People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 4

February 01, 2009


Gaza: The Second Naqba (catastrophe)

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE million and a half residents of the Gaza Strip had to endure 22 days of relentless attacks from the air, sea and the ground. Israel announced a unilateral cease fire on January 17, to give the new US president, Barak Obama, who took over on January 20, time to settle in. While announcing the cease fire, the Israeli government grandiosely claimed that it had achieved all its military and political goals. One of the goals Israel definitely achieved was to reduce much of Gaza into rubble. Decades of occupations and sanctions had anyway made day to day life precarious for the people of Gaza.

The UN has estimated that billions of dollars will be needed for reconstruction. Since the Israeli assault began, most of Gaza’s population have had to live without electricity in the bitter cold. 22,000 buildings were either completely destroyed or damaged during the three week Israeli onslaught. Officials of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have warned Gazans that there is a serious threat of an epidemic breaking out because of the raw sewage flowing in the streets and dead bodies lying under the rubble.

One of the few stated goals of the barbaric Israeli assault on Gaza was the removal of the Hamas from power and the crushing of the resistance. Israel seems to have miserably failed on both counts. The resistance ensured that the invasion of Gaza was not a cake walk for the Israeli Army. They kept on with the firing of the Qassam rockets. The Israeli ground forces avoided a frontal clash with the Palestinian militants and instead relied more on dropping half ton bombs on civilian areas. Hours before Hamas also agreed to a temporary truce on January 18, around 20 rockets were fired into Israel.

Despite the overwhelming use of force by the Israeli army the forces resisting the occupation continue to retain their fighting capacity. The Israeli media has reported that half of Israel’s air force was used to carry out bombing raids during the three week assault on Gaza. 2500 air raids were carried out and more than a thousand tons of bombs, including phosphorous bombs and Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) bombs, were dropped on the civilian populace. In addition to this, the Israeli army and navy targeted civilian areas of Gaza with artillery shells and missiles.

Uri Avnery, former Israeli cabinet minister and now one of the leading peace activists observed that according to classic military definition, the winner in a battle is the army that remains on the battlefield when it is over. “Hamas remains. The Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip still stands, in spite of all the efforts to eliminate it. That is a significant achievement”, wrote Avnery.

The leadership and command structures of Hamas, from all available indications, remain intact. This fact in itself has been construed as a victory by Palestinians and Arabs. Abu Obeida, a top military leader of Hamas told the media that only 48 fighters from his group died in the fighting. Some fighters from the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Al Aqsa Brigade also died in the fighting. Among the senior Hamas leaders killed, were the Interior minister, Saeed Siyaan and two other senior leaders, Nabil Amrin and Nizzar Rayyan.

The Hamas leadership while agreeing to a temporary cease fire has indicated that it will only extend the truce if Israeli withdraws its army from the Strip and lifts the economic blockade, so that humanitarian help and essential supplies can reach the people after 22 days of unparalleled suffering. A senior Hamas spokesman, Mushir al Masri said that Israel had not been able to achieve even one of its goals. “The age of quick decisive wars, which Israel likes, are over”, he said.

Meanwhile the calls for Israel to face a War Crimes Investigation are getting louder by the day. The death toll in Gaza is rising as more and more bodies are being pulled out of the rubble. The toll in the third week of January was put at over 1300. Over 400 children and 100 women have died due to the indiscriminate bombing and artillery attacks by Israeli forces. Among the 5,500 Palestinians injured, the overwhelming majority comprised of children and women. Journalists, who were finally let into Gaza by Israel after the cease fire, reported that the destruction in Gaza was almost total and that the enclave resembled Stalingrad after the Nazi siege.

