The Gaza Crisis

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Created Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Gaza Strip is a narrow coastal strip with a small 6km border with Egypt on one side, with a 40km coast line against the Mediterranean Sea on another side and the rest bordering Israel The Israeli offensive on Hamas in the Gaza Strip on 27th December, 2008 ended on January 17, 2009 when both Hamas and Israel announced separate ceasefires, which have turned out to be quite fragile (attacks started the day after, for example).

The 3 week offensive claimed some 1,300 Palestinian lives mostly civilian, 400 of which were children. Another 5,000 were injured including some 1,800 children and 800 women. 13 Israelis (3 civilians) were also killed.

The offensive left much of Gaza in ruins. The aftermath also saw a humanitarian crisis with tens of thousands left homeless and hundreds of thousands without water.

The conventional, mainstream, version of events is roughly this:

  • Hamas started firing rockets into Israel after ending a ceasefire with Israel.
  • Israel felt it had no choice but to defend itself. In doing so, it decided to teach Hamas a very harsh lesson and go in hard.
  • But the offensive resulted in many civilian casualties because Hamas was operating in the densely populated Gaza strip.
  • The international community (usually the West), while supporting Israel’s overall objective, was appalled by the civilian casualties and put pressure on Israel to prevent or reduce the civilian toll and humanitarian crisis.

On this page:

  1. How the Gaza conflict started
    1. A crippling economic blockade of Gaza
    2. A weak ceasefire agreement that eventually broke down
    3. Israeli offensive causes a lot a civilian casualties
  2. Media coverage
  3. US: Bush and Obama and US Media Coverage
  4. What now

How the Gaza conflict started

Why did they fire rockets? There was no siege against Gaza. Why did they fight us, what did they want? There was never a day of starvation in Gaza.

Shimon Peres, President of Israel speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Turkish PM storms off in Gaza row1, BBC, January 29, 2009

Peres’s question certainly seems reasonable, given the mainstream media rarely provided detailed answers during this offensive. And before the offensive, the coverage of what was happening in Gaza was quite minimal and therefore not in the minds of most citizens looking on as the events unfolded.

A crippling economic blockade of Gaza

Peres claimed, There was no siege against Gaza. Indeed, before the offensive started there wasn’t a military siege. There was, however, an economic version of a siege: a blockade that lasted many months, which, from the Palestinian perspective was strangling them.

A total blockade2 of the Gaza Strip came about in mid-2007 when Hamas had taken control of Gaza after a battle with Fatah, a few months after Hamas was elected by Palestinians in a democratic vote. Israel and much of the West sees Hamas as a militant/terrorist organization, not a political party. Israel, fearing lack of security from within Gaza, and Egypt fearing militant spill over into Egypt, imposed a blockade (that could be regarded as an act of war3 in itself).

As early as March 2008, international humanitarian organizations Amnesty International, CARE International UK and Oxfam said the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip was more acute than at any time since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967 4. They urged Israel to lift the blockade, characterizing it as collective punishment against the 1.5 million residents of the territory. The UN had repeatedly called for a lift of the blockade, too.

The BBC summarized the effects of the blockade:

[The effects of the Israeli blockade] have been severe. Little but humanitarian basics have been allowed into Gaza since Hamas seized power in 2007. Before the Israeli operation began, health, water, sewage and power infrastructure were seriously ailing because of a lack of spare parts. The blockade includes limits on fuel, which have on several occasions forced the power plant that supplies Gaza City to shut down.

A total ban on exports has left the already fragile economy devastated. Unemployment has soared. The United Nations Relief and Works agency (UNRWA) provides basic food aid to about 750,000 people in Gaza, but in the weeks preceding the Israeli operation these were suspended because the UN ran out of food because Israel closed the crossings into Gaza citing security reasons.

Goods ranging from food to missiles have, however, been brought in through smuggling tunnels from Egypt.

Q&A: Gaza conflict5, BBC, January 18, 2009

A weak ceasefire agreement that eventually broke down

A ceasefire was negotiated in mid-2008 but the terms were never written down. This would predictably cause problems.

The Palestinians believed this would mean commerce in Gaza would be restored back to 2005 levels, when Israel withdrew from Gaza. Israel wanted to ease the blockade based on Palestinians reducing rocket fire into Israel.

Supply lines gradually re-opened as rocket fire by Palestinian militants into Israel had generally reduced during the cease-fire:

The cease-fire agreement from June through mid-December was credited by many for ratcheting down the violence—rocket fire into Israel dropped significantly and claimed no Israeli lives during the truce. (Prior to that, rocket and mortar attacks since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in late 2005 had killed 10 Israelis—theisraelproject.org6.) After the cease-fire expired, rocket attacks increased, though no Israelis were killed until after the Israeli attacks were launched; four have been killed since then.

The Blame Game in Gaza: Erasing Israeli actions to fault only Hamas7, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, January 6, 2009

A New York Times article noted that while Hamas had reduced rocket attacks during the cease-fire, Israel and Hamas both continued attacks, and Hamas did not see Israel fulfill their part of the agreement:

Hamas imposed its will and even imprisoned some of those who were firing rockets. Israeli and United Nations figures show that while more than 300 rockets were fired into Israel in May, 10 to 20 were fired in July.… In August, 10 to 30 were fired, and in September, 5 to 10.

