January 2009

For four days running, an ambulance has driven 15-year-old Amira Ghirim from Shifa Hospital in Gaza to the Rafah border in the hope that she will be allowed to cross into Egypt and then on to France, where she has been promised emergency surgery. Amira’s left arm and thigh were crushed and her internal organs damaged by falling rubble when a shell hit her home in Gaza City in the final days of Israel’s offensive. The attack killed her father, brother and sister, leaving her an orphan. But, despite her urgent need for surgery, Amira has been turned away at the border each time.

Mounting fear in Israel that the country’s leaders face war crimes charges over their involvement in the recent Gaza offensive pushed officials into a frenzy of activity at the weekend to forestall legal actions abroad. The urgency was underlined after rumours last week that Belgian authorities might arrest Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, if she attended a summit of European counterparts in Brussels on Wednesday. In an indication of how seriously the matter is judged, Ms Livni’s advisers were on the verge of cancelling her trip when the story was revealed to be a hoax.

While Hamas and Israel were edging tentatively towards acceptance of a ceasefire late last week, Israel upped its assault on Gaza, driving its troops deeper into Gaza City, intensifying its artillery bombardment and creating thousands more displaced people. Israel’s military strategy in Gaza, even in what is likely to be the “final act” as officials are calling it, is following a blueprint laid down during the Lebanon war more than two years ago. Then, Israel destroyed much of Lebanon’s infrastructure in a month of intensive air strikes.

The plot against Gaza

16 January 2009

Israel has justified its assault on Gaza as entirely defensive, intended only to stop Hamas firing rockets on Israel’s southern communities. Although that line has been repeated unwaveringly by officials since Israel launched its attack on 27 December, it bears no basis to reality. Rather, this is a war against the Palestinians of Gaza, and less directly those in the West Bank, designed primarily to crush their political rights and their hopes of statehood.

This week the death toll in Gaza passed the 1,000 mark, after nearly three weeks of Israeli air and ground attacks. But surprisingly, no one has reported an even more appalling statistic: that there are some 1.5 million injured Palestinians in Gaza. How is is possible that such an astounding figure could have passed the world’s media by? The reason apparently is that they have been relying on the highly unreliable statistics provided by official Palestinian sources.

The only three Arab parties represented in the Israeli parliament vowed yesterday to fight a decision by the Central Elections Committee to bar them from running in next month’s general election. In an unprecedented move signalling a further breakdown in Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel, all the main Jewish parties voted on Monday for the blanket disqualification. Several committee members equated the Arab parties’ vocal support for the Gazan people with support for terrorism.

Concerns about Israel’s use of non-conventional and experimental weapons in the Gaza Strip are growing, with evasive comments from spokesmen and reluctance to allow independent journalists inside the tiny enclave only fuelling speculation. The most prominent controversy is over the use of shells containing white phosphorus, which causes horrific burns when it comes into contact with skin. Under international law, phosphorus is allowed as a smokescreen to protect soldiers but treated as a chemical weapon when used against civilians.

As Israel rejected the terms of the proposed United Nations ceasefire at the weekend, Israeli military analysts were speculating on the nature of the next stage of the attack on Gaza, or the “third phase” of the fighting as it is being referred to. Having struck thousands of targets from the air in the first phase, followed by a ground invasion that saw troops push into much of Gaza, a third phase would involve a significant expansion of these operations.

Criticism by international watchdog groups over the increasing death toll in Gaza mounted this week as the first legal actions inside Israel were launched accusing the army of intentionally harming the enclave’s civilian population. The petitions – over attacks on medical personnel and the shelling of United Nations schools in Gaza – follow statements by senior Israeli commanders that they have been using heavy firepower to protect soldiers during their advance on built-up areas.

There are two persistent myths about the aim of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza: the first that it is an entirely defensive move, a way to end the rocket fire of Hamas; and the second that it is designed to restore the army’s credibility after its failure to cow Hizbollah in 2006. But it is a gross misunderstanding of what is unfolding in Gaza to believe Israel’s motives are capricious. The politicians and generals have been preparing for this attack for many months, possibly years – a fact alone that suggests they have bigger objectives than commonly assumed.

The four-storey building of the Community Mental Health Programme in Gaza City is damaged, its walls still standing but the offices of its 150 employees wrecked by an Israeli bombing raid last week. As Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants waited anxiously for Israel’s ground invasion to unfold, Ahmad Abu Tawhina, the mental health programme’s director general, said its services were needed more than ever. Estimates from the United Nations are that at least one quarter of the more than 500 Gazans killed so far in Israel’s operations are women and children.

The thermal imaging footage shot from an Israeli drone hovering over Gaza shows eight Palestinian militants loading rockets on to a lorry. Within seconds, the drone’s sights are locked on to the vehicle and it and the ghostlike figures nearby are incinerated in a missile blast. Or so tens of thousands of visitors to YouTube have been led to believe. The clip was one of several uploaded by the Israeli army last week. A subsequent investigation, however, suggests the rockets were in fact gas canisters and that the supposed militants were civilians moving welding equipment.

Ever since Hamas triumphed in the Palestinian elections nearly three years ago, the story in Israel has been that a full-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip was imminent. But even when public pressure mounted for a decisive blow against Hamas, the government backed off from a frontal assault. Now the world waits for Ehud Barak, the defence minister, to send in the tanks and troops as the logic of this operation is pushing inexorably towards a ground war.