That famous first casualty of war is these days sustained before the first rocket is launched. The truth of the most recent Gaza incursion is now a prisoner of war in Israel, and its release will take some time. Purportedly because the tunnels have now been destroyed, a truce of sorts has been concluded. As was once said of the Romans, ‘They make a desert and they call it peace’.
After operation ‘Cast Lead’ in late 2008/early 2009, in which UN shelters and stores, schools, hospitals, ambulances, and a university were bombarded and civilians were targeted by the Israel Defence Force (IDF), there were recriminations and investigations, and we can expect these once again. The investigation of themselves by the IDF will once more find honest mistakes, unavoidable collateral damage and Palestinian perfidy of ‘human shields’. In the recently concluded military operation, named with breathtaking chutzpah, ‘Protective Edge’, over 1,900 Palestinians have been killed, more than 73% of them civilians and some 450 of them children. Three United Nations schools were bombarded in Gaza over ten days by the IDF − with civilians sheltering in them.
It is a war crime to target a school like that, to target civilians deliberately, to target a hospital, to target ambulances. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon condemned the most recent school bombardment as ‘a moral outrage and a criminal act’. Some, apparently unconditional, supporters of the Israeli state would say that this is failing to recognise Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’. Yet any such right is heavily circumscribed in international law by the boundaries of proportionality and the duty to protect civilians. Not even Israel’s staunchest ally, arms supplier, and frequent user of that phrase, the United States, will defend the attacks on schools, hospitals and UN shelters.
We have heard so much about the tunnels and the rockets from Israel’s official spokespeople. The killing of children and other civilians is rationalised by Israel’s need for defence against them. This well distributed mantra is part of ‘Psyops’: the psychological operations that are part of modern warfare and amount to what used to be called propaganda. In World War 1, tunnels were used to plant mines under enemy lines; such is a tunnel that needs defending against. These Palestinian tunnels have no such offensive purpose: at least there has never been any evidence that they do. The only ones detonating high explosives in them have been the IDF. The Gazan tunnels have a far more plausible explanation. Gaza is under blockade – unlawfully, as it happens, but very effectively – by land and sea. How then, can sufficient means of living be brought in? That’s what the tunnels are primarily for.
The other purpose of the tunnels is defensive. Consider a comparison. It is a fairly well known fact that Havana is underscored by a complex of tunnels: a legacy of Cuba’s constant threats and indeed attacks from the USA. It’s a strategy the Cubans learnt from the Vietnamese experience of defending themselves from the same aggressor. In both cases, the tunnels were defensive. Cuba was hardly going to attack its neighbours through them! There were even provisions for classrooms and crèches. Perhaps the Palestinians will in future need to put their schools underground if their children are to be safe from missiles and shells? I am not saying that the Palestinian tunnels have not been used to move and store weapons (as Cuban ones also have been); it’s logical that they would be. I am arguing that their purpose is quite obviously defensive, and it is the defence of a people under encirclement, blockade, and repeated attack. Israel, that is to say, is not defending itself against tunnels.
Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’ from rockets is also a complete red herring. For all of 2014 to July 14, there had been but one person killed by a rocket launched from Gaza, and he was a non-Jewish casualty, a Bedouin. Twelve people had been killed over that period by (presumably more accurate) mortar fire from Gaza: eleven of them military targets and one a non-Jewish casualty: a Thai worker (http://mondoweiss.net/2014/07/rocket-deaths-israel.html).
This whole military operation has had little in reality to do with tunnels and rockets. It has been about destruction – unlawful under international law – of Palestinian civilian infrastructure, once again to destroy the viability of any Palestinian state. Just look at what has been destroyed above the ground. It has been about terrorising the Palestinian people. It has done so very successfully, but it has manifestly not succeeded in destroying their will.
Professor in Criminology
University of Auckland