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Israel's targets in Gaza

Ben White looks at some of the objects of Israel's military onslaught in Gaza - an attack that has a

In just the first six days of ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the Israeli Air Force carried out more than 500 sorties against targets in the Gaza Strip. That meant an attack from the air roughly every 18 minutes for almost a week - not counting hundreds of helicopter attacks, tank and navy shelling, and infantry raids. At the time of writing, the operation was into its 10th day.

That's an intense number of attacks for a territory of similar size to the city of Seattle.

No surprise then that the casualty figures are high: to date, more than 500 Palestinians dead with thousands injured. Moreover, many of the ‘targets’ struck by Israel seem to be of dubious military value. Indeed, by last Saturday, there was talk of Israel ‘running out’ of targets.

Even in the first wave of airstrikes, one of the most high profile hits was a police graduation ceremony.

Because these were so-called ‘Hamas police’ there was some debate about the legitimacy of the target.

As the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem put it, the dozens of Palestinians killed had been studying “first-aid, handling of public disturbances, human rights, public-safety exercises, and so forth”.

The graduates would then have been “assigned to various arms of the police force in Gaza responsible for maintaining public order”. B’Tselem emphasises that “an intentional attack on a civilian target is a war crime”.

Could it be that in reality Israel has had few genuinely high value targets to hit in Gaza?

So far the government ministries destroyed have included those for education, transportation, housing, as well as the parliament, while Israel has also attacked a university, money changers, civilian apartment blocks, harbours, a bird farm, and a television station.

The Israeli military also hit at mosques, killing departing worshippers, and even destroyed the American International School, killing the caretaker.

The same school had previously been the focus of anti-US violence, though this time around (with the school actually levelled) those who had previously pointed fingers at ‘fundamentalist’ Palestinian vandals have been curiously quiet.

Meanwhile - as part of its media management - Israel has largely prevented the international media from entering the Gaza Strip.

Many analysts and commentators still simply accept Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) statements as gospel, and repeat verbatim the claims that only ‘weapons caches’, ‘tunnels’, or ‘rocket launching sites’, have been targeted. Furthermore, the IDF has apparently used its own video footage of attacks to lie about civilian casualties, both this time around and in the past.

And both the high proportion of civilian targets and the comparatively weak response by Hamas make the level of menace assigned to Hamas by Israeli propaganda look, well, somewhat questionable.

Even taking the Israeli government and IDF at their word about the operation’s objectives, the targets struck thus far are of dubious strategic merit.

If the aim is to destroy Hamas, this is clearly a fantasy. For some Palestinians, the assault on the Gaza Strip will have only consolidated or increased their support for the organisation, but more importantly, you don’t weaken a socio-religious political movement with F-16s and drones (although apparently in the best colonial tradition, you may ‘teach them a lesson’, according to Shimon Peres).

In which case, Israel may well have a different kind of aim for ‘Operation Cast Lead’. The head of the UN’s relief agency in Gaza, John Ging, was reported to have accused Israel of deliberately targeting infrastructure necessary for the governance of Gaza:

"The whole infrastructure of the future state of Palestine is being destroyed," he said. "Blowing up the parliament building. That’s the parliament of Palestine. That’s not a Hamas building. The president's compound is for the president of Palestine."

A Gazan businessman wrote on the Guardian website that post-operation, “it will be extraordinarily difficult for Palestinians, particularly Gazans, to rebuild and develop their institutions of civil service”, before observing that “perhaps this is what Israel's anti-peace camp is after; an end to the persistence of Gaza's ordinary people in wanting the chance of a peaceful and dignified life”.

Mustafa Barghouti has also noted that the choice of targets in Gaza indicates Israel is “hoping to create anarchy in the Strip by removing the pillar of law and order”.

It is thus reminiscent of the general thrust of then-PM Ariel Sharon’s policies as typified in 2002’s ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ which targeted the day-to-day institutions and symbols of the Palestinian Authority.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the popular discourse regarding Hamas and the Gaza Strip for some years in the West has helped prepare the way for Israel to strike civilian targets and claim self-defence against ‘terrorist infrastructure’.

