A Brittle Cease-fire In Gaza

Posted by Alan Gillis | 1/18/2009 03:21:00 PM | , , , , , , , , , | 0 comments »

After 22 days of war on Gaza, Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire to take effect today at midnight GMT. The toll so far over 1300 Palestinians dead, over 5,000 wounded. Israeli casualties 10 soldiers in Gaza and 3 civilians killed by Hamas rockets. A few hours later Hamas announced its own 7 day cease-fire. The fighting has stopped more or less. It might hold, though France 24 reported 17 more rockets fired from Gaza today and retaliatory strikes from the Israelis killing a Palestinian.

A token force of Israeli soldiers and tanks have already pulled out of Gaza back to Israel. The Israelis are leaving behind most of their army to contain Hamas. A peace deal has to be worked out first between Hamas and Israel, before the Israelis will open borders and pull out entirely. Hamas wants it done before its 7 day cease-fire ends. Indirect negotiations are going on with Egypt as the broker. A rushed summit meeting of some world leaders is underway now in Egypt to come up with a plan for a sustainable truce. Though why an Israeli cease-fire?

Israel said that its objectives were met and exceeded, confident it can manage the situation. As the war proceeded fewer and fewer rockets were fired into Israel. With Hamas badly hurt and the Palestinians cowed by Israel's fierce campaign and much of Gaza in ruins, the Israelis have a victory of sorts. Though there are other factors in Israel's decision. The battle for Israel's high moral ground has been lost in the media coverage with world opinion turning sharply against Israel.

Recent hits on the UN Gaza headquarters and food warehouse where 700 people had taken refuge shocked the UN and Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General. This on top of 4 attacks on schools, 3 of them UN schools, besides offices of The Associated Press and another media center in Gaza City. The terror in Gaza where demonstrably no place was safe from the Israeli Defence Forces alarmed everyone, perhaps even the Israeli government, under pressure itself at home from Israeli human rights organizations. Limiting access to press scrutiny Israel provoked charges of censorship. Foreign journalists couldn't even get in, a few treated to short IDF guided tours across the border and back as a gesture to freedom of the press.

Everyday life had become a nightmare of insecurity. Public places like mosques, even a cemetery, some hospitals, the Islamic University of Gaza, had been hit by Israeli
bombs, shells and missiles. Places where ordinary Gazans had sought sanctuary from the bombardment had been decimated and many killed and injured. According to hospital counts, about half the dead were civilians and that means women and children. Of the men killed and quickly buried, a count of Hamas dead, given the chaos, may never be known. More bodies are now being found in the rubble-strewn towns.

Again and again, no matter how strong the outcry, for the IDF anyplace was a potential Hamas hideout. Professor Akram Habeeb of the Islamic University of Gaza says on the second night of the bombing his own university was hit by F-16's. "I realized", he wrote in protest, "that its (Israel's) target bank had gone bankrupt. . . .Why would Israel bomb a university? Israel did not only target my university last night. It also bombed mosques, pharmacies and homes."

Once the invasion began, instead of going in and sweeping up Hamas resistance (why else have troops on the ground) it was still bomb and burn them out. It minimized Israeli casualties, but the effect was to maximize the destruction and unfortunately the killing of innocents. The situation was so horrendous that Medecins Sans Frontiers or Doctors Without Borders, called the Israeli intervention in Gaza a "massacre".

When the Israeli PM, Ehud Olmert said there was hostile fire coming from the UN and that's why Israeli solders fired on it for 2 hours setting the emergency food depot ablaze, John Ging, head of operations for the UN Relief and Works Agency said the claim was "total nonsense" and "typical misinformation". According to UN officials, the Israeli shells were (banned) white phosphorous.

In Israel 9 human rights groups have condemned the Israeli attacks on Gaza, accusing the military of war crimes: "wanton use of lethal force" and a series of "blatant violations of the laws of warfare". They also accused the IDF of preventing rescue teams from reaching the wounded and failing to care for them as required by international law. Pressure is mounting internationally for an Israeli War Crimes Probe.

Perhaps the spectre of a war crimes investigation and a humanitarian catastrophe raised by the UN worried the Israeli cabinet into a cease-fire. In an Israeli attack on a UN school in Beit Lahiya 2 days ago where 1600 had taken shelter, 2 boys were killed in the shelling. With the UN compound's food stores still smoldering, Ging condemned the attack."The question that has to be asked is for all those children and all those innocent people who have been killed in this conflict. Were they war crimes? Were they war crimes that resulted in the deaths of the innocents during this conflict? That question has to be answered," he said. Added to this a humanitarian crisis looming, the basic necessities of food and water in short supply, all bad press for the Israelis. Food shortages in part due to farmhouses attacked and burned, food trucking a dangerous job, the markets couldn't provide enough, "even for those who do have money," Ging said.

