly one-fourth of the size of Israel—Jewish settlements and military zones occupy nearly 40% of the land. According to the constitution of Israel, Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli women are not eligible for Israeli citizenship, residency or work permits. Two human rights groups in Israel filed a petition in the country’s Supreme Court for overturning this law, which was rejected. There are 250, 000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in 1967. Though they have Israeli residence permits, they risk being denied permission to live in the city if they move to the West Bank or travel abroad to work.
A sinister aspect of the dispossession and demonization of Palestinians is the denial of their identity. Golda Meir, a former prime minister of Israel, stirred up a controversy in 1968 by saying that “there is no such thing as the Palestinian people”. Right-wing Israeli politicians often accuse the Palestinians of being fifth columnists. In a recent poll, 62% of Palestinians expressed the fear that they would be driven out of their homes one day.
The second Palestinian uprising (intifada) against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, which began in October 2000, was an expression of the deep sense of frustration and anger felt by the Palestinians. Israeli forces responded to the uprising in an extremely brutal manner. Thousands of Palestinians, including women and young children, were mercilessly killed by Israeli soldiers. The atrocities committed by the Israeli forces were extensively covered, with striking and heart-rending visuals, by Al Jazeera TV.
Since 2000, more than 4,700 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli forces while hundreds of them have been imprisoned. Israel has placed the Palestinian territories under virtual siege, with walls, fortifications, fences and checkpoints. Some radical rabbis have issued rulings forbidding Jews from renting apartments to Palestinians or employing them. The number of people living below the poverty line in Israel is three times more among the Palestinians than in the general population.
The situation has taken a far worse turn since 2006 when candidates representing Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Authority Parliament. Although the election was judged to be fair by international monitoring agencies, Israel and the US have refused to accept the right of the Palestinians to form a coalition government with Hamas and Fatah. As many as 41 of the 43 victorious candidates who live in the West Bank, together with 10 others who were members of the short-lived coalition, are in Israeli prisons. Israel has imposed severe restrictions on the movement of food, water, electricity and fuel to the Palestinian territories, which is causing immense hardships to the people. Recently, the former US president Jimmy Carter described the Israeli treatment of Palestinians as “one of the greatest human rights crimes on earth”. Unfortunately, the UN and the international community have taken no cognizance of this gross violation of human rights.
Israel has stubbornly defied, with the backing of the US, all UN resolutions with impunity. The UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948 categorically states that “the Palestinian refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date”. The resolution also decrees that compensation should be paid to the rest of the exiled Palestinian population. Israel continues to mock at this and several other resolutions of the UN mainly because it enjoys the unconditional support of the US. Israel receives substantial economic and military aid from the US—nearly $3 billion—annually.
The Security Council resolution of January 1976, which was backed by virtually the entire world, including the leading Arab states, the PLO, Europe and the Soviet bloc, called for a political settlement on the internationally recognised borders and the creation of a Palestinian state. The resolution was opposed by Israel and vetoed by the US. Similar initiatives from the Arab states, the PLO and Europe have since been blocked by the US. Washington has persistently backed Israeli rejection of a political settlement in terms of a broad international consensus. In October 2000, the Security Council called on “Israel, the occupying power, to abide scrupulously by its legal obligations and responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention”. The resolution was passed by 14-0, but America abstained from voting. It was hardly surprising that during George W. Bush’s final visit to Israel the Jerusalem Post wrote, “Of all the US presidents over the past 60 years, it is hard to think of a better friend to Israel than George W. Bush”.
The Aix Group, an Israeli-Palestinian-French economic study team, estimates that a fair package of resettlement and rehabilitation for the 4.5 million registered refugees would cost between US$ 55 and $85 billion. Israel has shown no interest in this package. All Arab nations have agreed to full recognition of Israel if it will comply with key UN resolutions.
Occasionally one hears voices of sanity in Israel but they are drowned in the paranoia surrounding the alleged threat to Israel’s survival. Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizman, had said that “the world will judge the Jewish state by how it will treat the Arabs”. These words of wisdom and sagacity, alas, have fallen on deaf ears. After Israel’s invasion of Palestinian refugee camps in the spring of 2002, a sociologist at the Hebrew University, Ze’ve Sternhell, wrote that “in colonial Israel….human life is cheap. The leadership is no longer ashamed to speak of war when what they are actually engaged in is colonial policing, which recalls the takeover by the white police of the poor neighbourhoods of the blacks in South Africa during the apartheid era”. An Israeli novelist, Alon Hilu says that Zionism tried to solve the Jewish problem, but created a very big problem, which is the Palestinian problem”. He added, “Sometimes if you are too successful, it can be a disaster. This is what happened here. Our identity is too much associated with militarism”.
The Palestinian problem has not only made the Middle East into a burning cauldron of violence and terrorism but has also widened the divide between the Islamic world and the West. This fact has been highlighted by the Alliance of Civilizations report sponsored by the United Nations in 2006. The report points out that as long as the Palestinians are forced to live under Israeli occupation exposed to daily frustration and humiliation so will passions everywhere be inflamed. A recently published book Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think (2008), by John Esposito and Dali Mogahed, points out that the primary cause of the anger and anti-Americanism prevalent in large parts of the Islamic world is not a clash of civilizations but the perceived effect of the US foreign policy in respect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular and the Muslim world in general.