When War is Just Another Name for Murder

15 July, 2021
The border at Erez (photo Getty Images).
The bor­der at Erez (pho­to Get­ty Images).

“If only it would just sink into the sea,” Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin despaired just before sign­ing the 1993 Oslo Accord.[1]  Although Israel had always cov­et­ed Gaza, its stub­born resis­tance even­tu­al­ly caused the occu­pi­er to sour on the Strip.

Gaza, as for­mer British prime min­is­ter David Cameron observed, is an “open-air prison.” The Israeli war­den is in charge. In the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion con­fect­ed by state pro­pa­gan­da, and duti­ful­ly echoed by every­one else in author­i­ty, Israel is almost always react­ing to or retal­i­at­ing against “ter­ror­ism.” But nei­ther the inhu­man and ille­gal block­ade Israel imposed on Gaza nor the peri­od­ic mur­der­ous “oper­a­tions” Israel has unleashed against it trace back to Hamas rock­et fire. These were Israeli polit­i­cal deci­sions spring­ing from Israeli polit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions, in which Hamas mil­i­tary actions fig­ured as a null fac­tor. In fact, Israel more often than not react­ed to Hamas inaction: the Islam­ic move­ment refused to pro­vide the “ter­ror­ist” pre­text Israel sought in order to launch an oper­a­tion, the pred­i­cate of which was polit­i­cal, not mil­i­tary (self-defense). Of course, if Gaza “would just sink into the sea,” or if it uni­lat­er­al­ly sur­ren­dered its des­tiny to Israeli caprice, Israel would­n’t bru­tal­ize it. But short of these options, Gaza could only exer­cise as much, that is, as lit­tle, agency as is allo­cat­ed to any peo­ple held in bondage. The notion that enhanced fire­works ema­nat­ing from an anthill could, in and of them­selves, inflect state pol­i­cy of one of the world’s most for­mi­da­ble mil­i­tary pow­ers is laugh­able — or would be, were it not for that pow­er’s for­mi­da­ble dis­in­for­ma­tion apparatus.

If Gaza sur­vives, it’s because of for­eign sub­ven­tions deliv­ered in syn­chrony with the occa­sion­al loos­en­ing — to syco­phan­tic inter­na­tion­al fan­fare — of an Israeli screw. Indeed, the para­dox is that as each new eco­nom­ic report is churned out, the day of Gaza­’s com­plete “de-devel­op­ment” draws near­er. It is also hard to resist the thought that Gaza would have ben­e­fit­ed more if the time, ener­gy, and expense invest­ed in these metic­u­lous reports replete with mind-numb­ing minu­ti­ae had sim­ply been chan­neled into an open-air swim­ming pool, inside the open-air prison, for Gaza­’s bereft chil­dren. Still, they con­sti­tute an inef­face­able record of and tes­ta­ment to the hor­ror that has been inflict­ed on Gaza. They are an eter­nal mon­u­ment to the mar­tyrs and an eter­nal accu­sa­tion against their tor­menters. The human rights reportage on Gaza mir­rors the con­tent and has suf­fered the fate of these eco­nom­ic reports. The sheer num­ber of human rights reports could by now fill a medi­um-sized library; they have gen­er­al­ly upheld exact­ing stan­dards of accu­ra­cy, and they record a ghast­ly tale of suf­fer­ing and mis­ery, on the one hand, and crim­i­nal excess and heart­less­ness, on the oth­er. But they have been large­ly ignored out­side a nar­row cadre of spe­cial­ists, and in the end the human rights com­mu­ni­ty itself suc­cumbed to the Israeli jug­ger­naut. All the same, the reports con­sti­tute the essen­tial resource for those who care about truth and for whom truth is pre­cious, while even if most­ly under­uti­lized, they are the most potent weapon in the arse­nal of those who hope against hope to mobi­lize pub­lic opin­ion so as to sal­vage a mod­icum of justice.

What has befall­en Gaza is a human-made human dis­as­ter. In its pro­tract­ed­ness and in its stark­ness, in its unfold­ing not in the fog of war or in the obscu­ri­ty of remote­ness but in broad day­light and in full sight, in the com­plic­i­ty of so many, not just via acts of com­mis­sion but also, and espe­cial­ly, of omis­sion, it is more­over a dis­tinc­tive­ly evil crime. Read­ers will be able to judge for them­selves whether this depic­tion is naïve or whether the doc­u­men­tary record bears it out; whether this writer is par­ti­san to Gaza or whether the facts are par­ti­san to it; whether Gaza pos­es the chal­lenge of com­pet­ing “nar­ra­tives,” or whether it pos­es the chal­lenge of dis­en­gag­ing its inno­cence from the skein of lies con­ceal­ing it. It might be polit­i­cal­ly pru­dent to expa­ti­ate on the com­plex­i­ty of Gaza. But it would also be a moral cop-out. For Gaza is about a Big Lie com­posed of a thou­sand, often seem­ing­ly abstruse and arcane, lit­tle lies.


