Even Crit­ics Note How This Gaza Con­flict Dif­fers From the Last One

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Nathan Jeffay Beer­sheba, Is­rael

Op­er­a­tion Pil­lar of De­fense was the mil­i­tary offensive fought in the shadow of the Gold­stone Re­port.

As a cease-fire was an­nounced Novem­ber 21 by Is­rael, Ha­mas, Egypt and the United States, there was broad agree­ment, span­ning from for­mer army chiefs to the big­gest crit­ics of Is­rael’s con­duct dur­ing the Gaza War of 2008–9, that Is­rael showed it had learned some im­por­tant lessons from this pre­vi­ous con­flict.

In par­tic­u­lar, there was a com­mon view that the mil­i­tary had acted on some of the crit­i­cisms in the United Nations in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Op­er­a­tion Cast Lead of 2008–9, known as the Gold­stone Re­port — not­with­stand­ing Is­rael’s dis­missal of the re­port’s va­lid­ity in Septem­ber 2009, when it was re­leased. This time, med­i­cal and hu­man­i­tar­ian sup­plies flowed more freely, jour­nal­ists were al­lowed into Gaza, and more so­phis­ti­cated weaponry re­duced civil­ian deaths.

“I think that Is­rael learned from her mis­takes, no doubt about it,” said Bassem Eid, founder and di­rec­tor of the East Jerusalem-based Pales­tinian Hu­man Rights Mon­i­tor­ing Group.

Cast Lead and Pil­lar of De­fense had sharply con­trast­ing Pales­tinian death tolls — and not only be­cause Cast Lead lasted far longer and in­volved a ground in­va­sion that Pil­lar of De­fense didn’t.

Pil­lar of De­fense in­volved some tragic civil­ian deaths on both sides. But num­bers-wise the first day of Cast Lead alone, Is­rael killed 230 Pales­tini­ans, al­most dou­ble the num­ber killed from the start of Pil­lar of De­fense

up to the cease fire ne­go­ti­a­tions. By the end of Cast Lead, about 1,400 Pales­tini­ans were dead.

Sarit Michaeli, spokes­woman for the Is­raeli hu­man rights group B’Tse­lem, told the For­ward that in the re­cent con­flict, she ob­served “a dif­fer­ent ap­proach in terms of choice of tar­gets, choice of weapons and the open-fire reg­u­la­tions, which was re­flected in a lower death toll than in Cast Lead.”

She said that Is­rael had tried harder to re­strict its fire to mil­i­tary tar­gets, had been slower to fire and had re­frained from us­ing con­tro­ver­sial weapons such as white phos­pho­rous. Michaeli was speak­ing as fight­ing was draw­ing to a close, and she stressed that her as­sess­ment was pre­lim­i­nary. She also stressed that B’Tse­lem still ob­jects to the Is­raeli mil­i­tary’s view that Ha­mas alone bears re­spon­si­bil­ity for the death of Gazan civil­ians be­cause it op­er­ates from among them.

For­mer de­fense of­fi­cial Barak Ben-Zur told the For­ward that the in Pil­lar of De­fense, a com­bi­na­tion of highly ac­cu­rate in­tel­li­gence and re­cently up­graded tech­nol­ogy al­lowed Is­rael to be tar­get its strikes more pre­cisely.

Ben-Zur, who served as head of the Is­rael De­fense Forces’ an­titer­ror­ism depart­ment, as head of the in­tel­li­gence and re­search division of Shin Bet, Is­rael’s for­eign in­tel­li­gence agency, and as spe­cial as­sis­tant to Shin Bet’s di­rec­tor, said that in par­tic­u­lar, the use of ad­vanced drones helped to keep down death tolls rel­a­tive to Cast Lead. “Their ca­pa­bil­ity and the way they are used makes them much more ef­fec­tive than in the past,” he com­mented.

In Ben-Zur’s as­sess­ment, two other con­sid­er­a­tions mo­ti­vated Is­rael to make a greater ef­fort to keep the death toll down: the pres­sure of world opin­ion, es­pe­cially in the light of criticism of Cast Lead, and a fear of spark­ing a re­gional con­flict in the new post-Arab Spring Mid­dle East.