From the refusal to accept the results of the democratic Palestinian elections to the endless repetition of Israeli propaganda about the unreciprocated ‘good will’ of the so-called ‘disengagement’ in 2005, the Gaza Strip has been signed off as a teeming ‘Hamastan’ of targets just desperate to be martyred.

An IDF spokesperson has said that: "Anything affiliated with Hamas is a legitimate target", the kind of logic that even the BBC mentioned is an echo of Hamas’ own justification for attacking Israeli civilians on the basis they serve in the army.

In the context of the Gaza Strip - where Hamas as the governing authority is naturally involved with everything from food distribution to medical clinics, and from higher education institutes to parking fines - it now seems every Palestinian is in the crosshairs.

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

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Why is it getting harder to report on Israel-Palestine?

The politics of the conflict are changing – and with them, the diplomatic and journalistic challenge.

Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem’s Old City has drawn pilgrims, tourists, and conquerors. This week it has been the focus of renewed media attention after a series of violent incidents.  For those ties of history, politics, and faith which link it to the rest of the world have also made it a magnet for reporters: some admired, more abused or admonished.     

Last summer, Israel’s international image took a beating. Some two thousand Palestinians – the overwhelming majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations – were killed during the Israeli Army’s operation in Gaza. Israeli casualties – at more than 70, almost all of them military personnel – had been far higher than in other incursions into Gaza in recent years. 

As the dust settled above the flattened buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a news conference specifically aimed at the foreign press.

It was aimed at them in that they were both the audience, and the target. Mr Netanyahu said, “I expect, now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza, or some of them are leaving Gaza, and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidations, I expect we’ll see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets.”

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz challenged Mr Netanyahu’s claim in a story headlined “Foreign Press: Hamas Didn't Censor Us in Gaza, They Were Nowhere to Be Found”. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor echoed this when we spoke for my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. “They’re all hiding,” he remembered of his experience of Hamas during that that conflict. “They had a spokesman who hung out at Shifa hospital. And he was very much a spokesman. He didn’t tell us what to do.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been covered by countless words and hours of airtime. It has also exhausted extensive diplomatic resources seeking to solve it. The diplomatic desert seems almost to have led to a situation where PR is a substitute for policy. Take Mr Netanyahu’s attempts, above, to rubbish reporting. Earlier this year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted, and later removed, a cartoon sneering at, and patronising, the foreign press. Why bother with politics, when you can poke fun?

The politics, though, are changing – and with them, the diplomatic challenge.

Religion is playing a growing role. Daniel Kurtzer was United States ambassador to Tel Aviv 2001-2005. He was also there as a diplomat in the 1980s. Then, he remembers “a fostering of the idea of Islamism as an antidote to nationalism. The natural consequence of that was and has been the growth of religious feelings, so certainly on the Palestinian side that’s the case, but it’s even now grown on the Israeli side”. He concludes: “I haven’t seen any success yet in integrating this move towards religion into the diplomacy of trying to resolve the conflict. It’s a real challenge.”

It is a challenge for correspondents, too – and their efforts are rarely admired. Shortly before the bloodshed in Gaza began, the head of Israel’s government press office, Nitzan Chen, shared with me his opinion of foreign correspondents in Israel. “Like the Israeli journalists, they are cynical, critical. I don’t want to make generalisations because some people are very professional and very unique, see the facts before they write the story. But the majority are lazy.”

Anyone covering the conflict needs a thick skin, and sometimes more. In addition to the risks involved in covering all armed conflict, conversations with Palestinian journalists will often quickly uncover stories of harassment and threats of violence from armed groups. 

The brevity of daily news stories means they rarely have room for discussion of religion, or   competing historical narratives. Yet, for all its shortcomings, real and imagined, the journalism of the Israeli-Palestinian press is most people’s only source of information about a conflict which has connections to so many parts of the world. If it were not important, presumably the protagonists would not waste time criticising it.      

James Rodgers is the author of Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just published by Palgrave MacMillan. He was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004. James will be taking part in a panel discussion next week at City University London. You can register to attend here