Israel’s brutal war against the children of Gaza

25 July, 2014

On Wednesday, 14 July 2014, Israeli forces killed four children on a beach in Gaza. The boys’ fault was that they had decided, against the instructions of their elders, to go out to play—as children sometimes tend to do—in the midst of a relentless assault on a tiny, cage-like strip of land they call home. These children, journalists present at the scene reported, had been cooped up indoors for over a week. In this open-air Alcatraz, home to 1.8 million Palestinians, which should be the world’s shame but isn’t, the beach is perhaps the only place where children can breathe and run freely. Images and eye-witness reports from the crime scene tell us they did run—to escape the Israeli bombers, but their tiny legs couldn’t beat the determined assassins who missed the first time, killing only one child, and made sure they went for an outright kill-shot thirty seconds later. Four little corpses were all that remained after playtime. Who were these boys?

Why were the lives of Zakariya Ahed Subhi Bakr, 10, Ahed Atef Ahed Bakr, 9, Ismail Mohammad Subhi Bakr, 9, and Mohammad Ramez Ezzat Bakr, 11, brutally extinguished?

This question isn’t unanswerable. The boys were killed because Israel has been allowed—and that is the word—to maintain its murderous, illegal siege of Gaza for years. It is not the first time, nor—and this is a grim thing to say—will it be the last time that Israel, and more particularly Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Israel, has targeted Palestinian civilians, including children and women, in order to bolster its vice-like grip over Gaza. In the current offensive alone, it has already killed at least 185 children. “The death toll among children now stands at its highest point in five years,” said Rifat Kassis of Defence for Children International Palestine. According to the last UN assessment, of 789 Palestinians killed, 578 are civilians, a staggering 73 percent.

If this is a war, it’s a hugely unequal and unjust war. And to prevaricate about who the aggressor is, as we continue to witness a brutal assault on an oppressed—imprisoned—people, speaks of a stark absence of moral rectitude.

The attacks, launched from F-16s, naval boats, drones, Apache helicopters, tanks and bulldozers have been ferocious and unrelenting. Imagine a large, congested prison upon which a barrage of missiles and shells rains from all sides, every day. The children of Gaza, it would seem, have for some years been a favoured target for the Israeli war machine. In 2010, Defence for Children International published the names of 352 children killed “as a direct result of Israel’s military offensive ‘Operation Cast Lead’in the Gaza Strip between 27 December and 18 January 2009.” The numbered list includes names, ages, locations and the circumstances and causes of death. Five-month-old Nancy was killed after inhaling smoke when a white phosphorous bomb exploded near her home in az-Zeitoun, Gaza City, on 15 January 2009. These are her father Said’s words after he buried her: “Since that day I have been blaming myself and wondering why I didn’t take her to hospital the minute she started coughing. … Maybe it was my ignorance and the fact that I didn’t know that phosphor was lethal.”

Since September 2000, Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories have killed over 1500 children. In the same period, 130 Israeli children have been killed by Palestinians. One Palestinian child has been killed every three days for the past 13 years.

According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), one Palestinian child has been killed every hour for the past two days in the current onslaught on Gaza. Every hour. Which other sovereign country has done this in the name of defending a nuclear-enabled state against rocket attacks? Israel does it with impunity because its allies—the United States and its friends in Europe, no strangers themselves to the killing of children—while making supposedly humanitarian interventions in many countries, even waging outright illegal wars, have brazenly stood by it, condoning its naked acts of aggression and brutality against civilians in Palestine. The record is one of shame.

Hamas, essentially the product of a long and crushing occupation, is responsible for firing rockets into civilian areas in Israel. Squeezed in by one of the most highly weaponised states in history, it has taken extreme measures to defend the people and the little tract of land it was elected to govern, but surely, the group knows the consequences of rocket attacks into Israeli civilian areas, because the "retribution" has always been swift, deadly, and, crucially, hideously disproportionate. It is, however, absurd to hold Hamas responsible for the indiscriminate killings of the Israeli invasion.

To attempt some kind of moral equivalence between civilian casualties on the two sides is impossibly fraught, but the statistics from the latest offensive against Gaza, which seems to have been sparked off after the killing of two Palestinian teenagers in the West Bank on Nakba day in May, the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in June, and the subsequent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager, speak volumes. Seven hundred and eighty nine Palestinians and 37 Israelis, which includes 35 soldiers, have been killed. As the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy suggests in the Haaretz, one cannot escape the suspicion that the Israeli military offensive seems to have only one target in its scope: kill as many Palestinians as possible. Combatants, non-combatants, women, children, infants, the elderly, the sick and the injured in hospitals and those who treat them or care for them, just about everyone.

What are we, then, to make of Israeli claims of self defence?

Soon after the end of what was magnanimously termed a “humanitarian ceasefire” on 17 July, IDF killed at least three more children in Gaza City’s Sabra district. Brothers Wissam, 7, and Jihad, 8, and their cousin Afnan, 10, were playing on their rooftop when an Israeli projectile hit them. “Each had coin-sized pieces of flesh gouged out from their limbs by shrapnel,” the AFP reported.

