In Case You Missed It: Israeli Propaganda and the Destruction of Gaza

As Israel launches Operation Pillar of Defense against the people of Gaza, here’s a timely reminder of what happened there four years ago.

Operation Cast lead: “They should wipe them all out.”

When Israel launched its assault against the people of Gaza on December 27th 2008, Operation Cast Lead was accompanied by the predictable slew of propaganda from the Israeli government dutifully regurgitated by the mainstream media. With public opinion increasingly against the continual aggression of Israel, particularly since the indiscriminate bombing of Lebanon in the summer of 2006, this time the PR campaign was planned well in advance, and included a vast recruitment drive for bloggers to trawl “anti-Zionist” chatrooms and cheerlead for the offensive on Gaza, echoing similar efforts by the Pentagon and Centcom to fabricate pro-war sentiments over the US invasion of Iraq.

The dissemination of propaganda is often synonymous with the peddling of lies, and true to form Israel’s announcements concerning the recent assault offer a model example. Initially, the official justification for launching Operation Cast Lead was the firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas, whom they claim broke the ceasefire which had been established in July. In fact, it was Israel who broke the ceasefire when they carried out an incursion into Gaza in November killing 6 people, a violation which provoked the pretext the Israelis were looking for. Accompanied by the “Hamas terrorists!” mantra which has become a staple feature of hard right Israeli discourse since Hamas came to power in free and fair elections in 2006, this was repeated ad nauseum in the press, as Phase One of the assault saw a series of devastating airstrikes sweep over Gaza. The first strike was timed to coincide with the end of the school day, in order to maximize the impact on the Palestinian people – in a matter of minutes 200 were dead and 700 injured, the majority of whom were civilians.

As the attacks intensified, women and children increasingly made up the number of dead. Dr. Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor in Gaza said, “This is an all-out war against the civilian Palestinian population.” John Holmes, the U.N. humanitarian chief, described a “humanitarian crisis”. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who’s father was chief operations officer of the Irgun terrorist organisation, responsible for the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, responded by stating that there was no crisis thanks to Israeli “benevolence”.

This “benevolence” manifested itself in the shelling of the UN Fakhura school in Jabaliya refugee camp. Lie number one came soon after when the army claimed that Hamas fighters had been firing mortars from near the entrance, which they claimed to prove with aerial photography. But this was a falsification: the photograph was more than a year old. Then the claim transmogrified into “our soldiers were shot at from inside the school” until the army had to admit to UN personnel that this was also a lie: there were no Hamas fighters at the school. By this time, the TV reporters were busy repeating the lies, and by the time the Israeli admission was forthcoming the lie had been sold to the public.

During Phase Two, ground troops were deployed into Gaza. Shortly after, reports of the use of white phosphorous – an illegal munition banned under the Geneva Conventions – began to emerge. At first, Israel denied its use, but then footage emerged showing it raining down on Gaza City. So again the story changed; the Israelis were using white phosphorous, but only as a smokescreen to provide cover for advancing troops and not against a civilian population. The problem with this was that the evidence indicated that it was being used indiscriminately against one of the most densely populated places on earth; on refugee camps, residential streets and a UN compound.

Additional reports concerning the use of illegal and experimental weapons continued to emerge in the aftermath of the attacks, including Dense Inert Metal Explosive (Dime) bombs, experimental weapons that generate micro-shrapnel that burns and destroys everything within a four-metre radius. Dr. Erik Fosse, a Norwegian surgeon, commented: “We suspect they used Dime weapons because we saw cases of huge amputations or flesh torn off the lower parts of the body. The pressure wave [from a Dime device] moves from the ground upwards and that’s why the majority of patients have huge injuries to the lower part of the body and abdomen… The problem is that most of the patients I saw were children. If they [the Israelis] are trying to be accurate, it seems obvious these weapons were aimed at children.”

Even after the conflict was drawn to a shaky truce to allow for uninterrupted media coverage of Obama’s inauguration, the lies continued. In a desperate and entirely predictable effort to minimize the number of civilian casualties and maximize the number of so-called militants killed (to invoke legalese they’re actually the armed forces of a democratically-elected government), the Israelis managed to undermine their own propaganda with bad mathematics. The IDF claimed it had killed 500 Hamas militiamen; and at the same time they also asserted that 75% of those killed were militiamen. Yet 500 divided by the 1350 total deaths equals 37%, meaning that, by their own admission, at least 63% of those killed were civilians.  Human rights groups in Gaza estimated the number of fighters killed to be under 100.

