Palestine: Butchery in Beit Hanoun

In the deadliest single attack on Palestinians in four years, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) killed 19 civilians at Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on November 8. Seven homes were bombed in the early hours of the morning as the victims slept and, according to the Gaza-based United Nations Relief and Works Agency, more than 60 civilians were injured in the attack.

UNRWA reported: "The Al-Athamneh family lost 17 members including four women, five children and two infants, one of them two years old, the other 9 months old." The family are refugees under UNRWA's mandate. Aljazeera's online news service reported on November 9 that Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni called the massacre "a regrettable incident".

The shelling of the civilian homes on Hamad Street came at the end of a week-long siege of Beit Hanoun, dubbed "Operation Autumn Clouds" by the IDF, ostensibly aimed at halting the firing of Qassam rockets into Israel by Palestinian militants. The November 1-7 assault on the town of 28,000 people left at least 52 Palestinians dead.

The IDF besieged about 60 Palestinian militants in the Um al-Nasir mosque overnight on November 2. Early the next morning, a demonstration of 300 Palestinian women marched towards the mosque in order to protect the men trapped inside. The IDF opened fire on the unarmed protesters, killing two and injuring 40 others. The wounded women were not evacuated from the scene for 11 hours. In an online diary entry posted at Electronic Intifada on November 3, Dr Mona Elfarra from Al-Awda hospital reported that a wounded civilian bled to death while "waiting for a permit to go to hospital".

Ambulances and paramedics were not only prevented from assisting victims of the onslaught: they were also deliberately targeted. On November 3, the IDF fired a rocket at a group of resistance activists and civilians near a school in Beit Lahia. The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported that when medical crews arrived to assist the injured, a second rocket was fired, killing two paramedics and four other people, including a child.

The PCHR reported that on the morning of November 6, the IDF fired a missile towards the Jabalia Youth Club, hitting a group of schoolchildren and killing 16-year-old Ramzi Ash-Shafri. The same strike hit a kindergarten school bus collecting young children, seriously wounding 20-year-old teacher Najwa Awad E'khlayyef, who later had to have her arm amputated.

In addition to the extrajudicial executions of resistance activists, there were reports that all the men in Beit Hanoun aged 16-45 were rounded up for "questioning" and detained en masse. The New York Times reported on November 3 that through using loudspeakers, Israeli forces "ordered males aged 16 to 45 to gather at a square in the town. Many were put onto trucks and driven outside the town for questioning." On November 5 the NYT reported an IDF claim that it was detaining 30 residents.

In its November 5 report, the PCHR said that the men had been taken to a detention facility the IDF had set up in Beit Hanoun's college of agriculture. It stated, "Due to the difficulty in reaching the place, PCHR has not learned of the number of detainees, the ones released, or those transferred for detention inside Israel". Thirty-three Palestinian legislators, including cabinet members, remain in Israeli custody, and the labour minister was kidnapped on November 2.

Mass murder and starvation

During the Beit Hanoun siege, the town was completely sealed. Water, electricity and phone lines were cut off, and the UN team that surveyed the damage on November 7 reported that more than 30 houses had been destroyed by shelling, with 100 more damaged. Writing from Gaza for Electronic Intifada on November 7, Rami Almeghari said that since the beginning of Operation Summer Rain on June 28 "1000 acres of orange and olive orchards have been razed" and "26 industrial and commercial facilities have been devastated" in Beit Hanoun alone.

On November 8, as the Israeli government was busy "regretting" the Hamad Street massacre, the IDF killed seven more Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, taking the death toll from the start of the month to 78. The toll since June is approaching 400. On October 30, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert boasted to a Knesset committee that since the beginning of its campaign, launched in response to the seizing of IDF corporal Gilad Shalit by the Palestinian resistance, the Israeli military has killed 300 "terrorists" in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem responded on November 2 by pointing out "the IDF did indeed kill 294 Palestinians in Gaza since the abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit on June 26 and until October 27. However, over half of those killed — 155 people, including 61 children — did not participate in the fighting when they were killed. This in addition to the 137 who were killed while taking part in hostilities, and another two who were the targets of a targeted killing."

