Moral Low Ground

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‘On This Day’ 2008: Israel Launches Brutal “Operation Cast Lead” Invasion of Gaza

Orphan school destroyed by Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead. (Photo: International Solidarity Movement)

It was just before noon on a Saturday in Gaza. Schools were letting out for the day and countless children were making their way home through the crowded streets of Gaza City, one of the most densely populated places on earth. People strolled about, enjoying their Saturday. Women shopped for groceries in markets. Police officers directed traffic. Scores of police cadets were reveling in their graduation ceremony.

Suddenly, hell on earth. Israeli warplanes, made in the USA and gifted or sold to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), began pounding the people of Gaza with bombs and missiles. Israel claimed that the attack, which they called “Operation Cast Lead,” was in response to rockets launched by Hamas, the democratically elected government of Gaza, into the Jewish state. But the Israeli response was totally out of proportion to Hamas’ provocation. The number of Israelis killed by Hamas rocket attacks against Israel could be counted on one hand. By the time “Cast Lead” was over and the last Israeli soldiers withdrew from Gaza, singing and dancing as they left, over 1,400 Gazans were dead. Of these, 926 were innocent civilians, including 429 women and children.

As the first bombs rained down, those Gazans caught in the open didn’t stand a chance. They were literally blown to pieces. Seventy police cadets died. The wounded rushed themselves and their dead to hospitals. Sometimes there wasn’t anything more than body parts to bring. “I have a head here,” one man yelled as he entered the Shifa Hospital. Inside, the floors were slick with blood. The morgue was already filling up. Dozens of mutilated bodies, including children in school uniforms,  were piling up in the hospital’s reception area and on the sidewalk outside.

And so began Israel’s brutal 22-day offensive, which was directed as much against the people of Gaza as the Hamas militants who relentlessly fired their rockets into Israel. But where the rockets rarely killed Israelis, “Cast Lead” was nothing less than the wholesale massacre of mainly innocent Palestinians in Gaza. Families suffered the most, like Samera Baalusha’s, whose five daughters were obliterated by an Israeli missile attack. Or the twelve members of the Daya family, including seven children aged 1 to 12, who were wiped out by an air strike on their house. Or Dr. Izz el-Deen Aboul Aish, whose three daughters were blown away by an Israeli tank shell. The grief-stricken father’s anguished cries were captured on live Israeli television. His agony tugged at the heartstrings of Israeli viewers; the Israeli government called the girls’ deaths “reasonable.”

Such slaughter requires a demonization of the “enemy,” which in this case were women and children, and a self-righteous sense of divine destiny. To that end, Israeli military rabbis distributed booklets to IDF soldiers that cast the slaughter of innocents as a holy war. Said one Israeli soldier: “All these articles had a clear message: we are the Jewish people, we have come to the land by miraculous means, and now we have to fight to remove the Gentiles who are getting in our way and preventing us from occupying the Holy Land.”

Such dangerous thinking led to unthinkable atrocities. Israeli soldiers indiscriminately shot Palestinian children, bulldozed a home with a woman and child still inside, and ordered civilians into a building before shelling it. IDF soldiers busted down doors of Palestinian homes and massacred anyone they encountered. Commanding officers ordered their troops to kill an old woman who obviously posed no threat to them, an act one soldier called “murder in cold blood.” Snipers shot women waving white flags of surrender. On one occasion, a sniper ordered a mother and her two children out of their home and told them to move to the right. When, in their confusion, they moved to the left, they were all shot dead.

Many IDF soldiers relished the carnage. “That’s the beauty of Gaza,” one soldier said, “You see a man walking, he doesn’t have to have a weapon, and you can shoot him.” Relaxed rules of engagement designed to protect Israeli lives further encouraged atrocities. “If you’re not sure, kill,” one IDF soldier said.

