By Sam Bahour
Israel’s Defense Minister Amir Peretz announced today that Israel is preparing a global “propaganda offensive” to counter the recent barrage of news reports and writings that condemned Israel for the recent killing of 10 civilians, including 5 children, on a Gaza beach. In political and media lingo this is called spin, to twist and turn an event so as to give an intended interpretation, and Israel excels at it.
Israel is unable to comprehend that by going to extremes to find a single event that lends itself well for a “propaganda offensive,” its continued military occupation, now extrajudicially killing an average of 10 Palestinians per day, is causing so much death and destruction that its spin not only instigates further animosity against Israel, but fuels a culture of propaganda and arbitrary aggression in Israel that is ripping apart Israeli society at its fragile seams.
Before looking at the specific Gaza beach killings, let’s remember Israel’s track record of conducting investigations. Not to bore you, I will not delve into the entire period of 58 years of dispossession of Palestinians caused by Israel’s creation, nor will I touch on the full 39 years of Israel’s ongoing military occupation of over 3.5 million Palestinians. It is enough to look only at the last few years of Israeli aggression to make the point that Israel is attempting to cover blatant war crimes by media spin. Worse yet, the international community is allowing them to get away with it.
These last few years have been characterized by the intensity of mostly the same practices Israel has used for decades. The context of these Israeli actions toward Palestinians may be summarized as follows: collective punishment, travel restrictions, denial of access to religious sites (e.g. Jerusalem, Bethlehem), bombarding population centers, arbitrary imprisonment (20% of population has been imprisoned at some time ion their lives since 1967, which equates to 60 million people if compared in U.S. terms), demolishing houses (since 1967 Israel has demolished almost 12,000 Palestinian homes, leaving some 70,000 without shelter and traumatized.), deporting Palestinians, uprooting trees, strangulating the Palestinian economy, taking Palestinians’ natural resources hostage (e.g. water, electromagnetic spectrum) - the list is endless.
Case in point as reported in The Guardian (UK) by Chris McGreal, of how Israel deals with investigating Palestinian deaths:
An Israeli army officer who repeatedly shot a 13-year-old Palestinian girl in Gaza dismissed a warning from another soldier that she was a child by saying he would have killed her even if she was three years old. The officer, identified by the army only as Captain R, was charged this week with illegal use of his weapon, conduct unbecoming an officer and other relatively minor infractions after emptying all 10 bullets from his gun's magazine into when she walked into a "security area" on the edge of Rafah refugee camp last month.
A tape recording of radio exchanges between soldiers involved in the incident, played on Israeli television, contradicts the army's account of the events and appears to show that the captain shot the girl in cold blood.
The official account claimed that Iman was shot as she walked towards an army post with her schoolbag because soldiers feared she was carrying a bomb.
But the tape recording of the radio conversation between soldiers at the scene reveals that, from the beginning, she was identified as a child and at no point was a bomb spoken about nor was she described as a threat. Iman was also at least 100 yards from any soldier.
Instead, the tape shows that the soldiers swiftly identified her as a "girl of about 10" who was "scared to death".
The tape also reveals that the soldiers said Iman was headed eastwards, away from the army post and back into the refugee camp, when she was shot.
At that point, Captain R took the unusual decision to leave the post in pursuit of the girl. He shot her dead and then "confirmed the kill" by emptying his magazine into her body.
The tape recording is of a three-way conversation between the army watchtower, the army post's operations room and the captain, who was a company commander.
The soldier in the watchtower radioed his colleagues after he saw Iman: "It's a little girl. She's running defensively eastward."
Operations room: "Are we talking about a girl under the age of 10?"
Watchtower: "A girl of about 10, she's behind the embankment, scared to death."
A few minutes later, Iman is shot in the leg from one of the army posts.
The watchtower: "I think that one of the positions took her out."
The company commander then moves in as Iman lies wounded and helpless.
Captain R: "I and another soldier ... are going in a little nearer, forward, to confirm the kill ... Receive a situation report. We fired and killed her ... I also confirmed the kill. Over."
Witnesses described how the captain shot Iman twice in the head, walked away, turned back and fired a stream of bullets into her body. Doctors at Rafah's hospital said she had been shot at least 17 times.
On the tape, the company commander then "clarifies" why he killed Iman: "This is commander. Anything that's mobile, that moves in the zone, even if it's a three-year-old, needs to be killed. Over."
The army's original account of the killing said that the soldiers only identified Iman as a child after she was first shot. But the tape shows that they were aware just how young the small, slight girl was before any shots were fired.
