Tomgram: Tony Karon, Obama’s Gaza Opportunity

January 22, 2009

[Note for TomDispatch readers: Saturday is usually a dead zone for this site, but no longer. For the next two Saturdays, TomDispatch will be offering sizeable excerpts from a soon-to-be-published graphic memoir, Waltz with Bashir, created alongside the remarkable new Israeli animated movie of the same title about the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which has just received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Keep your eyes out for it. Tell your friends. It’s a must read.]

Yes, we now know the ever grimmer statistics: more than 1,400 dead Gazans (and rising as bodies are dug out of the rubble); 5,500 wounded; hundreds of children killed; 4,000 to 5,000 homes destroyed and 20,000 damaged — 14% of all buildings in Gaza; 50,000 or more homeless; 400,000 without water; 50 U.N. facilities, 21 medical facilities, 1,500 factories and workshops, and 20 mosques reportedly damaged or destroyed; the smashed schools and university structures; the obliterated government buildings; the estimated almost two billion dollars in damage; all taking place on a blockaded strip of land 25 miles long and 4 to 7.5 miles wide that is home to a staggering 1.4 million people.

On the other side in Israel, there are a number of damaged buildings and 13 dead, including three civilians and three soldiers killed in a friendly-fire incident. But amid this welter of horrific numbers, here was the one that caught my eye — and a quote went with it: Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the Israeli Army, told Parliament on January 12th, “We have achieved a lot in hitting Hamas and its infrastructure, its rule and its armed wing, but there is still work ahead.”

Work? The “work” already done evidently included a figure he cited: more than 2,300 air strikes launched by the Israelis with the offensive against Hamas still having days to go. Think about that: in a heavily populated, heavily urbanized, 25-mile-long strip of land, 2,300 air strikes, including an initial surprise attack “in which 88 aircraft simultaneously struck 100 preplanned targets within a record span of 220 seconds.” Many of these strikes were delivered by Israel’s 226 U.S.-supplied F-16s or its U.S.-made Apache helicopters.

In addition, the Israelis evidently repeatedly used a new U.S. smart bomb, capable of penetrating three feet of steel-reinforced concrete, the bunker-busting 250-pound class GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb. (The first group of up to 1,000 of these that the U.S. Congress authorized Israel to buy only arrived in early December.) In use as well, the one-ton Mk84 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and a 500-pound version of the same. These are major weapons systems. Evidently dropped as well were “Dime (dense inert metal explosive) bombs designed to produce an intense explosion in a small space. The bombs,” reported Raymond Whitaker of the British Independent, “are packed with tungsten powder, which has the effect of shrapnel but often dissolves in human tissue, making it difficult to discover the cause of injuries.”

Keep in mind that Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups are essentially incapable of threatening Israeli planes and that the Israelis were using their airborne arsenal in heavily populated areas. Though the air war was only one part of a massively destructive assault on Gaza, as a form of warfare, barbaric as it is, it invariably gets a free pass. Yet, if you conduct an air war in cities, it matters little how “smart” your weaponry may be; it will, in effect, be a war against civilians.

Whatever the damage done to Hamas, what happened in Gaza was, simply put, a civilian slaughter. And yet, as Tony Karon, TomDispatch regular and TIME.com senior editor, who runs the Rootless Cosmopolitan blog, indicates below, the very scale of the Israeli assault on what was essentially a captive population wiped away many illusions, tore up the Middle East playbook, and potentially created the basis for a new Obama era approach to both Israelis and Palestinians. Whether that opportunity will be taken up is another matter entirely. Tom

Change Gaza Can Believe In
Tearing Up Washington’s Middle East Playbook
By Tony Karon

Lest President Barack Obama’s opportunistic silence when Israel began the Gaza offensive that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians (more than 400 of them children) be misinterpreted, his aides pointed reporters to comments made six months earlier in the Israeli town of Sderot. “If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that,” Obama had said in reference to the missiles Hamas was firing from Gaza. “I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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