With the eyes of the world’s media well and truly off of Gaza and onto the hideous situations in Iraq and Syria, the Palestinian people are once again neglected; their dead go unnoticed.But the consequences of Israel’s latest and deadliest war against the civilian population of Gaza this past summer go on. For seven weeks, Israel bombarded the coastal strip, targeting whole neighbourhoods, wiping out entire families and systematically dismantling civilian infrastructure. The Palestinian resistance factions, who were, on paper, seriously outgunned, stood their ground and fought, killing 64 Israeli soldiers.
Israel acted its customary fashion: massive, brutal and deliberate targeting of the people of Gaza themselves. In the Israeli military and in the increasingly right-wing crucible that is Israeli society, Palestinian civilians are regarded as non-existent. Therefore, it is considered permissible by most Israelis to kill and devastate the population as a whole during Israel’s wars. Punish the mothers, as one popular racist Israeli lawmaker put it this summer, since they will only give birth to “little snakes” – her vile way to describe Palestinian babies.
By the end of it in August, 2,139 Palestinians were left dead by Israel’s war machine.
According to UN figures, some 75-80 percent of these dead were civilians. With each new war, the proportion of Palestinian civilians to fighters dead seems to rise. Israeli attacks get more and more ruthless. We can no longer speak of “indiscriminate” Israeli attacks against Palestinians civilians, since, with such sophisticated weapons, and with such a consistently high number of Palestinians dead, this must be deliberate.
To go alongside the dead and wounded, there was decimation of Palestinian homes and businesses. The people of Gaza are only now beginning to be able to deal with and recover from this severe collective trauma. They may have dropped out of the headlines, but their suffering goes on.
Out of this devastation, testimonies are beginning to emerge, the likes of which have not been heard before.
Max Blumenthal, a colleague and friend of mine recently headed to Gaza in the wake of Israel’s summer war. Avoiding the clichés and sometimes fly-by-night nature of war reporting, Blumenthal spoke to people about the horrors they had seen and the sheer devastation they had been through.
At a talk of his in London last week that I attended, and at his testimony to the Russell Tribunal on Palestine recently, Blumenthal recounted some of the stories Palestinian eyewitnesses had told him. You can watch a video of his talk at the Russell Tribunal here, or read the transcript of his prepared remarks here.
According to several different eyewitnesses he spoke to, offering corroborating accounts of different incidents, it seems that Israeli soldiers were executing a new practice during this latest Gaza war. As Max puts it: “wanton targeting of Palestinian civilians who spoke Hebrew”.
One example: “In Khuza’a just east of Khan Younis, multiple witnesses described soldiers gathering locals in the centre of town as they occupied the area on July 23, then asking if anyone spoke Hebrew. When a 54-year-old man stepped forward to answer in the affirmative, they shot him in the heart.”
While Arabic is Palestinians’ first language, many Palestinians speak at least some Hebrew, especially those who regularly come into contact with Israelis. In Gaza, sealed off from the world for so long, there are far less Hebrew speakers than in the West Bank, and certainly far less than in Jerusalem. But some of the older generation, who still had permits to travel into Israel for work, do speak the language. And many Palestinian prisoners learn the language while in jail.
This targeting is a new phenomenon, to my knowledge. I have never heard of it happening in any sort of systematic way before. Dena Shunra, an Israel expert I asked about this concurred on that.
Why would Israeli soldiers do this? Surely they would find Hebrew-to-Arabic translation useful in issuing orders to Palestinians in their custody.
These are preliminary reports coming out of Gaza that warrant further examination and analysis. But we can start to surmise some possible explanations.
It could have been a wanton act of control, something to keep people in line and afraid. If there were no way for Palestinians to know what the soldiers were planning, they would have been able to keep them guessing for longer.
The idea that occurred to me, however, is one with longer-reaching implications. Over the last few years, with more and more boycott initiatives targeting the state of Israel, and more and more legal cases for war crimes and other acts of oppression against the Palestinians being carried forward in international venues, Israel has become more conscious of its international image.
Such cases almost always draw on Palestinian eyewitness testimonies. That is why the Russell Tribunal, for example, invited Palestinians to testify at its various hearings. Israel has been known to block Palestinian activists from travelling abroad for just such activism, or for punishing them afterwards.
Could it be that Israel was killing Hebrew speakers in Gaza to stop more detailed understanding of Israeli soldiers’ war crimes in the Strip?
For now, we simply don’t know, but with the emergence of further testimonies over time, the picture may become clearer.
An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.