IDF chief of staff hails 2008 Gaza strike as an "excellent operation"

On the third anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, army officials indicate they are ready to strike ag

This week marks three years since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, the unprecedented attack on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip that killed hundreds of civilians and devastated the besieged territory in 22 days of airstrikes and ground assaults. Disturbingly, the Israeli military is marking the anniversary with praise for the massacre, and threats of a new one.

On Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)'s Chief of Staff Lt Gen Benny Gantz hailed the 2008-09 attack as an "excellent operation", adding that a potentially inevitable repeat would be "swift and painful". Meanwhile, another high-ranking IDF official has said: "We are preparing and in fact are ready for another campaign, which will be varied and different, to renew our deterrence".

These "belligerent declarations" (the words of liberal Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz) are shocking when you remember exactly what happened three years ago.

During Operation Cast Lead, the IDF killed 1,400 Palestinians, including over 300 children. Some 5,000 were injured. In the first six days, Israel's Air Force carried out over 500 sorties, an average of one every 18 minutes for almost a week. According to the Red Cross, "nowhere in Gaza was safe for civilians", with "whole neighbourhoods turned into rubble".

Amnesty International concluded that "Israeli forces committed war crimes and other serious breaches of international law", including the shooting of "children and women...fleeing their homes in search of shelter". Schools were hit, 16 health workers were killed on duty, and "Israeli forces caused extensive destruction of homes, factories, farms and greenhouses...without any evident military purpose". Human Rights Watch and others documented how Israel repeatedly fired "white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas", causing "needless civilian suffering".

This is what the IDF chief this week described as an "excellent operation", suggesting that the only thing the Israeli military learned from the attack on Gaza was in the realm of propaganda and "post facto legal justification".

There is good cause to be worried that this is more than just sabre-rattling. A key reason for the targeting of civilian infrastructure in Operation Cast Lead was in order to create "political pressure" on Hamas. Beforehand, Tzipi Livni had said that an extended truce "harms the Israel strategic goal" and "empowers Hamas". During the attack itself, Shimon Peres said Israel's aim was "to provide a strong blow to the people of Gaza so that they would lose their appetite for shooting at Israel".

The same logic has shaped Israel's intensified isolation of the Gaza Strip over the last five to six years. For example, in 2007, an official in Israel's National Security Council confirmed that the goal of the blockade was not 'security', but to "damage Hamas economic position in Gaza and buy time for an increase in Fatah support".

Now, with Hamas responding strategically to regional developments, reaching out to Fatah and the PLO, and calls for dialogue with the movement even appearing in the leader column of an Israeli newspaper, will Israel's political and military leadership act to try and thwart these trends?

Such a military assault would, like Operation Cast Lead and the ongoing siege, not just be a policy of collective punishment, but also constitute state terrorism: the targeting of civilians in order to achieve a political goal.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, discrimination and democracy.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.