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Written on the Jerusalem bus to Beit Hanoun.
It was another tragic day in Palestine. As grieving families collected the body parts of their loved ones for burial, the headline in the nation’s most popular newspaper said it all: ‘They are really animals: 18 dead, including children and babies’.
True, the bloodletting was seen by some as retaliation for a series of provocations. But the momentum for vengeance, even if it meant destroying a long-standing ceasefire, proved unstoppable. Yet the international community was strangely obliging.
President Bush stressed the obligation to pursue people who murder women and children. Those organisations whose raison d’etre is to murder innocent people and to destroy the peace process, he said, must themselves be eliminated. There could be no compromise with terror.
The European Commission was less pro-active but also condemned what they described as ‘an unacceptable and unjustified act of violence’. More than that, their communiqué noted, it was ‘an attack on all the forces working for peace’.
They were not, of course, reacting to today’s events in Beit Hanun but a comparable atrocity three years ago.
In the days following the bombing of Bus No. 2 in Jerusalem on August 19, 2003, the Israeli cabinet declared an all-out war on the leadership of Hamas and other ‘terrorist elements’. The defence minister Shaul Mofaz explained that the rules of the game had irrevocably changed and an aggressive policy against Hamas was needed ‘for the sake of regional stability’.
As Israeli death squads set to work assassinating Hamas activists, the then-Hamas official (and current Prime Minister) Ismail Haniye told Reuters: ‘Hamas will respond with deeds and not words.’
Israel also responded with action, killing 11 Hamas activists and three civilians within a fortnight. On September 9, the world recognised that the hudna was over when two bombs killed 15 Israelis at a Jerusalem café, and a Tel Aviv bus stop used by soldiers.
The parallel with the current situation is far from exact. The Jerusalem bus bombing was apparently conceived as a one-off retaliation for Israel’s assassination of an Islamic Jihad activist, Muhammed Sidr. By contrast, the motive for last night’s bombing of Beit Hanun – if it was retaliation – can only have been the four Qassams fired at Ashkelon hours earlier that neither killed nor injured anybody.
In the military operation that preceded the shelling, 53 Palestinians, including 17 civilians were killed in a town the Israeli army once labelled ‘the village of peace’. In the two months before Raed Abdel-Hamad decided to avenge his friend Sidr’s death in Jerusalem, the Hamas guns hAadd been silent.
It is not even clear whether Hamas now has the ability to step up their actions as they once did. So the circumstances are different. But there are one or two chilling similarities. Khaled Meshal, for example, has already repeated Haniye’s maxim of 2003, promising that Hamas will retaliate ‘by deed, not words’.
The Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s statement also had an air of de ja vu about it: ‘Israel has no desire to harm innocent people,’ she said ‘but only to defend its citizens. Unfortunately, in the course of battle, regrettable incidents such as that which occurred this morning do happen’.
No-one has yet asked Livni which ‘battle’ she is referring to but the ‘shit happens’ defence is tried and tested. The IRA used the same line during their bombing campaign in the 1980s. The Thatcher government deigned it so beneath contempt as to be unworthy of a response. But in a back-handed compliment to its effectiveness, they banned the UK’s media outlets from letting Sinn Fein make the case on TV.
Spin is important in the media war as Livni’s statement acknowledged: ‘Israeli diplomatic missions throughout the world have been instructed to explain the Israeli position to decision-makers and the media’.
No doubt. The PMO’s office has already announced an internal investigation. Sceptics might expect it to take the heat out of the issue for a few days before finding that no shells could possibly have been fired into the village at the time, or else that Beit Hanun residents were mistaken, when they told the BBC’s Matthew Price that no Qassams had been fired from the town itself.
Early leaks to the press are not encouraging in this regard. But whatever the inquiry’s verdict, its underlying message that when we kill civilians it’s regrettable, when they do so, it’s because they’re terrorists – is unlikely to be challenged, even if Israel kills upwards of ten times as many.
To expect any army to find its’ own soldiers guilty of war crimes is optimistic. But given the experience of the last six years, to expect the IDF to do so, is wilfully naive. Of the 1,845 Palestinian non-combatants that the Israeli human rights group B’tselem can confirm were killed by Israeli forces since September 2000, no soldier has been convicted for manslaughter, or murder, or anything like it.
Since June 26, more than 350 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and B’tselem say that more than half of these have been civilians (four Israelis have been killed in the same period). Yet B’tselem are not aware of any ongoing military investigations, apart from the one announced to the press today.
Israel will not be judged by its deeds when it kills civilians, only its words of regret after the fact. In a rare example of symmetry, the Palestinians will also not be judged by their deeds the hudna, for example, which Hamas has largely kept to but by their words of defiance towards the country occupying them.
And if they do make the terrible decision that actions on Jerusalem buses speak louder, perhaps they will be smart enough to put out a press statement. For the lesson Israel is imparting in Gaza is unequivocal: War crimes are fine, so long as you remember to say sorry afterwards.
ARTHUR NESLEN is a journalist working in Tel Aviv. The first Jewish employee of Aljazeera.net and a four-year veteran of the BBC, Neslen has contributed to numerous periodicals over the years, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent and Red Pepper. His first book, Occupied Minds: A journey through the Israeli psyche, was recently published by Pluto Press.