How the Israeli Government Tried to Spin Its Way out of Its Inhumane Gaza Invasion

The following is an excerpt from Norman Finkelstein's new book, "This Time We Went Too Far: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion" (O/R Books, 2010).

Recognizing that images of dead civilians and massive destruction in Gaza had flooded the world media during the invasion, Israel and its defenders set out to win the spin wars. Shortly after a ceasefire went into effect on 18 January 2009, Anthony H. Cordesman published a report titled The "Gaza War": A strategic analysis. Because Cordesman is an influential military analyst in academia, the political establishment, and the media, and his study in effect synthesizes Israel's makeshift rebuttals to criticism of the invasion, it merits close scrutiny. Cordesman reached the remarkable conclusion that "Israel did not violate the laws of war." His analysis was based on "briefings in Israel during and immediately after the fighting made possible by a visit sponsored by Project Interchange, and using day-to-day reporting issued by the Israeli Defense Spokesman." Cordesman omitted mention that Project Interchange is an institute of the fanatically "pro"-Israel American Jewish Committee.

Meanwhile, apart from adverse media coverage Israel had to cope with a mountain of human rights reports condemning its crimes in Gaza that began to accumulate after the ceasefire. Because of the sheer number of them, the wide array of reputable organizations issuing them, and the uniformity of their major conclusions, these reports could not easily be dismissed. Although the reports made significant use of Palestinian witnesses, these testimonies also could not easily be dismissed as Hamas-inspired propaganda or tainted by Hamas intimidation because "delegates who visited Gaza during and after Operation 'Cast Lead,' as on many other occasions in recent years, were able to carry out their investigations unhindered and people often voiced criticisms of Hamas's conduct, including rocket attacks."

The proliferating denunciations eventually compelled the Israeli government itself to issue a "factual and legal" defense of "the operation in Gaza." It alleged that these human rights reports "too often" amounted to a "rush to judgment" because they were published "within a matter of hours, days or weeks" after the invasion. In fact most of the reports came out months later. To be sure, Israel was not wholly dismissive of human rights reports. It did cite one that condemned Hamas suicide bombings.

Rejecting the main thrust of the reports, the Israeli brief claimed that "Israel took extensive measures to comply with its obligations under international law" and that the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF's) "mode of operation reflected the extensive training of IDF soldiers to respect the obligations imposed under international law." The critical evidence adduced in the brief consisted largely of testimonies extracted from Palestinian detainees during "interrogation." It would surely be querulous to cast doubt on such confessions just because, according to the Goldstone Report, Palestinian detainees rounded up during the Gaza invasion were "subjected … to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment throughout their ordeal in order to terrorize, intimidate and humiliate them. The men were made to strip, sometimes naked, at different stages of their detention. All the men were handcuffed in a most painful manner and blindfolded, increasing their sense of fear and helplessness"; "Men, women and children were held close to artillery and tank positions, where constant shelling and firing was taking place, thus not only exposing them to danger, but increasing their fear and terror. This was deliberate." Detainees were "subjected to beatings and other physical abuse that amounts to torture"; "used as human shields"; subjected to "methods of interrogation [that] amounted not only to torture … but also to physical and moral coercion of civilians to obtain information"; and "subjected to torture, maltreatment and foul conditions in the prisons."

Another unimpeachable source for the Israeli brief was reportage from the Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi. The brief did not however cite his most spectacular scoop that a total of "not more than 500-600" Palestinians died in Gaza during the invasion--which meant that not only had human rights organizations grossly exaggerated the Palestinian death toll but Israel itself had as well. Other authoritative sources cited by the Israeli brief included an "Internet user" and "a participant on a Fatah Internet forum."

