Wednesday, February 04, 2009

“Ignorance” and “apologising for terrorism” and war crimes

Denial, Shouting ‘Look over there’ and saying ‘Hamas made us do it’ don’t cut it – both sides target civilians, with Israel’s greater fire-power killing hundreds of times more - and the only way forward is to negotiate with Hamas

A Palestinian fireman at the UN aid depot in Gaza as food and medicines burn after Israeli artillery repeatedly shelled buildings with incendiaries

There are the usual responses by cheerleaders for Israeli actions to the widespread reports of Israeli forces targeting civilians in Gaza. The commonest has been a combination of denial and accusing Hamas of having been responsible for any incident where Palestinian civilians were killed, though there are several other tactics used.

Denial and blaming the other side

Ivor S Tiefenbrun for instance (Herald letters 26th January) says claims of Israeli forces targeting civilians and ambulances in Lebanon and Gaza and the West Bank (including Jenin) in the present and the past are “discredited…propaganda” based on the “ignorance” of “apologists” for terrorists. Like many others he also makes the false claim that every instance of Israeli forces killing civilians has been the result of their enemies “using civilians as human shields”. This is true in some cases, but in many cases it’s not – and in fact the Israeli military has often used Palestinian civilians as human shields itself.

For the truth about the Israeli offensive in Jenin and Nablus in 2002, in which at least 22 civilians were killed, many deliberately, in Jenin alone and at least 70 children killed in “Operation Defensive Shield” as a whole, as well as Palestinian civilians forced to walk ahead of Israeli troops at gunpoint, see this post and the Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem reports it lists

On 14th January 2009 Amnesty International reported war crimes “include Israeli attacks that have been directed at civilians or civilian buildings in the Gaza Strip” as well as Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli towns (1)

After the main UN aid depot in Gaza was repeatedly shelled by Israeli artillery, burning food and medicines, the Israeli government claimed Hamas had fired from nearby. On 15th January CNN quoted Chris Ging, the head of UNRWA, saying there had been no militants and no fighting anywhere near the depot when it was shelled (2).

After the 2006 war in Lebanon and Gaza Human Rights Watch reported that “Israeli forces have systematically failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians in their military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon …The pattern of attacks in more than 20 cases investigated by Human Rights Watch researchers in Lebanon indicates that the failures cannot be dismissed as mere accidents and cannot be blamed on wrongful Hezbollah practices.” (3) , (4). HRW also reported at least 6 confirmed attacks by Israeli forces on ambulances in Gaza, paralleled by many similar attacks in Lebanon (5,6). This month it reported at least two incidents of Israeli forces killing or injuring medics when firing on ambulances (7).

What’s more in 2005 Israeli soldiers reported following orders to shoot unarmed Palestinians even when there was no fighting taking place, including children. Palestinian and British doctors and journalists also came to the conclusion by studying injuries in dead children that they had been repeatedly shot in the head by Israeli snipers. The Israeli human rights group B’T Selem has reported similar cases (8), (9), (10), (11), (12), (13).

There is also no doubt any more that the Israeli government and military are doing everything they can to deny the entire population of Gaza enough food and medical supplies. This campaign to deny Gazans enough food, medicines and fuel kills just as surely in the long run – and involves a fair amount of direct killing with tanks, artillery and air-strikes too.

First they instituted a blockade which allows some truckloads of food, medicines and fuel into Gaza some days – just not nearly enough to supply the population according to the UN. By November 2008 the International Committee of the Red Cross was reporting that “chronic malnutrition is a steadily rising trend” along with “under-nutrition”. By December 2008 many Gazans were reduced to searching rubbish dumps for food. On 3rd February 2009 the UN reported that “The number of trucks allowed by Israel to enter Gaza daily to deliver much-needed relief supplies remains insufficient.” (14), (15), (16).

The Israeli military made a great show of letting the media film them letting some UN aid trucks into Gaza, before shelling many of them with tanks and killing the drivers on the other side of the border, where no foreign media were allowed (17), (18). Then they bombed hundreds of civilian targets including the UN aid depot mentioned above, burning hundreds of tones of food and medicines with white phosphorus shells. Israeli strikes also destroyed over 200 factories and food processing plants, including the largest functioning grain mill in Gaza (19). The DEC appeal, by providing some simple facts such as the lack of clean drinking water and levels of malnutrition and suffering in Gaza, was an embarrassment for Israeli government PR men, which is probably why they demanded the BBC drop it.