Israeli soldiers routinely used Palestinians, often children, as human shields to walk ahead of them or to check for potential booby traps. Although the Israeli military and government vehemently denied this was happening, facts on the ground told an entirely different story. “To ask a combat soldier who served in the occupied territories if they used Palestinians as human shields is like to ask you do you drink coffee in the morning,” admitted IDF soldier Yehuda Shaul. In one case, soldiers forced a nine-year-old boy to open bags suspected of containing explosives. The boy later said he thought the Israelis would kill him. He was so scared he wet his pants. The soldiers involved were eventually charged, tried and convicted of “unauthorized conduct” and “exceeding their authority,” but in the end they walked out of the courtroom free men.

As “Cast Lead” expanded from an air and sea war into a ground invasion of Gaza, the carnage wrought by Israeli troops mounted. At the same time, Israel deliberately blocked the United Nations from delivering life-saving food and medical care to the desperate and besieged people of Gaza. The IDF blocked access to the Zeitoun neighborhood, where small, emaciated children too weak to stand on their own huddled next to the dead, rotting corpses of their mothers. Israeli forces shockingly attacked and killed humanitarian workers in a United Nations convoy that was clearly flying the UN flag, leading to a suspension of aid.

It wasn’t the first– or the deadliest– Israeli attack on the United Nations during “Operation Cast Lead.” Days earlier, two UN schools clearly flying the UN flag and harboring hundreds of shell-shocked refugees including many families, were bombed by the IDF. Dozens were killed. Many more were wounded; once again the hospitals filled with screaming children. Despite lacking monitors, anesthesia, and surgical equipment, doctors at Shifa Hospital did their best. Hygiene was appalling– janitors constantly mopped up blood from the floor and an awful stench permeated the air. There wasn’t even any heat in the hospital; many windows were broken allowing the chill winter air to blow in. Still, the war raged on, and so did the hospital staff. There were so many wounded to attend to, so many surgical procedures to perform. An alarming number of these were amputations. “I don’t know what kind of weapons Israel is using,” remarked Ziad Abd al Jawwad, a nurse at Shifa Hospital. “There is so much amputation.”

There were strange, horrific injuries unlike any that many doctors and nurses had ever seen before. Dozens of patients showed up at Shifa Hospital with terribly severe yet extremely localized burns. Scores died from these mysterious burns that at first didn’t seem so serious. But the wounds they caused grew bigger and bigger, often burning clear through to the bone. A disgusting odor emanated from the wounds and in one case an anesthetist was burned when toxic discharge sprayed from a patient’s wound during an operation. One three-year-old girl was sent for a scan after being admitted with a head injury. After three hours, doctors unwrapped her head and were horrified to see smoke coming from the wound. They removed a burning substance from the wound that looked like cotton and continued burning until it disappeared. Sabbah Abu Halima, a female patient in the Shifa burn unit,  recounted how her house was hit with this mysterious weapon. It killed her husband and four of her children, ages fourteen, ten, eight and one. Two other relatives who entered the house to retrieve their bodies also died. Sabbah’s clothes and skin were severely burned but luckily she survived.

It turns out that this monstrous mystery weapon was white phosphorus, a chemical and incendiary weapon whose use is banned against civilians. It ignites on contact with air and burns at nearly 1500 degrees Fahrenheit (800 C). It scorches flesh straight through to the bone and water does not extinguish the burn. At first Israel denied using white phosphorus, but after incontrovertible evidence and international outcry Israeli officials were forced to admit their guilt. Two top IDF officers were later reprimanded for authorizing the use of this heinous weapon. The rebuke was noted in their records; they kept their rank and received no further punishment.

After 22 horrific days of the merciless Israeli onslaught, “Operation Cast Lead” finally came to an end. The invading soldiers withdrew back into Israel, singing and dancing as they left behind an utterly devastated Gaza. They could afford to sing and dance– the short but intense war cost their side only thirteen lives, and four of those deaths were the result of “friendly fire.” Over 1,400 Palestinians died, 926 of them civilians. Three Israeli civilians lost their lives, a kill ratio of over 300:1. In Gaza, houses, mosques and even entire apartment blocks lie in ruins. Immediately there was an international outcry over Israel’s brutal conduct of the war and demands for investigations. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon condemned the destruction as “outrageous, shocking and alarming.” “I am not able to describe how I am feeling, having seen this site of the bombing of the United Nations compound,” he declared. “This was an outrageous and totally unacceptable attack against the United Nations.”