More and more, this feels like a vengeful war against children.

On 20 July, in what will be remembered as one of the worst massacres of Palestinians in recent years, more than sixty people were killed in the Shejaiya area of Gaza alone, as Israel expanded its terrifying ground invasion, sending tanks into densely populated urban areas. Women and children were among those killed in the assault that lasted unabated for 18 hours. Corpses were piled on the streets, as morgues and hospitals had little or no room left.Seventeen children were among those killed. Once again, little bodies were wrapped in layered shrouds. Relatives had difficulty identifying the body of a seven-year-old boy killed in Shejaiya because his head was missing. What we are witnessing is an act of performative violence on the Palestinian body designed to frighten a besieged people into lasting submission. If any other country had caused such inhuman suffering, we’d have heard a clamour of calls of “crimes against humanity” from international forums and impassioned demands for emergency sessions to impose sanctions on the erring state.

As US secretary of state John Kerry assured us that Israel’s military offensive was an “appropriate and legitimate effort” to defend itself, Israel’s catalogue of blood-letting in Palestine swelled up further. On 20 July, an Israeli strike wiped off almost the entire family of Fatmeh Abu Jame in Khan Yunis ,killing 25 family members. Those killed included 18 children and five women, three of whom were pregnant, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem and The Guardian reported. One Hamas operative who was visiting a member of the family was also killed. This, too, was an act of pre-meditated mass murder, as the presence of a member of an armed group simply cannot be grounds for liquidating an entire family. Ten Israeli human rights organisations have raised concerns about grave violations of international humanitarian law in IDF's offensive in the Gaza strip. In a joint letter to Israel's attorney general, they assert that it's “illegal to attack a residential dwelling just because it is the residence of an operative of an enemy organization.”

There are internationally agreed covenants on the protection of civilians including children in war zones. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which provides for the protection of civilians in times of war, is, or at least should have been, applicable to both Gaza and the West Bank. Israel is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and is, or should’ve been, bound by its obligations. But in the context of Israeli attacks on Gazans, none of the internationally agreed conventions are even passingly mentioned, let alone invoked for implementation. There seems to exist an entirely different set of rules for Israel, which passes neither legal scrutiny nor moral muster. In 2012, a UK government-backed report by British lawyers found that Israel regularly breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The delegation of lawyers, who visited West Bank and Israel, said “much of the reluctance to treat Palestinian children in conformity with international norms stemmed ‘from a belief, which was advanced to us by a military prosecutor, that every Palestinian child is a ‘potential terrorist.’” Is this the kind of belief we see in practice when shrapnel-decorated bodies of Palestinian babies appear on our screens? The impotence of the UN to enforce any of its own regulations and possibly check the murder of Palestinian children has rarely before appeared in such stark contrast as now.

In the near total absence of real pressure on Israel by Western powers and indeed by the so-called Muslim world, it seems many—the kin of the victims, human rights activists, us the outraged spectators or those giddy with ringside-seat amusement—are reduced to seeing mass murder live on TV or live-tweeting a genocide. It certainly helps to spread word of the carnage on the internet, so that we can all see for ourselves the high-tech wrath of the Israeli military machine or the hundreds of match-stick rockets in the Hamas arsenal, but to what end really? Perhaps to keep a sliver of hope alive that Israel may stop killing children in retaliation against homemade rockets. Or perhaps in the vain hope that highly-paid Middle East peace envoys may at last be shamed into actually working to stem the tidal flow of innocent blood in Gaza as opposed to advising Arab dictators on how to fake a democracy.

If the wilful extermination of four little boys, whose parents had the temerity to remain on the beach that is their only source of livelihood, or the killing of an entire family as they slept, the bombing of a four-month old baby, or the forcing of a father to collect the remains of his child in a plastic bag aren’t war crimes, it’s perhaps time to rewrite the procedural gamut of international law so that Israel is officially exempt from all rules. The dust- coated, mangled body of one of the Bakr boys, his face partly hidden in the Mediterranean sand, next to his deformed leg, toes pointing skyward, may haunt the conscience of the international political leadership for a long, long time. It should. Photographer Tyler Hicks who took the photograph of the mangled corpse by the beach had this to say: “A small metal shack with no electricity or running water on a jetty in the blazing seaside sun does not seem like the kind of place frequented by Hamas militants, the Israel Defense Forces’ intended targets. Children, maybe four feet tall, dressed in summer clothes, running from an explosion, don’t fit the description of Hamas fighters, either.”

As powerful states choose to allow Israel to commit atrocity after atrocity on top of the daily indignities and humiliations that are integral to Israel’s apartheidist stranglehold over Gaza, it is the people of the world who will continue to ask Israel to stop piling up baby corpses in Palestine.

Mirza Waheed is the author of the novels The Collaborator, The Book of Gold Leaves, and Tell Her Everything.