For the first time Israel’s Supreme Court is set to consider evidence that senior Israeli political and military officials committed war crimes in relation to major military operations in Gaza and Lebanon. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Minister Tzipi Livni, the current justice minister, are among the high-level figures accused of breaking the laws.
Although Israel is suspected of recruiting tens of thousands of Palestinians as collaborators since its creation in 1948, the practice has rarely attracted more than superficial attention. Palestinians are ashamed that cooperation with the Israeli security services is widespread, while Israel is loath to draw attention to its systematic violations of international law. But the issue of collaboration is finally emerging from the shadows.
For Palestinians in Gaza the anxiety-inducing soundtrack to their lives is the constant buzz of the remotely piloted aircraft – better known as “drones” – that hover in the skies above. Confined by Israel to one of the most densely populated areas in the world, Gazans are subject to near continual surveillance and intermittent death raining down from the sky. They call the drone’s noise “zenana” – an Arabic word referring to a wife’s relentless nagging that describes the drone’s oppressive noise and their feelings about it.
The furore over the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria has overshadowed disturbing events to the south, as Egypt’s generals wage a quiet war of attrition against the Hamas leadership in Gaza. A recent cartoon in a Hamas newspaper showed Gaza squeezed between pincers – one arm Israel, the other Egypt. A Hamas spokesperson was recently quoted saying Egypt was “trying to outmatch the Israelis in tormenting and starving our people”.
The inciting cause of the latest confrontation between Israel and Hamas has little to do with the firing of rockets, whether by Hamas or the other Palestinian factions. The conflict predates the rockets – and even the creation of Hamas – by decades. It is the legacy of Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians in 1948, forcing many of them from their homes in what is now Israel into the tiny Gaza Strip. That original injustice has been compounded by the occupation Israel has not only failed to end but has actually intensified in recent years with its relentless siege of the small strip of territory.
Six and a half years go, shortly after Hamas won the Palestinian national elections and took charge of Gaza, a senior Israeli official described Israel’s planned response: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Few observers treated the comment as more than hyperbole, a supposedly droll characterisation of the blockade Israel was about to impose on the tiny enclave. Last week, however, the evidence finally emerged to prove that this did indeed become Israeli policy.
Israeli officials have expressed alarm at a succession of moves by the interim Egyptian government that they fear signal an impending crisis in relations with Cairo. The widening rift was underscored yesterday when leaders of the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation pact in the Egyptian capital. Egypt’s secret role in brokering the agreement last week caught both Israel and the United States by surprise.
Richard Goldstone, the international jurist whose now-notorious report on Gaza tarred the Israeli army with war crimes, backtracked unexpectedly and very publicly on 2 April in the pages of the Washington Post. For 18 months Goldstone had suffered a campaign of character assassination by Israel and its supporters as they sought to discredit his United Nations investigation into Israel’s attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09.
Israeli leaders have barely hidden their jubilation at an opinion article in last Friday’s Washington Post by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone reconsidering the findings of his United Nations-appointed inquiry into Israel’s attack on Gaza in winter 2008. In what appeared to be a partial retraction of some of his findings against Israel, Goldstone argued that he would have written the report differently had Israel cooperated at the time of his inquiry.
After a lengthy lull, violent confrontation has returned to the centre stage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the past week, the Israeli army and Palestinian militants have appeared keen to flex their muscles with regular exchanges of fire. Israel’s tanks and fighter planes have attacked the Gaza Strip, killing civilians and fighters, while Palestinian militants have launched mortars and rockets, some reaching as far as the Israeli cities of Ashdod and Beersheva.
Israel has admitted that it was behind the abduction of a Gazan engineer who went missing more than a month ago while travelling on a train in the Ukraine. The whereabouts of Dirar Abu Sisi, the operations manager of Gaza’s only power plant, have been the subject of intense speculation since he disappeared on February 18 as he travelled on a train to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
It is called Spot and Shoot. Operators sit in front of a TV monitor from which they can control the action with a PlayStation-style joystick. The aim: to kill terrorists. Played by: young women serving in the Israeli army. Spot and Shoot, as it is called by the Israeli military, may look like a video game but the figures on the screen are real people — Palestinians in Gaza — who can be killed with the press of a button on the joystick.
As Israel this week declared the “easing” of the four-year blockade of Gaza, an official explained the new guiding principle: “Civilian goods for civilian people.” The severe and apparently arbitrary restrictions on foodstuffs entering the enclave – coriander bad, cinnamon good – will finally end, we are told. Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants will have all the coriander they want.
An Arab member of the Israeli parliament is demanding that a newspaper be allowed to publish an investigative report that was suppressed days before Israel attacked Gaza in winter 2008. The investigation by Uri Blau, who has been in hiding since December to avoid arrest, concerned Israeli preparations for the impending assault on Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead. In a highly unusual move, according to reports in the Israeli media, the army ordered the Haaretz newspaper to destroy all copies of an edition that included Mr Blau’s investigation after it had already gone to press. The article was never republished.
Seven years after Rachel Corrie, a US peace activist, was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza, her family was to put the Israeli government in the dock today. A judge in the northern Israeli city of Haifa was due to be presented with evidence that 23-year-old Corrie was killed unlawfully as she stood in the path of the bulldozer, trying to prevent it from demolishing Palestinian homes in Rafah. Corrie’s parents, Craig and Cindy, who arrived in Israel on Saturday, said they hoped their civil action would shed new light on their daughter’s killing.
Israel unveiled “Iron Dome” last week, a missile-defence system that is designed to strike a knock-out blow against short-range rockets of the variety fired into Israel by Hamas and Hizbullah. In the short term, Iron Dome is supposed to herald the demise of the rocket threat to Israeli communities near Gaza four years after Hamas won the Palestinian elections. The period in-between has been marked by a series of inconclusive moves by both sides.
A year on from Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s offensive in Gaza, the threads of a possible Middle East peace are so knotted that they look impossible to disentangle. A right-wing government in Tel Aviv has dared to snub the US administration by barely enforcing what has become a partial and very temporary freeze on the expansion of its settlement programme in the West Bank. Israeli generals, meanwhile, proclaim that they are gearing up for an even fiercer repeat of the attack on Gaza last winter that killed around 1,400 Palestinians.
The debate reverberating in the human rights community one year after Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip is not about whether Israel committed war crimes during its attack last winter, but whether and how its political and military leaders can ever be brought to book. The problems were highlighted this month when an arrest warrant was issued in Britain for Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister during the war, after it was mistakenly believed she was visiting.
The fatal shooting by Israeli soldiers of an Israeli man earlier this week as he tried to scale a fence into the Gaza Strip was reportedly part of a drastic procedure the army was supposed to have phased out several years ago. The Israeli media reported that Yakir Ben-Melech, 34, had bled to death after he was shot under the “Hannibal procedure”, designed to prevent Israelis from being taken captive alive by enemy forces. One critic defined the procedure as meaning: “Liberate the soldier by killing him”.
Yunis al Masri was luckier than his brothers from Gaza. Although the truck that ploughed into their car as they travelled to work in Israel 24 years ago killed Jaber and Kamal instantly, Mr al Masri survived with shattered bones, internal bleeding and brain damage. Certified as disabled, he is entitled to a monthly allowance of $800 from Israel’s National Insurance Institute to support his wife and 10 children. In early January, however, the transfers of disability benefits stopped arriving in his bank account. About 700 other injured workers are in the same situation.