As of writing, the most recent offensive by the IDF against a civilian target in Palestine involved the bombing of a UNRWA girls' school, at which were based 300 refugees from the bombing of other civilian infrastructures in Gaza.
It's okay. No one died this time. No one was injured. I just want you to know what they did.
UNRWA runs over two hundred schools across Gaza. Every time there is a major Israeli offensive, refugees from the bombing flee to these schools. 100,000 Palestinians have fled to these schools during this attack, roughly doubling the number who took refuge in the buildings during Cast Lead.
They are, in other words, well known refuges for those whom the UN calls 'internally displaced persons'.
At the moment when Israeli shells began to hit the building, there was a UN team present, inspecting damage caused by a previous attack. They were there with Israeli clearance
When the Israeli military began to shell this building, then, they definitely knew that it was a civilian building and that it was populated by civilians.
This is expected. Every time Israel states that Hamas hides its rockets in hospitals, schools, homes, mosques, and ambulances, it is simply listing the targets that it intends to attack. It openly declares this intent.
It does not, or not exactly, openly declare the intent to attack United Nations buildings. Certainly, there were absurd rumours circulating on Israeli media that UNRWA had handed rockets over to Hamas. But such antagonism is largely 'unofficial'.
Yet, Israel's attacks on United Nations buildings are consistent enough to merit comment. Consider some examples.
In 1996, Israel shelled a UNIFIL compound in Qana, Southern Lebanon - which it had occupied since 1982 - killing more than 100 civilians. The UN report
on the massacre concluded that it had to have been deliberate.
In 2002, during Sharon's mauling of the West Bank, Israel repeatedly struck UN ambulances. The commissioner-general of UNRWA
stated that Israel was deliberately targeting the ambulances, while denying those it did not attack access to the injured.
In 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, the bombing of several UN buildings
led to condemnations from an otherwise extremely polite Ban Ki Moon. UNRWA waxed furious.
There are good realpolitik reasons for Israel to attack the UN.
UN facilities provide some of the essential infrastructure that makes life liveable in Gaza. Just as UNRWA provided some limited maintenance to Palestinian refugees after the ethnic cleansing in 1947-9, so it continues to supply non-controversial humanitarian aid. This aid helps sustain the resilience of the population, and their ability to withstand collective punishment.
The UN also reflects a balance of international legal opinion that is potentially inhibitive of Israel's long-term objectives. Its resolutions and statements can be troublesome, if largely ineffectual for as long as the United States is Israel's sponsor.
There is also the stagecraft of statecraft to consider. Israel likes to strut even more than most states. It projects omnipotence wherever it can. It transgresses, on as many fronts as possible, as openly as possible. That may be why the attack on a legal institution is often combined with a particularly emblematic massacre. There, lying in a sinister rubble, is what Israel thinks of your resolutions, your outrage.
So what? Israel is 'above the law'? Israel thinks it is 'above the law'?
No. First of all, the mere fact that Israel cannot openly articulate a policy of attacking the UN indicates that it accepts that such a policy would be illegal.
More importantly, Israel needs the law.
If I be permitted a detour into first principles, I would begin like this: no law, no statehood. 'Israel' is, among other things, a social category constituted by the law. Its existence is inseparable from an international legal order, forged through colonial
relations, which upholds the rights of states.
And that legal order - not the 'international legal consensus' of the day, but the institution of law - is on Israel's side. Such an order, partly by virtue of its colonial beginnings, is selective in favour of states, particularly powerful states, as against non-state peoples.
Israel is a state, and the Palestinians are not. Israel has legal entitlements and resources, which the Palestinians do not.
Israel has the backing of powerful states in a legal terrain that favours powerful states, and the Palestinians do not.
Even Israel's 'obligations' under international law - those of an occupying power - and the repeated censure for breaching them, are vastly preferable to the meagre 'rights' of a subject people.
That is why Israel could be admitted as a member state and given rights under law as early as 1949, regardless of its annexation of territory through the ethnic cleansing of a stateless people, while even UN resolution 242 - which criticised Israel's annexation of land through war with other states - did not make any specific mention of Palestinian national rights. Indeed, such rights were not established until 2002.
