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Cruelty to the Enemy – Operation Cast Lead in review

by on December 27, 2021

Thirteen years ago Israel launched what has been politely referred to as a “major military offensive” against the Gaza Strip. The offensive, called Operation Cast Lead, was not the first time or the last time Israel assaulted the Palestinians of Gaza. The Operation was merely a continuation, and a punctuation (almost an exclamation), of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians and to Gazans in particular.

It’s not clear how many people died during those three weeks; Robert Fisk lists the number of Palestinians killed at 1,417, including 313 children, and more than 5,500 injured Palestinians – many permanently. B’tselem, a human rights group in Israel differs, saying that 1,387 Palestinians died, of which 773 were civilians. B’tselem also reminds us that nine Israelis died, of which three were civilians. It’s clear that during the twenty-two days of the Operation that Israeli soldiers followed the rabbinical injunction to inflict “cruelty to the enemy,” as paraphrased by Maayan Lubell.

Because Israel denied B’tselem, the right to “enter the Gaza Strip to supplement the work of field-researchers” in Gaza following the Operation, in some instances the “organization was not able to establish whether the person killed took part in the hostilities.” Human Rights Watch, and other agencies were also in in large part denied access. Both organizations agree, along with other human rights organizations that “[c]ivilians lose their protection from attack only during the time they directly participate in hostilities” (HRW).

People familiar with other assaults on Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere, over the years would not be surprised that war crimes were committed during Operation Protective Edge. It’s true that both the Israeli army and Hamas in Gaza could be accused of war crimes, but hasty to lay blame equally. The HRW report on Operation Cast Lead, published in August 2009, reminds us that the laws of war “oblige states to conduct impartial investigations into credible allegations of serious laws-of-war violations, and to hold accountable anyone found responsible for war crimes, regardless of rank,” but at that point several months later “the Israeli government and IDF have failed to conduct serious investigations into many of the credible allegations of laws-of-war violations by Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead,” and the “soldiers who fought in the operation” that “spoke publicly about attacks on civilians and other violations” were accused of “hearsay and exaggerations,” by the Israeli army, which “criticized the soldiers for speaking out.”

Israeli tanks standing on the Israel-Gaza border while smoke billows from Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, January 14, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Israeli tanks standing on the Israel-Gaza border while smoke billows from Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, January 14, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90) – found at https://www.972mag.com/10-years-since-cast-lead/

The law of proportionality in armed conflict “forbids suffering that is caused in no direct relation to a concrete military advantage and in disproportion with it.” Although both sides have correctly been accused of launching indiscriminate rockets and mortars the numbers of casualties listed above tell us that Israel was looking to inflict cruelty on the enemy and those enemies were in large part non-combatants, including emergency personnel.

Part of the background for the reason for Operation Cast Lead, provided by Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), was that on the day Obama was elected – November 4, 2008 – “Israeli soldiers staged a raid (The Guardian cited by IMEU) into the Strip, killing six members of Hamas. This ended a ceasefire that had been in place between Israel and Hamas for the previous six months. Obama had made Middle-East peace an issue he intended to address as president; Netanyahu, who never had the best relations with Obama probably saw an assault on Gaza as a great way to thwart an effort toward peace.

Although the Operation ended just before Obama took office in 2009 during those weeks – and before and after – Gaza’s borders were closed, “enforced mostly by Israel but also by Egypt in the south.” Israel has its own reasons, such as cultural dominance, to close the borders, but this has always been supported by the United States.

As we look back at Operation Cast Lead thirteen years later it’s clear that the Operation was just another event in an almost normal day of the life of Palestinians of Gaza. The borders remains closed, enforced by Israel, Egypt, and the U.S., and in other several Operations since 2008 hundreds of civilians have died with no accountability.

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