Craig Nelson
The National
January 8, 2009 - 1:00am

Israeli intelligence officers call it “mowing the grass”; the continual trimming of the ranks of Palestinian militants and activists to keep the populace from getting out of control.

The truth about the events that led to the deaths of at least 39 people at the United Nations Al Fakhoura school in Gaza will have to wait until the end of the war and investigations by organisations with no stake in the conflict.

Nevertheless, one suspects that this is an instance when, under the stresses of war and the usually tight confines of Gaza’s streets, it was too much trouble for Israeli forces to distinguish between Hamas fighters and non-combatants.

Officially, Israel insisted yesterday that it holds the welfare of civilians in Gaza in high regard, even as the dead of Al Fakhoura were buried.

Unofficially, however, the deaths in this war of some 300 civilians – at least 130 of them were children younger than 16 – are the kind of collateral damage that the Israeli military and the Israeli public expect and perhaps are even inured to.

The truth is the deaths of civilians at Al Fakhoura school and elsewhere during “Operation Cast Lead” were predictable, and it was probably not for the lack of information, technology or training that they occurred.

As a precautionary measure to avoid such incidents, the UN says it provided the Israeli military with the GPS coordinates of every one of its facilities in the Gaza Strip. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had plenty already; Ariel Sharon, a former commander of Israeli forces in Gaza, once boasted that he knew every alley and olive orchard in the Strip, and he passed on the knowledge.

With the aid of digital technology, his heirs in the Israeli military have made the narrow 42km-long enclave with a six-kilometre waist probably the most bugged swathe of land in the world.

Israel’s long-standing surveillance net includes drones, video cameras and real-time monitoring of the Palestinian mobile phone network. The IDF knew – or easily could have known – who was in the school. Yet there was no evidence so far that it did.

The IDF also is aware of the entirely foreseeable effects of its bombs and artillery on the breeze-block houses with tin roofs that clog Gaza’s neighbourhoods.

After the humiliating war in Lebanon in 2006, the Israeli military built a mock Arab village near Beer Sheva, in southern Israel, complete with a winding maze of streets, alleyways, a mosque and a minaret. There, elite army brigades practised fighting in close quarters.

This training, together with their actual combat experience in the Palestinian Territories, means that the units now fighting in Gaza know that indiscriminately fired bullets and shrapnel pass through these paltry barriers like pins through paper. The shudder of an exploding bomb or artillery shell a block away brings the walls down on to sleeping women and children.

No, the problem of keeping civilians deaths to a minimum is not one involving lack of technology or experience. More likely it is a lack of political will, as well as an Israeli military culture that makes such deaths tolerable.

Eight years ago, Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, summed up the ethos that made even a UN schoolyard in Gaza dangerous for the children and rest of the estimated 1,300 people who sought refuge there.

“Those who have studied Arab and Palestinian culture know that the decision about who becomes a suicide bomber is not an individual one,” said Mr Shoval, defending the use of collective punishment to combat the bombings.

“These are family and tribal decisions. This is to a certain extent a family affair, and the way to cope with it is a family affair.”

The notion of a “family affair” – and collective culpability – was clearly in evidence when the IDF seeded southern Lebanon with more than one million cluster bombs on its way out in 2006.

It was also illustrated in the run-up to this war, when Israel repeatedly imposed an economic blockade to punish Gazans for electing Hamas to power and in the hope that their suffering would lead them to overthrow it, or at least prove that Islamists cannot govern effectively.

Despite a culture that can fuel trigger-happy behaviour, Israeli officials unsurprisingly said yesterday Al Fakhoura was not Israel’s fault.

“It is Hamas’s responsibility,” Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN, told the British Broadcasting Corporation in reaction to the deaths.

In this, Israeli spokesmen seem to have turned notions of law and individual responsibility – the hallmarks of the freedom-loving, terror-hating civilisation Israel claims to be defending – on their head. International human rights groups say that under international humanitarian law, soldiers must make every effort to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and if in doubt to treat a person as a civilian.

Where there is a pattern of failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians, good intentions (“We’re only targeting military objectives”) make no difference, these groups say.

Neither do the airdrops of leaflets or telephone calls warning of impending attacks, especially when many of the streets to which the duly warned are expected to flee, are pitched in darkness by the shutdown of electricity.

Yesterday, Israel did not appear to ponder these issues or agonise about Al Fakhoura. It simply changed the subject.

To a worldwide television audience horrified by events at the UN school and keen for an end to the fighting, Israel said it was “seriously considering” the French-Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire and was ready to help create corridors for the passage of humanitarian aid to Gazans.

The message to the appalled international community was plainly, “Move on.” Meanwhile, Israel’s pressing problem was getting as much done by the military in Gaza before outside pressure becomes irresistible.


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