In April 2004, Prime Min­is­ter Ariel Sharon announced that Israel would “dis­en­gage” from Gaza, and by Sep­tem­ber 2005 both Israeli troops and Jew­ish set­tlers had been pulled out. It would relieve inter­na­tion­al pres­sure on Israel and con­se­quent­ly “freez[e]…the polit­i­cal process,” a close advi­sor to Sharon explained, lay­ing out the ratio­nale behind the dis­en­gage­ment. “And when you freeze that process you pre­vent the estab­lish­ment of a Pales­tin­ian state.” Har­vard polit­i­cal econ­o­mist Sara Roy observed that “with the dis­en­gage­ment from Gaza, the Sharon gov­ern­ment was clear­ly seek­ing to pre­clude any return to polit­i­cal negotiations…while pre­serv­ing and deep­en­ing its hold on Pales­tine.”[2] Israel sub­se­quent­ly declared that it was no longer the occu­py­ing pow­er in Gaza. How­ev­er, human rights orga­ni­za­tions and inter­na­tion­al insti­tu­tions reject­ed this con­tention because, in myr­i­ad ways, Israel still pre­served near-total dom­i­nance of the Strip. “Whether the Israeli army is inside Gaza or rede­ployed around its periph­ery,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) con­clud­ed, “it remains in con­trol.”[3] Indeed, Israel’s own lead­ing author­i­ty on inter­na­tion­al law, Yoram Din­stein, aligned him­self with the “preva­lent opin­ion” that the Israeli occu­pa­tion of Gaza was not over.[4]

In Jan­u­ary 2006, dis­gust­ed by years of offi­cial cor­rup­tion and fruit­less nego­ti­a­tions, Pales­tini­ans elect­ed the Islam­ic move­ment Hamas into office. Israel imme­di­ate­ly tight­ened its block­ade of Gaza, and the US joined in. It was demand­ed of the new­ly elect­ed gov­ern­ment that it renounce vio­lence, and rec­og­nize Israel as well as pri­or Israeli-Pales­tin­ian agree­ments. These pre­con­di­tions for inter­na­tion­al engage­ment were uni­lat­er­al, not rec­i­p­ro­cal. Israel was­n’t required to renounce vio­lence.  It was­n’t com­pelled to with­draw from the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, enabling Pales­tini­ans to exer­cise their right to state­hood. And, where­as Hamas was oblig­ed to rec­og­nize pri­or agree­ments, such as the Oslo Accord, which under­cut basic Pales­tin­ian rights,[5] Israel was free to evis­cer­ate pri­or agree­ments, such as the 2003 “Road Map.”[6]

In June 2007, Hamas con­sol­i­dat­ed its con­trol over Gaza when it pre­empt­ed a coup attempt orches­trat­ed by Wash­ing­ton in league with Israel and ele­ments of the Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty (PA).[7]  After Hamas checked this “democ­ra­cy pro­mo­tion” ini­tia­tive of US Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, Israel and Wash­ing­ton retal­i­at­ed by tight­en­ing the screws on Gaza yet fur­ther. In June 2008, Hamas and Israel entered into a cease-fire bro­kered by Egypt, but in Novem­ber of that year Israel vio­lat­ed the cease-fire by car­ry­ing out a bloody bor­der raid on Gaza. Israel’s modus operan­di recalled a Feb­ru­ary 1955 bor­der raid dur­ing the buildup to the 1956 Sinai inva­sion.[8] The objec­tive, then and now, was to insti­gate a back­lash that Israel could exploit as a pre­text for a full-blown assault.

On 27 Decem­ber 2008, Israel launched Oper­a­tion Cast Lead.[9] The first week con­sist­ed of air attacks, fol­lowed on Jan­u­ary 3, 2009 by a com­bined air and ground assault. Pilot­ing the most advanced com­bat air­craft in the world, the Israeli air corps flew near­ly 3,000 sor­ties over Gaza and dropped 1,000 tons of explo­sives, while the Israeli army deploy­ment com­prised sev­er­al brigades equipped with sophis­ti­cat­ed intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing sys­tems and weapon­ry, such as robot­ic and TV-aid­ed remote-con­trolled guns. Dur­ing the attack, Pales­tin­ian armed groups fired some 925 most­ly rudi­men­ta­ry “rock­ets” (and an addi­tion­al num­ber of mor­tar shells) into Israel. On Jan­u­ary 18, a cease-fire went into effect, but the eco­nom­ic stran­gu­la­tion of Gaza continued.