Last Monday the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution accusing Israel of "grave" human rights violations against Palestinians and decided to set up a fact-finding mission to "investigate all violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by Israel."

The IDF's use of colossal force was also due not just to military strategy and the new looser rules of engagement where Israeli units can proceed on their own initiative to destroy a possible target. It's in the types of weapons used. Precision weapons like smart bombs and missiles of course but also with enormous destructive power. Israel denies using banned weapons including white phosphorus, but there's already plenty of evidence on the IDF's use of banned white phosphorus. Besides the phosphorus attack on the UN compound in Gaza, there have been other reports from civilians and doctors treating burns.

If chemical weapons have been banned, what's this if not chemical? Nerve Gas or phosphorus, both are lethal and both burn, the phosphorus burns worst of all. Phosphorus has only been approved as a smokescreen device. The UN has banned the use of phosphorus as a weapon. In clouds for smokescreens but in Gaza also delivered in wide air bursts, dozens of phosphorus tails coming down from one explosion as we have all seen in numerous videos and photos on the news. Banned battlefield weapons used in cities and unfortunately against civilians who can't run away. They get maimed or killed in one sudden explosion or fire.

The IDF knows from experience that Hamas was not massing its fighters in any one place for the convenience of an Israeli bomb. Gone to ground, or in small cells fighting a guerrilla war, taking potshots at the Israelis. How can battlefield weapons be used to stop Hamas? Simple, destroy enough of Gaza and you'll destroy Hamas.

Even worse a new experimental weapon, Dense Inert Metal Explosives or DIME, was apparently being used by the IDF. DIMEs are small but powerful bombs of metal powders that have a short range of 5-10 meters. The exploding metal powders tear bodies to pieces without any evidence of shrapnel. In survivors injuries are brutal as though flesh and limbs have been torn off. So new, DIME hasn't been banned yet. Was it being tested on Gazans like other new weapons have been tested in other wars? It's clear there is no high moral ground from which these horrific weapons are fired.

This was no surgical operation. The war was fought on TV and the Internet. With the war brought home worldwide it certainly dawned on many that this was a brutal war of subjugation of the Palestinians through terror and destruction of Gaza. I suppose like in other wars, this one could have melted away as civilians fled. But the Palestinians had no place to go. Did the Israelis hope that people would flee their towns and cities leaving Hamas behind in the wreckage? Except that Israel and Egypt sealed all the borders. The Israeli campaign didn't spare the countryside either. Everywhere a threat of war, no safety even in farmhouses targeted and destroyed.

Hopefully there will be peace now. Perhaps Israel thoughtfully pulled back from the brink before it had no reputation to loose.

There is one other major factor. In 2 days Barack Obama will be sworn in as President of the United States.

What's happening now? Here's an eyewitness account by Sameh Habeeb, a Palestinian journalist from his blow-by-blow blog GazaToday:

"Thousands of people appeared on the Gaza streets. Everybody is trying to explore what has happened to his relatives, houses and areas. I have documented a massive devastation throughout east, north and west of Gaza Strip.

The devastation storms everything needed for normal life. Houses, schools, hospitals, clinics, police stations, charities, universities and streets totally and partially destroyed.

More than 100 dead corps were found today by paramedics mostly civilians and a family of 8 members. Samouni family which was massacred before found 17 more dead bodies under the rubbles. Many families still seek rest of members and relatives who were lost during the war time."

The photos above are his taken today, Copyright (c) 2009 Sameh Habeeb


France 24: "Embedded with Gaza medics", a harrowing report from a journalist who tags along with an ambulance driver in Gaza City, http://www.france24.com/en/20090116-gaza-israel-assault-medics-violence-hospital-war-palestinian

Guardian: "Gaza: Lives in ruins", eyewitness accounts of Israeli atrocities including white phosphorous shelling,

Guardian: "Phosphorus bombs in Gaza -- the evidence", a doctor describes phosphorus burns and a new type of very small shrapnel causing major internal damage, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2009/jan/16/gaza-israel-khan-yunis-white-phosphorus

Reuters: "Gaza doctor in mobile phone plea", while a Gaza doctor is being interviewed on live Israeli TV, his house is hit by a shell, killing 5 of his family, http://www.reuters.com/news/video?videoId=97211&videoChannel=1

Reuters: "UN school in Gaza hit by shells", the fourth school hit, the third and latest UN school shown here where 2 boys died, http://www.reuters.com/news/video?videoId=97207&videoChannel=1

--Alan Gillis