Blood and tears in the streets of Gaza

December 30, 2008

Gaza is under attack by one of the most deadly military machines on the planet — with even worse to come as Israel masses troops for a threatened ground invasion.

Gaza is under attack by one of the most deadly military machines on the planet — with even worse to come as Israel masses troops for a threatened ground invasion.

Starting at 11:30 a.m. on December 27, Israel's F-16 jet fighters and Apache helicopters, supplied by the U.S., unleashed a punishing assault on targets of every kind — police stations, mosques, hospitals, media outlets, community centres and buildings owned by the Hamas party.

Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world, so the "precision strikes" supposedly aimed at "Hamas militants" were bound to take a toll on the civilian population. By late on December 28, the official death toll after 36 hours of killing stood at nearly 300.

Meanwhile, Israeli ground forces and tanks were stationed at the border, and the military announced it was calling up its reserves, an ominous sign that the scale of the atrocities could grow worse.

Israel's all-out offensive caused fury across the Middle East. Thousands took to the streets to protest Israel's assault and the silence of many Arab regimes as the slaughter of Palestinians was broadcast on television news stations.

In several places, anger was directed at the Egyptian government for its unwillingness to open its border with Gaza to relieve the pressure from Israel's crippling siege of the last 18 months.

In the U.S., antiwar coalitions, human rights groups and others organised emergency-response actions, drawing hundreds to demonstrations in cities across the U.S. More protests will take place this week; a national day of action has been called for Tuesday.

Israel's attack began with simultaneous air raids on more than 30 targets. Within the first nine hours, the Israeli military reported it had dropped more than 100 tons of bombs. Not since the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel began its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, have Palestinians in Gaza been subjected to such an outburst of destruction.

In an interview, Dr. Haider Eid relayed the horror as he talked about conditions in Gaza: "I live in Gaza City itself, where most of the air strikes took place. The attacks came just as schoolchildren were returning home from school. It was absolutely horrible. The timing was chosen to cause a massacre.

"I rushed to the Shifa hospital — along with ambulances, cars and trucks that were also streaming to the hospital with the wounded. I stood in front of the gate. I don't like to see the mangled bodies, but this was especially horrible. Cars carried dismembered bodies, detached legs and arms and heads.

"The part of this that I'm still trying to cope with are the bodies of the children. This is something you don't wish on your worst enemies, to tell you the truth. The morgue at the hospital is the largest in Gaza City, but it ran out of space to keep the bodies."

As he talked, a thunderous noise drowned out Haider's voice. "Oh my God! A huge explosion just took place as I'm speaking with you," said Haider. "That was very close. Oh my God! Another one! I'm sorry. I must go."

Haider hung up to check on his relatives, and subsequent attempts to reach him have so far been unsuccessful.

Israel claimed that it launched its offensive on Gaza to defend itself from Palestinian rocket attacks aimed at towns in southern Israel. Predictably, the U.S. backed up this assertion. "The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel, and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The ceasefire Rice referred to began six months ago, but the terms of it were never honoured by Israel, and in fact, it expired days before the assault began.

Under the truce, Palestinian militants agreed to end their rocket attacks against Israel, while Israel was supposed to lift its suffocating siege of Gaza, which has led to critical shortages of all manner of necessities, from flour to electricity to medical supplies.

But the Israeli government didn't end the siege. The blockade is designed to punish the people of Gaza for the "crime" of voting Hamas into the majority in the Palestinian Legislative Assembly in January 2006 elections. Backed by the U.S., and with the collaboration of rival Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, Israel continued to hope that the population of Gaza would turn against Hamas.

Within Israel, only a tiny number of voices dissented from the claim — thoroughly dominant in the mainstream Israeli and U.S. media — that Israel was acting in self-defence against Hamas' aggression.

Days before the Israeli offensive began, Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner wrote: "We don't want to see how people in Gaza are living, we block it out of our minds—which, I suppose, is natural for a society at war, but which also keeps that war going longer than it might if we would recognize that Gaza is getting so much the worst of it.

"The [Palestinian] Kassam [rockets] have terrorized the 25,000 people in Sderot and its environs, but have caused very, very few deaths or serious wounds. By contrast, Israel has terrorized 1.5 million Gazans, locked them inside their awfully narrow borders, throttled their economy, and killed and seriously wounded thousands of them...

"This is crazy. Israel is the superpower of the Middle East, but because we still think we're the Jews of Europe in the 1930s, or the Israelites under Pharaoh, we spend a lot more time fighting our enemies than we might if we looked at the whole picture, not just our half of it.

