The death toll of the so called "Operation Protective Edge", the name Israel has given to airstrikes and now a ground assault in Gaza that have targeted civilians and their homes, services and infrastructure, has climbed to 815 people, with over 5,240 injured as of the 25th of July, the 18th day of the offensive. Granted, this number will inevitably have climbed far higher by the time you are reading this. Every morning you wake up and read the running obituary. 50 more dead, 100 more, hospitals down, schools down, a whole neighbourhood, whole families. It climbs so quickly you can hardly keep track. These strikes are targeting civilian homes, mosques, hospitals, medical centres, and schools. Over 300 civilian homes have been destroyed, and hospitals are facing a lack of medicine and equipment in the face of rising numbers of seriously wounded people. This is the third such Israeli military operation on Gaza in 6 years, and it has far less to do with the rockets fired by Hamas into Israel, and far more to do with the hysterical response given to the disappearance and subsequent discovery of the bodies of three Settler teenagers last month. You would think, looking at this from the comfortable distance of Europe or America, that Israel has had their hand forced, and is operating in hyper vigilant self defence. This is, after all, how the media has portrayed it. Western nations have perversely sided with Israel in these latest developments of a 66 year occupation, but honestly this is nothing new. As someone who hears the air raid sirens of Jerusalem, listens to gunfire as she falls asleep every night, and has lived and breathed for months alongside those who western media would portray as terrorists for the benefit of Israel, let me clarify how this situation arose, and the harsh reality of what is really happening in Palestine.
On the 12th of June 2014 three settler teenagers went missing while allegedly waiting for a lift at a hitch hiking post near Gush Etzion, a settlement in the West Bank between Bethlehem and Hebron. While this might seem to be worlds away from 815 people dead as a result of airstrikes in Gaza, in reality it has everything to do with it. If we are to understand the situation in Gaza, and the West Bank, and how this escalated, we must first look at the response to the news of these teens' disappearance. Within 12 hours of news of the disappearance of these teens, thousands of soldiers were deployed into the West Bank in a so-called search effort, provocatively named "Operation Brother's Keeper". Immediately, without demonstrating any evidence in support of these claims, Hamas was blamed for their disappearance. The Palestinian Authority (PA) was given responsibility, as Israel claimed they had done nothing to prevent criminality within the West Bank, despite the fact that the PA has often arrested activists for Israel. Despite Israel's claims, these crimes took place in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli Security, therefore the crime took place outside the jurisdiction of the PA. In addition, the crime transpired right outside one of the oldest settlement blocs of the West Bank, a place most Palestinians would consider a military barracks, owing to high surveillance, security towers and a strong military presence.
While "Operation Brothers Keeper" was purportedly aimed at finding these 3 boys and bringing them home, in reality it initiated a campaign of raids, arrests and attacks. It resulted in the arrest of at least 419 people, according to the CPT, who were activists, political leaders and civilians, the death of at least 9 people, including a 14 year old boy, and at least 2,200 raids. This was done at an average of 18 raids a day, not just on homes, but also on charities and businesses. In the process, the IDF stole property and money worth €3 million. In an impoverished area like the west bank, this is crippling to the economy, and will seriously hinder the ability of people to stay in business. One of the more perverse aspects of Israeli reaction was the calls of revenge from the Israeli civilian population, an example of which is a facebook page that got approximately 10,000 likes, which called for a Palestinian to be killed every hour the teens remained missing.
The Palestinians, and others, you speak with day to day here since this happened are highly sceptical of the Israeli version of events. If Hamas was responsible, why did they not announce it, or make demands? Surely they would have, they always have in the past. Why go on a campaign of arrests of uninvolved peaceful activists and parliament members, if what you are trying to do is find 3 teenage boys? Why raid the homes of innocent civilians? Why would a Palestinian risk kidnapping 3 Israelis at such a risky junction, in broad daylight? and if the area is under such heavy surveillance, how did no one see anything? And why would there be a gag order to stop details of the teens' abduction from being made public, which enabled it to be conveyed for days as though the teens were still alive, when the IDF knew they were not and were operating under the assumption that they were dead? Some say that these boys may have been taken by an extreme Hamas member, operating outside the knowledge or responsibility of the political party. Some say it may have been a Jewish extremist, trying to stoke the flames of war. Some even say that perhaps they were dead beforehand, and were planted there. An example of such an argument is the assertion that they died in a car crash elsewhere, and their bodies were removed and planted in Hebron, an argument that has actually gained a lot of evidence and support from various investigations and media reportage internationally.
