It was about midnight last Sunday when my phone rang. "I'm not sure I will survive tonight, the Israelis are bombing us everywhere." It was Mahmoud, a young resident of Rafah, a city in the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt. We first met when I visited the troubled coastal territory after Israel dismantled its settlements there in September 2005. On December 27, just before midday, Israel's powerful air force, the fourth largest in the world, commenced a deadly air assault on over 40 separate locations in the Gaza Strip. The strikes were as calculated as they were cold - the targets were almost entirely people and facilities vital to the Hamas government. In one of the areas hit, where police officers had gathered for a parade, body parts were strewn along a courtyard.
The present conflict is the deadliest since Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank in the Six Day War of 1967. That is a surprising achievement given the bloody history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, particularly during the Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas, of 1987 and 2000.
Israel has targeted Hamas, but the vast majority of the casualties from its attacks have been civilian police officers, government workers, and other civilians. The Palestinian death toll currently stands at 350 while more than a thousand have sustained injuries. The figure is expected to increase as Israel's bombardment continues. Since Monday morning, Israel's navy has commenced bombing Gaza from the coast. Compounding the suffering is the fact that medical and other humanitarian supplies are in a dire state thanks to Israel's three-year-old blockade of the territory. Half the population of Gaza, even before this most recent attack, was living below the poverty line.
So far, rockets fired from Gaza have killed two Israelis and injured several others.
The Israeli government argues that the bombardment is a response to these rockets attacks. But the calls of self-defense must be understood within the broader context of the continued annexation of Palestine. It is the greatest of reverse-psychology ploys. Israel calls Hamas and other Palestinian resistance movements existential threats while, at the same time, it continues to ensure that a viable Palestinian state can never hope to exist by imprisoning Gaza and expropriating much of the West Bank.
The UN Security Council quickly released a non-binding statement calling for an end to hostilities. But the document failed to name either Israel or Hamas by name and glibly called for a return to the ceasefire. It did not mention any justice for the hundreds killed. The international community - and particularly the Middle East Quartet consisting of the European Union, UN, United States, and Russia - have been completely incapable of protecting those most exposed to the conflict - the Palestinians of the occupied territories who are killed, harassed and humiliated on a daily basis.
There is good reason to be critical of Hamas too. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has cited Hamas' inability to renew a ceasefire with Israel for this most recent assault. But Israel must shoulder the lion's share of culpability for the carnage presently unfolding in the occupied territories.
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It is becoming increasingly clear that Israel's latest attack on Gaza was a pre-meditated attempt to destabilize the Hamas regime. The Israeli Ha'aretz newspaper recently revealed that even while it was negotiating a ceasefire, the Israeli government drew up a detailed plan to destroy Hamas in Gaza six months ago.
No member of the international community is more complicit in Israel's crimes than the United States. The Bush White House was quick to blame the violence on Hamas even though Israel is responsible for the vast majority of the death and destruction. A spokesperson for President Bush described the movement as a bunch of "thugs." Such statements legitimate Israeli aggression by dehumanizing a democratically elected government.
There is little hope, however, of a shift toward a more balanced U.S. role under President Barack Obama. Ever fearful of the powerful Israel lobby, he has gone to great lengths to prove his loyalty. "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night," Obama said during a visit to Israel earlier this year, "I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that." Sadly, that logic does not appear to apply to the Palestinians. According to the UN, 105 Palestinian children have been killed this year, thanks largely to Israeli forces armed and supported by the United States.
While grand rhetoric has been a feature of Barack Obama's political career, he has so far opted to remain silent as Israel wreaks havoc on Gaza this week.
Others have not been silent, however. Already protesters have taken to the street throughout the world, including in Israel, to voice their opposition to the strikes. The Turkish government has rejected calls from Israel and the Palestinian Fatah Movement of President Mahmoud Abbas to broker another ceasefire with Hamas. Turkey has also pulled out of landmark peace negotiations it had hitherto been conducting between Israel and Syria over the occupied Golan Heights. Israel's attacks in Gaza are also expected to dominate discussions this week by Arab leaders at the Gulf Cooperation Council ahead of an extraordinary meeting of the Arab League on Wednesday. Arab leaders have called for a unified position on the current conflict, no doubt under significant domestic pressure to do something to protest Israel's actions.
Meanwhile, the exiled leader of the Hamas movement in Syria called on Palestinians to commence a third intifada in response to Israel's offensive. Given Israel's full spectrum dominance of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, such an uprising might be well nigh impossible. One shudders, nevertheless, to think what fury a third intifada would unleash.