"There may be a way out of this war, and if Israel does not take it — if it does not accept Hamas' offer of a ceasefire, which it should have offered Hamas from the beginning — then the principal blame for the war will lie with us. Our arrogance and blindness will get a lot of innocent people killed. And no one has a clue about when, or where, or how it will end."

This comment makes it obvious that the death toll from Israel's air strikes only count for part of the casualties in the latest phase of the war. Those Palestinians who died as a consequence of Israel's blockade—a clear violation of international laws prohibiting the use of collective punishment and attempts to physically destroy a people and their society—have to be included.

As Palestinian author and activist Ali Abunimah said in an interview: "The idea that this is about Israel's 'self-defense' is a very partial and one-sided claim. The reality is that Israel asked for a ceasefire with Hamas and got it, during which there were no rockets fired by the Palestinians.

"During this so-called ceasefire, Israel continued to maintain a punishing blockade on Gaza, starving people, depriving them of food and medicine. Many people were dying in Gaza, not because of bombs, but because they couldn't get cancer treatments, insulin and other basic medications. They weren't even allowed to travel to get medical treatment.

"Hundreds of Palestinians have died because of the Israeli blockade. Ehud Barak's orders to prevent medicine from reaching Gaza were just as lethal and just as intended to kill as his orders to send bombers into Gaza."

Israel's harsh treatment of Palestinians living in the West Bank further underscores the hypocrisy of Israel's claim to be defending itself.

As Abunimah points out: "There has never been a single rocket fired at Israel from the West Bank. And yet during the period of the so-called truce in the West Bank, Israel continued extrajudicial executions, continued to confiscate Palestinian land, continued to demolish Palestinians homes, continued to kidnap Palestinians and imprison them. Israeli settlers engaged in regular pogroms and rampages, attacking Palestinians and destroying their property.

"What was the excuse for that? Israel never needed the excuse of rockets to continue its systematic violence against Palestinians."

Because of Israel's debilitating siege, the residents of Gaza are particularly ill-equipped to deal with the physical, medical, humanitarian and psychological consequences of this new offensive.

The statistical measures of Gaza's desperation are truly awful. Malnutrition in Gaza is comparable to the dire situation of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, affecting some 75% of the population — 46 percent of children in Gaza suffer from acute anemia. The majority of children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and thousands of kids require hearing aids because of repeated exposure to the earsplitting sonic booms of low-altitude flyovers by Israeli fighter jets.

Blood supplies are running critically low. There are chronic shortages of electricity, drinking water, flour, bread and more. Unemployment is well over 50%. The economy is in total freefall.

This is all by design. According to the logic of Israeli officials, the pressure is necessary to force Gaza's residents to turn against Hamas. Such measures have always failed in the past—on the contrary, they have led to ever more intense and desperate anger at Israel's brutality.

But according to Abunimah, the latest offensive has also exposed a new development — the outright surrender of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah wing of the Palestinian national movement that he leads: "For a long time, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has been colluding with Israel and the U.S. against Hamas. Since the election in January 2006, the PA has been determined to overturn the election result and to maintain itself in power, and it has done that with guns provided by the U.S. and Israel.

"Many Palestinians were not willing to confront this directly because it's a very painful truth. But the situation in Gaza has pulled the mask off, and Palestinians everywhere are now openly pointing to Ramallah as having colluded directly with the Israelis—and indeed the comments of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo that Hamas is to blame for this have sickened and revolted Palestinians.

"This has laid bare the reality that Abbas is working for the Israelis and is more loyal to them than to the Palestinian people that he claims to lead."

As for the U.S., it has long presented itself to the world as an "honest broker", as Palestinians struggled to establish an independent state in their homeland.

Yet U.S. economic, military and diplomatic support has been the essential ingredient that allowed Israel to continue its occupation of Palestinian land and its immunity to diplomatic sanctions or international pressure to grant even the basic Palestinian right to the necessities of life.

For activists in the U.S., it's our responsibility to expose the complicity of the U.S. in the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza. This means building public demonstrations and protests, as well as ongoing campaigns to pressure the U.S. to end its support for Israel. And it means exposing the lie that Israel is acting in self-defence when it carries out massacres in Gaza.

"What can we fairly ask of Palestinians when 1.5 million people are blockaded, besieged, imprisoned in a giant ghetto, when they cannot eat due to lack of food while living under a so-called truce?" asks Abunimah. "Israel's idea of a truce is that Palestinians have a right to remain silent while they starve to death.

"Palestinians also have a right to defend themselves. That self-defence may take many forms, but Israel has never respected Palestinians' right to defend themselves, whether they do so through armed struggle or peaceful means. The Israeli response is always bombs and bullets. That's the full picture that's not being exposed anywhere."

[Reprinted from Socialist Worker, where it was originally posted on December 29.]

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