The case came to light after soldiers under the command of Captain R went to an Israeli newspaper to accuse the army of covering up the circumstances of the killing.
A subsequent investigation by the officer responsible for the Gaza strip, Major General Dan Harel, concluded that the captain had "not acted unethically".
(CHRIS McGREAL / The Guardian (UK) Nov. 24, 2004)
If you are curious, a five-count indictment was ultimately brought against Captain R. A few months ago Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that Captain “R,” a Givati Brigade soldier in the IDF, would be awarded 80,000 NIS [over $15,000 USD] in compensation from the State of Israel in addition to reimbursement for NIS 2,000 of legal expenses, as part of an arrangement reached between his lawyers and the military prosecution after being acquitted of all five counts against him related to the killing of Iman!
A second case in point:
On the night of July 22, 2002 an Israeli F-16 dropped a one-ton bomb in a densely populated area of Gaza City, killing Hamas military wing leader Salah Shehadeh and 16 others, of whom 15 were civilians and 9 were children (between the ages of two months and 13 years), including Shehadeh’s wife and child. Over one hundred others were injured in the attack.
Witnesses said that a F-16 fired a missile into an apartment house in which Shehadeh and his family were living. The air strike shortly after midnight leveled the five-storey apartment block and damaged several adjacent buildings.
In a Ha’aretz interview, the then Israeli Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz claimed to be satisfied both "militarily and morally" with the operation. He was subsequently promoted to his current position of IDF Chief of Staff.
A third case in point is the Jenin Refugee Camp in April 2002.
The Jenin Refugee Camp, the second largest refugee camp in the West Bank, was surrounded by Israeli occupation forces as part of their aggression throughout the West Bank and continuing till today. The camp was raided and tens of Palestinians were murdered and dozens of homes bulldozed. For days, the Israelis refused to allow medical personnel, journalists, Red Cross, and the UN enter the camp.
An Israeli military bulldozer driver, Moshe Nissim, left little to the imagination as he described his actions in the camp while it was besieged.
“They were warned by loudspeaker to get out of the house before I come, but I gave no one a chance. I didn’t wait. I didn’t give one blow, and wait for them to come out. I would just ram the house with full power, to bring it down as fast as possible. I wanted to get to the other houses. To get as many as possible, I didn’t give a damn about the Palestinians, but I didn’t just ruin with no reason. It was all under orders.”
On orders, the razing continued long after the battle was over. Dated aerial photos obtained from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs corroborate his tale, leading military expert and Amnesty International delegate Major David Holley to conclude: “There were events post-11 April that were neither militarily justifiable nor had any military necessity: the IDF leveled the final battlefield completely after the cessation of hostilities. It is surmised that the complete destruction of the ruins of battle, therefore, is punishment for its inhabitants.”
Nissim concurs. “I found joy with every house that came down, because I knew they didn’t mind dying, but they cared for their homes. If you knocked down a house, you buried 40 or 50 people for generations. If I am sorry for anything, it is for not tearing the whole camp down,” he says. “They will sit quietly. Jenin will not return to what it used to be.”
(Peter Lagerquist, The Daily Star, 11/22/03)
Palestinians demanded an investigation.
A fact finding mission was proposed by the United Nations on April 19, 2002. Israel initially agreed to co-operate with the inquiry, but demanded a set of conditions to do so. Among the conditions, Israel demanded that the mission should include anti-terrorism experts, that the UN agree not to prosecute Israeli soldiers for potential violations of international law, and that it limit its scope exclusively to events in Jenin. The UN refused to accept the last two conditions and were forced to ultimately disband their mission.
The world will never know, until a war crimes trail in The Hague of Israeli officials, what really happened inside the camp during those deadly days.
The cases demonstrating Israel’s systematic cover-up of Palestinian deaths are voluminous. It will suffice to direct you to Leigh Brady’s writing on this issue, entitled, "Don't worry - it's just another Palestinian child's death" (Live from Palestine, 31 March 2006, http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article4607.shtml)
Not all Israelis are blind to Israel’s war crimes. The renowned Israeli journalist Amira Hass who lives in Ramallah wrote these words: “There is a long list of Palestinian civilians whose blood was spilled neither in battle nor because they endangered someone, and their blood has evaporated from our consciousness.” (Ha’aretz, 9 February 2005.)