In his defense of Israel, Cordesman put full faith in the pronouncements of Israeli officialdom. But in recent years respected Israeli analysts have invested less confidence in government sources. "The state authorities, including the defense establishment and its branches," Uzi Benziman observed in Haaretz, "have acquired for themselves a shady reputation when it comes to their credibility." The "official communiques published by the IDF have progressively liberated themselves from the constraints of truth," B. Michael wrote in Yediot Ahronot, and the "heart of the power structure"--police, army, intelligence-- has been infected by a "culture of lying." During the Gaza invasion Israel was repeatedly caught lying about, among many other things, its use of white phosphorus. On 7 January 2009 an IDF spokesman informed CNN, "I can tell you with certainty that white phosphorus is absolutely not being used," and on 13 January 2009 IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, "The IDF acts only in accordance with what is permitted by international law and does not use white phosphorus." Even after numerous human rights organizations irrefutably documented Israel's illegal use of white phosphorus, an Israeli "military inquiry" persisted in its prevarications. Recalling Israel's train of lies during both the 2006 Lebanon War and the Gaza invasion, a former senior Pentagon analyst and current senior military analyst with Human Rights Watch (HRW) rhetorically asked, "How can anyone trust the Israeli military?"

A chunk of Cordesman's "strategic analysis" consisted of reproducing verbatim the daily press releases of the Israeli air force and army spokespersons, which he then dubbed "chronologies" of the war. He alleged that these statements offer "considerable insight" into what happened. Some of these statements provided so much insight that he reproduced them multiple times. For example he repeatedly recycled versions of each of these statements: "The IDF will continue operating against terror operatives and anyone involved, including those sponsoring and hosting terrorists, in addition to those that send innocent women and children to be used as human shields"; "The IDF will not hesitate to strike those involved both directly and indirectly in attacks against the citizens of the State of Israel"; "The IDF will continue to operate against Hamas terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip according to plans in order to reduce the rocket fire on the south of Israel"; "IDF Infantry Corps, Armored Corps, Engineering Corps, Artillery Corps and Intelligence Corps forces continued to operate during the night against Hamas terrorist infrastructure throughout the Gaza Strip." Much of Cordesman's report was, in other words, simply a repackaging of the Israeli military's PR materials.

Thus Cordesman reproduced, without comment, the 30 December 2008 Israeli press release claiming that Israel hit "a vehicle transporting a stockpile of Grad missiles," although a B'Tselem investigation at the time found that they were almost certainly oxygen canisters. Subsequent investigations confirmed, and the IDF eventually conceded, B'Tselem's finding. Eight civilians were killed in this precision drone-missile attack on the vehicle even though, according to HRW, "the drone's advanced imaging equipment should have enabled the drone operator to determine the nature of the objects under surveillance. The video posted online by the IDF indicates that this was the case." Cordesman alleged that official Israeli data are "far more credible" than non-Israeli data, such as that from U.N. sources, one reason being that "many Israelis feel that such U.N. sources are strongly biased in favor of the Palestinians." Following this logic, Israel's allegation that two-thirds of those killed in Gaza were Hamas fighters should be credited -- just as Israel's claim that 60 percent of those killed in the 2006 Lebanon War were Hezbollah fighters should be credited, even if all independent sources put the figure at closer to 20 percent. Although Cordesman's report exculpated Israel of any wrongdoing, he entered the "key caveat" that he was not passing a "legal or moral" judgment on Israel's conduct and that "analysts without training in the complex laws of war" should not render such judgments. Cordesman's exculpation and caveat did not sit well together. He averred that neither the "laws of war" nor "historical precedents" barred "Israel's use of massive amounts of force," while he cautioned that he would not pass legal or moral judgment on the "issue of proportionality." In essence, he denied absolving Israel even as he clearly did so. Cordesman also alleged that the laws of war were "often difficult or impossible to apply." If so, whence his certainty that "Israel did not violate the laws of war"? He further alleged that the laws of war were biased because they "do not bind or restrain non-state actors like Hamas." It is not immediately apparent, however, that the laws of war have bound or restrained Israel either. And in fact "the laws of war … favor conventional over unconventional forces in asymmetric warfare," according to Harvard law professor Duncan Kennedy. For instance, state-of-the-art technology readily available only to conventional armies effectively sets the standard for whether or not a weapon is "discriminate" and its use therefore legal.