No matter the argument, you cannot help but be somewhat sceptical of this military campaign when looking at it from inside. This was well planned and systematic. It is clear that this was planned before the settlers disappeared, and had it not been for the teens' disappearance and subsequent murder, it would have happened over something else. It was simply an excuse. The arrests were methodical. There is no evidence either way, Israel has not proven Hamas' involvement, and so really anything could have happened to them. The two men who were the main suspects for the kidnapping may not have any ties to Hamas, as it was made public that Israeli security officials were divided over whether or not these men were Hamas members. If Hamas really was responsible, why would these two men kidnap youths for them? And if Hamas really had nothing to do with the kidnapping, a possibility that seems more than likely, it is clear that Israel is using these teens disappearance and subsequent deaths for political purposes. Operation Brother's Keeper, or #Bring Back Our Boys, looks distinctly like collective punishment, and it goes beyond the death of three teenagers, no matter how horrible it is to see youths die. We also saw the International Community condemn the deaths of these three Israeli teenagers. While I reiterate that their deaths cannot be justified, I see the international reaction to this as absolute hypocrisy, when the deaths of thousands of Palestinian children have gone unnoticed, without the same expression of outrage or condemnation.
It is worth noting that youths dying as a result of this conflict, or indeed any conflict, is not unusual. Palestinian children die all the time. In fact, it has been estimated that over 1,500 Palestinian children have died since the year 2000 as a result of Israeli military actions. What is unusual about these deaths is that they are Israeli, and why is that a cause for greater concern? Is their blood somehow worth more than over a thousand Palestinian children's?
Shortly after the bodies of the three settlers were discovered nearby the city of Hebron, Israel called a cabinet meeting, and within hours of this meeting had initiated airstrikes on Gaza. These airstrikes came hours after Prime Minister Netanyahu swore that Hamas would pay for the deaths of these 3 teens. On Al Jazeera, in a report on the bodies of the 3 settlers being discovered, a "government spokesperson" named Mark Regev attributed their deaths to be a direct result of the pact for the Hamas-Fatah unity government, which he said had enabled Hamas to regain their foothold in the West Bank, despite there having been barely a month between the signing and the teens' disappearance. There was clearly a political agenda behind all of this, using the death of three teens to justify and gain Israeli national consensus for military offensives in the West Bank and Gaza, and yet, in the words of Richard Falk, in his recent report for Al Jazeera, 'Tormenting Gaza': "Never has it been asserted in high profile diplomatic circles of the West that the horrible crime provided Netanyahu with a pretext for an anti-Hamas campaign, which seems less motivated by a response to the kidnapping/murder than by the political objective of punishing the Palestinian leadership for defying the Netanyahu government for recently achieving a measure of reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas".
The violence in Gaza has only escalated from there, with rising numbers of airstrikes and a ground assault initiated. Civilians have been told to leave their homes, but where do they have to go, when there has been so much devastation, and they are trapped within a blockade. There is no end and no way out. You are a sitting target in an open air prison, where can you go? And if you do leave your homes, where will you go when the violence is over, and your home and your few possessions have been destroyed? You see the pictures of tanks amassing at the border, and you can't help but wonder why, what do you need these for? When the number of Palestinian militants is negligible, and a civilian population is already bombarded and devastated by bombs, what could you possibly need all these tanks for? It is all for fear. People see it, and think surely, surely there must be something to fight. What else would they need these for? Why else would they need the wall, draped in razor wire and patrolled by innumerable soldiers? It is a form of terrorism, not just that these weapons are being used against unarmed civilians, but that it is being used to terrorise the Israeli population into believing in an external threat that simply does not exist.