But Israel dug in its heels. It wasn’t the first time the Jewish state had to defend itself against accusations of crimes against humanity. Although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claimed the Israeli forces went to extraordinary lengths in order to protect Palestinian civilians and that he “[didn’t] know of any military that is more moral, fair and sensitive to civilians’ lives” than the IDF, the United Nations and other humanitarian groups found otherwise.

Few, if any, Israeli soldiers or government officials would face any sort of punishment for their roles in the Gaza slaughter. One IDF soldier was charged with stealing a credit card from a Palestinian family. Several other soldiers were lightly castigated for their conduct during the invasion. Meanwhile, Israeli repression of the people of Gaza picked right up where it left off before the war. Notably silent on matters was newly-inaugurated US President Barack Obama. But former President Jimmy Carter had the courage to speak out against the daily injustices faced by Gazans. Carter excoriated Israel and said Gazans were being treated “more like animals than human beings.” “Never before in history has a large community been savaged by bombs and missiles and then deprived of the means to repair itself,” he said, calling the situation there “a terrible human rights crime.”

How bad was life in war-ravaged Gaza? Israel was allowing only food, medicine and detergent into the Strip. Thousands of other items, including desperately needed construction materials and vital products for everyday living, were banned. These included, but were not limited to: canned goods, plastic sheeting, toys, books, electric appliances, auto parts, fabrics, threads, needles, light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, cutlery, crockery, cups, glasses, animals, pasta, tea, coffee, sausages, chocolate, sesame seeds, nuts, margarine, salt, artificial sweetener, legumes, yeast, diapers, sanitary napkins, and toilet paper.

If the people of Gaza have nothing to wipe themselves with, Israeli reasoning goes, then perhaps they will become so fed up with Hamas’ leadership that they’ll rise up and reject it. But that hasn’t happened. As bad as Hamas can be, the hardships inflicted upon Gazans by Israel is far worse. But all the might of the US-backed Israeli war machine has not broken the will of Palestinians to be free.

At a pro-Israel rally at that country’s consulate in San Francisco last June, a man was seen holding a sign that read: UNTIL ALL OF GAZA IS DESTROYED, THE JOB IS NOT DONE. And yet is is said that Zionism’s enemies are the ones who want to “wipe Israel off the map.” It is said that the Palestinians are the terrorists. But don’t all people have the right to defend themselves against foreign invasion and occupation? Are the tactics of Palestinian resistance fighters taken straight from the Zionist playbook against the British occupiers of what would one day become Israel? Why, then, is it only “terrorism” when the other side does it? 

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One Comment

  1. Ron LunskiDecember 29, 2010 at 8:32 amReply

    This report makes no mention of two very important facts.
    First, it is well known that Hamas militants intentionally used children and civilians as human shields while firing rockets at Israel. There were even confirmed reports that rockets were fired from schools. When Hamas is so cowardly as to fire at Israel while hoping that Israel won’t strike back because it is intentionally surrounded itself with civilians we know they have no value for any human life, including the lives of the Palestinians.
    Second, the so called “democratically elected” Hamas government is so corrupt that they have brought much of the suffering upon the people in Gaza. They have stolen much of the foreign aid that comes into Gaza and used it to line their own pockets and purchase more weapons rather than feeding the people and building their infrastructure. Furthermore, Hamas’ stated goal of the destruction of the entire State of Israel, and its ongoing efforts to accomplish this goal by firing rockets at Israel, only invites further retalition from a country who is trying to defend itself.

    Your article makes it sound as if it was Israeli policy to use children as human shields, when in fact it is forbidden and the very few soldiers who did do that were prosecuted.

    While telling the horrific personal stories of some of the victims pulls our heartstrings, nothing in this post changes the fact that the primary reason for Palestinian suffering is their own corrupt government that is hellbent on the destruction of Israel. No country or nation on earth would ever just sit back and allow bombs to be fired on it continuously without reprisal. Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas and they should do whatever is necessary to defend its people. The only solution to this problem is a negotiated settlement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist!

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