Israel offi­cial­ly jus­ti­fied Cast Lead on the grounds of self-defense against Hamas “rock­et” attacks.[10] Such a ratio­nale did not, how­ev­er, with­stand even super­fi­cial scruti­ny. If Israel had want­ed to avert the Hamas rock­et attacks, it would not have trig­gered them by break­ing the June 2008 cease-fire with Hamas. Israel also could have opt­ed for renew­ing — and then hon­or­ing — the cease-fire. In fact, as a for­mer Israeli intel­li­gence offi­cer told the Cri­sis Group, “the cease-fire options on the table after the war were in place there before it.”[11] More broad­ly, Israel could have reached a diplo­mat­ic set­tle­ment with the Pales­tin­ian lead­er­ship that resolved the con­flict and ter­mi­nat­ed armed hos­til­i­ties. Inso­far as the declared objec­tive of Cast Lead was to destroy the “infra­struc­ture of ter­ror­ism,” Israel’s ali­bi of self-defense appeared even less cred­i­ble after the inva­sion: over­whelm­ing­ly the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tar­get­ed not Hamas strong­holds but “decid­ed­ly ‘non-ter­ror­ist,’ non-Hamas” sites.[12]

A close look at Israeli actions sus­tains the con­clu­sion that the mas­sive death and destruc­tion vis­it­ed on Gaza were not an acci­den­tal byprod­uct of the 2008–9 inva­sion but its bare­ly con­cealed objec­tive. To deflect cul­pa­bil­i­ty for this pre­med­i­tat­ed slaugh­ter, Israel per­sis­tent­ly alleged that Pales­tin­ian casu­al­ties result­ed from Hamas’s use of civil­ians as “human shields.” Indeed, through­out its attack, Israel strove to manip­u­late per­cep­tions by con­trol­ling press reports and oth­er­wise tilt­ing West­ern cov­er­age in its favor. But the alle­ga­tion that Hamas used civil­ians as human shields was not borne out by human rights inves­ti­ga­tions, while the gap between Israel’s claim that it did every­thing pos­si­ble to avoid “col­lat­er­al dam­age” and the hun­dreds of bod­ies of women and chil­dren dug out of the rub­ble was too vast to bridge.

“The attacks that caused the great­est num­ber of fatal­i­ties and injuries,” Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al found in its post-inva­sion inquiry, were car­ried out with long-range high-pre­ci­sion muni­tions fired from com­bat air­craft, heli­copters and drones, or from tanks sta­tioned up to sev­er­al kilo­me­ters away — often against pre­s­e­lect­ed tar­gets, a process that would nor­mal­ly require approval from up the chain of com­mand. The vic­tims of these attacks were not caught in the cross­fire of bat­tles between Pales­tin­ian mil­i­tants and Israeli forces, nor were they shield­ing mil­i­tants or oth­er legit­i­mate tar­gets. Many were killed when their homes were bombed while they slept. Oth­ers were going about their dai­ly activ­i­ties in their homes, sit­ting in their yard, hang­ing the laun­dry on the roof when they were tar­get­ed in air strikes or tank shelling. Chil­dren were study­ing or play­ing in their bed­rooms or on the roof, or out­side their homes, when they were struck by mis­siles or tank shells.[13]

It fur­ther found that Pales­tin­ian civil­ians, “includ­ing women and chil­dren, were shot at short range when pos­ing no threat to the lives of the Israeli sol­diers,” and that “there was no fight­ing going on in their vicin­i­ty when they were shot.”[14] An HRW study doc­u­ment­ed Israel’s killing of Pales­tin­ian civil­ians who “were try­ing to con­vey their non­com­bat­ant sta­tus by wav­ing a white flag,” and where “all avail­able evi­dence indi­cates that Israeli forces had con­trol of the areas in ques­tion, no fight­ing was tak­ing place there at the time, and Pales­tin­ian fight­ers were not hid­ing among the civil­ians who were shot.” In one instance, “two women and three chil­dren from the Abd Rab­bo fam­i­ly were stand­ing for a few min­utes out­side their home — at least three of them hold­ing pieces of white cloth — when an Israeli sol­dier opened fire, killing two girls, aged two and sev­en, and wound­ing the grand­moth­er and third girl.”[15]