UN compounds and schools where Palestinians had taken refuge were among the sites systematically targeted. UN warehouses storing food and other essential supplies for the aid dependent populace were systematically targeted. Israeli shells hit the UN headquarters in Gaza when the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon was in Israel to broker a cease fire. The Turkish prime minster, Tayyip Erdogan, observed that “the UN building in Gaza was hit, when the secretary general was in Israel. This is an open challenge to the world.” Turkey, otherwise a close strategic ally of Israel, demanded that Israel should be suspended from the UN for repeatedly ignoring the Security Council and disregarding its resolutions. No such strong statements condemning Israel came from India, another close “strategic” ally of the Jewish state. Instead, the focus in Delhi was on signing new arms deals with Tel Aviv.

The UN has also demanded an investigation into the Israeli attack on a UN run school in Beit Lahiya in the third week of January that killed two school children and injured many more. Chris Gunnes, a UN spokesman said that an investigation should be held “to determine whether a war crime has been committed”. In the second week of January, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) voted 33-1 to condemn Israel for gravely violating the human rights of Palestinians. The Council also called for an independent fact finding mission to investigate violations of international human rights law.

Human rights groups have accused Israel of targeting civilians, using banned weapons, holding Palestinian families at home to use them as human shields and attacking medical facilities. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), sharply criticised Israel for preventing medical personnel from reaching wounded civilians, some of whom remained trapped for days, dying of wounds and starvation. Entire families, 10, 20 and sometimes 30 strong were killed as a result of these actions. Israeli soldiers told the local media that they were told by their superiors to shoot first, rather than ask questions.

It has been standard practice for Israeli soldiers to go into a house, lock up the family in a room and use the house for military purposes. Amnesty International has said that the targeting of civilian residential areas is by itself was “prima facie evidence of war crimes”. The HRC has the right to order an investigation and set up a war crimes tribunal. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, told a special session of the HRC in Geneva that accountability must be ensured for violations of human rights.

Richard Falk, professor of international law and human rights expert of international repute, said recently that the US the world’s most powerful power and its closest ally Israel have had “geo-political impunity” from war crimes for a long time. During the 22 day old siege, Israel used phosphorous bombs all over Gaza. These bombs were responsible for 80 per cent of injuries to civilians. American troops had used similar tactics in their assault on the Iraqi town of Fallujah. Israel was also accused of using phosphorous in civilian areas during the 2006 Lebanon war. Israel was forced to admit to this crime after overwhelming evidence was produced to back up the claim. The Geneva Treaty of 1980 had stipulated that white phosphorous should not be used as a weapon of war in civilian areas. The current president of the United Nations General Assembly, Miguel d’Escoto told the media in New York that the killings of Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli forces amounted to “genocide”.

Many Israelis themselves are saying that what happened in Gaza was a worse crime than the massacre in Sabra and Shatila during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Hundreds of Palestinians living in the two refugee camps were murdered in cold blood under orders from the Israeli occupation forces. The demand for Israel to be hauled to the International Criminal Court (ICC) is coming from all over the world. Israel has not ratified the statute of the ICC and the US anyway will not allow the UN Security Council to refer the Gaza massacre to the ICC. President Barack Obama has been quick to reiterate that the US will continue to support Israel’s policies to isolate and starve Gaza.

Many experts have argued that US obfuscation should not be an impediment to the creation of a special criminal tribunal to try Israel for war crimes. After all they point out, special courts and special war crimes tribunals have been created for probing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Cambodia, and East Timor. Creation of a War Crimes Tribunal is all the more urgent in Gaza, as it is legally a non-self governing territory. Israel as the occupying power has international obligations for ensuring the dignity and well being of the citizens of Gaza.

In the third week of January, Bolivia broke off diplomatic links with Israel. Venezuela had expelled the Israeli ambassador from its capital in the first week of January itself. Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, said that he would seek to get top Israeli officials, including the prime minister, charged with genocide in the ICC. Arab countries on the other hand are yet to put up a united front in their response to the horrific events in Gaza. Qatar and Mauritania announced in the third week of January that they have suspended economic and political ties with Israel. The only two other Arab countries that continue to have diplomatic ties with Israel are Egypt and Jordan.