Richard Falk, January 2009

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Understanding the Gaza Catastrophe
by Richard Falk---United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories
Posted January 2, 2009

For eighteen months the entire 1.5 million people of Gaza experienced
a punishing blockade imposed by Israel, and a variety of traumatizing
challenges to the normalcy of daily life. A flicker of hope emerged
some six months ago when an Egyptian arranged truce produced an
effective ceasefire that cut Israeli casualties to zero despite the
cross-border periodic firing of homemade rockets that fell harmlessly
on nearby Israeli territory, and undoubtedly caused anxiety in the
border town of Sderot. During the ceasefire the Hamas leadership in
Gaza repeatedly offered to extend the truce, even proposing a ten-year
period and claimed a receptivity to a political solution based on
acceptance of Israel's 1967 borders. Israel ignored these diplomatic
initiatives, and failed to carry out its side of the ceasefire
agreement that involved some easing of the blockade that had been
restricting the entry to Gaza of food, medicine, and fuel to a trickle.
Israel also refused exit permits to students with foreign fellowship
awards and to Gazan journalists and respected NGO representatives. At
the same time, it made it increasingly difficult for journalists to
enter, and I was myself expelled from Israel a couple of weeks ago
when I tried to enter to carry out my UN job of monitoring respect for
human rights in occupied Palestine, that is, in the West Bank and East
Jerusalem, as well as Gaza. Clearly, prior to the current crisis,
Israel used its authority to prevent credible observers from giving
accurate and truthful accounts of the dire humanitarian situation that
had been already documented as producing severe declines in the
physical condition and mental health of the Gazan population,
especially noting malnutrition among children and the absence of
treatment facilities for those suffering from a variety of diseases.
The Israeli attacks were directed against a society already in grave
condition after a blockade maintained during the prior 18 months.
As always in relation to the underlying conflict, some facts bearing
on this latest crisis are murky and contested, although the American
public in particular gets 99% of its information filtered through an
exceedingly pro-Israeli media lens. Hamas is blamed for the breakdown
of the truce by its supposed unwillingness to renew it, and by the
alleged increased incidence of rocket attacks. But the reality is more
clouded. There was no substantial rocket fire from Gaza during the
ceasefire until Israel launched an attack last November 4th directed
at what it claimed were Palestinian militants in Gaza, killing several
Palestinians. It was at this point that rocket fire from Gaza
intensified. Also, it was Hamas that on numerous public occasions
called for extending the truce, with its calls never acknowledged,
much less acted upon, by Israeli officialdom. Beyond this, attributing
all the rockets to Hamas is not convincing either. A variety of
independent militia groups operate in Gaza, some such as the Fatah-
backed al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade are anti-Hamas, and may even be
sending rockets to provoke or justify Israeli retaliation. It is well
confirmed that when US-supported Fatah controlled Gaza's governing
structure it was unable to stop rocket attacks despite a concerted
effort to do so.
What this background suggests strongly is that Israel launched its
devastating attacks, starting on December 27, not simply to stop the
rockets or in retaliation, but also for a series of unacknowledged
reasons. It was evident for several weeks prior to the Israeli attacks
that the Israeli military and political leaders were preparing the
public for large-scale military operations against the Hamas. The
timing of the attacks seemed prompted by a series of considerations:
most of all, the interest of political contenders, the Defense
Minister Ehud Barak and the Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in
demonstrating their toughness prior to national elections scheduled
for February, but now possibly postponed until military operations
cease. Such Israeli shows of force have been a feature of past Israeli
election campaigns, and on this occasion especially, the current
government was being successfully challenged by Israel's notoriously
militarist politician, Benjamin Netanyahu, for its supposed failures
to uphold security. Reinforcing these electoral motivations was the
little concealed pressure from the Israeli military commanders to
seize the opportunity in Gaza to erase the memories of their failure
to destroy Hezbollah in the devastating Lebanon War of 2006 that both
tarnished Israel's reputation as a military power and led to
widespread international condemnation of Israel for the heavy
bombardment of undefended Lebanese villages, disproportionate force,
and extensive use of cluster bombs against heavily populated areas.
Respected and conservative Israeli commentators go further. For
instance, the prominent historian, Benny Morris writing in the New
York Times a few days ago, relates the campaign in Gaza to a deeper
set of forebodings in Israel that he compares to the dark mood of the
public that preceded the 1967 War when Israelis felt deeply threatened
by Arab mobilizations on their borders. Morris insists that despite
Israeli prosperity of recent years, and relative security, several
factors have led Israel to act boldly in Gaza: the perceived
continuing refusal of the Arab world to accept the existence of Israel
as an established reality; the inflammatory threats voiced by Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad together with Iran's supposed push to acquire nuclear
weapons, the fading memory of the Holocaust combined with growing
sympathy in the West with the Palestinian plight, and the
radicalization of political movements on Israel's borders in the form
of Hezbollah and Hamas. In effect, Morris argues that Israel is trying
via the crushing of Hamas in Gaza to send a wider message to the
region that it will stop at nothing to uphold its claims of
sovereignty and security.
There are two conclusions that emerge: the people of Gaza are being
severely victimized for reasons remote from the rockets and border
security concerns, but seemingly to improve election prospects of
current leaders now facing defeat, and to warn others in the region
that Israel will use overwhelming force whenever its interests are at

That such a human catastrophe can happen with minimal outside
interference also shows the weakness of international law and the
United Nations, as well as the geopolitical priorities of the
important players. The passive support of the United States government
for whatever Israel does is again the critical factor, as it was in
2006 when it launched its aggressive war against Lebanon. What is less
evident is that the main Arab neighbors, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi
Arabia, with their extreme hostility toward Hamas that is viewed as
backed by Iran, their main regional rival, were also willing to stand
aside while Gaza was being so brutally attacked, with some Arab
diplomats even blaming the attacks on Palestinian disunity or on the
refusal of Hamas to accept the leadership of Mamoud Abbas, President
of the Palestinian Authority.
The people of Gaza are victims of geopolitics at its inhumane worst:
producing what Israel itself calls a 'total war' against an
essentially defenseless society that lacks any defensive military
capability whatsoever and is completely vulnerable to Israeli attacks
mounted by F-16 bombers and Apache helicopters. What this also means
is that the flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, as
set forth in the Geneva Conventions, is quietly set aside while the
carnage continues and the bodies pile up. It additionally means that
the UN is once more revealed to be impotent when its main members
deprive it of the political will to protect a people subject to
unlawful uses of force on a large scale. Finally, this means that the
public can shriek and march all over the world, but that the killing
will go on as if nothing is happening. The picture being painted day
by day in Gaza is one that begs for renewed commitment to
international law and the authority of the UN Charter, starting here
in the United States, especially with a new leadership that promised
its citizens change, including a less militarist approach to
diplomatic leadership.