As all this was taking place, shortly after the settler teens' bodies were found, a Palestinian teenager of 16 was abducted from the Shufat refugee camp of East Jerusalem, and his body was found in the woods, outside west of Jerusalem, in the ruins of a Palestinian village. His name was Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir. From his Autopsy, it was clear that the boy had been stabbed, and then burned alive. 3 Jewish extremists have now been convicted of his murder, for a hate crime suspected to be a 'revenge attack'. While Muhammad's murder was a barbaric tragedy, and my heart goes out to the family, whom I met on the day of his funeral, it does make me wonder, how is this any different? Right now, as I type this, there are children in Gaza being burned alive by the bombs dropping on their homes, burned alive by a government policy that began as an incitement of revenge, the exact same reason given for the death of this teenager. The Israeli public is outraged by the death of this Palestinian teenager. Well, that is wonderful, but what about the Gazan children? What about the 1,500 children killed since 2000? Are you not outraged by that? Are you not outraged by the mass murder your government is inciting in your name, Israel? You are outraged by one child's death, but numbers of your population bring chairs onto hillsides to watch the bombs dropping on Gaza, which murder innocent children. How do you Justify this, Israel?
And if we look at your speech, Israel, and what was said when the boys' bodies were found, how can we be surprised that your civilians would commit acts of revenge, when this is what your government demanded? You are the ones who have provocatively called upon Israeli civilians to take revenge on Palestinians. With rising settler violence against Palestinians, risen 41% since the beginning of the year and continuing to go unpunished, and a number of other attempted kidnappings of Palestinian minors throughout the West Bank accompanying your actions since these boys went missing, we can only point the finger at you. Netanyahu, this is what you and your government demanded. The death of this boy is on you, just as the others are. These are a direct result of your actions, your voice, your military occupation, because until you withdraw from the West Bank this death will not end.
Muhammad's murder led to clashes all over the West Bank, an occurrence that has continued but is not being reported on in the wake of Israel's operation in Gaza. Soldiers have not left the West Bank, and to the contrary have maintained a presence even in Area A. I have lived in Bet Sahur for 6 months, very close to Bethlehem and have experienced the clashes that have been ongoing for weeks in Bethlehem, near Rachel's tomb, outside Al Azza Refugee Camp. These so-called clashes take place every night since this boy was killed, starting after Iftar and lasting well into the early hours of the morning. These unarmed Palestinian men come out on the streets outside their home, and come under heavy fire every night from the IDF, dosed with tear gas, showered by flash bombs, and coming under fire from live ammunition. One night when I was there, on the 8th of July, 3 men were shot by a sniper while walking up the street, 2 in the leg, and another in the shoulder. Many have been hospitalised due to tear gas inhalation. The demonstrations began protesting Muhammad's murder, but have progressed to resisting the military siege, and the air strikes on the defenceless population of Gaza. And all this has taken place peacefully. While under heavy fire, there are no Palestinian militants at these demonstrations. Palestinians do not fight gunfire with gunfire. And if you count stones as weapons, in the wake of Israel's war machine, well that speaks more of your lack of common sense than anything else. These demonstrators are merely practicing their rights in resisting.
So what was this military operation really about? Well, I would say that Israel was waiting for a reason to move in and prevent the establishment of the unity government. Not only prevent, but punish people for the very idea of it. We have seen this before. The accusation of Hamas is like an Israeli witch hunt, and it has happened throughout Israel's history with the name of the devil always changing. Gaza in itself has always had a target painted across it, as the vast majority of its population are refugees and threaten Israel's very legitimacy. While Hamas is a democratically elected political party, Israel condemns them as a terrorist organisation that targets civilians. Hamas, and Palestinians as a whole, have every right to resist. While firing rockets may be an illegal form of resistance, the 'horror' Israel goes through as a result can barely register next to the hundreds of dead Gazan civilians, men, women, elderly and children. To overlook Israel's greater violence does nothing but distort this situation in unfair and utterly biased ways.
