One-sided reality of combat in Israeli-Palestinian conflict


Despite reports of intense combat, Hamas weapons pose little threat to Israeli forces, writes Ed O'Loughlin 

YOU COULD be forgiven for thinking that there was a major ground battle going on in the Gaza Strip right now.

"Fierce fighting" vies for headline space with "intense combat", while Israeli troops and Palestinian fighters swap "heavy exchanges of fire" in "house-to-house clashes". But experience of Israel's many previous raids into Gaza in recent years - the Israeli government is blocking independent foreign journalists from witnessing this one - suggests a more one-sided reality.

Unlike the Hizbullah men who fought the Israeli army to a standstill in Lebanon two years ago, Hamas's gunmen have no modern anti-tank missiles. Their mainly home-made rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) are useless against the heavy armour of the Israeli defence force's tanks and armoured personnel carriers. The Palestinians have no artillery or precision heavy weapons, and no air defences to counter Israel's US-supplied fighter bombers and attack helicopters, or the armed robot aircraft which circle constantly overhead. Their automatic rifles would be lethal against unprotected soldiers encountered at short range, but the tactics which Israel has perfected for the Gaza Strip ensure that its soldiers are seldom exposed to effective enemy fire.

In fact, only about a dozen troops have died while participating in numerous deep raids inside Gaza since the IDF's last major loss in May 2004. Then, 11 troops were killed in two separate incidents involving poorly armoured vehicles since withdrawn from service.

Of the five Israeli soldiers killed so far in the current massive invasion, one was reportedly hit by mortar fire. Three others were killed and 20 wounded when one of their own tanks blasted the Palestinian house in which they were hiding. The fifth was also killed by so-called friendly fire, ie accidental fire from his own side.

The Palestinian death toll from such incursions has been vastly higher: Operation Rainbow, May 2004, killed at least 53 Palestinian militants and civilians; Operation Days of Penitence, October 2004, killed between 104 and 133; Operation Summer Rains, June 2006, 400 plus; Operation Autumn Clouds, November 2006, at least 70; last year an unnamed raid on Jabaliya killed over 100. All these raids and numerous smaller ones were duly reported in the foreign media, condemned as disproportionate by much of the international community and then quietly forgotten. The present Operation Cast Lead (some 630 Palestinians killed, as of last evening, and rapidly rising), is well on course to dwarf them all combined - as evidenced by yesterday's single incident toll of 42 civilians, killed when an Israeli artillery shell landed near a UN-run school.

In a typical Israeli invasion, small teams of undercover soldiers use the cover of darkness to seize control of civilian homes selected for their fields of fire, taking the residents hostage and building snipers nests to cover the tanks that rapidly join them. In ensuing operations, the tanks and snipers sit back and take a heavy toll of the young Palestinian gunmen who invariably rush to the scene - one of the most under-reported aspects of the Israeli-Palestine conflict is the ineptitude of the martyrdom-loving Palestinians when it comes to basic guerrilla tactics.

While their comrades keep the neighbourhood pinned down, infantrymen typically use civilian hostages as human shields - this is known in the IDF as the "neighbour procedure" - as they go door to door rounding up the menfolk, most of whom are then marched off to Israel to be interrogated and, if suspected of militant links, convicted and jailed. (Torture of suspected terrorists is tolerated by the legal authorities and courts in Israel, and torturers are allowed to defend themselves by asserting that the torture was "necessary".)

Although greater in extent and in its massive death toll, the present Israeli ground invasion of Gaza seems to have followed the same broad pattern so far, penetrating only the fringes of teeming Gaza City. And just like its smaller predecessors, Operation Cast Lead's massive Palestinian death toll has proved immensely popular with an Israeli press and public demanding further retaliation for missile fire from Gaza which has killed 20 people in eight years (in the same period Israel has already killed more than 3,500 Gazans, at least 1,500 of them civilians, according to Israeli rights group B'Tselem). On Monday Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that public support for defence minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak was "rising with each missile that pounds Gaza". Barak and his coalition partner/rival, foreign minister Tzipi Livni, both have hopes of winning the premiership in elections on February 10th.

Unfortunately for the besieged, blockaded, bomb-shocked people of Gaza, February is still a long way off. Meanwhile, Operation Cast Lead shows signs of escalating into something even worse.

Most Israeli government spokesmen and women have so far denied that the aim of the current operation is to eliminate Hamas militarily in the Gaza Strip. But the underlying logic of Israel's internal political and military intrigues, and of both sides' stated aims, suggests otherwise. Hamas says it will not renew its previous six-month ceasefire with Israel, which unravelled last month following mutual violations, unless the Jewish state agrees to end its crippling three-year-old economic blockade of the Strip's desperate population - a demand echoed by human rights groups and local UN agencies.

But Israel says this would legitimise the rule of an Islamic fundamentalist movement which refuses to renounce terrorism and violent resistance, and which itself does not recognise Israel's legitimacy.

Instead, Israeli leaders said this week that they intend to pound Gaza until Hamas is forced to accept an imposed and unconditional ceasefire, with no requirement on Israel to end the blockade and no international mechanism to ensure that all sides, including Israel, behave in future.

Also on Israel's wish list is the return to Gaza of its compliant Palestinian client, Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement, which remains nominally in charge of the West Bank, where Jewish settlement activity continues unabated, despite having lost Palestine-wide elections in 2006. It was routed from Gaza following its failed US- and Israeli-backed putsch against the elected Hamas government last year.

In company with Egypt, the EU and perhaps the US and allied Arab states, Fatah will then mop up whatever is left of Hamas and police Gaza's borders and crossings to prevent further smuggling of weapons.

But the chances of Hamas agreeing to what amounts to an unconditional surrender are nil. Instead, its militants have stepped up their own rocket fire into Israel, using new long-range rockets to strike for the first time the major cities of Ashdod and Beersheba. Three Israeli civilians have been killed so far.

The European Union has so far quietly joined with Israel and the US in the diplomatic and economic siege of Gaza. But there is no way it, or anyone else, will take on the job of policing Gaza on Israel's behalf, a task the mighty Israel defence force failed to carry out. Any Israeli attempt to subdue its entire area, whether by slow starvation, gradual bombardment or rapid ground assault, would cause civilian deaths on a scale never before seen in the lopsided Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The world may not yet be cynical enough to keep looking the other way.

Ed O'Loughlin reported on Gaza for more than five years as Middle East correspondent for the Sydney Morning Heraldand the Age