Israel’s repeated claims to the effect that it doesn’t target civilians was once again undermined by clear evidence of attacks on civilian targets during its offensive against Gaza – schools, mosques, thousands of houses and municipal buildings were razed to the ground by Israeli bombs. But to those who pay attention, not only is this disparity between their claims and the facts on the ground nothing new, it’s also another proven lie inconsistent with the historical record.

Former Israeli Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur stated, “For 30 years, from the War of Independence until today, we have been fighting against a population that lives in villages and cities,” a statement to which Israeli military analyst Zeev Schiff commented, “the importance of Gur’s remarks is the admission that the Israeli Army has always struck civilian populations, purposely and consciously…the Army, he said, has never distinguished civilian [from military] targets… [but] purposely attacked civilian targets…”

In Gaza, the targeting of civilians had already been given religious approval. A former chief Sephardic rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu had written to Prime Minister Olmert, informing him that all civilians in Gaza are collectively guilty for rocket attacks, so that there is “absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings.” The dead women and children lying in Gaza’s morgues attest to this ideological imperative.

Gaza: “We’re putting them on a diet.”

One of Israel’s most effective propaganda coups came in 2005, when Ariel Sharon – the war criminal largely responsible for the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camp massacre in 1982 – announced the removal of illegal settlers from the Gaza Strip. Wailing, distraught settlers filled the TV screens; but nothing was mentioned of the Israeli government’s plan to relocate them in the West Bank, as part of a program of rapid expansion of illegal settlements in conjunction with the political and economic isolation of the Palestinians in Gaza.

As Israel continued to annex more and more land in the West Bank, using the settlements and the “Security Wall” to achieve this end, the aftermath of the Gazan “disengagement” presented an increasingly bleak outlook for the Palestinians. Israeli academic Uri Davis announced somewhat prophetically in July of 2005: “We believe that one primary, unstated motive for the determination of the government of the State of Israel to get the Jewish settlers of the Qatif settlement block out of the Gaza Strip may be to keep them out of harm’s way when the Israeli government and military possibly trigger an intensified mass attack on the approximately one and a half million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, of whom about half are 1948 Palestine refugees.”

Israel may well have marketed the disengagement as a move towards peace, but to those paying attention the words of former adviser to Sharon, Dov Weisglass, were not forgotten. He highlighted the gulf between Israel’s PR and its real intentions when he stated, “The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” Despite the withdrawal of the settlers, every aspect of Palestinian life in Gaza remained under the control of the Israelis. Unable to trade with their neighbours and isolated from the West Bank (where the process of land theft cut off communities into discontiguous Bantustans, creating a situation in which, in the words of former Israeli army Chief of Staff Raphael Eitan, “all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle”) the Palestinians in Gaza became increasingly impoverished and traumatized under the oppression of the ongoing military occupation.

The election victory of Hamas in 2006 – a political party unwilling to kowtow to the demands of the US and Israel – made a bad situation much worse, and a failed CIA-orchestrated putsch exacerbated the war of attrition against the Palestinians as much as it consolidated Hamas’s level of authority. Israeli officials declared their intention to put the Palestinians on a “diet” and immediately tightened the blockade, suspending imports and exports (while forcing the Palestinians to purchase Israeli goods), and reducing the supply of food, medicine and electricity to a trickle, sometimes cutting it off altogether.

In the words of the UN Relief and Works Agency, “Gaza became the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and — some would say — encouragement of the international community.”

As the Israeli Defense Forces conducted an increasing number of incursions and targeted assassinations in Gaza, Hamas responded with Qassam rockets. A period of uneasy ceasefires and violations ensued, strengthening the hardliners in Tel Aviv and prompting further collective punishment on the people of Gaza, to which Amnesty International stated, “”This action appears calculated to make an already dire humanitarian situation worse, one in which the most vulnerable – the sick, the elderly, women and children – will bear the brunt, not the men of violence who carry out attacks against Israel.” But calls for Israel to cease its violations of international law were once again ignored, and by early 2008 talk in the Knesset – Israel’s legislative branch of government – turned once again to direct military action against Gaza. “The more Qassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, [the Palestinians] will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah,” warned Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai. The word “shoah”, translated literally as “disaster”, is used in Israel to refer to the Holocaust.

True to Vilnai’s words and after six months of careful planning, Operation Cast Lead was unleashed on Gaza, destroying innocent lives along with the infrastructure essential for the formation of a viable, independent Palestinian state. Beneath all the lies and propaganda, the crushing of Palestinian aspirations for self-determination and their rights to statehood emerge as the real goal of the Israeli government.

“If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?”

David Ben-Gurion, 1st Prime Minister of Israel

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