On December 27, 2008, Israel launched a surprise attack on the Gaza strip. Three weeks of fighting left, in their wake, between 1,166 and 1,417 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. This terrible loss of life led to huge criticism from the international community toward Israel’s handling of the invasion. In particular, two contentions remain the subject of much controversy: namely, the questions of provocation, and collateral damage. Israeli apologists have been quick to justify Israel’s invasion of Gaza, and defend the numerous casualties as unavoidable. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, Israel-induced Palestinian suffering has been exploited for easy PR victories. In light of this, let us delve into the extensive documentary record that exists on the Gaza war and separate fact from fiction.
Was Cast Lead provoked by Hamas rocket fire?
I have often heard it carelessly repeated—by spokespersons and respectable media outlets alike—that Israel’s Gaza offensive was merely retaliation (albeit disproportionate) to Hamas rocket attacks that broke the 6-month tahdiya (ceasefire) between the two sides. Indeed this was Israel’s official justification for Operation Cast Lead, which is the official name given to the offensive on Gaza. But what is fact and what is fabrication?
The June 2008 ceasefire brokered by Egypt between Israel and Hamas led to dramatic attenuation of violence in the region. Hamas rocket attacks reduced from a monthly average of 179 rockets in the first six months of 2008, to an average of 3 rocket attacks per month from July to October. It seemed like Hamas was finally sticking to its end of the bargain, even going as far as to condemn rocket attacks by extremists as “unpatriotic” during this period. However, Israel broke the terms of the ceasefire on 4 November 2008 when the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) conducted a raid deep into Gaza resulting in the killing of six Hamas militants. Hamas responded with rocket fire into southern Israel at close to pre-ceasefire levels. In its 2009 annual report, Amnesty International placed sole responsibility on Israel for the breakdown of the ceasefire that led to Operation Cast Lead. It is baffling that Israel should jeopardise what had been a successful ceasefire with such a blatant and disproportionate act of hostility.
Perhaps it was necessary to punish Hamas into submission and a weak retaliation to Hamas rocket attacks would not have been sufficient. This oft-quoted rationale fails for two reasons. First and most obviously, this still doesn’t excuse Israel from breaking the ceasefire in the first place. Even if the attenuated level of rocket fire into Israel during the tahdyia is used to justify Israel’s actions, it is similarly true that Israel failed to live up to its promise to lift the siege on Gaza, a specific term of the ceasefire. In addition, it would seem foolish of Israel to respond to the low level of rocket fire with such an inflammatory act, rather than continuing along the path toward ultimate cessation of violence. The above rationale also fails because “punishment” as a policy can only be fruitful (or indeed logical) when coupled with a prior expression of intent that rocket attacks will incur heavy costs on the perpetrator. In my view, it is rather more plausible that, with a February 10 general election looming, the pressure to appear, for Israeli authorities, to be tough and decisive may have been amplified.
Did Hamas use civilians as human shields?
In warfare, human shielding refer either to soldiers hiding amongst civilian infrastructure or to the use of civilians literally as ‘shields’, to deter the enemy from engaging for fear of killing civilians. Israel accused Hamas of employing human shielding as a tactic in both these senses during the 2008-2009 Gaza war. If this is true, then a case could be made that Israel had no choice other than to attack civilian targets. But let us now look at the facts. By the end of the Gaza war, several reports were published by human rights organizations detailing the events that took place. In each case the record is clear; there is no evidence that Hamas used human shields at all during the Gaza war. In Amnesty international’s report, titled “Operation Cast Lead: 22 Days of Death and Destruction” Amnesty denies that Hamas used human shields. None of the independent reports that have emerged since Israel’s assault on Gaza have found any evidence to merit this accusation. Ironically, The Goldstone Report dedicated twenty whole pages documenting incidents in which Israeli soldiers used Palestinian civilians as human shields during Operation Cast Lead. One frightening case publicized by Haaretz, in which two Israeli soldiers used a 9-year old Palestinian child to search bags believed to be booby-trapped, was made all the more shocking when the two soldiers in question received suspended sentences of just three months each and demotions from staff sergeant to sergeant.
The documentary record that exists on the war could not be clearer. On both the questions of provocation and collateral damage, Israel appears accountable. I have no interest in painting Israel as a monster, and do not believe that Hamas is at all innocent or blameless. Nevertheless, on these two key issues the facts speak for themselves and the conclusion is inescapable: Operation Cast Lead was reckless, unjustified, and ultimately unsuccessful.