History will record Israel’s onslaught in Gaza as noteworthy not only for the wide destruction of institutions of state and civil society, but for the deliberate targeting of the United Nations and the refugees it aided and sheltered. And it certainly would not be the first time Israel has done so.
On Jan. 15, in its most brazen act yet, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) shelled the Gaza headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Words Agency (UNRWA), the primary body responsible for feeding and assisting Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip and beyond. At the time of the attack, the compound housed more than 700 civilians seeking shelter from the war and its warehouses stored thousands of pounds of critical, and desperately needed, food and humanitarian supplies.
Even more sinister was the weapon employed: White Phosphorus (WP).
WP is known to cause severe, deep, and difficult to treat burns when it comes in contact with skin. Despite denials by the IDF, there is evidence of its use in Gaza and reports detailing significant burn injuries to civilians as a result. Its use as a weapon is a flagrant violation of international law and the UN’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.
WP bombs and shells are classified as incendiary devices and the structures they hit continue burn for long periods since the fires they cause are not extinguished by conventional means (water, fire extinguishers, etc).
As food, fuel and other supplies went up in flames at the headquarters—a location well-known to the Israelis who were given its precise GPS coordinates—UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness aptly remarked, “What more stark symbolism do you need?”
Indeed, the sordid history and pattern of Israel’s intentional targeting of UN compounds and schools in Lebanon and Gaza is ripe with symbolism, as is the usual flurry of contradictory excuses, apologies and justifications that predictably follow.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak deemed this most recent attack a “grave mistake” while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it was justified because missiles were allegedly launched there.
This very same sequence of events has been played out time and time again: a UN facility targeting refugees Israel helped create is shelled, a subsequent apology, excuse, and justification issued (usually that it was being used by ‘militants’), then little to no evidence substantiating the attack presented.
The following all share in this tragic history; where the innocent were massacred, and the assumption that the humanitarian auspices of the UN could protect non-combatants from Israeli shelling, shattered.
The year was 1996 and Israel was only six weeks away from upcoming elections (sound familiar?). Prime Minister Shimon Peres was expecting a stiff challenge from Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu. At the time, Israel was occupying southern Lebanon. Along with its proxy militia, the South Lebanese Army, they continued to fruitlessly battle Hezbollah despite their repeated failure to eradicate the group’s resistance. What Israel really needed to do, and has done prior to all its military adventures, was provoke the enemy enough to elicit a significant response. That response would then be used as pretext for initiating an all-out assault.
It came on March 30 when an Israeli gunship fired on two men, both civilians, working on a water tower in Yater, Lebanon, killing both. Hezbollah retaliated by firing missiles into northern Israel. Then, when a teenager died after a roadside bomb exploded in the village of Barashit and Hezbollah again responded with rockets, Peres had what he needed. Under the pretense of stopping the attacks and protecting the country’s northern border, “Operation Grapes of Wrath” was launched on April 11.
It didn’t take long before Israel committed its first wartime atrocity. On April 18, a UN compound in the southern Lebanese village of Qana, where more than 800 civilians had sought refuge, was shelled. One hundred and six civilians were massacred.
Peres said, “We did not know that several hundred people were concentrated in that camp. It came to us as a bitter surprise.” The military claimed it was due to “incorrect targeting based on erroneous data.” That was hard to believe, however, considering they had long been made aware of the compound’s location. In fact, a UNIFIL soldier filmed a drone and helicopters flying above the facility at the time of the attack. Tired allegations that Hezbollah fighters were using civilians as ‘human shields’ also fell flat.
A UN investigation concluded that: “The pattern of impacts is inconsistent with a normal overshooting of the declared target (the mortar site) … as suggested by the Israeli forces; during the shelling, there was a perceptible shift in the weight of fire from the mortar site to the United Nations compound”; and it was “unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors.”
The investigation conducted by Amnesty International succinctly stated: “The IDF intentionally attacked the UN compound … The IDF have failed to substantiate their claim that the attack was a mistake.”
The shifting explanations and excuses the Israelis had offered were solely for appeasing the international community. They knew their real message had been delivered.
The assault on Gaza, dubbed “Operation Cast Lead” is almost into itsfourth week. It was on Jan. 6, though, that the single largest loss of life since the beginning of the campaign occurred. Not surprisingly, it was another UN facility that was targeted. This time it was the Al-Fakhura girls school located in the Jabaliya refugee camp north of Gaza City. Two-hundred eighty families had taken refuge there, numbering 1,674 people. Most came from the town of Beit Lahiya to the north after being ordered to evacuate by the IDF.
Despite the school flying the distinctive UN flag and its location by GPS coordinates known, Israeli tank shells struck the school, spraying shrapnel inside and outside the building. Forty-six people were killed (including 20 children) and 55 wounded. Paramedics and eyewitnesses reported seeing “limbs and meat” in the street afterward.
As with Qana, the same justifications for the attack—conducted “according to procedures”—were put forth by the Israelis and just as quickly refuted.
It was alleged that Hamas fighters were operating out of the school. John Ging, director of the UNRWA in Gaza vehemently denied this, saying all people taking shelter there had been thoroughly vetted and there were “…no military people inside the school; it is fully controlled.”
The Israelis then decided to release footage of the purported “militant gunfire” coming from the school. But not only did the footage date back to 2007, it was of a different school, in a different city! (and not run by the UN).
It was ultimately acknowledged that no shooting came from there. According to Gunness:
“In briefings senior officers conducted for foreign diplomats, they admitted the shelling to which IDF forces in Jabaliya were responding did not originate from the school” (Haaretz, 11 Jan 2009).
Many different and often contradictory stories have since been issued by the Israelis. As before, the underlining message had been effectively delivered.
Other UN schools – Al-Shouka, Asma
Al-Shouka school in Rafah and Asma primary school in Gaza City were also bombed by the Israelis in “Operation Cast Lead”. At Asma, three cousins were killed among the 400 people housed there who had fled fighting to the north.
So what were the Qana and Jabaliya massacres and the deliberate attack on Gaza’s UN headquarters meant to illustrate?
It is that not only sympathizers, but any civilian located in remote proximity to Israel’s enemies will be targeted. In addition, retribution will not only be exacted against the UN in general for the countless resolutions it has levied against Israel, but against the UNRWA specifically for the body’s assistance and advocacy on behalf of Palestinians. All are extensions of the doctrine of collective punishment, but with a particularly ominous message for civilians:
There is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. There is not an institution or organization on earth that will be able to protect you from us.
Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: rbamiri at yahoo dot com.