Jaideep A Prabhu
Operation Cast Lead
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

On December 27, 2008, Israeli forces commenced Operation Cast Lead. The operation was a military incursion into the Gaza strip to root out Hamas training camps, rocket launching facilities, and hopefully, its infrastructure. A fragile six-month truce between Hamas and Israel expired on December 19, 2008.

On December 13, Israel had announced that it was in favor of extending the cease-fire, provided Hamas adhered to the conditions. Exactly one week later, on December 20, Hamas officially announced that it would not extend the cease-fire which had expired on December 19. It cited the Israeli border blockade as the primary reason and resumed shelling of the western Negev (Israel said that it had begun to ease the blockade, but reimposed it when Hamas failed to end all rocket fire and weapons smuggling.) On December 24, more than 60 Palestinian mortar shells and Katyusha and Qassam rockets hit the Negev. Hamas code-named the rocket attacks “Operation Oil Stain” and claimed that it fired 87 rockets and mortar rounds at Israel that day.

The next day, after Israel had “wrapped up preparations for a broad offensive,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delivered a final warning in an interview with the Arabic language satellite channel al-Arabiya. He said “I am telling them now, it may be the last minute, I’m telling them stop it. We are stronger.”On Friday, December 26, Israel reopened five border crossings between Israel and Gaza to supply fuel for Gaza’s main power plant and to provide about 100 truck loads of humanitarian aid, including grain and other goods. That same day, militants fired approximately a dozen rockets and mortar shells from Gaza at Israel, one accidentally striking a northern Gaza house, killing two Palestinian sisters and wounding a third. According to Israeli defense officials, its subsequent December 27 offensive took Hamas by surprise, thereby increasing militant casualties.

A year’s worth of intelligence went into Cast Lead. On D-Day, at 11:30 a.m., more than 50 fighter jets and attack helicopters swept into Gazan airspace and dropped more than 100 bombs on 50 targets. The planes reported “alpha hits,” Israeli Air Force (IAF) lingo for direct hits on the targets, which included Hamas bases, training camps, headquarters and offices. Thirty minutes later, a second wave of 60 jets and helicopters struck at 60 targets, including underground Kassam launchers – placed inside bunkers and missile silos – that had been fitted with timers. Their locations were discovered in an intensive intelligence operation. The goal: to strike at Hamas’ ability to fire rockets into Israel.

More than 170 targets were hit by IAF aircraft throughout the day. At least 230 Gazans were killed and over 780 were wounded, according to Palestinian sources. Officials said at least 15 civilians were among the dead. The IDF released a list of some of the targets hit: the Hamas headquarters and training camp in Tel Zatar; the “Palestinian Prisoner Tower” in Gaza City that was turned into a Hamas operations center and armory; the Hamas police academy, which was bombed during a graduation ceremony, killing 70-80 people; training camps in southern and central Gaza; the former office of Yasser Arafat in Gaza City that is now used by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh; and the Izzadin Kassam Brigades headquarters in the northern Gaza Strip. Throughout the initial stages of the air operation, the IDF Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration transmitted messages to civilians in Gaza to stay away from Kassam launch sites and Hamas buildings and infrastructure. Hamas responded by intensifying its rocket and mortar attacks against targets in Israel throughout the conflict, hitting previously untargeted cities as Beersheba and Ashdod.

On January 3, 2009, ground troops, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), moved in to support the IAF and mop up any residual resistance. Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire on January 18, followed quickly by a shattered Hamas. It is estimated that approximately 1,200 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died in the conflict. The number of combatant and non-combatant casualties is a subject of ongoing contention, with Palestinian Ministry of Health claims running as high as 5,300. Casualty figures have been difficult to verify independently due to the limited amount of journalists allowed in Gaza during the conflict, although the United Nations and Western journals such as the Italian Corriere della Sera concurred with Israeli figures. In the days following the ceasefire, the BBC reported that more than 400,000 Gazans were left without running water. The BBC further reported that 4000 homes had been ruined, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. By March 2, the world community had pledged $4.5 billion to the rebuilding of Gaza, the US under the new President Barack Obama contributing $900 million.

