Despite Hamas' best efforts to hide the proof about events in the Gaza Strip - the evidence of Hamas' war crimes, its exaggeration of civilian casualties and damage to property, its abuse of humanitarian aid and its intimidation of Gaza's residents - the truth is finally coming to light.
Israel knows better than most countries the horrors of war. Eight years of constant rocket barrages targeting Israeli civilians, eight years of trying tactic after tactic to stop these war crimes left Israel with little choice but to invoke its legitimate right of self-defense.
When Israel did strike back against Hamas terror in Gaza, it took unprecedented and innovative steps to try to encourage civilians to avoid Hamas positions, even placing tens of thousands of phone calls warning residents in hazardous areas. As British Colonel (ret.) Richard Kemp commented on the BBC, "I don't think there's ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the IDF is doing today in Gaza."
To Israel's great sorrow, innocent civilians in Gaza have been harmed. However, the figures of civilian casualties have been greatly exaggerated. Most of these figures come from Hamas sources, amplifying the number of civilians killed by including as "children" teenage Hamas fighters and as "women," female terrorists. According to an Israeli investigation, of the 1,100-1,200 reported casualties, 250 were civilians. The rest are believed to be terrorists or have yet to be identified, but given that most of them are young men in their 20s, it is not unreasonable to assume that they are also members of Hamas or other terrorist organizations. English journalist Yvonne Green reported after visiting Gaza that "Gazans contradicted allegations that Israel had murderously attacked civilians. They told me again and again that both civilians and Hamas fighters had evacuated safely from areas of Hamas activity in response to Israeli telephone calls, leaflets and megaphone warnings."
Hamas is responsible, both morally and under international law, for many of the dead and injured civilians. This terrorist organization deliberately used the local population as human shields, a war crime. Civilian structures were used as launching pads for rockets, a tactic that is extremely hazardous to residents. Civilians were prevented, at gunpoint, from fleeing the sites of battles and even children have been grabbed to be used as living bulletproof vests. Ambulances were not safe from hijacking attempts by terrorists, who would lure the ambulances into the heart of battle to transport Hamas terrorists to safety.
Property damage, while sizeable, has also been exaggerated. As Tim Butcher, a journalist intimately familiar with the Gaza Strip reported: "There had been no carpet bombing of large areas, no firebombing of complete suburbs. Targets had been selected and then hit, often several times, but almost always with precision munitions. Buildings nearby had been damaged and there had been some clear mistakes... But, in most the cases, I saw the primary target had borne the brunt… For the most part, I was struck by how cosmetically unchanged Gaza appeared to be."
Hamas' rocket attacks, which continued throughout the operation, constituted a double war crime. Not only were they aimed at about 15% of Israel's civilian population, they were cynically carried out from locations immediately adjacent to homes, schools, hospitals, relief agency warehouses, mosques, public buildings - as well as from the office building that housed foreign media studios. These reprehensible acts were documented not only in Israeli aerial films, but by the international media.
In one of the most notorious incidents, Israel was accused of attacking the UNRWA school in Jabalya. While civilians on the street were killed, it has since become clear that there was no attack on the school itself or on the school compound. As Patrick Martin subsequently reported: "Most people remember the headlines: Massacre of Innocents as UN School is Shelled; Israeli Strike Kills Dozens at UN School… There was just one problem: The story, as etched in people's minds, was not quite accurate. Physical evidence and interviews with several eyewitnesses, including a teacher who was in the schoolyard at the time of the shelling, make it clear: While a few people were injured from shrapnel landing inside the white-and-blue-walled UNRWA compound, no one in the compound was killed." Yet most media outlets have ignored this new proof.
English poet and journalist Yvonne Green visited the Gaza Strip in February 2009 and met with one of the people injured outside the school, which was visibly intact. She was told that "Israel had warned people not to take shelter in the school because Hamas was operating in the area, and that some people had ignored the warning because UNWRA previously told them that the school would be safe."
Rod Nordland described one example of the abuse of civilian housing: "Suddenly there was a terrific whoosh, louder even than a bomb explosion. It was another of Hamas's homemade Qassam rockets being launched into Israel - and the mobile launchpad was smack in the middle of the four [apartment] buildings, where every apartment was full…"
Lorenzo Cremonesi relates the testimony of "Um Abdallah": "Practically all of the tallest buildings in Gaza that were hit by Israeli bombs … had rocket launching pads on their roofs, or were observation decks for the Hamas. They had also put them near the big UN warehouse, which went up in flames."
Many of Gaza's residents are now returning home. Some have found weapons left behind by Hamas terrorists who turned their homes into forward positions against the IDF, or worse, bodies of terrorists killed during the fighting. Many blame Hamas for the loss of life and property damage caused by Hamas’ practice of hiding among the civilian population. However, critical as they are of the Hamas regime in private, few, if any, residents of Gaza will accuse Hamas publicly, a move that is tantamount to suicide.
According to Khaled Abu Toameh an official Fatah spokesman in Ramallah reported that 100 of his men in Gaza have been killed or wounded, some brutally tortured, by Hamas. "Eyewitnesses said that Hamas militiamen had turned a number of hospitals and schools into temporary detention centers where dozens of Fatah members and supporters were being held on suspicion of helping Israel during the war."A Fatah leader in Gaza City claimed that as many as 80 were either shot in the legs or had their hands broken for allegedly defying Hamas' orders. "According to the official, at least three of the detainees had their eyes put out by their interrogators, who accused them of providing Israel with wartime information about the location of Hamas militiamen and officials." (See also video of Fatah testimonials about Hamas.)
