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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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear