In the Spring of 2002, after the US had taken Afghanistan from the Taliban and handed it to the warlords, Israel launched its “Operation Defensive Shield” re-invasion of the West Bank. During the Jenin invasion, whole city blocks of densely populated concrete buildings were destroyed. A disabled man was run over by a tank. The removal of Palestinian corpses in refrigerated trucks was blandly reported in the Israeli media one day, then vehemently denied (1). The Israeli military shot and killed a number of children. In Jenin and elsewhere, the Israelis went house to house. Palestinian men were taken away to “interrogation” and prison. Most of their families eventually found out what happened to them. Not all. In that spring 2002 operation, the Israelis killed around 500 people, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society. Over the whole year 2002, Israelis killed over 1000 Palestinians.
I was in Jenin in the summer of 2002, and saw the mountains of rubble the Israelis had left behind (2). Israel presented its invasion as a “counter-terror” operation. It was razing these blocks and slaughtering these people in order to stop terrorist attacks against Israelis, said the military’s spokespeople. The real goal was different.
Israel’s ultimate goal, stated with increasing brazenness by Israeli politicians, right-wing religious leaders, and some of their supporters in the United States, is to remove the Palestinian population from the Occupied Territories and replace the Palestinians with Israeli settlers. It is a nationalist project with potentially genocidal consequences, and the balance of public opinion and the balance of power have long been unfavorable for it. A large segment of Israeli society, perhaps a majority, is against it. The entire world outside of the United States is strongly opposed. Ethnically cleansing the Palestinians would be detrimental to US interests and long-term plans in the region, and it is on the support of the United States that Israel’s military and economy depends. So the plan for rapid ethnic cleansing, using the full military power of Israel against the Palestinian population, remains on the shelf. Operation “Defensive Shield”, however, could be viewed as a test run, an experiment. By invading the territories, assaulting the population, besieging and slowly strangling the towns, and putting out ever more provocative statements about murdering Yasser Arafat, the Israeli regime could discern what the reaction would be in the region, in the world, and in the United States. It could then adjust its strategies for reaching its ultimate goals accordingly.
Israeli observer Tanya Reinhart called the Spring of 2002 Israel’s moral low point, but Israel has gone lower since. By fall 2003, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food was reporting that Israel’s continuous siege of the Gaza Strip (it is called “closures”, but the 1.25 million Palestinians inside the tiny Gaza Strip are surrounded on all sides by electrified fence, controlled by the Israeli army, and attacked at will by that same army) was causing starvation among the Palestinians, and in particular, was having permanent debilitating effects on at least 1/5 of Gaza’s children. In the current round of killing in Gaza, picking up in force in September 2004, the Israelis have killed 274 Palestinians, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society (3), and over 800 this year throughout the territories.
America has had more low points than Israel has had, and they have been lower. The genocide of the indigenous, the centuries of slavery, the invasions of Cuba, the Philippines, Haiti, the use of nuclear weapons in Japan, the invasions of Korea, Vietnam, the Latin American interventions, the first Iraq war, were all terrible low points. Vietnam, with its millions killed over many years of torture, destabilization, and destruction of the Southeast Asian region, was the lowest since World War II. But the current Iraq war, less than two years old and already having killed over 100,000 according to recent estimates, with its re-opening of Saddam Hussein’s torture prison in Abu Ghraib, is becoming competitive.
Take the opening move, for example: occupying and shutting down a hospital. Why? Empire Notes (4) quotes the New York Times saying that “outrage” over civilian casualties forced the Americans to withdraw from the first Falluja massacre without finishing it. “American commanders regarded the reports as inflated, but it was impossible to determine independently how many civilians had been killed. The hospital was selected as an early target because the American military believed that it was the source of rumors about heavy casualties. ‘It’s a center of propaganda,’ a senior American officer said Sunday.” An invading army shutting down a hospital claiming it is a “center of propaganda” about civilian casualties caused by that invading army’s killing is a moral low point. That it comes with praying, the wrapping of artillery guns in rosaries, and saying publicly that the “face” of the fighters in Falluja is the “face of Satan” (5) does not help. But in addition to saying something about the moral values of the country, it says something about the kinds of enemies America is fighting in Iraq. It is the clearest admission that this is not a battle, but a massacre, being carefully planned in advance to have no witnesses. It is a clear admission that what the US is afraid of in Iraq isn’t the military power of the Iraqi resistance — any more than Israel fears the military power of the Palestinians – but just the truth of its crimes getting out.
US goals in Iraq are different from Israel’s goals in Palestine. The US is not trying to displace the Iraqi people and replace them. The war aims are what they were when the war started: to establish a compliant regime backed by a substantial US military presence, secure control over Iraq’s oil resources, and demonstrate the ‘credibility’ of US power. That last is particularly important since Iraqi resistance and the US’s own ineptitude and arrogance has made it impossible for the US, in spite of all its power, to control the country (a blow to ‘credibility’ that the US is trying to rectify with the current slaughter). But like Israel’s spring 2002 invasion of the West Bank, the assault on Falluja is also a test run.
After the election, US planners feel that the American people are behind them, and are trying to find out how far that will allow them to go even if Iraqis and world opinion repudiate the assault. That explains the dual strategy: shut down hospitals to prevent casualty numbers and information from getting out to the world, and simultaneously hold obscene celebrations of the massacre for public consumption in the United States. When they called the first Falluja massacre off in April 2004 (6), it was because of a perception that their control of Iraq, their hold on American public opinion, and their international credibility was too tenuous to risk on a major massacre. This time they believe they are in a stronger position. They won’t stop – they won’t ever stop – unless they are wrong.
Justin Podur is a frequent writer and volunteer for ZNet. His blog is www.killingtrain.com
1) See Tanya Reinhart’s “Israel/Palestine”, which followed this coverage and reported on this, by Seven Stories Press.
2) Some photos can be found here
3) A table of figures is available here
4) Empire Notes
5) See Under the Same Sun
6) In fact the first Falluja massacre of this war was in April of the previous year (2003), when the US military fired on an unarmed protest, killing 14 people. Until that massacre, Falluja was not a center of resistance at all.