Cordesman trumpeted the exceptional care Israel took during the invasion to limit civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. He alleged that "every aspect" of the Israeli air force's targeting plan "was based on a detailed target analysis that explicitly evaluated the risk to civilians and the location of sensitive sites like schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, and other holy sites," while the "smallest possible weapon" coupled with precision intelligence and guidance systems were used to "deconflict military targeting from damage to civilian facilities." And again: "Israel did plan its air and air-land campaigns in ways that clearly discriminated between military and civilian targets and that were intended to limit civilian casualties and collateral damage." He knew these things because that is what his Israeli hosts told him and that is what the Israeli press releases repeatedly stated.

In its own brief, The Operation in Gaza, the Israeli government alleged that Israeli forces directed their attacks "solely against military objectives" and endeavored to ensure that "civilians and civilian objects would not be harmed"; that "where incidental damage to civilians or civilian property could not be avoided, the IDF made extraordinary efforts to ensure that it would not be excessive"; that the IDF "used the least destructive munitions possible to achieve legitimate military objectives" as well as "sophisticated precision weapons to minimize the harm to civilians"; and that the IDF "carefully checked and cross-checked targets … to make sure they were being used for combat or terrorist activities, and not instead solely for civilian use."

Based on what journalists and human rights organizations found, and what Israeli soldiers in the field testified, however, a radically different picture comes into relief. Because "Israelis would have trouble accepting heavy Israel Defense Forces losses," Haaretz reported, the army resorted to "overwhelming firepower… . The lives of our soldiers take precedence, the commanders were told in briefings." The General Staff anticipated before the onslaught that "600-800 Palestinian civilians" would be killed. "We're going to war," a company commander told his soldiers before the attack. "I want aggressiveness-- if there's someone suspicious on the upper floor of a house, we'll shell it. If we have suspicions about a house, we'll take it down… . There will be no hesitation." "When we suspect that a Palestinian fighter is hiding in a house, we shoot it with a missile and then with two tank shells, and then a bulldozer hits the wall," a senior IDF officer told Haaretz. "It causes damage but it prevents the loss of life among soldiers."

Whereas the official Israeli brief alleged that "the protection of IDF troops did not override all other factors," soldiers recalled after the invasion how the IDF "used a huge amount of firepower and killed a huge number of people along the way, so that we wouldn't get hurt and they wouldn't fire on us" (squad commander); "We were told: 'any sign of danger, open up with massive fire'" (member of a reconnaissance company); "We shot at anything that moved" (Golani Brigade fighter); "Despite the fact that no one fired on us, the firing and demolitions continued incessantly" (gunner in a tank crew); "Not a hair will fall off a soldier of mine, and I am not willing to allow a soldier of mine to risk himself by hesitating. If you are not sure--shoot" (soldier recalling his battalion commander's order); "If you face an area that is hidden by a building--you take down the building. Questions such as 'who lives in that building[?]' are not asked" (soldier recalling his brigade commander's order); "If the deputy battalion commander thought a house looked suspect, we'd blow it away. If the infantrymen didn't like the looks of that house--we'd shoot" (unidentified soldier); "As for rules of engagement, the army's working assumption was that the whole area would be devoid of civilians… . Anyone there, as far as the army was concerned, was to be killed" (unidentified soldier). "Essentially, a person only need[ed] to be in a 'problematic' location," a Haaretz reporter found, "in circumstances that can broadly be seen as suspicious, for him to be 'incriminated' and in effect sentenced to death."

