Palestine eyewitness: Attack on Gaza
Kim Bullimore, West Bank
Seven days after the Israeli military campaign in the northern Gaza region began on September 28, 100 Palestinians — one third of them under the age of 15 — have been killed, while more than 300 civilians, including more than 80 children, have been wounded, 168 houses have been demolished, along with kindergartens, dozens of grocery stores, schools and olive groves. Electricity has been cut off and tens of thousands of people have been left without drinking water.
The Israeli offensive, which began on the night of the fourth anniversary of the second Palestinian intifada (uprising), has been carried out in one of the most populated regions of Gaza. In the past six days, more than 2000 Israeli troops, accompanied by 200 Israeli tanks, dozens of apache helicopters and armoured bulldozers have entered Jabaliya, Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun refugee camps which are home to more than 250,000 Palestinians.
The offensive also began within days of Yom Kippur, the Jewish festival of atonement. In a gross misappropriation of Jewish religiousity, the Israeli government has dubbed the operation Days of Penitence.
Medical staff in Balsam Hospital in Beit Lahia have reported severe food, medical and blood shortages, while the staff at Al Awda hospital in Jabaliya have reported that their medical emergency supplies have been exhausted as a result of the high number of causalities. According to the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights, which is based in Jabiliya, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has denied the Ministry of Health access to the government clinic in Beit Hanoun, and denied all requests for access. Since the start of the offensive, the IDF has refused to allow United Nation Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) medical staff access to their clinic to assist with causalities.
IDF spokespeople have publicly claimed that the offensive is in response to the death of two children killed by a Hamas rocket attack upon the Israeli township of Sderot. However, a number of commentators in Israel have argued that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, under pressure from the extreme right because of his Gaza "disengagement" plan, is exploiting the death of the children to pursue his own agenda.
Sharon's Gaza "disengagement plan", announced in February, was designed to relieve international pressure on Israel, which had ratcheted up because of its construction of the Apratheid Wall. The plan was designed to give the impression that Israel was working towards peace without giving into "terrorism", while allowing Sharon and his government to annex and consolidate more territory in the West Bank. Despite all the hue and cry by right-wing opponents of "disengagement", the plan concedes little.
Under it, "disengagement" was not to be immediate or unilateral, instead it was to take "one or two years" to complete and would merely involve shifting the path of the Apartheid Wall east to a new security line within the Occupied Territories. This would take in more illegal settlements then the original path, and would not result in the immediate dismantling of those illegal colonies outside the new path, instead they would be relocated.
In addition, the plan would exclude Palestinians from the negotiating table, in favour of Washington-Israel talks. In return for "disengagement", the US would be asked to recognise the Apartheid wall, as well as the illegal colonies of Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim and Gush Etzio, annexing further sections of the West Bank. Within days of the announcement of the plan, however, the number of settlements to be moved dwindled from 17 to include only the "most isolated" colonies, with the evacuation of the Katif block, the biggest colony in the Gaza being postponed indefinitely.
In an interview in April with the Progressive magazine, Uri Avnery, a former Knesset member and founding member of Israeli peace organisation Gush Shalom, claimed that the plan would result in the incorporation of 55% of the West Bank into Israel. At the same time, Avnery argued, the Gaza "will become a giant prison camp, cut off on all sides. It will have no seaport or airport and be cut off from its only neighbour, Egypt. There will be no entering the Strip or leaving it except through Israel. Much as now, Israel will be able to cut off the supply of food, raw materials, water, fuel, gas and electricity, as well as the exit of workers and goods. Israel will also be able to invade the Strip at any time in order to 'prevent terrorist actions'."
Sharon's plan might have meant little, but that did not stop other right-wing parties, the extreme right within his own party and extremist settler groups and rabbinical leaders condemning it. In early September, more than 20,000 settlers rallied in Jerusalem to protest the plan. Many of those attending the rally warned that civil war was inevitable and that there would be violent clashes between settlers and Israeli security forces should the plan go ahead. Other settlers at the demonstration carried signs calling Sharon "a dictator" and "traitor".
Three days prior to the demonstration, 185 former members of the Israeli government, senior reserve officers in the IDF and other prominent Israeli professionals signed a petition declaring disengagement "a national crime, a crime against humanity and is a revelation of tyranny, evil and arbitrariness meant to deny Jews their rights... [that] lays the groundwork for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from their homeland". A number of the signatories to the petition went on to publicly accuse Sharon of Nazism and anti-semitism.
Given this pressure, Sharon is particularly wary of appearing to give in to Palestinian militants. According to Israel's daily newspaper Ha'aretz, an October 3 statement by Israeli "defence" minister Shaul Mofaz argued that "the aim of the [Gaza] operation is 'to send a clear message that Israel will not tolerate terrorist operations during the disengagement', hints at the pressure by the right of the opponents of the disengagement plan, who are taking advantage of the suffering of the Sderot residents".
The Gaza offensive allows Sharon to continue to pose as the "strongman" of Israeli politics at home, while propagating the fantasy that Israel is seeking peace — and is the victim in the conflict. Washington is quite happy to continue to foster this. US Secretary of State Colin Powell told the New York Times that "Israel's action in Gaza in relation to the rocket attacks was a legitimate response".
The offensive also allows Israel to maintain its military and economic stranglehold on the Gaza. On October 3, Sharon and Mofaz separately described the Gaza offensive as "open-ended", saying that the IDF would establish a "buffer zone" to "spare Israeli towns from rocket attacks" and ensure that "there is no withdrawal under fire next year".
The current offensive is merely a continuation of military operations that have taken place since Sharon first announced plans for "disengagement". For the past six months, the IDF has been systematically demolishing houses and olive groves in Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya. In addition, hundreds of houses have been demolished along the Philidelphi corridor near Rafah, ensuring that Israel will control the border between the Gaza and Egypt.
As the US prepares to veto a UN motion condemning the Israeli offensive and the illegal collective punishment of civilians, the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza continues to grow. Sharon's strategy, if allowed to proceed, will ensure that there is no road to peace and the continued construction of the illegal Apartheid Wall and the further illegal annexation by Israel of a further 55% of the West Bank.
[Kim Bullimore is a member of the Socialist Alliance and is currently working with the international human rights and solidarity group, the International Women's Peace Service in Palestine. Visit <http://www.womenspeacepalestine.org>.]
From Green Left Weekly, October 13, 2004.
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