Tearing Gaza apart

January 5, 2009

Eric Ruder reports on Israel's savage invasion into one of the most densely populated places on earth.

THE ISRAELI military stormed into Gaza January 3 with thousands of troops, tanks, armored personnel carriers and bulldozers, inflicting a new round of death and suffering on Gaza's population.

"This will not be easy, and it will not be short," said Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Israeli television as the ground invasion began. Major Gen. Yoav Galant, a top commander of Israel's ground forces, told reporters that the aim of the operation was to "send Gaza decades into the past" and inflict "the maximum number of enemy casualties."

The latest surge of Israel's violence pushed the death toll among Palestinians to more than 500 and the injured to more than 2,500 as the weekend came to an end. More than one in three people in Gaza has no access to water and electricity, and sewage flows in the streets.

After a week of punishing air strikes and then heavy artillery barrages, Gaza's residents live in a state of constant fear. As Ayman Mohyeldin, Al-Jazeera's Gaza correspondent, reported:

The Israeli military continues to pound targets everywhere in the territory. On the eighth day of attacks, people here are very much terrorized by what is going on. The Israeli military is engaging in very aggressive psychological warfare.

They have been dropping leaflets warning Palestinians that they have to flee their homes, and warning that anyone who lives in an area that could be a possible target that their home will be targeted as well. So that is causing a ripple effect of fear, but the question is where do 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in Gaza go?

Israeli tanks mass on border before ground invasion of Gaza
Israeli tanks mass on border before ground invasion of Gaza (Rafael Ben-Ari | Chameleons Eye)

Despite the scale of the human suffering, the U.S. government--predictably enough--blocked a proposed United Nations Security Council statement that expressed concern at the escalating violence between Israel and Hamas, and called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, according to the Associated Press.

WITH THEIR incursion, Israeli forces encircled Gaza City and effectively sliced the territory into northern and southern halves. But rather than enter Gaza's population centers, Israeli troops remained poised on the outskirts, sending columns of troops and tanks to seize strategic hilltops above urban areas--putting them in the position of the military equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.

At the opening of the ground offensive January 4, the New York Times faithfully reported the assertion by Israeli Defense Ministry spokesperson Shlomo Dror that "Hamas can stop it whenever it wants," by stopping its rocket fire.

This idea--that Hamas provoked Israel into attacking Gaza, and therefore bears primary responsibility for the bloodshed--serves as the primary justification for the Israeli military's war crimes. But it was Israel that broke the truce with Hamas--back on November 5, with an attack that killed six Palestinians. Until that point, the Palestinians had scrupulously abided by the 5-month-old truce, only firing rockets after Israel attacked.

What you can do

Protests against Israel's assault on Gaza have already taken place in cities around the country, with more planned for the coming days. Contact local organizers for details where you live.

For updates on the current situation, plus commentary and analysis on the background to the war, read the Electronic Intifada Web site. Electronic Intifada Executive Director Ali Abunimah's "Gaza massacres must spur us to action" is a good starting point for further reading.

You can also find updated coverage on conditions in Gaza and the efforts of activists to stand up to the Israeli war at the Free Gaza Web site.

Between the Lines: Readings on Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. "War on Terror," by Tikva Honig-Parnass and Toufic Haddad, documents the apartheid-like conditions that Palestinians live under today.

For background on Israel's war and the Palestinian struggle for freedom, read The Struggle for Palestine, a collection of essays edited by Lance Selfa on the history of the occupation and Palestinian resistance.

But Israel has never needed the excuse of Palestinian attacks to unleash violence. As Ilan Pappe, part of a school of "new historians" in Israel that has challenged many of the central myths of the country's founding, wrote:

There are no boundaries to the hypocrisy that a righteous fury produces. The discourse of the generals and the politicians is moving erratically between self-compliments of the humanity the army displays in its "surgical" operations on the one hand, and the need to destroy Gaza for once and for all, in a humane way, of course, on the other.

This righteous fury is a constant phenomenon in the Israeli, and before that Zionist, dispossession of Palestine. Every act--whether it was ethnic cleansing, occupation, massacre or destruction--was always portrayed as morally just and as a pure act of self-defense, reluctantly perpetrated by Israel in its war against the worst kind of human beings...