Beyond the civilian casualties, Israel destroyed or damaged 58,000 homes (6,300 were completely destroyed or sustained severe damage), 280 schools and kindergartens (18 schools were completely destroyed and six university buildings were razed to the ground), 1,500 factories and workshops, several buildings housing Palestinian and foreign media (two journalists were killed while working, four others were also killed), water and sewage installations, 80 percent of agricultural crops, and nearly one-fifth of cultivated land. It is nonetheless alleged that Israel took every precaution not to damage civilian objects. Indeed, who can doubt that the IDF "carefully checked and cross-checked targets … to make sure they were being used for combat or terrorist activities" (Israeli brief) when it launched an "intentional and precise" attack destroying the "only one of Gaza's three flour mills still operating" which produced "the most basic staple ingredient of the local diet"? Who can doubt that the IDF "clearly discriminated between military and civilian targets" (Cordesman) when it "systematically and deliberately" "flattened" a large chicken farm that supplied 10 percent of the Gaza egg market "and 65,000 chickens were crushed to death or buried alive"? After the invasion was over Israel alleged that the death and destruction appeared indefensible only because "there is a limit to the amount of intelligence it can share with commissions of inquiry without compromising operational capabilities and intelligence sources." If the world only knew what was in those chickens …


Some 600,000 tons of rubble were left after Israel finally withdrew. The total direct cost of the damage to Gaza's civilian infrastructure was estimated at $660-900 million, while total losses from the destruction and disruption of economic life during the invasion were put at $3-3.5 billion. By comparison Hamas rocket attacks on Israel damaged "several civilian homes and other structures… , one was almost completely destroyed," while total damages came to $15 million.

In postinvasion testimonies IDF soldiers recalled the macabre scenes of destruction in Gaza: "We didn't see a single house that remained intact… . Nothing much was left in our designated area. It looked awful, like in those World War II films where nothing remained. A totally destroyed city"; "We demolished a lot. There were people who had been in Gaza for two days constantly demolishing one house after the other, and we're talking about a whole battalion"; "One night they saw a terrorist and he disappeared so they decided he'd gone into a tunnel, so they brought a D-9 [bulldozer] and razed the whole orchard"; "There was a point where D-9s were razing areas. It was amazing. At first you go in and see lots of houses. A week later, after the razing, you see the horizon further away, almost to the sea"; "The amount of destruction there was incredible. You drive around those neighborhoods, and can't identify a thing. Not one stone left standing over another. You see plenty of fields, hothouses, orchards, everything devastated. Totally ruined. It's terrible. It's surreal." One veteran of the invasion designed a T-shirt depicting a King Kong-like soldier clenching a mosque while glowering over a city under attack, and bearing the slogan "If you believe it can be fixed, then believe it can be destroyed!" "I was in Gaza," he elaborated, "and they kept emphasizing that the object of the operation was to wreak destruction on the infrastructure."

The Israeli brief alleged that its "overall use of force against Hamas during the Gaza Operation was … proportional to the threat posed by Hamas." The postinvasion testimonies of Israeli soldiers vividly depicted what such "proportional" use of force felt like: "This was firepower such as I had never known … there were blasts all the time … the earth was constantly shaking"; "On the ground you hear these thunderous blasts all day long. I mean, not just tank shelling, which was a tune we'd long gotten used to, but blasts that actually rock the outpost, to the extent that some of us were ordered out of the house we were quartered in for fear it would collapse."

