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On the night of Tuesday, July 29, three shells hit the Jabalia Elementary Girls School — a U.N. designated emergency shelter for 3,300 Palestinians. Those who had taken refuge there came because the Israelis had warned them to leave their homes. The U.N. had given the Israelis the coordinates of this school 17 times. Their warnings made no impact. The shells killed at least 16 people and wounded hundreds. The U.N. official in charge, Pierre Krähenbühl (of UNRWA), said in a powerful statement, “Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today, the world stands disgraced.”

No ceasefire is on the horizon. The ‘humanitarian pause’ of August 1 broke down after two hours. The U.N. Security Council could not agree on the language for a resolution — its strongest instrument. A toothless “presidential statement” from the Council called not for an end to the conflict but for “an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire, allowing for the delivery of urgently needed assistance.” In other words, the U.N. Council members recognise that they have no authority to end the conflict. All they can do is to ask for “humanitarian pauses” so that the U.N. agencies can bring in emergency supplies to a desperate population.

Israel has destroyed Gaza’s only power plant, which impacts the already fragile sewage and water purification system as well as food storage. Electricity is mostly off, which means that the Palestinians are in danger of being cut off from the world. As it is, when Israel conducts its “operations” inside Gaza, it seals the area, preventing media from entrance. The aftermath of these operations has been devastating, whether in Gaza City’s neighbourhood of Shuja’iyya or the town of Khuz’a. Forty-four per cent of Gaza’s 140 square miles (360 square km) have been designated a “buffer zone” by the Israelis. Gaza’s Ministry of Health puts the figure for the dead at over 1,300 and the wounded at close to 8,000 — this number rises steadily.

The U.N. says that over 250,000 of the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza are now in their shelters. The U.N. is on its last legs as far as supplies go. “We have reached the tolerable limit that we can accommodate,” Mr. Krähenbühl told the Security Council on July 31. Gaza continues to be under siege by Israel, and the border crossing with Egypt — at Rafah — is effectively closed. The tunnels that the Israelis are destroying had been the arteries for the Palestinians to break the embargo. That is now closed to them.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travelled around the region trying to move a ceasefire agenda. The Palestinians are clear that any genuine ceasefire must include an end to the siege. Even Mr. Krähenbühl agreed, telling the Security Council on July 31, “The illegal blockade of Gaza must be lifted.”

This is unacceptable to Israel, which believes that the suffocation of Gaza is in its security interest. An official of the Eshkol Regional Council had told the International Crisis Group (ICG) in 2009, “Our forces should flatten Gaza into a parking lot, destroy them.” An end to the siege is the last thing that such a political view would allow. Members of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle called Mr. Kerry’s plan a “strategic terrorist attack.” The ceasefire plan brokered with Qatar and Turkey, the Israeli officials said, would spur them to expand their operations against Gaza — to flatten Gaza.

Relations with U.S.

Israeli insults against the Obama administration have been legion. In 2010, the Israelis announced the building of new settlements in Occupied East Jerusalem on the day that U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden arrived in Israel with a peace proposal that included a moratorium on settlement building. He was humiliated. The next year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went before a joint session of the U.S. Congress to say that Israel would never make peace with Hamas. It was seen as a direct snub at U.S. President Barack Obama, who had suggested that a hard-line position against Hamas would not occasion a peace process.

Mr. Netanyahu’s attitude toward the U.S. was clear in his 2001 visit to Ofra, an illegal settlement in the West Bank. He talked to the settlers about the need to pummel the Palestinians. A settler asked him if he worried about the world reaction to such a policy. “Not at all,” he replied, “especially today with America. I know what America is. America is something that can easily be moved. 80 percent of the Americans support us. We have that kind of support.”

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In the midst of this campaign on Gaza, with all evidence pointing to a violation of the rules against collective punishment, the U.S. Congress unanimously voted to give full support to the Israelis.

Netanyahu is correct. Despite abuses from the Israeli government, the U.S. political class fully supports Israel. In the midst of this campaign on Gaza, with all evidence pointing to a violation of the rules against collective punishment, the U.S. Congress unanimously voted to give full support to the Israelis. It also charged the U.N. Human Rights Council with hypocrisy over its resolution that asked for an investigation of Israel’s conduct in the war. The U.S had cast the only ‘No’ vote in Geneva. Not only this, the U.S. Defense Department handed over its stockpiles of weapons that are stored in Israel.

The U.N. has no appetite to apply the principle of Responsibility to Protect. That form of humanitarianism is only useful when it suits western interests

A U.S. defense official said that Israel took possession of 120 mm mortar shells and 40mm grenades — both of which are being used in this bombardment. Seventy nine of the hundred U.S. Senators supported the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, which would allow for more arms to be delivered to Israel. The act also encourages the U.S. to ensure that Israel continues to have a “qualitative military edge” over its neighbours. The U.S. political class, despite the abuses from Tel Aviv, seems eager to back Israel to the hilt — diplomatically, financially and militarily.

In 1937, for two hours, the German Condor Legion bombed the small Basque town of Guernica. The incendiary bombs killed hundreds of civilians. Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, who commanded the squad, wrote that their firebombs “resulted in complete annihilation.”

Picasso turned his talent to bring this event to life, which resulted in his masterpiece, Guernica. Later, he would say, that the painting allowed him to express his “horror of the military caste” which takes the world into “an ocean of misery.”

A tapestry of the painting used to hang outside the U.N. Security Council. When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell went to make his fraudulent case for a war against Iraq in 2003, a blue cloth was hung over Guernica. It could not interfere with the masters of war. Today, a blue cloth is hung over any statement that questions Israel’s right to annihilate Gaza.

International political action

Valerie Amos, U.N. head of the Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief department, asked, “Where is the humanity, the morality? It’s children, civilians dying.” Mr. Krähenbühl, in an equally emotional statement, noted, “We have moved beyond the realm of humanitarian action alone. We are in the realm of accountability. I call on the international community to take deliberate international political action to put an immediate end to the continuing carnage.” The apposite phrase here is ‘international political action.’ Mr. Krähenbühl meant the U.N. Security Council. From August 1, the president of the Council is the U.K.’s Ambassador, Sir Mark Lyall. In his statement to the Council on July 30, Sir Mark blamed “both sides” for the conflict, saying, “The people of Israel have the right to live without constant fear for their security, but the people of Gaza also have the right to live safely in peace.”

The argument of “both sides” erases the context of this bombardment — the occupation of the Palestinian lives and the scale of Israel’s offensive. There is no parity here. Sir Mark’s approach shows that the UNSC has no appetite to move a resolution based on the U.N. principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). That form of humanitarianism is only useful when it suits western interests. When it does not, the lives of civilians are of no concern. No wonder Mr. Netanyahu can so casually say, “We need to be prepared for a protracted campaign in Gaza.”

vijay prashad

Vijay Prashad
The Hindu