A blow-by-blow account of the entire operation can be found HERE.

The conflict reminded us of the many questions we have not answered about the Middle Eastern question for the past 60+ years, as if we could forget. Cleaving to the matter at hand, the case was simply a matter of retaliation against Hamas’ nonstop barrage of rockets into Israel. The year 2008 saw the greatest number of rockets and mortar shells (3,750) fired into Israel despite the six-month truce (during which about 360 rockets were fired into Israel by Hamas). December 2008 alone saw about 700 projectiles being fired into Israel. With increased range of the rockets, now about 40 kms, about a million Israelis came into range of the missiles. In an attempt to disrupt this rain of rockets upon Israeli cities, in an effort to destroy the stockpiles of Hams’ rockets, in order to cripple Hamas for some time to come, Operation Cast Lead was executed.

Some academics have tried to mount the defence of the Palestinians by pointing to the disproportionate ratio of casualties. This is utter nonsense, for that means that George Washington was in the wrong when he crossed the Delaware and attacked the Hessians on Christmas morning, 1776. It means that American forces were the wrong-doers from D-Day until VE-Day because their casualties were much lower than Nazi ones. The number of casualties does not determine anything. Besides, the argument does not take into account that the Hamas were not trying to keep Israeli casualties to a minimum!

Israel has been attacked from all sides for committing war crimes. Although this is doubtful in that Israel was not carrying out an operation of eradication, there were some problems with the use of munitions during the campaign. White phosphorous, for example, can be used only to give off smoke to cover troop movements and at night for incandescence. The Hague Conventions (NOT Geneva!) ban use of the substance in civilian areas. Although Israel initially denied using white phosphorous, it later came to light that they had indeed done so. The Israeli Government has promised an investigation for which they should be pressured by the international community.

Another reason Israel has come under fire for human rights violations is because of their careless demarcation of combat zones and civilian areas. Critics of Israel have argued that by taking the war into the Gaza Strip, an area so densely packed with civilians – women and children – it was inevitable that there would be civilian casualties. The Gaza
Strip is about 360 square kilometres in area and is home to about 1.4 million people. Israel’s carelessness, it has been argued, is proof that beneath the official rhetoric, the stated aim of the Jewish State is to eradicate or dislocate the Palestinian people from the region.

This seems to be more conspiracy theory than fact. If Israel wanted to genuinely make Palestinians leave the area, it would not be that difficult. Nor would it be difficult to kill them all. Israel controls the water, food, and transport into the Gaza Strip. At their whim, they can close off the place and destroy its inhabitants. Within days, the lack of food would weaken them to a point where resistance would become suicidal. This has not happened for two reasons. First, the international outrage would be incredible, enough to break Israel. Second, to want to do so supposes a particularly sinister and evil streak within Israelis, for which there is no evidence. Israel acts as any nation in a state of war does – emotions are overflowing and a survival instinct kicks in. There is always a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later during war. Some such incidents may have occurred, for which there should be redress. To extract from this anything more diabolical is quite unconvincing.

The crux of the issue of human rights violations, however, is how Israel pursued its war aims into the midst of heavily populated civilian areas. This, unfortunately, is the face of modern warfare. Rarely do two nations face each other squarely in a field of battle, as they did even in World War I, and limit the hostilities to those areas. Modern warfare, as seen during World War II and ever since, knows no boundaries. Armies have always retained the right of chase to the detriment of civilians on both sides. In a guerilla war like the one being waged in Palestine, this is even more so. Combatants hide amongst the populace to elude the uniformed and usually stronger foe. They hide their weapons in hospitals, schools, and places of worship so that any attempt to destroy or capture their arsenal becomes an immediate propaganda victory for them. This has been seen in countless places, the Golden Temple in Amritsar (1984) and the Charar-e-Sharif in Srinagar (1995) being only two of the most famous examples. The Geneva Convention states that anyone holding a weapon in a conflict zone is a combatant. In the days when the Convention was written (after the Battle of Solferino, 1859), it was assumed that only two nation-states would go to war against each other, and the idea of civilians picking up weapons and cities being fields of battle had not been fully embraced yet. In this sense, it can be argued that since Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people, it is not a ‘High Contracting Party’ and therefore not eligible to draw upon the rights and privileges of the Convention. Be that as it may, even if we were to accept Hamas as a ‘High Contracting Party,’ in the same way the definition of ‘combatant’ has been broadened to mean anyone carrying weapons within the zone of combat, the definition of ‘zone of combat’ should also be broadened to include any place where active fighting and the storage of means to carry out the fighting exists. Thus, if terrorists were to hide in a school, the onus is on them to ensure that the children are not harmed, not their pursuers. By hiding themselves or their weapons in schools and hospitals, they become the first to violate the conventions of war. Once this door has been opened, despite all the caution that might be exhibited by the side in pursuit, things are bound to get ugly.