Today in Israel, from left to right, from [the conservative party] Likud to [the centrist party] Kadima, from academia to the media, one can hear this righteous fury of a state that is more busy than any other state in the world in destroying and dispossessing an indigenous population.

AS THE superpower of the Middle East, Israel has used its massive military superiority to physically annihilate the civilian and government infrastructure of Gaza. But it still faces a thorny problem. "Though Israel has struck at hundreds of targets across the Gaza Strip, it has yet to seriously injure Hamas's fighting force," according to the Christian Science Monitor.

This is the same problem that every conventional military power pitted against a resistance movement must contend with--from the French forces occupying Algeria in the 1950s, to the U.S. in Vietnam in the 1960s, to the American occupiers in Iraq today.

"One of the most important things in this conflict between state and non-state actors is what is the meaning of victory," said Eitan Azani, a former Israeli colonel at the Institute for Counter Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "A lot of people from [Hamas] dying? A collapse? Or most of the operational capability destroyed? This is up for debate. We are in a very complicated situation."

The harder Israel tries to pound Gaza's residents into submission from afar, the more fierce becomes support for the Hamas resistance fighters that Israel is seeking to isolate. But if Israeli troops attempt to fight Hamas militants at close quarters, conventional military superiority would be transformed from an advantage into a weakness--tanks and troops would become targets for a resistance that can choose when and where to strike, and then slip away.

In the words of Israeli-based journalist Jonathan Cook:

Gaza, as Israelis know only too well, is one mammoth refugee camp. Its narrow alleys, incapable of being negotiated by Merkava tanks, will force Israeli soldiers out into the open. Gaza, in the Israeli imagination, is a death trap.

Similarly, no one has forgotten the heavy toll on Israeli soldiers during the ground war [against Lebanon] with Hezbollah in 2006. In a country such as Israel, with a citizen army, the public has become positively phobic of a war in which large numbers of its sons will be placed in the firing line.

That fear is only heightened by reports in the Israeli media that Hamas is praying for the chance to engage Israel's army in serious combat. The decision to sacrifice many soldiers in Gaza is not one [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak, leader of the Labor Party, will take lightly with an election in six weeks.

This dilemma has caused anxiety within the Israeli establishment about how to avoid the defeat the Israeli military suffered in 2006 when a month-long assault on Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon failed to achieve any of its strategic objectives, while Israeli troops were killed, injured and captured.

In this sense, despite the overwhelming force that Israel is using, it's too soon to say that it has won. "The main risk for Israel is that it will drag out into a full occupation of the Gaza Strip," worried Shlomo Brom, former director of the Israeli army's planning division. "If we have very few casualties in this operation, it may lead some to ask why don't we topple Hamas?"

Meanwhile, around the world, there has been an outpouring of solidarity for the people of Gaza--from Palestinians living in Israel, who staged a huge demonstration over the weekend; to Arab citizens around the Middle East; to supporters of Palestinian rights in Europe and the U.S.

This is critical to bringing pressure to bear on Israel--and its chief backer, the U.S.

Building this pressure will require patient explanation and sustained campaigning against the central justifications offered by Israel for its war of terror against the people of Gaza. It's Israel, not Hamas, that can end this conflict at any time. When Israel ends its occupation of the Palestinian homeland, then the resistance will end.

As Ilan Pappe put it:

Despite the predictable accusation of anti-Semitism and what have you, it is time to associate in the public mind the Zionist ideology with the by-now familiar historical landmarks of the land: the ethnic cleansing of 1948, the oppression of the Palestinians in Israel during the days of the military rule, the brutal occupation of the West Bank and now the massacre of Gaza.

Very much as the apartheid ideology explained the oppressive policies of the South African government, this ideology--in its most consensual and simplistic variety--allowed all the Israeli governments in the past and the present to dehumanize the Palestinians wherever they are and strive to destroy them...

By connecting the Zionist ideology and the policies of the past with the present atrocities, we will be able to provide a clear and logical explanation for the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions. Challenging by nonviolent means a self-righteous ideological state that allows itself, aided by a mute world, to dispossess and destroy the indigenous people of Palestine is a just and moral cause.

Further Reading

From the archives