Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 6 January 2009
Issue No. 928
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Raining death

Saleh Al-Naami reports from Gaza on the carnage wreaked by five days of Israel's bloody aerial assault

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A Palestinian victim of Israel's air raids on Gaza's Bureij refugee camp is carried to his final resting place

On Wednesday morning the family of Palestinian officer Ghassan Abu Ayyad, 25, was still trying to find a place to bury the body of their son in the Maghazi refugee camp in the heart of Gaza. The cemetery in Maghazi had already received dozens of burned and mangled corpses alongside the body parts of unidentified Palestinians killed on Saturday when the Israeli air force shelled a graduation ceremony at the police academy. There was no space for more bodies.

By the fifth day of Israel's airborne assault on Gaza the tiny Strip's hospitals are in the same position as its cemeteries, unable to receive any more corpses and turning away all but the most critically injured victims of Israel's F16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters.

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Wednesday the death toll had reached 400. Mowaeya Hassanein, head of the Hospitalising Unit in the Palestinian Health Ministry, reported 2,000 injured thus far. Sixty per cent of those killed, says Hassanein, are civilians, 14 per cent of them children.

Meanwhile, Israel continued shelling security command centres and Interior Ministry institutions of Ismail Haniyeh's Hamas government. Mosques, local council buildings, factories, blacksmith workshops and sport centres were also razed.

More than 60 police stations and security centres have been destroyed. The Israeli air force has flattened two campuses of the Islamic University in Gaza -- the largest educational institute in the occupied territories -- together with 100 residential buildings, 15 of which were occupied. Security sources say Israeli fighter jets have released more than 100 bombs on Gaza, each weighing one tonne.

Defending the carnage Israel's deputy defence minister, Matan Vilnai, said that the strikes would ultimately stop the firing of Palestinian rockets from Gaza into Israel. Weakening Hamas's rule in Gaza, he said, "is a legal and legitimate" goal. Israel's objective is to work towards the collapse of Hamas's authority in the Strip "which is why we will strike at every target that will lead to this objective", he told Israeli radio on Tuesday.

The bloodbath and relentless shelling has yet to deter Hamas. In the course of one day Hamas rockets extended their range to affect the lives of a million Israeli settlers on the other side of the border. Hamas's military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, is now firing up to 100 rockets into Israel daily, 10 times the amount it used to fire before it committed to a six-month ceasefire deal with Israel. An Israeli police spokesmen said on Wednesday that 860,000 Israelis "are now in the range of Hamas rockets".

The Palestinian resistance has thus far fired more than 250 rockets and mortar shells, killing four and wounding 24 since Saturday.

In the south, Israeli settlers in Beersheba and Asdud, Israel's fourth and fifth largest cities, had to seek shelter for the first time two days ago, and thousands have left their home towns. On Wednesday the Beersheba municipality closed city schools and theatres after Grad rockets damaged a hotel.

Israel's leadership remains unsure how to deal with the fact that strategic targets such as military bases, electrical supply stations and oil refineries are now within range of the Qassam rockets. On Wednesday, Tel Aviv turned down a French proposal for a temporary ceasefire, vowing to go on with its aggression.

Hamas's refusal, despite the losses it has sustained, to accept on Monday a ceasefire deal that is not linked to a full lifting of the Israeli blockade and the opening of Gaza's border crossings, has also surprised many. If Israeli commentaries are anything to go by, there is growing scepticism over the future and possible negative outcomes of this war in the Israeli media. Haaretz 's columnist Gidoen Levy predicted the complete "failure" of Operation Cast Lead. That Israel, he wrote, has walked into a failed war and committed a horrendous "war crime" serves to underline the political stupidity of its leadership. Mainstream discourse prior to the war, Levy continued, had been dominated by one voice calling for killing, planting death and starvation. It was a voice, he wrote, that has "incited war crimes".

Former Israeli justice minister Yossi Belin warned that the war will only exacerbate "hatred" in the hearts of hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims across the world. In a column published in Israel Today Belin wrote that the millions of Arab TV viewers who see the carnage on their television screens "do not have to be supporters of Hizbullah or Hamas, nor do they have to be religious fanatics to despise and hate us after the massacres we committed in Gaza."

The situation is not much better on the other side of the Palestinian spectrum. The Palestinian Authority -- which is at odds with Hamas -- has come under fire from its critics. Palestinian analyst Maamoun Bessiso told the Weekly that the war was the outcome of an earlier agreement between Tel Aviv, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the US administration, the Quartet and some Arab governments "to end Hamas rule in Gaza because it stands in the way of the political settlement that Israel has in mind". All these parties, he argued, know that as long as Hamas -- with its resistance and political agenda -- is in power "it will remain an obstacle to any settlement". Given that the movement remains popular amongst Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, Bessiso argues, "they think the only way to replace it with Abbas's rule will be on the back of Israeli tanks."

Yet it is the opposite that seems to be happening, says Bessiso. "The massacre in Gaza has only boosted Hamas's popularity and legitimacy. It has also given Hamas excuses for the mistakes it made since entering the political process in 2006."

History might be repeating itself. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon to expel the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). It succeeded in doing so but in the process created Hizbullah, the group which defeated Israel in 2006. Israel, says Bessiso, has yet to learn the lessons of the past, and that "today Hizbullah poses a much bigger threat to Israel than the PLO ever did."

On the second day of the Israeli onslaught Hizbullah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, appeared on television. What is happening in Gaza today, he said, "is a copy" of what happened in Lebanon in 2006 when Israel launched a 33-day war the aim of which was to liquidate Hizbullah. "The players are the same, the battle is the same and the result will be the same," predicted Nasrallah.

Nasrallah, who insisted he would "call things by their name", argued that the war on Hamas is part of the Israeli-US project in the region which seeks to impose "a humiliating political settlement in accordance with US and Israeli provisions on the rest of the Arabs". He also accused unspecified Arab parties of full "collaboration" with Israel.

In an unprecedented call to the Egyptian people and the armed forces, Nasrallah appealed to them to pressure for the opening of the Rafah border and ending the 18- month Israeli siege on Gaza. (Over 400 Palestinians died as a result of the blockade).

"We say to the Egyptian regime, if you do not open the Rafah border then you are partners in the crime. Arab regimes will not move of their own accord but the people can pressure them."

Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit responded angrily the next day, insisting that "Egypt's armed forces are there to protect the country from the likes of [Nasrallah]." Then on Tuesday evening President Hosni Mubarak made a televised speech outlining Egypt's official stand on the war. Egypt, he said, "will not open the Rafah border" in the absence of the PA and the European Union, as stipulated under the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access.

"Israel wants to separate Gaza from the West Bank," Mubarak said, and Egypt will not be party to such a scheme.

On Wednesday Arab foreign ministers assembled for an emergency meeting at the Arab League headquarters in an attempt to coordinate their positions. The meeting quickly degenerated into an exchange of accusations over who had prompted the disaster in Gaza.

Arab diplomats who spoke to the Weekly in the run-up to the ministerial meeting expressed "deep concern" at the possibility of confrontation between the Egypt-Saudi Arabia-Jordan and Syria-Qatar camps over the admittedly poor Arab management of the crisis.

Diplomats say that Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are unwilling to take tough measures, such as severing diplomatic ties with Israel. Nor are these states interested in accommodating Qatari-Syrian proposals for an emergency Arab summit which Doha proposed earlier this week.

Addressing the press before the foreign ministers meeting Wednesday Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said, "the myth that the Israeli army is invincible has become a thing of the past."

Additional reportingby Dina Ezzat

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