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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.