This morning, at 10.25am, a team of Israeli commandos entered a Palestinian hospital which, according to intelligence sources, had been used to launch a number of rockets towards the city of Ashod. During the twenty minute operation, twelve people – mostly civilians – were killed, as the soldiers charged through the building from the ground up, instantly shooting anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path, in an effort to eliminate Hamas forces. A warning had been issued approximately an hour before the attack, but many had been unable to get out of the way in time and, for this, paid with their lives.
Of course, none of the this actually happened, primarily because the type of events described in the above paragraph are utterly unthinkable – nobody with even the slightest shred of humanity could possibly attempt to justify an operation where civilians, though not specifically targeted, were treated as legitimate casualties because they occupied the same building as those deemed military enemies of a particular state.
And yet, when the same effects are achieved not by soldiers, guns and bullets, but by F-16s, warships, tanks and long-range missiles, somehow those same deaths can be explained away as an example of Israel exercising its right to defend itself.
Over the past week the world has watched as Israel has launched a ferocious attack on the residents of the world’s most famous prison – the Gaza strip; to date, 274 Palestinians have died, with 80% of this number thought to be civilians, and a fifth of them children. Apparently legitimate targets have so far included a hospital, a family home and a group of boys playing football on the beach. In short, what we have witnessed is not a war, but the illegal collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.8 million people.
Perhaps the worst aspect of this terrible ‘conflict’ (aside from the dead children) has been the consistent, deliberate and appalling attempt to blame the victims. As the body count rises, we are subjected to claims that the deaths are the fault of Hamas for launching their weapons from built up areas, or even that the civilians themselves are responsible for their suffering for failing to vacate the targeted areas quickly enough – both of these arguments are unequivocally wrong. Firstly, Israel has targeted not just ‘launch sites’ (which are hardly likely to be in wide, open spaces when Israel possess such a huge military advantage already), but the homes of individuals that they deem to be militants – it is worth remembering that Gaza is tiny, covering an area of just 140 square miles, with a captive population of around 1.8 million and a population density not much lower than that of London, and as a consequence any attack on a populated area is all but guaranteed to result in civilian casualties. Secondly, Israel’s attempt to ‘warn’ people to leave their homes is, amongst other things, a clear admission that innocent victims have been factored in to their planning (but since these victims are Palestinian, they are not innocent enough to prevent missiles and shells from being launched into Gaza the first place).
Over the last eleven days victim blaming has been the tactic of choice not just for Israel itself, but also for her defenders – anyone daring to criticise Israeli policy is no longer simply shouted down as an anti-Semite, they are told that the missiles being launched towards Israeli towns and cities justify the classification of every single resident of the Gaza strip as acceptable collateral damage. It is imperative that such callous inhumanity is challenged. Questions about the legitimacy of a state which continues to steal land through illegal settlement activity, or the viability of a two-state solution (which now seems entirely out of reach) are, as ever, crucial, but right at this moment what matters is the immediate human cost of a conflict which is unfolding before our eyes, and the fact that innocent civilians are, in fact, innocent (even if they are Palestinian).