In the war of words during and since the Gaza conflict at the start of the year, we heard several mantras from Israel and Hamas.
Hamas had been “terrorising” people in southern Israel with its rockets. The 22-day offensive had been to stop rockets “raining down” on Israeli towns. Israel’s forces went to “great lengths” to avoid civilian casualties. Civilian deaths when they occurred were actually the fault of Hamas, which had situated its fighters in residential areas: either to deter Israeli attacks or to blame Israel if it attacked. Hamas had even, said Tel Aviv, cynically used Palestinians as “human shields”, deliberately putting them in harm's way, knowing what the deadly result would be.
Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups meanwhile deployed their own broad justifications. Yes, it has created a “circle of fear” in southern Israel, firing mortars, Qassam and Grad-type rockets. But these had been in “revenge” for Israeli attacks and for the paralysing economic blockade of Gaza. They were a “cry of protest to the world”.
Both of these arguments are totally unsustainable when measured against the facts. But before I come back to these dual distortions, let’s hear some alternative voices in this war of words. First, an ordinary Gazan holding no torch for Hamas or the rocket fusilladers. This is Fathiya Mousa, whose mother, father, three brothers, and sister were killed in a missile strike on her family’s home in the Sabra district of Gaza City on 14 January:
“There was no electricity. All the family were in the yard or the house listening to the news, negotiations in Egypt, martyrs, etc. The missile hit. Four were dead at once; my brother’s body was all in pieces … why did they hit our house? It is in a residential area. We are neither Hamas nor Fatah. We are all civilians. None of us did anything. My father was opposed to firing rockets against the Israelis; he wanted peace, and they killed him. We have nothing to do with the resistance … We want peace; and we want an investigation; we want to know why me and my sisters have been orphaned.”
Meanwhile, about 25 miles to the north, across the Israeli border in Ashkelon, here’s a middle-aged Moldovan immigrant called Esther Berdichev describing a 2 January rocket attack on the flat she shares with her husband Viktor:
“Everything was dark. I choked on the dust, and was lightly hurt by the flying debris. Two rooms were completely destroyed, and the rest was covered in dust, shards of glass from the broken windows and debris. I cannot sleep at night and any loud noise upsets me … We never thought we’d be in a situation like this, not having a place to rest our heads … We moved to Israel from Moldova in 1992. We worked hard to build our lives in that home. Now we’ve lost everything.”
Lucky to be alive and thankfully not as badly hit as the Mousa family, the Berdichevs have nevertheless felt the trauma of suffering an unjustified attack. What happened to them happened to scores of others in southern Israel between 27 December and 18 January. In total nearly 200 Israeli civilians were injured and three were killed. On the other side the human cost was much higher. Figures are disputed but of 1,200-1,400 Palestinians killed, the evidence suggests that two-thirds were civilians (approximately 900), with some 5,000 others injured. Figures for the destruction of buildings are even starker: one Israeli home destroyed during the rocket barrage; 3,000 Palestinian homes destroyed by Israeli missiles, artillery and white phosphorous shells, tank shells, mortars, mines and army bulldozers.
Israel’s then Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit has said the vast difference in casualty figures was actually “the idea” of the operation; after the conflict Prime Minister Olmert talked of a further “disproportionate” response to any new Palestinian rocket bombardment.
While it is chilling to believe that punitive disproportionality could have been the underlying policy behind the offensive, the fact remains that after examining in detail scores of individual attacks on Palestinian homes, on unarmed people in the street, on schools and other public buildings, on ambulances and on food processing plants, Amnesty has found little or no justification for attacks like those that devastated Fathiya Mousa’s family.
Contrary to repeated Israeli claims, Amnesty has also found no evidence that Hamas or other armed Palestinian groups used civilians as human shields. Hamas most certainly did carry out armed operations within residential areas - the crowded streets of Gaza City for example - but this did not, as Israel’s military surely knew, absolve Israel of the duty to avoid exposing civilians to excessive harm.
The zero-sum blame game of the Gaza conflict is terrifying. Israel says Hamas tactics make it responsible for hundreds of Palestinian civilians dying, while Hamas and the Palestinian armed groups say that Israelis killed or left to cower in bomb shelters in towns like Ashkelon are there because of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, or its drone strikes, or its incursions.
The truth is less paradoxical. When Hamas fires hopelessly inaccurate rockets into Israel it commits a war crime; when the Israel Defense Forces fire on unarmed civilians it commits a war crime. It’s always them, not us, according to the justifiers, a bankrupt policy of avoiding responsibility that short-changes civilians over and over again.
So I say again what should be said loudly and regularly. The international community - the US, Britain and everyone else concerned with this dreadful situation - should not only get behind the Richard Goldstone UN inquiry into the Gaza conflict, they should also be explicit as to the consequences of either side not cooperating. A cycle of death and destruction is almost certain to reassert itself without justice for the long-suffering people of this region. The Goldstone inquiry currently offers the best chance of breaking that cycle.
* Amnesty International’s 117-page report Operation Cast Lead: 22 Days Of Death And Destruction is out today.