The awful experience of the past few years suggests that in about two years time will be ripe for yet another war with predictable outcomes: thousands of dead, each and every one of them a person who meant the world to their families and loved ones.
By Hagai El-Ad
One month after the end of the war in Gaza – was it the second Gaza war? The third? – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood in front of the UN General Assembly and declared that, “no other country and no other army in history have gone to greater lengths to avoid casualties among the civilian population of their enemies.” This declaration came just a few weeks after that day in early August 2014, when the home of the Abu Madi family in a-Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip was bombed. The attack took the lives of the grandfather, Yusef Daud Abu Madi, three of his sons and two grandchildren. Shadi Abu Madi, one of the family members who survived, but lost two of his children, 6-year-old Yusef, and two-week-old Hala, says their siblings ask about them every day. He tells them that Hala and Yusef went to heaven. His wife sometimes imagines that baby Hala is hungry and asking to be nursed.
On the 22nd day of the war it was Isaac Herzog, the leader of the opposition, who was making declarations: “There is no dispute between the coalition and the opposition on this. We are fighting a just war over Israel’s image and the image of the Israeli people.” Herzog made this statement on July 29, the day the Abu Jaber family home in al-Bureij Refugee Camp, the a-Dali home in Khan Yunis, and the Balata home in Jabalya Refugee Camp were bombed. In the al-Bureij bombing, 19 people died, 17 of them from the same family. In Khan Yunis, 34 died, more than half of them minors. In Jabalya, 11 were killed, all from the same family. Hanneyeh Abu Jaber survived the al-Bureij bombing. She remembered the Id al-Fitr holiday meal. The family had been dining together. She did not hear the explosion. When she woke up at the hospital, she was told that her son, his wife and their daughters had died. The next day, her niece told her about the other family members who had been killed.
Four months after the fighting ended, the Military Advocate General (MAG) said: “The laws of war are a guiding principle for the IDF and it acts with determination to implement them.” The MAG made this declaration in a conference titled, “Challenges of Warfare in Densely Populated Areas.” It appears that the bombing of dozens of houses with residents still inside in Gaza last summer was one of the ways of dealing with these challenges. B’Tselem’s recently published report based on the documentation of 70 such bombings throughout the Gaza Strip during the summer reveals that more than 600 people were killed in these attacks: more than a quarter of all Palestinian casualties in Gaza this summer. At least 70 percent of them were civilians that did not take part in the fighting. Hundreds of people — children, women and seniors — were killed in this manner. Family after family after family. Determination, indeed.
The prime minister and others keep making the same double edged argument: on one hand, that Israel’s actions in Gaza were both legal and moral. And at the same time, that any harm caused to Gazan civilians was entirely Hamas’ fault. But, if Hamas is to blame for everything, then Israel is responsible for nothing, and if that is the case, there are no limits on its military operations. This argument is simply not acceptable, neither legally nor morally. There is no reciprocity in war. If one side breaks the rules, the other side is still obligated to follow them. That is what it means to have rules. The choice to employ a policy whose lethal results were entirely predictable, or, at the very least, soon became abundantly clear a few days into the war, was made by Israeli policy makers and they are the ones responsible for the policy’s horrifying results.
This dual argument also seems to be redundant. Israel is claiming that its actions were not just lawful, but also restrained, beyond requirement. Restrained? Lawful? If that is so, then how did so many civilians die in such a large number of attacks from the air and the ground all over the Gaza Strip and throughout the fighting? B’Tselem’s research shows that the “legal framework” for this attack tactic was achieved by stretching so thin concepts such as “military target,” “proportionality” and “effective warning” that they lost almost any meaning. Evidently, this attack policy was not the result of junior level decisions by a pilot or an artillery officer, but rather a conscious decision made and persistently pursued by the country’s leadership, the same leadership that sent the military into action in the Gaza Strip.
Israel is responsible for its actions, just as Hamas is responsible for its own. As B’Tselem stated unequivocally before, during and after the fighting, Hamas breached International Humanitarian Law (IHL) provisions, most notably, its duty to distinguish between civilians and military targets. Not only did Hamas fire at Israeli civilians, it did so from within Gaza’s civilian population, and from locations that are adjacent to homes. But these Hamas violations do not release Israel from its IHL obligations – obligations that Israel keeps claiming it upheld, while at the same time blaming Hamas for the outcome of violating them.
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Israelis go to the polls in a month, to vote in elections that will take place less than a year after one of the most terrible wars we have experienced here. More than 2,000 Palestinians and more the 70 Israelis were killed this summer. The images of death and destruction in the Gaza Strip are still repressed and silenced in Israel, as they were in the summer. But we are all paying the human and moral price, and will continue to for generations.
The awful experience of the past few years suggests that in about two years, after a few more years of closure imposed over the impoverished, crowded piece of land south of Ashkelon, the time will be ripe for yet another war in Gaza – the fourth? The fifth? Another war with predictable outcomes: thousands of dead, each and every one of them a person who meant the world to their families and loved ones.
Is this future inevitable? What is clear is that if Gaza wars continue to be conducted as they have been so far, the thousands of casualties of the next war are only a question of time. Baby Hala’s mother will never be able to nurse her daughter. What kind of future is waiting for the babies who made it through this war, and for those born after it, in Gaza and in Israel?
Hagai El-Ad is executive director of B’Tselem – the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.