Israel is not trying to place itself 'above the law'. It is a state 'under the law' like any other. It simply understands that, whatever the legal opinions churning out of the UN, its facts on the ground are in the long more legally efficacious. It knows, as all powerful states do, that law is inextricable from terror. That, in a very important way, it is terror. It has good reason to know this, as it was founded on the principle.
It is therefore perfectly logical that Israel would, while attempting to destroy the political basis for Palestinian statehood, terrorise the UN along the way. If it succeeds, and if the Palestinians are finished as a political entity, that new situation will be codified in law soon enough.
And the UN will behave.
Hamas, they tell us, is cowardly and cynical.
Hiding among civilians
at the el-Wafa hospital. They hid
at the beach, where children played football. They hid
at the yard of 75 year old Muhammad Hamad. They hid among the residential quarters of Shujaya. They hid in the home of the poet, Othman Hussein. They hid in the thousands of houses damaged or destroyed. They hid
in 84 schools and 23 medical facilities. They hid
in a cafe, where Gazans were watching the World Cup. They hid
in the ambulances trying to retrieve the injured.
Masters of disguise, they hid so well that no one ever found them. They hid themselves in a young woman in pink household slippers, sprawled on the pavement, taken down while fleeing. They hid themselves in the little boy whose parts were carried away by his father in a plastic shopping bag. They hid themselves in an elderly woman, lying in a pool of blood on a stone floor.
Hamas, they tell us, is cowardly and cynical.
Innocent of what?
"Israel targets Hamas terrorists and not innocent civilians. By contrast, Hamas targets Israeli civilians while hiding behind Palestinian civilians. Hamas, therefore, bears full responsibility for any harm that comes to Israeli and Palestinian civilians alike."
This filthy syllogism is familiar enough. We heard it during the invasion of Iraq. We hear it whenever US bombs fall. We heard it during the Lebanon war
. Unsurprisingly, it is a habitual theme of the Israeli state, which cannot exist except as a colonial regime. It needs no detailed unpicking here.
Suffice to say, as Nimer Sultany
points out, the IDF has been systematically obliterating the category of civilian
for some years. Israel, whenever it attacks Gaza, never neglects to specifically attack and kill non-combatants. It never neglects to attack civilian infrastructures such as schools, hospitals, mosques, and so on. According to the IDF's 'Dahiya doctrine'
, these are military bases anyway. And as we recall from Cast Lead, the Israeli government assumed that there was no such thing as an adult civilian male.
None of this is particular to Israel. It is a trend in modern imperialist war, linked to two tendencies which the sociologist Martin Shaw calls 'risk transfer war' (bombing from great heights, so that non-combatants bear the risk of death) and 'degenerative war' (in which the category of civilian is eroded, as the war starts to be waged more openly against the popular base of the military opposition). What is
particular to Israel, perhaps, is the extent to which grassroots, popular culture openly embraces the implicit genocidal logic
of Israeli violence.
For in the context of Gaza, what this tendency means is this: the entire population of Gaza is structurally, necessarily, in opposition to Israel. It cannot be otherwise, because Israel's existence depends upon the progressive emaciation of the Palestinians as a political and demographic entity. When Israelis say that every Palestinian child is a potential future 'terrorist', they are being vicious and racist, but not stupid. The racism inheres in assigning the Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonialism to some obscure 'Arab' traits, some native fanaticism, rather than to the colonial system itself.
It is, of course, a commonplace of colonial violence
that the 'civilised states' are permitted the full range of kinetic force, while their opponents are beyond normal political rationality, their violence criminalised. They are magnanimous, humane, only ever resort to violence after all else fails, take all precautions to protect 'the innocent' with whom they have no quarrel, and only wage war for benevolent or defensive purposes. Their opponents are barbaric, narrow, 'fanatical'. Violence is their first resort, they have contempt for human life and make no exceptions for 'the innocent', and they wage war for atavistic purposes.
This is the binary stratification of global violence whose precepts pervade every single news report on the front lines of empire, and every single utterance of imperialist states.
This is why the language of 'innocence' is loaded. The only way for a Palestinian to be 'innocent' in this context is to acquiesce, to cease to exist as a Palestinian. The only Palestinians who have a chance of achieving this status are those who do not resist - and even they will be murdered in cold blood if it serves Israeli military objectives.
So when the argument is about who kills 'innocent civilians', it is important to remember how heavily pre-structured the terrain is.