But the goods shipments, while up some 25 to 30 percent and including a mix of more items, never began to approach what Hamas thought it was going to get: a return to the 500 to 600 truckloads delivered daily before the closing, including appliances, construction materials and other goods essential for life beyond mere survival. Instead, the number of trucks increased to around 90 from around 70.

Israeli officials acknowledged that transferring previously banned goods had been the plan, but said that there was no specific date for the increase and that it was to happen in steps. But the rockets never fully stopped.

In addition, Israeli forces continued to attack Hamas and other militants in the West Bank, prompting Palestinian militants in Gaza to fire rockets. The Israeli military also found several dozen improvised explosive devices used against its vehicles on the Gaza border and about a dozen cases of sniper fire from Gaza directed at its forces.

While this back-and-forth did not topple the agreement, Israel’s decision in early November to destroy a tunnel Hamas had been digging near the border drove the cycle of violence to a much higher level.

Ethan Bronner, A Gaza Truce Undone by Flaws May Be Revived by Necessity8, New York Times, December 18, 2008

Israel claimed Hamas had also been digging tunnels to Egypt to smuggle in weapons, while Hamas claimed it was to get food in. In likelihood it was probably a mixture of both.

Shortly after the Israeli offensive started, some news commentators wondered if there were also additional political motives for Israel launching such a ferocious attack: with Israeli elections coming soon the current party needs to look tough on such issues. Others added that after the humiliation of the Lebanon crisis in 20069, the defeated Israeli military needed to look tough and invincible again. Its hard to accept that politicians could be so calculating as to not care about the lives of others, but realism often involves such ghastly calculations.

Israeli offensive causes a lot a civilian casualties

Israel bombed numerous targets with the stated aim of taking out Hamas.

Given Gaza is a densely populated area, their choice of offensive method (air strikes) was invariably going to result in a lot of civilian casualties.

Amnesty International mission delegates saw the wrecks of several destroyed ambulances at the Al Quds Hospital in Gaza City. Doctors told how panicked patients had to be evacuated from the hospital under fire.(© Amnesty International10)

Numerous schools and UN compounds were also hit as well as other civilian infrastructure, killing many children, women and others. The UN had repeatedly told Israel the location of all its facilities, and was quite angered by these events.

Having only praised Israel as a responsible member of the UN a week earlier, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters he was appalled by some of the destruction he then witnessed 11.

With media banned from entering Gaza, the Israeli was able to repeatedly claim that not only were civilian casualties regrettable, but that Hamas was often to blame for using them as human shields. None of this could be verified, of course.

At one point, Israel had shown a secondary explosion at a school they had bombed, suggesting Hamas was killing its own people to blame Israel. Yet, that secondary explosion was footage from two years ago which Israel itself admitted.

Furthermore, Israel claimed the Associated Press (AP), and New York Times both independently verified that shooting had come from the school. Both news organizations denied this, saying they have been misrepresented; Israel was citing one report where the witness had said the firing was away from the school, not from it, and in the other case the report cited a witness saying Hamas was guiding people to build defenses around the school, not firing from it.

Propaganda12 was everywhere in this conflict, which is nothing new in war.

Image: white phosphorous use captured by Al Jazeera. (Source: Israeli military confirms the use of white phosphorus bombs in the Gaza Strip13, WikiNews, January 23, 2009.) Image © Al Jazeera

Numerous video footage aired by various media outlets also shows what appears to be white phosphorous weapons being used, which is illegal to use in civilian areas. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International claim the use of such lethal weapons may be a war crime 14.

As such, calls for war crimes investigations for Israel’s actions are increasing 15 due to the types of weapons used and the apparent collective punishment16 on all civilians of Gaza.

Israel generally denies such accusations strongly and points to Hamas’ firing of rockets into Israel as a war crime. It is indeed true that Hamas’ indiscriminate firing into Israel, specifically targeting civilians amounts to war crimes. But that does not exonerate Israel from war crimes allegations, automatically, either.

While people will debate if there is a case or not, in reality, as history has shown, the US and Israel will be able to ignore or thwart any such investigations.

Independently, Israel and Hamas announced ceasefires in mid-January. But almost soon after, bombings and killings continued 17, killing mostly civilians.

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Media coverage

The media reporting was beset with problems: from Israel banning journalists from entering into Gaza, to being fed information by Israel, to natural media bias one way or the other, to lobbying by interest groups.

By preventing journalists entering Gaza, Israeli management of media initially was very sophisticated. One of the goals was to hopefully create favorable international coverage. With no ability to verify claims made by Israel, journalists often ended up reporting what they mentioned, often with insufficient context.

However, the Israeli policy eventually backfired as pictures leaked out from within Gaza by resident journalists who were caught up in the conflict themselves, living the very story they were reporting (for example, journalists reporting on the destruction of their own homes, families and loss of loved ones). As the effects of the heavy use of force started to become apparent, the human tragedy story came