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.