Ben-Zur be­lieves that a calm men­tal­ity among Is­raeli civil­ians, in large part due to the pro­tec­tion af­forded by the Iron Dome mis­sile de­fense sys­tem, kept at bay do­mes­tic pres­sure on the gov­ern­ment to launch a ground offensive. This avoided an es­ca­la­tion that could well have led to more civil­ian deaths and made the ac­tions of mil­i­tary per­son­nel less pre­dictable than when they are oper­at­ing from the air.

In the throes of Cast Lead, there were wide­spread claims that ba­sic hu­man­i­tar­ian sup­plies and med­i­cal equip­ment were lack­ing in Gaza. And, in fact, Is­rael al­lowed

‘There are no sur­gi­cal wars in ar­eas with large civil­ian pop­u­la­tions.’

only very lim­ited sup­plies in then.

In con­trast, dur­ing Pil­lar of De­fense, the Kerem Shalom cross­ing to Gaza from Is­rael was open for long stretches, hun­dreds of truck­loads of food and med­i­cal goods passed, and of­fi­cials in charge of the cross­ing de­clared them­selves de­ter­mined to see that sup­plies made it through.

There were clo­sures, and on Novem­ber 20, Gazans re­ported a short­age of cook­ing gas and fuel af­ter the cross­ing was closed for most of the day. But the clo­sures were a re­sult of at­tacks, not Is­raeli pol­icy. Mil­i­tary spokesman Arye Shalicar told the For­ward that the cross­ing closed only when it was shelled by mil­i­tants, ren­der­ing it un­safe. “Ha­mas, Is­lamic Ji­had and oth­ers tar­get Kerem Shalom very in­tensely,” he said.

Sari Bashi, di­rec­tor of Gisha, a group that ad­vo­cates for free­dom of move­ment, said that “the hu­man­i­tar­ian sup­ply sit­u­a­tion is much bet­ter” than dur­ing Cast Lead.

Ac­cord­ing to Bashi, this is partly due to the dif­fer­ent Is­raeli at­ti­tude to­ward the cross­ing of goods dur­ing its two of­fen­sives, and partly due to the fact that Gaza was in bet­ter shape at the start of Pil­lar of De­fense. Cast Lead came af­ter a year-and-a-half of Is­rael se­verely lim­it­ing sup­plies, while Pil­lar of De­fense took place when Gaza had a net­work of tun­nels bring­ing goods from Egypt to Gaza. Is­rael, too, al­lowed reg­u­lar, if re­stricted, flow of goods via its ter­ri­tory.

As far as med­i­cal pro­vi­sions are con­cerned, Physi­cians for Hu­man Rights-Is­rael is­sued a state­ment de­cry­ing “nu­mer­ous in­ci­dents of harm to Gaza’s health in­fra­struc­ture” dur­ing Pil­lar of De­fense, in­clud­ing dam­age to hos­pi­tals by nearby shelling and aerial at­tacks. But PHR’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. Ran Co­hen, also said that the sit­u­a­tion was very dif­fer­ent from Cast Lead, be­cause of the fact that sup­plies went into Gaza and peo­ple went out. Pa­tients seek­ing treat­ment they couldn’t get in Gaza were al­lowed to leave for Egypt, East Jerusalem or the West Bank.

“There are no sur­gi­cal wars, es­pe­cially in ar­eas with large civil­ian pop­u­la­tions,” said Co­hen. But Is­rael, he added, learned “some of the lessons” of Cast Lead.

In the pub­lic re­la­tions sphere, Is­rael’s mes­sage hadn’t changed in the years since Cast Lead, but the gov­ern­ment dis­sem­i­nated it with more en­thu­si­asm on so­cial me­dia, and pro­vided jour­nal­ists with a heav­ier flow of videos and state­ments than ever. The big­gest dif­fer­ence was that the gov­ern­ment barred jour­nal­ists from en­ter­ing Gaza in 2008-9, but this time, on the first morn­ing of the con­flict, told them they were wel­come to cross.

There is spec­u­la­tion that this de­ci­sion may have stemmed from a de­sire to re­duce the me­dia’s de­pen­dence on hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions. Those of the Is­raeli right were an­gry at the ex­po­sure those re­ports re­ceived dur­ing the Cast Lead me­dia lock­down.

“The Is­raelis re­al­ized that there is no way of stop­ping jour­nal­ists and if they don’t let them in, they will get in­for­ma­tion from ‘worse’ sources,” said Gabriel Weimann, pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Haifa, “lo­cal peo­ple or stringers, or any­one locally with a mo­bile phone or cam­era.”

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