Aug 11th 2014

The Gaza Saga Continues

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Bombs stopped falling on Gaza for three days, allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to return to what had once been their homes and neighborhoods.

For many, this brief respite provided no relief since they emerged from their shelters only to find that the places they knew no longer existed. Homes in which they were born and raised, that held within their walls memories of the lives they lived, had been reduced to rubble. Not only had lives and hope been victims of this onslaught, memories were shattered, as well.

The one-month casualty totals were staggering. At last count, 1,875 had been reported killed, 429 of whom were children. Another 9,536 had been wounded, including 2,877 children. At the peak of hostilities, more than one-quarter of all Gazans were internally displaced and of that total, 65,000 are now permanently without homes. What remains unknown are how many bodies are still buried under the rubble and how many homes, though standing, will be deemed unfit for habitation, creating an even more desperate situation in the impoverished strip called Gaza.  

With or without an infusion of massive amounts of international aid, clearing away the mess of this war will take years. Streets can be cleaned, but the wounds, both physical and mental, will not soon heal, nor will the survivors easily erase the feelings of helplessness, despair, and anger with which they have been left. 

As Palestinians took advantage of the 72 hour calm to sift through the ruins and attempt to reconstruct their shattered lives, Israel began a clean-up operation of its own. Instead of brooms and shovels, their tools of choice were full page ads, "studies", and a "setting the record straight" press conference by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What they attempted to clean up was not the mess they left behind in Gaza, but the damage they had done to their image world-wide.

Their relentlessness in waging war was matched by their efforts to reshape the narrative of what happened during the bloody month-long onslaught. Using misdirection and fabrication they spared no effort to provide reinforcement for their supporters and sow confusion among the public at large. 

The blood of the dead had not yet dried and the bodies of the missing had not yet been recovered, when the Israelis released studies arguing that the body counts issued by a number of UN agencies operating in Gaza were wrong and, of course, biased against Israel. Based on a preliminary review of the names of what they claimed were the first 150 dead Palestinians, the Israelis concluded that one-half were, in fact, fighters. Extrapolating from that unscientific "sample" they advanced the facile conclusion that one-half of all the casualties must have been fighters— this, in a brazen effort to deny the UN claim that more than 70 percent of those who died had been civilians. In the days that followed, their misdirection worked. Instead of dismissing these unscientific studies, both the Washington Post and the New York Times carried major stories about the "disputed body counts." Doubt had been sown.

Then, on the first day of post-cease-fire negotiations, the Prime Minister held a press conference and two pro-Israel groups placed full-page advertisements in US newspapers both of which regurgitated the arguments Israel had been making since the conflict began: Israel is the moral nation; Israel is the victim; and Israel cares more for Palestinian life than Palestinians care for their own— since it was Israel that provided warnings and even aid, food, water, and electricity to the people in Gaza, while Hamas used civilians as human shields.

In his press conference, Netanyahu feigned sadness for the loss of life while placing the blame squarely on Hamas: they made us do it; they wanted to increase the number of dead, so they could use it against us; our actions were proportionate, and the justified response of a civilized victim nation fighting against evil.

By any measure, this Israeli cleanup operation was an obscene form of self-absolution designed to provide supporters with talking points, while creating confusion among all-too pliant reporters and the publics whom they impact. The purpose of this effort was to change the public's understanding of the scenes of entire neighborhoods that had been destroyed, or the entire families that had been wiped out by errant bombs, or the civilian targets that had been struck by deadly missile attacks. Instead of being seen as evidence of overwhelming and disproportionate force by a callous occupier, Israel wanted all of this to be seen as the inevitable and tragic consequence of what the very evil Hamas "forced" the very moral Israel to do. 

There is plenty of blame to cast in Hamas' direction. They had agreed to a reconciliation government which much of the world had accepted and which provided them an escape hatch from their growing political isolation. They had the opportunity to become responsible partners with the fledgling Palestinian Authority. They knew that Israel was hell-bent on destroying this new Palestinian unity and should have known, from their earlier experience in 2006, that Israel would provoke and bait a trap for them. And yet, as before, their macho bravado and their insistence on military resistance once again led them foolishly into Israel's trap and into a fight they couldn't win. Having said this, however, nothing absolves Israel's inhumane behavior. They lied their way into this war and committed heinous crimes all throughout the month-long hostilities.

As I write, the all too brief cease-fire has ended and the pathologies of both parties are playing out again. Why Hamas thinks that this round will end any differently than the last is a mystery. Why Israel believes that it will be able to force the Palestinians to settle for humiliation and continued economic strangulation, on the other hand, is not a mystery. 

After the 2008-2009 Gaza war, Israel was able to escape scot-free. Using the same clean-up tools of misdirection and fabrication, they were able to keep the US solidly in their corner. When that failed, they resorted to intimidation to silence critics— even pummeling the venerable Justice Goldstone into submission. Believing they can get away with the same game plan, Israel sees no reason to change course. As a result, Hamas also sees no point in changing its behavior, and so the sad saga will continue until there is international intervention and equal doses of justice and accountability for the misdeeds committed by all parties.

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