Consider the boy in the rubble.
There can be no excuse, of course.
In the early morning of Saturday, October 7, 2023, well-organized Hamas militants stormed from Gaza into Israel by land, sea, and air, indiscriminately murdering more than 1,300 men, women and children, most of them guilty of nothing more than waiting for a bus, attending a weekend music festival, driving in their cars, sleeping in their beds, living their lives, running from their deaths.
You can read some of their personal stories here.
The manner of their murders was often horrific, brutish, and barbaric. These were indeed crimes against humanity.
So, no excuse.
But can there still be explanations, or at least a broader historical context?
Not, it seems, in Canada. Not now.
In the aftermath of the Hamas attack, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — like lockstep leaders in other Western democracies — declared: “We stand with Israel and reaffirm our support for Israel’s right to defend itself in accordance with international law.”
“… defend itself in accordance with international law.”
More on that last phrase later.
Many Canadian politicians, of course, went much further than simply condemning Hamas for its condemnable attack. They also denounced Canadians who gathered at rallies across the country in support of the Palestinian cause.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault called pro-Palestinian demonstrations in his province “shameful, unacceptable.”
Trudeau himself tweeted, “I strongly condemn the demonstrations that have taken place, and are taking place, across the country in support of Hamas’s attacks on Israel.”
That and most of the other me-to denunciations of the rallies ignored the reality that many — perhaps most — of the demonstrations and demonstrators were not condoning Hamas’s terror. They were trying to bring attention — and a counter-balance — to what they saw as Israel’s rarely acknowledged ongoing history of oppression of the Palestinian people, not to mention raising alarms about what Israel’s inevitable retaliatory attacks would mean for innocent civilians in Gaza.
History? Let’s highlight — from a Palestinian perspective — some of what’s happened since 2005. That was when — 38 years after capturing it in war — Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, supposedly leaving the territory under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
- A year later, in 2006, Hamas won a majority in legislative elections in Gaza. But Israel and most other Western nations — arguing that Hamas had been designated a terrorist organization — refused to recognize the Palestinians’ democratic choice or deal with its governmental wing. The United States cut off aid to the territory.
- A year after that, in 2007, Israel imposed a land, sea, and air blockade of Gaza, creating a “fenced-in enclave” that many have called an “open-air prison” with “a closure policy … strictly controlling and limiting the entry and exit of individuals, maintaining harsh restrictions on imports including food, construction materials, fuel and other essential items, as well as prohibiting exports. Despite tut-tutting international condemnation, that “unlawful” blockade remains in place 16 years later.
- Between 2008 and this month’s terrorist Hamas attacks, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that more than 6,400 Palestinians, including nearly 2,000 women and children, had been killed in the conflict. By comparison, the statistics show 308 Israelis —177 civilians (none listed as children, but probably children also) and 131 soldiers — were killed in the same period.
And now, let’s look at what’s happened in the week since Hamas’s horrific attack, an attack that not only took the lives of more than 1,300 Israelis but also resulted in 200 or more Israelis being kidnapped and currently held as hostages.
Israel responded by putting the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza — most of whom have nothing to do with Hamas — under what it called a complete siege. “No electricity, no food, no water, no fuel.”
Collective punishment? Consider the boy in the rubble. An enemy combatant?
Israel then launched what is already — even before whatever the future holds — the most intense bombardment of Gaza in seven decades of conflict.
As of Sunday morning (October 15), the Palestinian Ministry of Health reported that 2,670 Gazans — one-quarter of them children — had been killed and 10,814 (including 4,000 women and children) injured in the bombings. At least 1,000 others are believed buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings.
In the first six days of this war, Israeli jets dropped 6,000 massive bombs on buildings and people in Gaza. For comparison, that’s “what the US was dropping in Afghanistan in a year,” according to a report in the Washington Post, but this bombing is happening “in a much smaller, much more densely populated area, where mistakes are going to be magnified.”
Smaller? Denser? Mistakes?
The Gaza Strip is a spit of land — just 365 square kilometres — in which more than two million people, 1.6 million of them refugees, struggle to survive in one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
By Friday, October 13 — six days in — the bombings had already forced more than 400,000 of them out of their destroyed and damaged homes.
Then, as a prelude to what is expected to be even more, and much more intense bombing and a ground invasion, the Israeli Defence Forces ordered the one million Palestinians still in northern Gaza to evacuate and head to southern Gaza.
Hamas countered by ordering residents to stay where they were.
Most left anyway, but others could not/did not. The elderly and those in hospitals, for example, had no escape. Others, as The New York Times reported, had their own reasons for staying, rooted in history.
They also feared that those who left their homes would not be allowed back, a repeat of the 1948 mass displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians who were either expelled or fled their homes in present-day Israel and were never allowed to return.