Amnesty International has accused Hamas of waging a campaign to kill or maim scores of Palestinian opponents in the Gaza Strip since the end of December, reporting that at least two dozen men have been shot dead by gunmen from the Palestinian militia that governs the Gaza Strip since December 27.
Ulrike Putz managed to interview Palestinians who were not too intimidated by Hamas to speak (as long as their full names were not used): "Hail found out after the cease-fire that the militants had used his house as a base for their operations. The door to his house stood open and there were electric cables lying in the hallway. When Hail followed them they led to his neighbor's house which it seems Hamas had mined. As Hail, in his mid-30s, sat on his porch and thought about what to do a man came by: He was from Hamas and had left something in Hail's home. He let him in and the man then emerged with a bullet proof vest, a rocket launcher and an ammunitions belt. An hour later a fighter with Islamic Jihad called to the door, then disappeared onto the roof and reappeared with a box of ammunition."
Fausto Biloslavo reported from Gaza on the "other side of the war" - entire buildings taken hostage, the population used as human shields and, for dissidents, the risk of getting a bullet as "quislings". In one case, about 170 Palestinian civilians were living in an eight-floor building in the Al-Nasser neighborhood in Gaza. When the Hamas terrorists positioned themselves on the roof, a former Palestinian colonel tried to explain to them that they would draw Israeli bombs on the children of the building. "It will be a great honor if you will die with us," replied the "defenders of Gaza". When the officer insisted, they fired a burst of Kalashnikov over his head to get rid of him. In another instance, in the Tel Al-Awa district of Gaza, a Palestinian civilian afraid to disclose his name related: "The Hamas men arrived at night to sleep under the stairs. First in uniform, then in plain clothes and with concealed weapons. We tried to bolt the door, but there was nothing to be done. The entire building was used as a shield by the militiamen."
Israel has a strong interest in the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip and will work together with the international community and moderate Arab regimes to improve the lives of Gaza's residents. However, caution most be exercised to ensure that the aid does not end up in Hamas' pockets.
This is not unwarranted wariness - Hamas has a long history of stealing humanitarian aid for its own use, even while the operation was ongoing. As Yaacov Katz reported, "Hamas raided some 100 aid trucks that Israel had allowed into Gaza, stole their contents and sold them to the highest bidders." Earlier Mr. Katz related that "Hamas has set up an independent hospital in the Gaza Strip to treat its operatives wounded in fighting with the IDF - and, according to Israeli estimates, it is pilfering a significant portion of the medicine allowed into the Strip…"
These reports are not only coming in from Israeli sources. Jordan's News Agency reported on the hijacking of humanitarian aid on its way to UNWRA warehouses in Gaza for distribution to the civilian population: "A number of armed men have seized on Tuesday a Jordanian aid convoy after entering the Gaza Strip… The armed men opened fire at drivers after crossing Karem Abu Salem [Kerem Shalom] crossing point and forced them to head to their own warehouses."
UNRWA reported (3 Feb 2009) that Hamas armed assailants seized at gunpoint 3500 blankets and 406 food parcels from its distribution center at the beach refugee camp (Shati), and on February 5 suspended all imports of aid into the Gaza Strip after 10 truckloads of flour (100 tons) and rice (200 tons) imported from Egypt for UNRWA were taken from the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom Crossing into Gaza.
The Jerusalem Post reported on 13 February 2009 that medicine bottles, transferred to the Gaza Strip as humanitarian aid by Israel, were used by Hamas as grenades against IDF troops during Operation Cast Lead (see also IICC report).
Hamas' hijacking of humanitarian aid is not only ethically repulsive, it is extraordinary given that Hamas is attempting to claim that the motive for its rocket attacks is to force the opening of the crossings. This assertion is, of course, preposterous given that the rocket fire started eight years ago, when there was free trade with Gaza and continued after Israel completely withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Moreover, Hamas' constant and deadly rocket, mortar, truck-bomb and shooting attacks on the crossings are one of the prime reasons for their closing.
The complexities of fighting terrorist organizations are becoming more familiar to democratic states, including NATO forces in Afghanistan. A British soldier who served there analyzed the IDF's activities in light of his experience and noted that "I believe that I and other soldiers understand the stress, friction and confusion that combat brings in a way that media commentators and UN bureaucrats never can."
However, one principle is clear to any unbiased analyst - as long as Israel, and not Hamas, is blamed for civilian casualties and property damage, Hamas will continue to use civilians as human shields and violate every basic rule of international humanitarian law.
Fortunately, the truth is starting to come to light. Even a senior European Union official - Louis Michel, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid - denounced Hamas, not only stating during his visit to Gaza: "I intentionally say this here - Hamas is a terrorist movement and it has to be denounced as such," but also concluding that: "At this time we have to also recall the overwhelming responsibility of Hamas" for the conflict in Gaza.
Behind the Headlines: The truth about Hamas crimes in Gaza, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (February 13, 2009).