Death from the skies over Gaza

March 7, 2008

Nicole Colson reports on a new stage in Israel's cruel war on the Palestinians.

ISRAEL ESCALATED its horrific war on Gaza at the end of February with an onslaught of air strikes that killed more than 100 Palestinians in a matter of days.

Israel claims it is targeting Hamas militants who fired rockets across Gaza's northern border into the Israeli towns of Sderot and Ashkelon. But the current wave of violence was touched off after Israel carried out an attack in southern Gaza that killed five men, who Israeli officials claim had been planning to capture an Israeli soldier.

By any measure, the Israeli violence directed at Gaza is grossly disproportionate. Israel says it is targeting rocket sites and the homes of Hamas militants, but its missiles have struck mainly in densely populated civilian areas. Scores of those killed have been civilians--including many children.

One air strike, aimed at the Palestinian Authority's (PA) Interior Ministry building in Gaza City, also reportedly destroyed the head office of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, as well as a clinic, pharmacy and ambulance--and killed a 5-month-old baby in a residential building in the same area.

The attacks escalated after Israel sent in ground troops in an operation code-named "Hot Winter." On March 1 alone, at least 54 Palestinians were killed, the largest death toll in a single day since the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, began in 2000.

What else to read

For two eyewitness accounts of life in Gaza under Israel's siege, read "Rafah Today," an Internet blog by Palestinian independent journalist Mohammed Omer, and "From Gaza With Love," a blog written by Dr. Mona El-Farra.

The Electronic Intifada Web site provides updates on the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank.

Between the Lines: Readings on Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. "War on Terror," by Tikva Honig-Parnass and Toufic Haddad, documents the apartheid-like conditions that Palestinians live under today.

For background on Israel's war and the Palestinian struggle for freedom, read The Struggle for Palestine, a collection of essays edited by Lance Selfa on the history of the occupation and Palestinian resistance.

When protests broke out in the West Bank in response to the attacks on Gaza, Israeli forces moved in to disperse demonstrators--and shot to death a 14-year-old Palestinian boy.

Israel's real intentions were given voice by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai. Following a Palestinian rocket attack on the Israeli town of Ashkelon (in which no one was injured), Vilnai said that a "holocaust" ("shoah" in Hebrew) in Gaza could be the consequence.

"The more fire intensifies, and the rockets reach a longer range, [the Palestinians] will bring upon themselves a bigger holocaust, because we will use all our might to defend ourselves," Vilnai told Israeli army radio.

Some commentators downplayed the seriousness of Vilnai's remark, saying that he used the word to mean "disaster." But the use of the term "shoah" is striking because it is rarely used in Israel outside discussions about the Nazi genocide during the Second World War.

As Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah wrote, "Here is the country supposedly built from the legacy of the Nazi Holocaust now openly threatening genocide against another people."

THE SCALE of the brutality leveled against Gaza's population in this latest assault can't be understated. In an article that appeared on the CounterPunch Web site, Mohammed Omer, an independent journalist based in Rafah, described interviewing the young survivors of a bombing that hit a soccer field in the Jabalyia refugee camp.

"I met with two children who survived Wednesday's Jabalyia soccer bombing: the other four kids were, as you likely know, killed," he wrote. "One of the children I saw had no flesh on their legs, had burns all over their bodies from the tank's shelling. This was one of the scariest things I have seen yet, and I have seen a lot more than that...

"I asked one boy to give me details of what happened that Thursday afternoon. The 9-year-old boy cried while he told me that he'd seen the decapitated head of his cousin strewn far from his body, arms and legs--far away from where they were all playing soccer. His mother added that there wasn't any electricity when her son was admitted to the hospital...

"As I talked this child's mother, she said that she'd had to evacuate her children, as it's no longer safe to be in that area where the children had been playing. The kids ranged from 6 to 14 years old. The two ones who survived said they had all been playing soccer in front of the door of their house in Jabalyia when the Israeli missile hit them."

Though Israel claimed to have pulled its troops from Gaza as Socialist Worker went to press--reportedly to allow for a two-day "interval" for a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice--Israeli F-16s continued the bombing raids.

One senior Israeli official told Reuters, "This very limited operation was intended to show Hamas what could happen, what you may call a 'prequel.'...If they continue to fire the rockets, then there will be more operations like this one, or worse."

Last Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak left open the possibility of a broader Israeli ground operation. "It's clearly something real and tangible that could await us down the stream," he said.

SUCH ATTACKS--and the threat of more--constitute a savage and ongoing collective punishment of the Palestinian population.

"This latest attack destroyed a key part of the already badly hit Gazan health system," Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, president of Palestinian Medical Relief Society, said in a statement. "Israel has lost all sense of humanity, and the silence of the international community enables its murderous escalation against a people imprisoned in a giant jail."

In part, the escalation of Israel's assault on Gaza is yet more revenge after Gaza residents tore down a section of the border wall with Egypt in January and streamed in to buy supplies. That action was prompted by the humanitarian crisis caused by Israel's blockade of supplies, imposed with the approval of Israel's allies in the U.S. government in retaliation for the victory of the Islamist Hamas party in PA elections.

A January United Nations report found that 80 percent of Gaza's population lives below the poverty line. Rolling blackouts lasting up to 12 hours a day are common, and the sewage system is in such disrepair that humanitarian organizations warn about the possibility of large-scale health epidemics in one of the planet's most densely populated places.

The most recent attacks will only make the humanitarian situation worse. Yet the response from the Bush administration has been to condemn both Israel and Hamas equally--as though there was some parity between their actions.

For his part, Fatah leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas was forced to suspend negotiations with Israel as the death toll in Gaza climbed. According to Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator: "For the time being, negotiations are suspended because we have so many funerals."

If the continued Israeli strangulation of Gaza is meant to turn residents against Hamas, it is failing, according to Omer. The recent attacks "strengthen Hamas, definitely," he told Democracy Now! "[T]his is empowering Hamas...because people who have elected Hamas democratically, they want Hamas to defend them by firing rockets towards Israel...

"And people believe that the problem is not with the rockets; the problem is with the occupation...In Bethlehem, in Jenin, in Nablus, in Ramallah, there are no rockets, but there is still an occupation. The occupied wall exists. And the occupation is destroying and killing on daily basis...

"So there is no dialogue, and there is no peace when it comes to this, but I can tell you that this shows that the Israelis...mean to make the situation miserable for the Palestinians."

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