The deliberate targeting of civilians is in and of itself a war crime, and as are Hamas attacks from within civilian areas and civilian structures, whether it be an apartment building, a mosque or a hospital, in order to be immune from a response from Israel. The BBC reported on January 5 that witnesses and analysts confirm that Hamas fires rockets from within populated civilian areas, and all sides agree that the movement flagrantly violates international law by targeting civilians with its rockets. Amnesty International accused Palestinian gunmen of using Palestinian civilians as human shields. Israel argues that Hamas blurs the line between civilians and combatants, and is therefore responsible for civilian deaths in Gaza. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “Hamas’ use of human shields” and “operational use of heavily built-up and densely populated civilian areas” violates Article 8(2)(b)(xxiii) of the Rome Statute. This statute defines as a war crime the act of “Utilizing the presence of a civilian […] to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations.” It also defines Palestinian attacks as terrorist in nature, because they kill civilians in order to sow terror within the broader civilian population. This would violate the Geneva Convention’s Laws of Armed Conflict. UN Humanitarian chief John Holmes stated that Hamas’s rocket attacks on southern Israel violate international laws. In 2007, exiled Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal called recent rockets attacks on Israel “self-defense.” Hamas leaders argue that rocket attacks on Israel are the only way to counter Israel’s policies and operations, including artillery strikes. But Human Rights Watch has said that such justifications do not overcome the illegality of the attacks under international humanitarian law. On January 14 it was reported that Palestinian militants had also fired mortar shells containing phosphorus explosive into the Eshkol Regional Council area in Negev.

We have not yet addressed the fact of the Hamas using the turmoil to settle some of their own scores. Hamas has been accused of executing several Fatah members and Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. Fatah officials in Ramallah reported Hamas executed at least 19 party members and more than 35 Palestinians. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights stated on January 31 that it had credible reports that Hamas operatives killed six members of Fatah and that another 35 were shot in the knees or beaten. The Hamas government in Gaza endorsed the killing of Israeli collaborators but denied allegations it had attacked members of Fatah during the conflict. A Hamas spokesperson said that the internal security service was instructed to track collaborators and hit them hard. If Israel really wanted to exterminate the Palestinians, it seems that all it really has to do is sit back and watch the Palestinians implode under the weight of their own contradictions.

Finally, a question I have always asked but have never received any answer to: why was the world quiet when Israel was shelled constantly by Hamas? Where are the rights of the Israeli people? Why does everyone come out when Israel defends itself, but never when Israel suffers an attack? If a bomb goes off in a crowded Tel Aviv market or disco, the world (some countries) will offer a minute of silence. If two Palestinians are killed by a Hellfire missile from an AH-64, there is an outrage and Israel is immediately depicted as the Nazis of the era. This hypocrisy sends the message to groups like Hamas that it is alright to continue their dastardly deeds. They can find refuge behind brainless academics, an illiterate international audience, and journalists who are looking for Pulitzers more than facts.

I have not gone down the rabbit hole and got into the debate over the creation of Israel because that is in itself another story. In brief, I have nothing against the two-state solution, but it must bear out the interests of both Israel and the Palestinians. If Palestine devolves into another Talibanised Afghanistan, it will serve no one’s purpose. But we must look at events on a case by case basis or we shall never make meaningful progress on the Middle Eastern question.