When Israel refused to admit foreign journalists into Gaza while they were attacking it, the reason was obvious: if reporters could see Israel’s crimes, they would reveal them to the world. It was bad enough having Al Jazeera showing videos of children mutilated by Israeli weapons. Imagine if Europeans — or even worse, Americans — were able to see footage on the BBC or CNN of murdered Gazan civilians.
The death toll is well known: Israeli soldiers killed over 1,300 Palestinians, including 500 women and children. Palestinians killed three Israeli civilians, and only six Israeli soldiers, if the Israeli army is to be believed. But equally telling are their different attitudes to the media: Israel banned journalists from Gaza, Palestinians welcomed them.
The journalist ban was brazen. However, while it led journalists to compare Israel to Burma or Zimbabwe, it did not prompt comparisons of Israel to, say, Russia in Chechnya. In other words, while it did provoke sharp criticism on civil liberties grounds, the criticisms could not be primarily over Israeli atrocities, because they remained largely uncovered. Better to be criticised for not admitting journalists, Israel reasoned, than to be criticised for wanton murder.
Some disagree. For example, Dominic Waghorn, the Sky News Middle East correspondent, wrote angrily in the British media that Israel scored an "own goal" with the journalist ban. He thinks Israel gained such bad publicity with the ban that it was worse than foreign coverage of the invasion would have been.
I thought he was probably wrong when I first read his article. Now I’m sure of it. The time when criticism of Israeli atrocities mattered most was when they were occurring. At such a time, public outcry could perhaps have stopped the campaign. Furthermore, during the invasion was when the public cared the most. As time goes on, people will lose interest in the attack on Gaza. That is why Israel is beginning to admit foreign witnesses now.
However, increased scrutiny of Israel’s onslaught has revealed more evidence of the bloody and savage nature of the attack. Pro-Israeli Government propagandists will be unhappy that I use the word "savage" to describe the attack. However, Israel’s Government sometimes agree with the hasbara propaganda being conducted in its name, and says things that are out of step with its international supporters. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni explained on Israeli radio that Israel’s onslaught has shown Hamas that Israel will "react savagely" to Palestinian provocations.
This presumably won’t deter the "pro-Israel" lobby from talking about a carefully measured targeting of "terrorists", and a policy of "restraint" by Israel and so on. But neither did Ehud Olmert bragging about destroying "half of Lebanon" in 2006.
If Israel’s leaders have set the tone of the onslaught, Israeli soldiers have certainly applied it. YNet reported on the "blatant, racist graffiti" Israeli soldiers left on the walls of Gazan homes. They included such writings as "Die you all", "Death to Arabs", and "Arabs must die".
An Amnesty International fact-finding mission was finally allowed into Gaza after Israel ended its invasion, and found similar vandalism. In addition to the graffiti — which among other messages informed Palestinians that "We came to annihilate you" — Amnesty noted that houses taken over by the Israeli army as military positions were always "ransacked". Some houses also had their personal items urinated on, or had cardboard boxes filled with the excrement of soldiers.
None of this should surprise those familiar with Israel’s contempt for Arabs. Those who read human rights reports would, for example, know of the everyday stories of Israeli soldiers and police beating Palestinians.
While most of Israel’s army is secular, the influence of religious fundamentalism on Jewish racism to Arabs should not be underestimated. As the war began, the Israeli army’s chief rabbinate advised its soldiers to disregard distinctions between civilians and soldiers, using an old Jewish text to argue that "one must not be enticed by the folly of the Gentiles who have mercy for the cruel". This continues an ugly tradition of prominent rabbis endorsing murder and racism.
As Israel re-opens Gaza to outsiders there has been cause for further shock at the audacity of Israeli propaganda. As observers of the conflict will be aware, when Israel kills Palestinian women and children, it roars with wounded dignity that Hamas must have been using them as human shields, and that they are the real criminals. But now, while there is some limited evidence that Hamas did launch military attacks from among unwilling and frightened Palestinian civilians, there is actually much stronger evidence of Israel using human shields itself.
Israeli human rights organisations have for a while now been documenting Israel’s use of Palestinians as human shields. For example, B’Tselem notes that Israeli soldiers have forced Palestinians to walk in front of them, literally shielding them while the soldiers would fire over their shoulders. In the attack on Gaza, Israel resumed its use of human shields. Soldiers invaded Palestinian homes and refused to let the Palestinian residents leave, "effectively…us[ing them]as human shields", according to Amnesty.
Other new reports tell of Palestinians being forced at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers to deal with Palestinian militants on behalf of the Israeli army.
While it hasn’t usually made the major newspapers, word of Israeli atrocities was already making it outside Gaza during the fighting, but now that Israel has finally let journalists and NGOs in we know more. Amnesty’s team, for example, has spoken out against Israel’s "indiscriminate shelling". They’ve documented Israel’s "widespread use" of the (arguably chemical) weapon white phosphorous in "densely populated residential areas in Gaza" and noted that using the chemical repeatedly in "an inherently indiscriminate manner is a war crime". Further, Amnesty has condemned Israel’s use of anti-personnel flechette ammunition, as they "should never be used in built up civilian areas".
Other testimonies of Israeli crimes have been seeping out. The Times of London reported on an Israeli order to "[f]ire on anything that moves in Zeitoun". An Israeli soldier explained that "[w]e were to shoot first and ask questions later."
YNet reported on the complaint filed by seven Israeli human rights organisations about Israel’s "appalling" treatment of Palestinian detainees. One Palestinian detainee described being held with 70 other Palestinians in a huge ditch. They were not given food, water or blankets, nor were they allowed to go to the toilet. Another detainee complained that they were handcuffed for days while in the ditch, with some of them also blindfolded. Israeli soldiers beat Palestinians who dared "ask for anything". As the complaint further notes, the detainees included children.
Interestingly (although pro-Israeli Government propagandists will ignore this too) some detainees were "held near tanks and in combat areas, in gross violation of international humanitarian law which prohibits holding prisoners and captives in areas exposed to danger". The complaint further alleges that Palestinians transferred to Israeli prison facilities "continued to be held in humiliating conditions", still denied access to toilets or showers.
Now that the guns have largely gone silent, Israel is banking on renewed international indifference to the suffering of Gazans. Respected NGOs have long documented the horrendous effects of Israel’s siege on Gaza. Now, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is saying that Israel will open the Gaza crossings when Hamas releases Gilad Shalit.
As a result, Israel will continue starving 1.5 million human beings.
The journalists currently inside Gaza will be able to reveal to the world the appalling effects this decision will have on the entire Palestinian population in Gaza. It is up to us to determine whether we will hold Israel accountable, or treat Gaza as yesterday’s story, and forget about the people there.