Gideon Levy wrote in a November 5 Haaretz article, "These futile operations will not stop the Qassams, which are aimed at giving us and the rest of the world a painful reminder of the imprisoned and boycotted Gaza residents' distress, which no one would notice if it were not for the Qassams".

Alongside the military onslaught, there is another war being perpetrated on the Palestinians by Israel, with the active participation of the "international community" — economic strangulation, which is bringing Gaza ever closer to the brink of starvation. In an October 14 article, Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery wrote that there is a "great experiment" being conducted in Gaza: "Is it possible to force an entire people to submit to foreign occupation by starving it?"

The siege of the Occupied Palestinian Territories is aimed at crippling the government led by Hamas, which won the overwhelming support of Palestinian voters in January elections. Since June 27, when Israel bombed Gaza's only electricity generator, which supplied more than half the territory's electricity, Gazan households have had access to electricity for only a few hours per day, and tens of thousands are deprived of potable water.

The Gaza Strip, with 1.4 million residents, is virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Israel has repeatedly violated the agreement negotiated last year with the Palestinian Authority (PA) that the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt should be operated by European Union observers, and food and medicine getting through to the Palestinians is dependent on the will of Israel. According to the World Food Program, "Gaza's food security is an issue of serious concern".

In a report in the November 1-7 Al Ahram Weekly, UNRWA director John Ging was quoted as saying that "the tragedy of over one million people completely dependent on food handouts can hardly be exaggerated". "On several occasions", he said, "we simply ran out of food". Ging reported that "people are suffering serious symptoms of malnutrition".

When Hamas formed government in March, the US and the EU, among other Western powers, cut off aid to the "terrorists" controlling the PA, while Israel stopped paying the taxes it collects on all Palestinian goods that pass through Israel. According to a November 1 International Monetary Fund report, there has been a 60% drop in the PA's income since March.

Between April and September, the PA only received US$500 million, compared to $1.5 billion during the same period last year. The IMF report stated that the main reason for the huge decrease was Israel's failure to give $360 million in Palestinian tax revenues to the PA. These sanctions by Israel and the West have caused disaster for the Hamas-led government, meaning it has been unable to pay the full salaries of the PA's 175,000 public servants since March.

Washington and Israel long for a return to the pre-Hamas status quo, and are attempting to bolster the power of Fatah, the party that previously dominated Palestinian politics. Fatah was rejected by voters for its failed approach of collaboration with Israel in the struggle for national liberation since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, as well as for serious corruption. By boycotting the Hamas government, and dealing politically and financially only with Fatah-aligned PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the "international community" is showing contemptuous disregard for the democratic will of Palestinians.

A section of the Fatah leadership has proven more than willing to put its interests ahead of Palestinian unity and resistance. Clashes between armed members of Fatah and Hamas left more than 20 dead in October, and the US has promised $26 million to boost Abbas's presidential guard. US General Keith Dayton is currently arming and training forces loyal to Abbas in Jericho, and Israel is considering an appeal from Abbas to allow thousands of Jordan-based "Palestinian Liberation Army" fighters into Gaza to strengthen Fatah's hand — not against Israel, but Hamas.

In the days before the butchery at Beit Hanoun, Hamas and Fatah were reportedly nearing a deal to form a national unity government, which it was hoped would force the so-called international community to lift the starvation blockade. This government was to comprise non-party professionals, and be formed on the basis of the Palestinian Prisoners' National Conciliation Document, which contains an implicit recognition of the Israeli state.

In the wake of the massacre, Hamas has called for an end to the voluntary unilateral ceasefire it has largely observed for the past year-and-a-half, and for renewed attacks inside Israel.