I’ve provided independent and reliable sources for all the above claims. So what are the sources Mr Tiefenbrun and others have for their claims that all this is ‘propaganda’ by ‘apologists’ for terrorists? ; The Israeli government and military maybe? Certainly if he was listening to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert then the Israeli military are “the most moral, the most high-minded military forces in the world” (20). Unfortunately as Professor Norman Finkelstein has pointed out, even Himmler and the SS claimed they were upholding the highest moral standards and only regretfully doing what was necessary to protect the German people (21). What the Israeli military has done in Gaza is not a Holocaust but statements about how moral you are don’t magically make every action you take right even when you’re targeting civilians either.

Mr Tiefenbrun derides “closed minds”. If he believes the Israeli government, one of the sides in the conflict, are an unbiased source, while the UN, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch aren’t, then perhaps he’s the one who has a closed mind and prefers ignorance to unpleasant facts. You might even say that “his ignorance is matched only by his colossal arrogance”. Stating the facts is “beyond the pale” to him; a telling phrase, since it was first used by colonists in Ireland to deride the native Irish who they looked down on as sub-humans who could be killed without guilt.

Like many others he acts as an apologist for Israeli forces’ targeting of civilians in fact free rants against those who deal with the reality and condemn both Palestinian terrorist groups and Israeli forces for targeting civilians.

“Look over there – they’re doing it too”

Other cheerleaders for the Israeli blockade and offensive have returned to the time honoured practice of the Israeli lobby – shouting ‘look over there, they’re doing it too, so why are you picking on me?’ ; so Sudanese war crimes in Sudan, Sri Lankan ones against Tamils and the Iraq war are raised as if these somehow make Israeli war crimes against civilians justifiable.

“They asked for it by voting Hamas”

Saying that Gazans asked for whatever they got by voting for Hamas has also become fashionable. This is idiotic in several ways. First hundreds of the dead are children too young to vote. Second half the population didn’t vote for Hamas. Third it’s hypocrisy. Israelis have repeatedly elected war criminals like Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert and even former terrorists like Begin – yet no-one suggested that because of this Israeli civilians deserved to be suicide bombed because some of them voted for war criminals.

“Evil Hamas are the problem, but we’d talk to Fatah”

Then there’s the story that Hamas are evil but Fatah are good. This is just the continuation of the divide and rule strategy whereby in the past, when the PLO and Fatah were dominant in Palestinian politics, Israel backed Hamas to divide Palestinians (21). This is also hypocrisy again. When Israelis elected people with a long record of committing and ordering war crimes, from Deir Yassin to Qibya to Sabra and Shatila, like Sharon, no-one suggested Palestinians couldn’t be expected to negotiate with them.

“We are entirely good, They are entirely Evil”

The biggest problem is the problem with any kind of nationalistic or religious jingoism – the attempt to pretend that “our side” are entirely morally good while the enemy are entirely “evil” and that any wrong done by our side either didn’t happen or else was all the fault of the “evil ones”. The reality is that there are very very few people who are entirely good or evil and pretty much no entire countries which are. Pointing out that Hamas are the democratically elected government of the Palestinian Authority and that Israeli forces also target and kill civilians is not a statement that Israel is evil and Hamas are good. It’s a simple statement of the reality – that both sides target civilians, that the stronger side (Israel’s government) has refused negotiations because it thinks it can get everything it wants by force.

“We are democrats, they are terrorists”

The Israeli government is also fond of claiming that Israel is “the only democracy in the middle east” besieged by “terrorists”. However Israel is not the only democracy in the Middle East. Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority have both held plenty of democratic elections. Yet Israel prefers alliances with election rigging dictators like Mubarak of Egypt and corrupt, torturing monarchies like Saudi and Jordan, while bombing other democracies. Not only that but it routinely elects and re-elects war criminals like Sharon and Olmert and its forces target civilians as much as any terrorist group.

“We are strong, they are weak”

Another problem is the ludicrous belief that the other side will react in a way opposite to our own reaction to similar treatment. So Israelis are tough and their will is hardened by attacks that kill their soldiers civilians, but they assume that if they just kill enough Palestinians the Palestinians will surrender. You would think that six decades of Palestinians reacting to Israeli offensives that kill hundreds of them by hardening their attitudes to Israel would make Israeli politicians and generals realise the reality, but unfortunately so far only a minority do. Two, Avreh Cohen and Arieh Spitzen, were quoted by the Wall Street Journal on past Israeli backing for Hamas and on the likelihood that just as bombing Palestinians to drive Arafat and Fatah out of power led to the rise of Hamas, bombing them to drive Hamas out of power could lead to the rise of even more extreme groups like Al Qaeda (21). Perhaps, though, that’s the plan – kill enough Palestinians to make radicalize them in order to justify more bombing to “stamp out extremism”. That distracts attention to the land grab and new settlements in the West Bank. If Israel’s government really wants peace though negotiations that include Hamas are the only way forward.

