The stupid war: Israel’s apparent war crimes in its Gaza offensive must be investigated and punished

July 31, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 31, 2014

I wrote earlier this week about why the existence of Israel was and remains worthy of support. The subject is topical, alas, because of the Jewish nation’s ongoing war against Gaza, which began on July 7 and has involved a combination of aerial and naval bombardment and ground offensives.

The fighting has taken an appalling toll. As of Wednesday, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1,263 Palestinians had been killed. Some 852 people, or more than two-thirds of the deaths, were civilians, including an astounding 249 children. The U.N. identified 181 of the victims as “members of armed groups.” Another 230 individuals had yet to be categorized; many of them are believed to have been civilians.

Israeli casualties, by contrast, have been light. Fifty-three soldiers have been killed along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker.

But the consequences of this war go beyond just killing. Earlier this week, the Palestinian Ministry of Health reported that 6,233 Gazans had been wounded; nearly 2,000 of the injured are children.

The property damage inflicted by Israelis upon Gaza has also been staggering. More than 800 homes have been totally destroyed or severely damaged. At least 68 families have suffered three or more deaths in one incident. That accounts for 360 deaths, the U.N. reports: 147 children, 73 women and 140 men.

The organization says that nearly 9,400 families — more than 28,000 people — must make major repairs or entirely rebuild their homes. Another 27,000 families, or 162,000 people, live in homes that sustained minor or moderate damage.

Some 245,000 Palestinians have registered in public shelters, many of which are schools; up to 200,000 more may have sought refuge in private residences.

But even though a number of public shelters have been identified as such to the Israel Defense Forces, the U.N. reports that 136 schools have been affected by shelling because they are near IDF targets. One school, which allegedly was near a place where Palestinian militants were firing, was struck by Israeli artillery, resulting in the deaths of four children and 11 others.

War’s handmaidens, disease and famine, might ultimately claim far mores lives than the fighting.

The destruction of Gaza’s power plant this week has imperiled access to water and sanitation for essentially the territory’s entire population of 1.8 million people. There are already reports of lice and scabies becoming legion in some shelters; far worse may follow without improvements to hygiene that are contingent upon having a reliable water supply. At least 24 Gaza health clinics have been destroyed or damaged in the fighting, further compounding the difficulties.

To address these challenges, the U.N. has appealed for more than $390 million in donations, less than half of which has been secured.

One might argue that these Israeli uses of force were intended to prevent further violence against the Israeli nation and its civilians, and one would be right. I find it very telling that accounts of the war that are sympathetic to the Palestinians’ side — for instance, this interesting but badly flawed essay by Omar Baddar — downplay or completely omit any mention of the tunnels that Hamas has built in order to infiltrate and attack Israel.

Yet Israeli bloodletting has been so indiscriminate that it is impossible to justify unconditionally. Any fundamentally decent person with even a vague appreciation of the toll this war has taken on civilians and children must be appalled.

Yes, as Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, so colorfully alleged, Hamas uses images of “telegenically dead Palestinians” to rally support. But his awareness of this tendency, which is not exactly new, makes it all the more baffling that Israeli’s leadership would provide so much bloody grist for the Hamas propaganda mill. Israel absolutely must be investigated and sanctioned for its many fatal missteps in this conflict.

Most tragic of all is that the current hostilities seems to have been eminently avoidable. Damon Linker dubbed the conflagration “the Stupid War” in an analysis in The Week earlier this month, even as he maintained that it is morally justifiable:

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew almost immediately that the teenagers were dead and that the leadership of Hamas likely had nothing to do with it. Yet Netanyahu decided to engage in a breathtaking act of demagoguery. For over two weeks, the public was told that the government believed the boys were alive, and that Hamas was behind the kidnapping. Both statements were blatant lies.

But they were useful lies, since they gave Netanyahu public support for a strong military response, which he used as a pretext for sending the Israel Defense Forces to dismantle Hamas’ West Bank operations. The result was, according to journalist J.J. Goldberg, “a massive, 18-day search-and-rescue operation” in which troops entered “thousands of homes, arresting and interrogating hundreds of individuals” throughout the West Bank.

But that wasn’t good enough for the Israeli public, which with each passing day demanded an ever-harsher response to the kidnapping. Having spent more than two weeks whipping up grief and outrage throughout the country, Netanyahu began to lose control of the situation, with far-right members of his own government insisting that the IDF reoccupy Gaza and destroy Hamas. On June 29, the prime minister attempted to placate these calls for vengeance with limited airstrikes against a rocket squad in Gaza. That bombing killed a Hamas operative. The first Hamas rockets were fired at Israel the next day.

It was the first rocket barrage launched by Hamas since 2012. And all the rocket attacks that have followed in the intervening two weeks — weeks during which Netanyahu’s lies were revealed and a young Palestinian was burned alive by three Israeli teenagers in a revenge attack — need to be viewed in the context of this sordid backstory.

Israel’s missteps go much deeper than that, however. John Judis has an excellent accounting in The New Republic:

[O]ver the last two decades, Israelis and Palestinians have been moving in opposite directions. Israeli governments have become less amenable to genuine compromise. In the last Israeli election, the Jewish Israeli parties that ran on a pledge to seek a two-state solution got eight out of 120 seats. The growth of settlements and the rise of a radical Jewish right constitute a growing obstacle to any genuine agreement. On the other side, the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] has moved toward greater commitment to a two-state solution, and a greater willingness to compromise on settlements and even on the presence of Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu’s continued authorization of settlements in disputed areas was perhaps the most important reason why the most recent round of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian government failed. As this chart from an Israeli organization that supports a two-state solution demonstrates, Netanyahu’s second administration authorized new construction in the West Bank at an annual rate of roughly double the next highest frequency of the three previous Israeli governments, including Netanyahu’s first administration. In East Jerusalem, construction permits were granted at a rate almost four times greater than the next-highest yearly average.

How can this mess be resolved peacefully? The answer is murky at best. In the short term, both sides must stopped shooting. As mentioned above, apparent Israeli war crimes must be investigated, and some level of reparations are due to Gaza’s residents.

In the long term — well, allow me to reiterate part of my conclusion to my previous essay on this subject:

The two sides must share land and resources with one other; they must accommodate one another — make concessions and compromises.…

[N]o sane or compassionate person can call for one side to triumph completely at the expense of the other. I support Palestinians’ residency [in] and control of some of the disputed land, and I support Israel’s continued existence. To argue against either of these tenets, it seems to me, is to take a step toward the embrace of a grisly genocide.

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