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Israel’s targets in Gaza

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.

First published in New Statesman.

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