"Much of the destruction" of civilian buildings and infrastructure, according to Amnesty, "was wanton and resulted from deliberate and unnecessary demolition of property, direct attacks on civilian objects and indiscriminate attacks that failed to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilian objects." The timing and pace of the devastation buttress Amnesty's finding and further undermine official Israeli explanations. Fully 90 percent of the destruction of civilian buildings and infrastructure--including the destruction of juice, ice cream, biscuit, and Pepsi-Cola factories--reportedly took place in the last days of the invasion in areas fully controlled by the IDF where it met limited resistance, and much of the destruction was wrought by Israeli troops as they withdrew. The official Israeli brief alleged that "IDF orders and directions … stressed that all demolition operations should be carried out in a manner that would minimize to the greatest extent possible the damage caused to any property not used by Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the fighting." Yet, an expanse in eastern Gaza including farms, factories, and homes was "virtually flattened," and according to a military expert Israel's "deliberate and systematic" destruction of that sector through a combination of bulldozers and antitank mines "took at least two days of hard labor." It might be contended that Israel targeted so many homes because--according to an IDF spokesman whom Cordesman uncritically quotes-- "Hamas is booby-trapping every home that is abandoned by its residents." But after the invasion this already implausible argument was fatally undermined when the IDF itself conceded that the "scale of destruction" was legally indefensible. Still, Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai declared, "Even if the [Hamas] rockets fall in an open air [sic] or to the sea, we should hit their infrastructure, and destroy 100 homes for every rocket fired," and a security official beamed with pride that by "flattening buildings believed to be booby-trapped," Israel had broken "the DNA of urban guerrilla fighting."

Israel targeted not only civilian buildings and infrastructure but also Gaza's cultural inheritance. Fully 30 mosques were destroyed and 15 more damaged during the Israeli assault. Cordesman knew that "IDF forces almost certainly were correct in reporting that Hamas used mosques and other sensitive sites in combat" because that is what his "chronologies" based on IDF press releases stated. It seems telling, however, that although Israel initially alleged secondary explosions after mosques were hit, it subsequently dropped this defense altogether while it continued to target mosques. In the Gold- stone Mission's investigation of an "intentional" Israeli missile attack on a mosque that killed at least 15 people attending services, it found "no evidence that this mosque was used for the storage of weapons or any military activity by Palestinian armed groups." Israel's various alibis also could not account for its systematic targeting of minarets, which, being too narrow for snipers to ascend, had no military value. The final report of a fact-finding committee headed by South African jurist John Dugard concluded that "mosques, and more particularly the minarets, had been deliberately targeted on the grounds that they symbolized Islam." Postinvasion IDF testimony confirmed the indiscriminate targeting of mosques.

Israel justified its targeting of educational institutions on the grounds that they contained weapons stores and that rockets had been fired from their vicinity. However, when challenged in a specific instance to provide proof for its allegations, Israel conceded that its photographic evidence was from 2007. The Goldstone Report "did not find any information about [educational institutions'] use as a military facility or their contribution to a military effort that might have made them a legitimate target in the eyes of the Israeli armed forces." The official Israeli brief alleged that, after his arrest, a Palestinian detainee "admitted" under interrogation that "Hamas operatives frequently carried out rocket fire from schools … precisely because they knew that Israeli jets would not fire on schools."Why would he make such a confession when, over and over again, Israeli weaponry did precisely that?

Although the devastation of Gaza was wanton, there was nonetheless a near-perfect synchronization of method to this madness. If, as Israel asserted and investigators found, it possessed fine "grid maps" of Gaza and an "intelligence gathering capacity" that "remained extremely effective"; and if it made extensive use of state-of-the-art precision weaponry; and if "99 percent of the firing that was carried out [by the Air Force] hit targets accurately"; and if it only once targeted a building erroneously: then, as the Goldstone Report logically concluded, the massive destruction Israel inflicted on Gaza's civilian infrastructure must have "resulted from deliberate planning and policy decisions throughout the chain of command, down to the standard operating procedures and instructions given to the troops on the ground." In other words, Israel was able to pinpoint its targets on the ground and, by its own admission, could and did hit these designated targets with pinpoint accuracy. It thus cannot be said that the criminal wreckage resulted from mishap or from a break in the chain of command. What happened in Gaza was meant to happen--by everyone from the soldiers in the field who executed the orders to the officers who gave the orders to the politicians who approved the orders. "The wholesale destruction was to a large extent deliberate," Amnesty similarly concluded, "and an integral part of a strategy at different levels of the command chain, from high-ranking officials to soldiers in the field."

Reprinted with permission from O/R books -- This Time We Went Too Far: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion"

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