SHAIK: Israel now an apartheid regime March 29, 2010

"Landscape with Figures" by George Tooker, 1965-66

"Landscape with Figures" by George Tooker, 1965-66

by Michael Shaik  -  Adelaide Voices  -  March 2010

“Imagine your next-door neighbour – with whom you have had a long and bloody feud – pulling out a gun and shooting into your windows from his own lounge room, which is densely packed with women and children.  In fact, he’s holding his daughter in his lap as he claims he will not stop till your family is dead.  Police are unavailable.  What should you do?”

This question was asked of Australian readers by Israeli Professor Fania Oz-Salzberger in an opinion piece printed in The Age on the 31st of December 2008.  Her claims that Hamas had provoked the assault on Gaza by firing rockets into Israel and that both Israel and the Palestinians were victims of a cynical Hamas ploy “that pitches infantry among infants and babies as barricades” have been consistent themes of Israel’s advocates that, because Israel had banned journalists and human rights monitors from entering Gaza in the weeks leading up to the assault, were impossible to confirm or refute at the time.

However, in the months following Operation “Cast Lead” (the codename for the assault), the conduct of both Israel and Hamas have been the subject of a range of reports compiled by international, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations, whose conclusions regarding the doctrines, tactics and abuses committed by both sides in the conflict have consistently contradicted the Israeli narrative.

The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict reported that Israel’s “destruction of food supply installations, water sanitation systems, concrete factories and residential houses was the result of a deliberate and systematic policy” that was “directed at the people of Gaza as a whole,” a finding that was corroborated by Amnesty International, which reported that such “wholesale destruction was to a large extent deliberate and an integral part of a strategy at different levels of the command chain, from high-ranking officials to soldiers in the field.”

Amnesty also found that white phosphorous (a weapon that causes such horrific suffering that its use is banned, under international law, against even enemy troops) “was repeatedly fired indiscriminately over densely populated residential areas, killing and wounding civilians and destroying civilian property” and that this was part of a pattern of Israeli atrocities, which including the massacres of women and children by Israeli tank crews firing into Palestinian houses.

A report by Human Rights Watch described how Israel used aerial drones with the most modern targeting systems available to target civilians, noting three instances in which they were used to fire missiles at children playing on rooftops and one in which a drone fired on a group of university students waiting for a bus.

Although several of the reports confirmed that Palestinian civilians were indeed used as human shields, their findings are unlikely to have pleased Oz-Salzberger.  As Amnesty International noted: “no evidence was found that Hamas or other fighters directed the movement of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks.  By contrast, Amnesty International did find that Israeli forces on several occasions during Operation ‘Cast Lead’ forced Palestinian civilians to serve as ‘human shields’.”

According to the Public Committee against Torture in Israel, such tactics reflect a two-fold revision of Israel’s combat doctrine since its defeat in the 2006 Lebanon war.  The indiscriminate use of firepower in total disregard for Palestinian civilians reflects the “Zero Casualties” principle of complete prioritisation of avoiding harm to Israeli soldiers.  The systematic targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure is based on the “Dahiyah Doctrine” (named after a Beirut suburb that was heavily bombed by Israel), which stipulates the collective punishment of civilian populations to foment popular opposition to Israel’s enemies.

Rather than responding to their substance, Israel’s apologists have cited such reports as proof of an international conspiracy against Israel.  Writing in The Australian, Professor Gerald Steinberg warned that “The past year has seen even greater co-operation between the UN and NGOs in twisting human rights values beyond recognition.”  Israel, after all, was merely defending its people.  What would Australians expect their government to do if they were being targeted with rockets from another country?

Leaving aside the fact that Gaza is not another country but an occupied territory, whose food supply, airspace, coastal waters, electricity and access to the rest of the world are controlled by Israel, the claim of self-defence has little factual basis.

For almost five months from June 2008, Hamas scrupulously observed a ceasefire with Israel, which was broken on November 4 when Israel sent its army into Gaza to kill six Hamas members and destroy a tunnel, calculating (correctly) that the international media would be too focussed on US presidential election to properly cover the attack.  The tit-for-tat cycle of retaliations that followed culminated in Operation “Cast Lead”.

More than a year later, the humanitarian crisis caused by the assault is being compounded by Israel’s blockade of the territory.  Because of a ban on building materials, thousands still live in tents next to the rubble of their homes.  Malnutrition related disorders such as stunted children and anaemia are widespread due to a ban on items including canned food and powdered milk.  As a result of electricity shortages and spare parts needed to repair sanitation infrastructure targeted during “Cast Lead”, Gaza’s drinking water has become contaminated by the seepage of untreated sewage into its aquifer.  Today 12 percent of young deaths in Gaza are caused by diarrhoea.

Because Western thinking on the Israel-Palestine conflict is underpinned by the axiom that Israel has an absolute right to defend itself from the populations it is occupying, Western leaders have tended to downplay the crisis in Gaza in favour of shoring up the pro-Western Fatah party that administers the Palestinians of the West Bank.  If the Palestinians are shown that they will win their freedom only by embracing a “peace process” founded on their unilateral renunciation of violence, so the thinking goes, they will turn away from Hamas of their own accord.

Though such thinking has a certain Machiavellian logic, the Obama administration’s failure even to affect a temporary freeze in Israeli settlement construction throughout the West Bank has seriously undermined both the standing of the “Palestinian moderates” the West is attempting to foster and the credibility of the peace process itself.

As the former national director of the American Jewish Congress Henry Siegman noted in January, “Israel’s relentless drive to establish ‘facts on the ground’ in the occupied West Bank… seems finally to have succeeded in locking in the irreversibility of its colonial project. As a result of that ‘achievement,’ one that successive Israeli governments have long sought in order to preclude the possibility of a two-state solution, Israel has crossed the threshold from ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ to the only apartheid regime in the Western world.”

If Siegman is correct, then the struggle to end apartheid in Palestine will probably be a long and bitter one in which international solidarity will be crucial.  Though Operation “Cast Lead” has been widely compared to South Africa’s Sharpeville massacre as a turning point regarding public attitudes towards Israel, it has yet to be seen whether a broadly-based social movement will indeed emerge in support of the Palestinians’ struggle for freedom.

Michael Shaik is the public advocate for Australians for Palestine.

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