Seymour Hersh, the famous American investigative journalist who has important contacts among key players in Europe and the Middle East, suggests that may, in fact, be Israel’s end game.
With the starved-out civilian population forced to leave, the Israeli operational plan calls for the Air Force to destroy the remaining structures in Gaza City and elsewhere in the north. Gaza City will be no more. Israel will then begin dropping American-made 5,000-pound bombs known as “bunker busters,” or JDAMs, in the flattened areas where Hamas fighters are known to live and manufacture their missiles and other weapons underground.
Having herded the surviving Palestinians toward Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, Hersh says, Israeli war planners want to force even further south, into Egypt forcing the Egyptians to take in the refugees and take them off their hands.
Asked why the Israeli planners thought the Egyptian government would agree, even if under pressure from the Biden administration, to accept the more than one million refugees from Gaza, the insider said: “We’ve got Egypt by the balls.” He was referring to the recent indictments of Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and his wife on federal corruption charges stemming from his business dealings with senior Egyptian officials, and the alleged passing of intelligence about persons serving at the US Embassy in Cairo.
Back in the present…
For those who did follow the Israeli order to evacuate the north, there was no guarantee of safe passage. At least 70 people in a convoy of vehicles fleeing south, as instructed, were murdered in Israeli air strikes.
And there was no safety in the south where the refugees must now struggle “to find food, water or a place to shelter” in a situation where there has been no ceasefire and no border opening to allow humanitarian supplies in.
Despite pleas from human rights groups and a statement from the International Committee of the Red Cross warning Gaza’s health system is on the verge of complete collapse and its hospitals at risk of “turning into morgues,” Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz responded on social media: “Humanitarian aid to Gaza? No electrical switch will be lifted, no water hydrant will be opened, and no fuel truck will enter until the Israeli hostages are returned home.”
His comments were mild compared to some other Israeli cabinet ministers like Yoav Gallant who justified such measures on the grounds that “we are fighting human animals, and we act accordingly.”
Consider again the boy in the rubble. A human animal?
But first, let’s swing back to Prime Minister Trudeau’s argument that Canada supports “Israel’s right to defend itself in accordance with international law.”
Is that what Israel is really doing?
Volker Turk, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the New York Times Thursday that “the imposition of sieges that endanger the lives of civilians by depriving them of goods essential for their survival is prohibited under international humanitarian law.”
Tom Dannenbaum, an expert on siege law at Tufts University, affirmed this assessment, describing Israel’s policy as an abnormally clear-cut instance of starving civilians as a means of war, an unambiguous violation of human rights.
Israel’s aerial bombardment of Gaza also appears to flout international law’s prohibition of the disproportionate killing of civilians… Its targets have included hospitals and schools. By its own account, Israel has not been firing “warning strikes” to encourage civilians to exit a given building before incinerating it…
On Friday, Israel ordered 1 million Gazans to evacuate the northern part of the strip, in advance of an Israeli ground invasion… The United Nations has said that it considers such an evacuation logistically impossible… In this context, the order looks like a means of excusing the reckless endangerment of the lives of any civilians who remain in place.
If what is happening in Gaza is indeed “prohibited under international humanitarian law,” “an unambiguous violation of human rights,” and “flout(s) international law’s prohibition of the disproportionate killing of civilians,” why are our politicians not saying so with the same clarity they reserve for Hamas, and, by extension, all Palestinians?
In other circumstances with other combatants (Russia and Ukraine, for example), we would condemn what is happening in Gaza as ethnic cleansing.
Instead, when Trudeau and other world leaders mumble tag lines like “in accordance with international law,” they are really speaking to the Israelis in code, with a nod and a wink that says, do what you need to do. Don’t worry what we say.
The Globe and Mail’s editorial board made that implicit message explicit in an editorial last week:
… a ceasefire will have to come at a time of Israel’s choosing, once it believes the threat posed by Hamas has been eliminated.” (my emphasis)
Where will this all lead? Certainly, never to peace.
Even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeds in killing every last Hamas soldier and pushing Gaza’s population south into refugee camps in Egypt or other countries, the victory will be short-lived and Pyrrhic.
There will be others to take their place.
Consider again the boy in the rubble.
What will he have learned from watching his community destroyed — perhaps his parents and other family members killed — by Israeli bombs? For him, bombs dropped from the sky are no less deadly, or personal, than the brutal ways in which Hamas terrorists slaughtered innocents in Israel.
And what about the girl in the kibbutz who watched her parents murdered? What will she have learned? And how will that affect her worldview, and Israeli-Palestinian relations 20 years from now?
There is no easy, simple — or perhaps any — solution to the ongoing, never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But nothing good can come of countries like Canada condemning crimes against humanity by one side while looking the other way when those crimes are committed by the other side.