So back to the Gaza beach killings. Israel is now claiming, five days after the fact, that they are not responsible for the killing. Instead, the spin that they have developed is that the deaths were a result of a mine planted in the sand by Palestinians in anticipation of Israeli navy seals attacking Gaza from the sea. Is this possible? Yes? Will we ever really know? No? Well, again, not until Israeli officials are brought before The Hague for their war crimes.
In the hours and days to come, Israel will have an army of media experts speaking perfect mother-tongue language of their target audience explaining, in what seems scientific terms, why their “findings” exonerate the Israeli military from these killings. What they miss is that responsible accountability requires not the occupier to investigate the occupier, or Israeli military to investigate the Israeli military.
What is required is an international and independent investigation, an investigation that has consequences. Is this too much to ask for? Well, if we look at past Israeli investigations of their own leaders we can use the past Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to learn how Israelis punish their own leaders.
The date was September 16-18, 1982. The place was the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. Then Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon encircled the camps, sealed them, and sent in his closest allies amongst the Lebanese militias to "cleanse" the area of the "2,000 terrorists" which he insisted had remained there during Israelis invasion of Southern Lebanon. As a result, hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were subject to three days of relentless torture, rape and killing, while hundreds more were arrested and trucked away, never to be seen again: an estimated 2000 civilians were killed or disappeared.
What happen to Sharon? A high-level Israeli commission was formed to investigate. The result of that investigation was the “Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut” (The Kahan Commission, February 8, 1983). The report stated:
“We have found, as has been detailed in this report, that the Minister of Defense bears personal responsibility. In our opinion, it is fitting that the Minister of Defense draw the appropriate personal conclusions arising out of the defects revealed with regard to the manner in which he discharged the duties of his office - and if necessary, that the Prime Minister consider whether he should exercise his authority under Section 21-A(a) of the Basic Law: the Government, according to which "the Prime Minister may, after informing the Cabinet of his intention to do so, remove a minister from office."”
After being found unfit to be Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon swiftly rose to be the Prime Minister of Israel, twice.
Of course Palestinians are firing missiles into Israel, albeit a failing strategy. If some Palestinians had the chance to smuggle F-16’s into Gaza to release them toward Tel Aviv, I’m sure they would. I wonder what the State of Texas would do if Mexico militarily occupied if for 39 years. I would assume, then, the Palestinian missiles excuse would be acknowledged for what it is, acts of desperation and not an existential threat.
In spinning the recent Gaza beach killings, Israel will no doubt point to the homemade missiles that a few Palestinians are firing into Israel as a pretext to the continuous Israeli shelling of Gaza. But again, Israel forgets that after occupying Palestinians by force in a most brutal way for so long and giving no indication of the possibility for peaceful co-existence built on international law and human rights, they are feeding a terrible, lethal despair within Palestine that gives rise to steps of desperation taken by a few desperate people to cause harm to the occupier.
Not only is the Palestinian firing of missiles into Israel a failing strategy, one I wish I had the power to stop, but it is a blatant example of Palestinians not having a strategy that can end the occupation. Not having a strategy of liberation is understood, albeit unacceptable.
Israel has killed off and imprisoned most of the first and second level Palestinian leadership. Also, two-thirds of the Palestinian population is denied entry into Palestine and thus cannot participate on the ground to create a better reality. Thus, without a cohesive leadership, who could expect those under Israel’s non-stop aggression to become peace doves overnight.
Jews are very familiar with Yiddish, the Jewish dialect that gave us the widely used term, chutzpah. The dictionary defines chutzpah as unbelievable gall; insolence; audacity. In Palestinian lay terms, chutzpah relates to Israel’s amazing ability to kill a people in cold blood and then march solemnly in their funeral procession.
Israelis must wake up. International and humanitarian laws do not release the State of Israel, or individual soldiers, from their responsibility as an occupying force simply because they apologize for killing those they occupy.
While Israel launched its “propaganda offensive” today, another 11 Palestinians were killed, 2 of them children and 2 medics, when Israeli warplanes struck a Palestinian car on a crowded Gaza City street. Also, in the midst of this living hell, Israeli Defense Minister stated that the time for restraint is over.
If the Israeli-made living hell that we have been living with thus far was an example of Israel showing restraint, God help us all, Palestinians and Israelis, as the Israeli occupation flexes its military muscle in the coming days. When all the flexing is done and all the dead buried, the occupation will still be wrong and The Hague will still await all those who committed war crimes.
The writer is a Palestinian-American living in the besieged Palestinian City of El-Bireh in the West Bank. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994) and can be reached at email@example.com.