Israel’s highly publicised war in Gaza has drawn sharp condemnation from the UN and human rights groups, with some UN officials now calling for a war crimes investigation. With the death toll likely to pass 1000 (one-third of whom are children), public outrage and mass demonstrations across the world continue.
In the face of new media technology, the internet, and citizen journalism, it has been impossible for Israel’s powerful PR machine to compete with the gory images of strewn Palestinian bodies, many of them children, plastered all over the web.
Israel’s actions have been caught on camera. The indiscriminate bombing of a UN school, a university, government buildings, police stations, and residential complexes all constitute serious breaches of the Geneva Conventions. The most recent controversy is over allegations that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is using white phosphorus and cluster bombs.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Israel has subjected large civilian populations to the horrors of war. In fact, Israel has a long record of targeting civilian centres, and an equally long record of feebly justifying its actions.
In 1982, Israel launched a massive invasion of its northern neighbour, Lebanon, in a bloody campaign that claimed the lives of 17,500 people, many of them women and children. Eyewitness journalist to the invasion, Robert Fisk, claims to have seen first-hand the impacts of the use of phosphorus bombs during Israel’s siege of Beirut.
"I saw two dead babies who, when taken from a mortuary drawer in West Beirut during the Israeli siege of the city, suddenly burst back into flames," Fisk wrote.
Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath against Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 1996 was also a bloody massacre. A UN compound in Qana, South Lebanon, that housed 800 refugees was hit by Israeli shells, killing 106 civilians. An Amnesty International investigation into the attack found that contrary to Israel’s version of events, "the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) intentionally attacked the UN compound".
An Israeli military offensive in the West Bank refugee camps of Jenin and Nablus in 2002 claimed almost 500 Palestinian lives. Subsequent investigations by Amnesty International found that Israel committed "war crimes" in the camps, accusing the Jewish state of: unlawful killings; demolishing more than 3000 homes (many with residents still inside); using Palestinian civilians as "human shields" against Palestinian armed groups; destroying civilian infrastructure; cutting off electricity and water supplies; denying access to humanitarian aid; and torturing thousands of detainees. Sound familiar?
Most recently, the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah saw much of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure reduced to rubble. In a war that claimed 1200 lives, the vast majority of which were Lebanese civilians of whom, again, roughly one-third were children (and displacing one-quarter of Lebanon’s population), Israel was once more accused of grossly violating international law. Israel destroyed 31 vital government installations such as airports, electricity plants, ports and water facilities, 80 bridges, more than 900 commercial targets, over 30,000 residential properties, and several hospitals.
In addition to the widespread carnage inflicted upon Lebanon’s civilian population, Israel again deployed its line of controversial weapons. In the dying days of the war, Israel sprayed South Lebanon with millions of cluster bombs that today continue to kill and maim Lebanese civilians returning to their war-torn homes and villages. After initially denying the use of white phosphorus in the 2006 war, Israel later conceded to using the burning, toxic weapon. Tel Aviv was also alleged to have used advanced uranium-based bombs on Lebanon.
Deliberate attacks on civilians were frequent in the July 2006 war. One such case was the Marwahin massacre. A convoy of 27 civilians, mainly children, attempted to flee the southern Lebanese village of Marwahin when it was fired upon by an Israeli Apache Helicopter at close range, killing 23 people.
"The pilot must have seen what he was doing," recounted one survivor who lost half his family in the killing. "He could see we were mostly children. The pick-up didn’t have a roof. All the children were crammed in the back and clearly visible."
And we arrive at Gaza 2008-2009. A UN school slaughter of 43 children, a destroyed university, ravaged cities, falling phosphorus and cluster munitions, no electricity, scarce water, food and medicine. This scene has been revisited far too often.
Israel’s lines of justification when confronted with the realities of its atrocities have also remained weak and inconsistent.
When news first hit the airwaves of an Israeli strike of the UN school in Gaza, the Israeli military claimed that it was responding to Hamas rockets fired from the school.
After confronted by an angry UN over the allegation that Hamas was using its facilities to launch rockets, Israel retracted its statement claiming it had mistakenly fired on the school, only to then claim that the rockets were coming from near the school.
Wobbly Israeli accounts are hardly new territory. Take for example Israel’s initial response to its 1996 massacre of the UN’s Qana compound in South Lebanon. Israel’s then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres justified the attack by claiming it was in response to Hezbollah firing two Katyusha rockets. Aware of the absurdity of such an explanation, the Jewish state later stated it fired on the UN compound as a result of a technical error.
However, a UN investigation concluded that it was "unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors."
So why has the majority of the world suddenly found a conscience now?
New media and the advances of the internet have brought the images and live accounts into people’s homes. Israel would have preferred to have no cameras present, as it has repeatedly done in the past and attempted to do again by blocking media access to Gaza. However, Tel Aviv has underestimated the efficacy of new media technology and the easy availability and accessibility to news coverage of the war that doesn’t come from major satellite networks and newswires.
For many people in the world, this latest offensive in Gaza is the first time they have seen images of Israel’s war crimes — courtesy of new media tools such as blogging, independent online media sources, and interactive sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. But for the Palestinians, Lebanese and much of the Arab world, Gaza is simply another addition to a long list of Israeli abuses.
But while new media technology has helped to build a massive international network in solidarity with the Palestinians, it has done little to influence the men and women who hold the reins of power. The blind eye turned by world leaders (including those of Australian leaders) to Israel’s constant violation of international law in 60 years of conflict bears much responsibility for today’s Gaza war.
The hope for an end to this conflict is as distant today as it was the day Israel declared independence in 1948 on the backs of a broken Palestinian people. Israel has maintained the same policy of belligerence since its inception and continues to show complete disregard for international institutions and conventions.
Gazans, Palestinians, Lebanese and many in solidarity with their plight sit and wonder how many more Gazas, Qanas and Jenins will take place before the world says No to Israel. The only thing certain is that Gaza won’t be the last victim.