How the Gaza war changed perceptions
Atrocities committed by Israel this summer have led to international recognition of Palestine
Cold comfort: a Palestinian child in the rubble of a house destroyed by an Israeli air strike. Photograph: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty
Israel’s 50-day assault on the Gaza Strip last summer stands out, even in the annals of 66 years of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. “War is probably the wrong word to describe this staggeringly unequal conflict, given the huge asymmetry of power between them,” says the revisionist Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.
“This was not a war in the conventional sense,” Shlaim says. “It was a one-sided massacre.” Amnesty International says that 2,192 Palestinians were killed, more than two-thirds of them civilians. In Israel, six civilians were killed, including one Thai national. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers were killed.
The UN estimates that 108,000 Gazans were made homeless by the war. The seven-year-old Israeli blockade prevents sufficient quantities of cement and building materials entering the enclave. The residents of Shejaia and Khuza’a, districts that were pulverised by Israeli bombardment, were briefly housed in locally manufactured caravans that flooded with the first autumn rain.
UN plans for reconstruction “read more like security plans, carefully laying out Israeli concerns”, the Harvard expert Sarah Roy reports. “Israel will have to approve all projects and their locations and will be able to veto any part of the process on security grounds . . . Not only will the blockade of Gaza be strengthened, but responsibility for maintaining the blockade is in effect being transferred to the UN.”
The easing of the blockade was a key Hamas demand in the 2008-9, 2012 and 2014 wars. “All these wars were instigated by Israel,” Avi Shlaim says. “All were directed against civilians, and all involved war crimes. They are a direct product of Israeli colonialism, of the most prolonged and brutal military occupation of modern times.”
The war turned Gazans into boat people for the first time since 1948. They escape through tunnels beneath the Egyptian border, then pay traffickers up to $3,500 (€2,800) to board rickety boats across the Mediterranean.
Most of the 500 migrants who drowned on a boat that left Damietta in early September and sank near Malta are believed to have been Gazans. The Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration says that about 2,900 Palestinians reached Italy this year, most during the war.
Israel claims Hamas started the war, because two rogue Hamas militants from Hebron, in the West Bank, kidnapped and killed three Jewish teenagers. Israeli authorities mounted a three-week search operation during which nine Palestinian civilians were killed and dozens wounded. Four hundred Hamas sympathisers were arrested.
As part of the collective punishment of Palestinians for the killing of the teenagers, the government of Israel, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, seized 400 hectares of land on the West Bank, five days after the August 26th ceasefire – Israel’s biggest land grab in 30 years.
There were cries of “Death to Arabs” at a candlelit vigil after the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers were found, on June 30th. On July 2nd the body of a 16-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem was discovered. He had been doused in petrol and burned alive.
Litany of atrocities
Israeli forces attacked Gaza as part of the reprisals for the deaths of the teenagers. Hamas had observed a ceasefire for 19 months, but when six of its members were killed in the bombing of a tunnel on July 7th, the Islamist group retaliated with rocketfire. Israel launched Operation Protective Edge the following day.
“In Gaza, there is no such thing as ‘innocent civilians’,” said an opinion piece by the reserve general Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, published on Y-Net on August 5th.
Operation Protective Edge produced a litany of atrocities: four boys, aged nine to 11, killed while they played football on the beach in Gaza City; whole apartment blocks flattened with their inhabitants; farmers shot dead by Israeli soldiers as they fled; families locked in houses that were dynamited over their heads.
The violence did not end with the August 26th ceasefire. About 10 Israelis and as many Palestinians were killed in and around Jerusalem this autumn, amid talk of a third intifada. A Palestinian driver was found hanged in his bus on November 16th. Two days later, two Palestinians killed four rabbis and an Israeli policeman in a Jerusalem synagogue, the deadliest attack on Israeli civilians in more than three years.
Netanyahu has called an early election, which he is likely to win, probably next March. He tells his compatriots that Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is inciting violence against Israelis and that Hamas is equivalent to Islamic State.
The Gaza war ended any illusions Abbas harboured about reaching a negotiated settlement with Israel. He is now campaigning for UN recognition of a Palestinian state within two years, an undertaking that the US describes as provocative and will doubtless veto.
Yet the Gaza war changed international perception of the conflict, as shown by Sweden’s recognition of Palestine at the end of October, and a spate of nonbinding votes in the parliaments of Britain, Ireland, Spain and France.“The Europeans used to follow America blindly,” says Avi Shlaim. “But there is nothing to follow now . . . The last war created a space and an impulse for the EU, and there is talk of Europe being not just a payer but a player. ”