Unabashed and unde­terred, Israel still sang paeans to the IDF’s unique respect for the “supreme val­ue of human life.”  Israeli philoso­pher Asa Kash­er praised the “impec­ca­ble” val­ues of the IDF, such as “pro­tect­ing the human dig­ni­ty of every human being, even the most vile ter­ror­ist” and the “unique­ly Israeli value…of the sanc­ti­ty of human life.”[16]

The charges and coun­ter­charges over the use of human shields were symp­to­matic of Israel’s attempt to obfus­cate what actu­al­ly hap­pened on the ground. In fact, Israel began its pub­lic rela­tions prepa­ra­tions six months before Cast Lead, and a cen­tral­ized body in the prime min­is­ter’s office, the Nation­al Infor­ma­tion Direc­torate, was specif­i­cal­ly tasked with coor­di­nat­ing Israeli has­bara (pro­pa­gan­da).[17] Nonethe­less, after world opin­ion turned against Israel, influ­en­tial mil­i­tary ana­lyst Antho­ny Cordes­man opined that, if it was now iso­lat­ed, it was because Israel had not suf­fi­cient­ly invest­ed in the “war of per­cep­tions”: Israel “did lit­tle to explain the steps it was tak­ing to min­i­mize civil­ian casu­al­ties and col­lat­er­al dam­age on the world stage”; it “cer­tain­ly could — and should — have done far more to show its lev­el of mil­i­tary restraint and make it cred­i­ble.”[18] Israelis “are exe­crable at pub­lic rela­tions,” Haaretz.com senior edi­tor Bradley Burston weighed in, while accord­ing to respect­ed Israeli polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Shlo­mo Avineri the world took a dim view of the Gaza inva­sion because of “the name giv­en to the oper­a­tion, which great­ly affects the way in which it will be per­ceived.”[19] But if the micro­man­aged PR blitz ulti­mate­ly did not con­vince, the prob­lem was not that Israel failed to con­vey ade­quate­ly its human­i­tar­i­an mis­sion or that the whole world mis­per­ceived what hap­pened. Rather, it was that the scope of the mas­sacre was so appalling that no amount of pro­pa­gan­da could dis­guise it.

[1] Ami­ra Hass, Drink­ing the Sea at Gaza: Days and nights in a land under siege (New York: 1996), p. 9.

[2] Sara Roy, Fail­ing Peace: Gaza and the Pales­tin­ian-Israeli con­flict (Lon­don: 2007), pp. 327–28.

[3] Human Rights Watch, “‘Dis­en­gage­ment’ Will Not End Gaza Occu­pa­tion” (29 Octo­ber 2004). HRW’s World Report 2006 reit­er­at­ed this position:

In August and Sep­tem­ber 2005, Israel uni­lat­er­al­ly with­drew approx­i­mate­ly eight thou­sand set­tlers, along with mil­i­tary per­son­nel and instal­la­tions, from the Gaza Strip and four small set­tle­ments in the north­ern West Bank near Jenin. While Israel has since declared the Gaza Strip a “for­eign ter­ri­to­ry” and the cross­ings between Gaza and Israel “inter­na­tion­al bor­ders,” under inter­na­tion­al human­i­tar­i­an law (IHL), Gaza remains occu­pied, and Israel retains its respon­si­bil­i­ties for the wel­fare of Gaza res­i­dents. Israel main­tains effec­tive con­trol over Gaza by reg­u­lat­ing move­ment in and out of the Strip as well as the air­space, sea space, pub­lic util­i­ties and pop­u­la­tion reg­istry. In addi­tion, Israel declared the right to re-enter Gaza mil­i­tar­i­ly at any time in its “Dis­en­gage­ment Plan.” Since the with­draw­al, Israel has car­ried out aer­i­al bom­bard­ments, includ­ing tar­get­ed killings, and has fired artillery into the north­east­ern cor­ner of Gaza.

For a detailed legal analy­sis, see Gisha (Legal Cen­ter for Free­dom of Move­ment), Dis­en­gaged Occu­piers: The legal sta­tus of Gaza (Tel Aviv: Jan­u­ary 2007). The UN Human Rights Coun­cil Mis­sion chaired by Richard Gold­stone affirmed that Israel “exer­cised effec­tive con­trol over the Gaza Strip” and that “the cir­cum­stances of this con­trol estab­lish that the Gaza Strip remains occu­pied by Israel” (Report of the Unit­ed Nations Fact-Find­ing Mis­sion on the Gaza Con­flict (25 Sep­tem­ber 2009) (here­after: Gold­stone Report), paras. 187, 276–79).

[4] Yoram Din­stein, The Inter­na­tion­al Law of Bel­liger­ent Occu­pa­tion (Cam­bridge: 2009), p. 277.

