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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.