(1) = Amnesty International 14th January 2009 ‘Growing calls for investigations and accountability in Gaza conflict’,

(2) = CNN 15 Jan 2009 ‘Third-ranking Hamas leader in Gaza killed’,
(13th paragraph reads ‘UNRWA Director John Ging denied there were any militants at the compound, and also said that at the time there was no fighting in the area.’

(3) = Human Rights Watch 2 Aug 2006 ‘Israel/Lebanon: End Indiscriminate Strikes on Civilians’,

(4) = HRW 2 Aug 2006 ‘Fatal Strikes : Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon’, (5) = HRW 13 Sep 2006 ‘Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territories: Don't Fire on Gaza Medics - Six Attacks on Palestinian Ambulances, Paramedics’

(6) = HRW Dec 2006 ‘The “Hoax” That Wasn’t:
The July 23 Qana Ambulance Attack’,

(7) = Human Rights Watch 13 Jan 2009 ‘Deprived and Endangered : Humanitarian Crisis in the Gaza Strip’,
(Scroll down to second third main heading ‘"OPERATION CAST LEAD" AND EXPLOSION OF THE HUMANITARIAN CRISIS’ then to 4th sub-heading ‘Humanitarian Problems Due To Possible Humanitarian Law Violations’ – 2nd paragraph under it reads “Medical facilities and ambulances have also been hit by Israeli attacks, in some cases resulting in casualties among medical personnel. On January 5, Israeli forces reportedly shelled an ambulance of al-`Awda hospital in the north, seriously injuring four medical staff. On January 4, an Israeli airstrike struck an ambulance in Beit Lahiya run by the Union of Health Work Committees, funded by Oxfam, killing one paramedic, Arafa Abd al-Dayim, 33, and gravely wounding another, `Ala' Sarhan, 22. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, they were trying to evacuate a wounded person from a site attacked by an Israeli airstrike when the plane returned and struck the same site again”)

(8) = Guardian 28 Jun 2005, ‘Snipers with children in their sights’,2763,1516362,00.html

(9) = BT’Selem eyewitness testimonies – IDF soldier shoots and kills a 14 year-old boy playing with his friends, in Tubas, north of Nablus, January 2005 - witness Abu Muhsen -

(10) = BT'Selem eyewitness testimonies - IDF soldier shoots and kills a 14 year-old boy playing with his friends, in Tubas, north of Nablus, January 2005 - witness Daragmeh -

(11) = Summerfield, Derek ‘Palestine – The Assault on Health and Other War Crimes’,
British Medical Journal 16 October 2004

(12) = Guardian 6 Sep 2005, ‘Israeli troops say they were given shoot-to-kill order’,,1563476,00.html

(13) = Guardian 6 Sep 2005, ‘Israeli soldiers tell of indiscriminate killings by army and a culture of impunity’,,,1563255,00.html

(14) = Independent 15 Nov 2008 ‘Chronic malnutrition in Gaza blamed on Israel’,

(15) = Observer 21 Dec 2008 ‘Israeli blockade 'forces Palestinians to search rubbish dumps for food',

(16) = UN Department of Public Information 03 Feb 2009 ‘More supplies must be allowed to enter Gaza, says UN’,!OpenDocument

(17) = AP 08 Jan 2009 ‘UN curbs Gaza aid after trucks hit by Israeli fire’,
9th paragraph reads “"We've been coordinating with them (Israeli forces) and yet our staff continue to be hit and killed," said a U.N. spokesman, Chris Gunness, announcing the suspension. The U.N. is the largest aid provider in Gaza.”

(18) = Guardian 10 Jan 2009 ‘Ban on foreign journalists skews coverage of conflict’,

(19) = Guardian 26 Jan 2009 ‘Hamas offers $52m handouts to help hardest-hit Gazans’,

(20) = Norman Finkelstein (1995) ‘ Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict’, (2nd edition), Verso, London & NY, 2003, chapter 4 , pages 112-116 of paperback edition

(21) = Wall Street Journal 24 Jan 2009 ‘How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas’,

copyright©Duncan M McFarlane 2009

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