[5] “One of the most impor­tant ‘achieve­ments,’ ” of the Oslo Accord for Israel, and “of which Rabin was proud,” was “the exclu­sion of spe­cif­ic lan­guage freez­ing set­tle­ment con­struc­tion in the peri­od of the inter­im arrange­ment” (Yos­si Beilin, The Path to Gene­va: The quest for a per­ma­nent agree­ment, 1996–2004 (New York: 2004), p. 278).  On the issue of set­tle­ments, see also B’T­se­lem (Israeli Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter for Human Rights in the Occu­pied Ter­ri­to­ries), Land Grab: Israel’s set­tle­ment pol­i­cy in the West Bank (Jerusalem: May 2002).  For the Oslo years gen­er­al­ly, see Nor­man G. Finkel­stein, Know­ing Too Much: Why the Amer­i­can Jew­ish romance with Israel is com­ing to an end (New York: 2012), Chap­ters 5 and 9.

[6] Jim­my Carter, Pales­tine Peace Not Apartheid (New York: 2006), pp. 159–60.

[7] David Rose, “The Gaza Bomb­shell,” Van­i­ty Fair (April 2008); Paul McGeough, Kill Khalid: The failed Mossad assas­si­na­tion of Khalid Mishal and the rise of Hamas (New York: 2009), pp. 349–82.

[8] Nor­man G. Finkel­stein, “This Time We Went Too Far”: Truth and con­se­quences of the Gaza inva­sion, revised and expand­ed paper­back edi­tion (New York: 2011), pp. 16–17.

[9] “Cast Lead” refers to a line in a Hanukkah song.

[10] For back­ground and analy­sis, see Mouin Rab­bani, “Birth Pangs of a New Pales­tine,” Mid­dle East Report Online (7 Jan­u­ary 2009; http://tinyurl.com/a2bu6l).

[11] Inter­na­tion­al Cri­sis Group, Gaza­’s Unfin­ished Busi­ness (April 2009), p. 21; see ibid., pp. 27–28, for the post-inva­sion cease-fire terms.

[12] Report of the Inde­pen­dent Fact-Find­ing Com­mit­tee on Gaza: No safe place. Pre­sent­ed to the League of Arab States (30 April 2009), para. 411(3). The Com­mit­tee was chaired by emi­nent South African legal schol­ar John Dugard.

[13] Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, Oper­a­tion “Cast Lead”: 22 Days of death and destruc­tion (Lon­don: July 2009), p. 7; for details, see ibid., pp. 11ff. See also Gold­stone Report, paras. 459, 653–703.

[14] Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, Oper­a­tion “Cast Lead,” pp. 1, 24; for details, see ibid., esp. pp. 24–27. See also Gold­stone Report, paras. 704–885.

[15] Human Rights Watch, White Flag Deaths: Killings of Pales­tin­ian civil­ians dur­ing Oper­a­tion Cast Lead (New York: August 2009), pp. 2, 4, 10–15.

[16] The State of Israel, The Oper­a­tion in Gaza, 27 Decem­ber 2008–18 Jan­u­ary 2009: Fac­tu­al and legal aspects (July 2009), para. 213; Asa Kash­er, “A Moral Eval­u­a­tion of the Gaza War,” Jerusalem Post (7 Feb­ru­ary 2010).

[17] Anshel Pfef­fer, “Israel Claims Suc­cess in the PR War,” Jew­ish Chron­i­cle (31 Decem­ber 2008); Hirsh Good­man, “Analy­sis: The effec­tive pub­lic diplo­ma­cy end­ed with Oper­a­tion Cast Lead,” Jerusalem Post (5 Feb­ru­ary 2009).

[18] Antho­ny H. Cordes­man, The “Gaza War”: A strate­gic analy­sis (Wash­ing­ton, DC: 2 Feb­ru­ary 2009; “Final Review Draft”), pp. 31–32, 68. For an exten­sive cri­tique of this pub­li­ca­tion, see Finkel­stein, “This Time,” Chap­ter 3.

[19] Bradley Burston, “Why Does the World Media Love to Hate Israel?,” Haaretz (23 March 2009); Shlo­mo Avineri, “What Was the Com­put­er Think­ing?,” Haaretz (18 March 2009). Heed­ing such coun­sel, Israel in its offi­cial brief avoid­ed men­tion­ing Cast Lead apart from a par­en­thet­i­cal ref­er­ence to “the ‘Gaza Oper­a­tion,’ also known as ‘Oper­a­tion Cast Lead’ ” (Oper­a­tion in Gaza, para. 16).