On March 4 and 5, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a brief visit to Israel, ostensibly to advance a "peace process" between Israel and the Palestinians, launched in the US resort of Annapolis last November.
While she was there, Israeli soldiers, conducting a self-proclaimed "pinpoint operation" in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, shot dead three-week-old Amira Abu Asr, bringing to 27 the number of children killed by the Israeli military since they launched their latest assault on Gaza on February 27, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
The Israeli assault has killed over 125 Palestinians, the majority civilians. This brings the number of Gaza residents killed by the Israeli military in 2008 to 237. Over 350 have been injured and thousands left homeless.
On February 29 Israeli deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai told Israel Army Radio that if rockets continue to be fired from the Gaza Strip the population "will bring a bigger holocaust upon themselves". It was later claimed that he was mistranslated, but the Hebrew word he used, shoah, is the same term usually applied to the Nazi Holocaust.
While Rice urged the Israelis to "take more care" with regard to civilian casualties, she refused to condemn the assault. Instead, she reserved her condemnation for Palestinian resistance groups who have been firing home made rockets at Israel that have killed three civilians since May 2007.
As a result of this resistance, two Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting in the Jabaliya area of northern Gaza before the main ground forces withdrew on March 3. On March 6, a third Israeli soldier was killed when a jeep was destroyed near the Kissufim checkpoint.
The high civilian casualty rate among the Palestinian population in Gaza stems from more than just the use of heavy firepower in a densely populated area. The March 6 New York Times reported that civilians had claimed that they were handcuffed and blindfolded by Israeli soldiers and used as human shields. "Sometimes, they said, a soldier used their shoulders as props for his M-16 rifle."
Civil society institutions have been specifically targeted by Israel. The headquarters of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions was destroyed by two missiles from an F-16 warplane on February 29.
PGFTU acting head Nabil al-Mabhouh told Inter Press Service on March 4: "Targeting a civil organization shows how barbaric and outrageous the Israeli occupation is. We are not launching rockets; targeting a laborers union building is not justified … We call for all trade unions in the world to stand by us and protect the Palestinian laborers from such criminal practices."
The main purpose of Rice's visit was to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to re-enter "peace talks" with Israel, which he walked out of on March 2 in protest against the Israeli aggression.
With his domestic credibility comprimised by his closeness to the US and willingness to make concessions to the Israelis without anything being given in return, Abbas has indicated that he will not return to the talks while the current round of massacres continue.
However, precisely because of his lack of a domestic base, Abbas has proven suseptable to US pressure and it remains to be seen whether he maintains this stance.
Presenting victims as aggressors
The mainstream media have echoed the claims by Israeli, US and other Western politicians that Israel's military actions are a reasonable response to Palestinian aggression.
For example, "tanks pursued militants who have been pummelling southern Israel with rockets" was how the March 5 Australian described the current assault — language that fails to reflect the fact that the Israeli assault has killed 40 times more people in one week than Palestinian home made rockets have in a year.
This asymmetrical coverage of the human toll is standard in Western reporting on Palestine.
In a March 2 article on the Electronic Intifada website, Palestinian journalist Laila El-Haddad quotes a US study that showed that the Associated Press news wire has failed to report 85% of Palestinian children killed, but has "reported on Israeli children's deaths more often than the deaths occurred".
Blanket media coverage reported the attack in terms that have been studiously avoided when describing the ongoing slaughter in Gaza.
The mainstream media has refused to report that the Merkaz Ha'raz curriculum combines religious study with military training, and is the nerve centre of the armed "religious settler" movement, which includes the Gush Emunim group, who have been in the vanguard of expropriating Palestinian land in the West Bank.
The terrorist actions of this movement against civilians, and the violence emanating from their notorious colony in Hebron, are well documented. Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli prime minister in 1995, was a graduate of Merkaz Ha'rav.
By excluding this information, the attack is stripped of any context, reinforcing the impression created by the media of Palestinians as irrational, bloodthirsty killers.
In an example of the double standards applied by Western governments, Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith described the attack, in which the gunman was killed, as "cowardly violence". Bombarding civilian population centres with missiles, helicopters, jets and artillery is not, apparently, "cowardly violence".
Moreover, the media has systematically repeated a number of false assumptions, which, if taken as the truth, make understanding the conflict impossible.