While Egypt attempted a ceasefire agreement, those of us who see this conflict as it is knew this agreement would come to nothing. Egypt, first of all, is in Israel's pocket. The attempt was more for Israel's PR than anything else. They clearly knew that Hamas would never agree to such terms, because that was not the point of their resistance to begin with. What they want is for the blockade of Gaza to end, what they want is for Israel to stop using any excuse to attack their population. The want the oppression of their people to end, in Palestine as a whole, but for the people of Gaza in particular. They do not want Israel's ceasefire until some lasting solution is made, but this does not look likely to ever happen. Besides this, why should Hamas agree to something it was never consulted on, and they only heard about it through media outlets? When the agreement hinges on Hamas surrendering to Israel completely, and giving up all arms, while the blockade continues, and Israel retains their weapons and the right to attack as they see fit? It is not like their demands are wrong. Hamas will end rocket fire- rocket fire that more often than not either gets taken out by the iron dome or lands in empty land, and cause far less damage than Israeli missiles even if they do strike something- if the blockade, condemned by the UN as collective punishment, is lifted, if Israel ends aggression in the occupied territories, and if political prisoners are released, most of whom were unjustly arrested during "Operation Brother's Keeper". None of these terms were met. While Hamas' rejection of this deal is condemned internationally because it will result in further civilian casualties, the blame still should rest firmly on the shoulders of Israel. They had no intention to end their siege on Gaza. If they had wanted peace, Israel would have consulted with Hamas directly, and negotiated on the terms. If Hamas continues to fire on Israel after Israel had agreed to a ceasefire, despite the fact they knew Hamas would not agree, they would be given further justification internationally to continue airstrikes. Which is exactly what they have done, with Hamas being blamed for Israel's actions once again. Israel resumed airstrikes on Gaza just yesterday, allegedly in response to nearly 76 rockets being fired into Israel. This all took place 2 hours after Israel had signed the Egyptian proposal for ceasefire. They are now planning to further escalate the siege in Gaza, and Netanyahu has claimed that Hamas has now given them no choice but to escalate their offensive. There is no room for negotiation. In Netanyahu's own words: "...if Hamas will not accept the proposal for a ceasefire, as it appears right now, Israel will have international legitimacy to expand the military operation." How much clearer can you possibly get? That is what this is about. It was never about peace, it was about destabilising Hamas and making them again the devil of a witch hunt. This is not unique. This situation has happened over and over in different forms, is a direct result of 66 years of occupation and not an isolated incident. This ceasefire would have enabled nothing but a return to a status quo in Israel, allowing things to go quiet and occupation policy to continue unhindered.
Having said all of this, I want to end on International media, and the distressing and perverse reaction to this siege internationally. Media reports internationally have reported biased versions of events emphasising that Israel is reacting in self defence to rocket fire. This includes one report by ABC world news, an American news station, who actually had the audacity to use images of the wreckage in Gaza to portray "rockets raining on Israel". They were made apologise for this, in a tepid way, but this does not change countless news reports globally portraying a biased image of the situation in Gaza. Israel has now, on the 17th of July, initiated a ground assault on Gaza, which will inevitably cause the death toll to increase erratically. A deathtoll that, as of-, includes 76 children. And the west has seemingly forgotten where this all began, blaming Hamas with no evidence for the kidnap and murder of 3 teenagers. Netanyahu has used the escalating levels of violence he himself has ordered to justify to the Israeli public the presence of Israeli security forces in the West Bank, and hence the occupation, stating clearly that the occupation will never end: "I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan". And while Israel lies, and the west continue to obscure, tiptoe around, and lie for them, these people will continue to die, the occupation will continue, and history will continue to repeat itself. Children will continue to die. And it won't just be on Israel, it will be on us too.
R. Reynolds, JAI Volunteer