For instance, according to the same Australian article: "Israel unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005. Last June, Islamic Hamas militants violently seized control of the costal area."
Neither of these statements are true.
Israel's "unilateral disengagement" from Gaza has included surrounding the narrow, overpopulated strip with a wall — allowing Israel full control over its airspace, territorial waters and movement of people and goods. This leaves Israel as the occupying power under international law.
Furthermore, Israel continually makes military incursions, both on a large scale (such as that currently underway) and "targeted strikes" at political opponents of Israel — such as the murder of five activists on February 27 that provoked the rocket salvo that is the justification for the current assault.
Rather than "violently seize control" of Gaza, Hamas won democratic elections to the PA legislative council in January 2006. A major factor was disillusionment with "peace" processes that have seen Israeli occupation and oppression continue unabated.
At the time of the 1993 Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, most Palestinians were willing to accept a "two state solution" that would allow Israel to remain on the 78% of Palestine that it conquered and ethnically cleansed in 1948, while giving the Palestinians the territory conquered by Israel in 1967 — the West Bank and Gaza, the current Occupied Territories.
However, Israel was not willing to abandon its illegal annexations and settlements in the West Bank.
While Palestinians were allowed to elect their own president and legislative council as a step towards their own state, by 2006 it was apparent that the "state" would be at most 10% of their historic nation. Moreover, this state would be in the form of a dozen geographically separated walled ghettos, with Israel retaining control of the movement of people and goods between them and the outside world.
The 2006 elections were a rejection of these terms, with Hamas winning over those associated with the accords.
Hamas has been willing to talk to Israel and has even observed several unilateral cease-fires — a fact that goes largely unreported in the Western media. It has indicated that it would be willing to accept a defacto two-state solution, based on the pre-1967 boundaries, while maintaining its aspiration for a single Palestinian state.
However, because of its refusal to recognise Israel's eternal "right" to exist as an exclusively Jewish state, or renounce Palestinians' right to resist Israeli occupation, Israel has refused talks with Hamas.
The US and the European Union responded to the election of Hamas by placing economic sanctions on the Occupied Territories. Israel increased military incursions and kidnapped over 60 elected legislators and ministers.
In an article in the April 2008 edition of Vanity Fair, journalist David Rose has provided evidence to show that the US immediately began a covert operation to pressure Abbas to sack the Hamas-led government of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
Central to this operation was the funnelling of funds and arms to Palestinian security boss Muhammed Dahlan, a member of Abbas's Fatah party, and the instigation of attacks on Hamas supporters. By the beginning of 2007, clashes between Dahlan's forces and Haniyeh government loyalists were escalating.
However, Rose explains: "Unwilling to preside over a Palestinian civil war, Abbas blinked." A deal was struck on February 8 last year for a national unity government.
Under its terms, Haniyeh would remain prime minister while allowing Fatah members to occupy several important posts. "Once again, the Bush administration had been taken by surprise. According to a State Department official, 'Condi was apoplectic'."
Rose goes on to explain that, in order to sink the national unity government, the US pushed Dahlan in June to launch a coup against the Haniyeh government. However, after weeks of fighting, pro-Haniyeh forces defeated Dahlan in Gaza.
Abbas then sacked Haniyeh, creating the current situation with two Palestinian governments: the Western-recognised Abbas government in the West Bank ghettos, and the isolated Haniyeh government in walled-in Gaza.
Since June 2007, the isolation of Gaza has been increased until by November it reached the proportions of a total siege.
A report by Amnesty International, Care International UK, Cafod, Christian Aid, Medecins du Monde UK, Oxfam, Save the Children UK and Trocaire has painted a frightening picture of the siege.
The report details food and energy shortages, malnutrition, mass unemployment, a collapse of the education system, sewerage flowing in the streets, hospitals without power for 12 hours a day, insufficient drinking water and dwindling medical supplies. Agriculture has suffered from the repeated Israeli military incursions, destroying fields and greenhouses. Israel insists that no crop is allowed to grow over 40cm high.
Between 80 and 100 people have died since November as a result of the siege.
The world was able to get a glimpse of the slow holocaust created by the siege in late January, when Gazans gained a brief respite after the wall separating it from Egypt was breached by explosions.
The suffering of Gaza continues, due to Western complicity with Israel's crimes. It could stop tomorrow, if this support was withdrawn.