Seven things about the military situation in Gaza
Getting your bearings in a war is difficult. Here are seven things I’ve noticed that may help you understand what is happening.
Go to Google Maps and take a look at the scale of the place. I’m in Gaza City just near the square harbour on the coast. Looking north, I can see a power station: that is in Israel. Turning round, I can see a stretch of land jutting out into the sea. That is Egypt. This is a thin strip of land to start with. In square miles terms, it is slightly smaller than England’s smallest county Rutland. But military action has compressed the available space.
Short summary: there isn’t one. Go to your map and look for Jabaliya. You will see a street running up the East of it towards the border: on the map it runs out – that’s the Erez crossing. All the blank space on the Palestinian side is where Israeli tanks are dug in. But also much of the urban space has been shelled and deserted, making a good 2km of dead space for the Israelis. Yesterday, I went into Jabaliya and there was shelling close by. The day before to Zaitoun and Shejiyah. Israel says they are crucial military targets, but there is a pattern in all these areas. There are streets full of people, then a crossroads, then silence and a ghost town. In that ghost town there are Israeli snipers and special forces, and reportedly Hamas/Islamic jihad tunnels. But there is no traditional frontline. It may be different in the more open areas to the south, around Khan Younis. But, as far as these three urban zones are concerned, I have never seen a single fighter.
Israel has been resupplied from a US ammo dump inside Israel. That means they have expended a significant proportion of their own stockpile to kill, according to their claim, 300 fighters (by that calculation they’ve killed at least 1,000 civilians in the process). Every afternoon and evening, navy frigates bombard an area to the north of here to a regular pattern. This is probably suppressive fire on open areas used by Hamas to launch rockets. I hope so because navy guns are even bigger and more lethal than the artillery that killed the kids at the UNRWA school. Two nights ago we watched attack helicopters go in against Khan Younis to the south of us. Two or three drones fly constantly, there are sporadic F16 strikes and the artillery – when it is not firing live shells – fires flashbangs into the slums. Every time I flinch at these, kids laugh at me: it’s normal, they say.
The tunnels go into Israel designed to facilitate attacks by fighters. They also go into various urban zones where they fire rockets from. These are pretty consistent – the zones are not the precise firing points – indicating that there are maybe three or four stockpiles around Gaza city. The low rate of fire over the past three days indicates maybe these too are in short supply. More importantly, the tunnels stretch “from Rafah to Erez and beyond”. That means Hamas has constructed an entire underground society.
5. War Crimes
To investigate war “crimes” you have accept that the routine killing, maiming and terror is in some way legal. Hamas is designated a terrorist organisation to start with; Israel is a signatory to the Geneva conventions. If we focus on Israel here, there are three kinds of action I think could be investigated:
a) Destruction of civilian infrastructure, as with the power station
b) Targeting of homes where there are civilians, but where a military target has been found
c) Shelling without taking adequate precaution against killing civilians. Obviously, any case of deliberately targeting civilians is also a war crime. But in war this is often done by low level commanders and troops.
Because of everything written in points 1 through 4, I suspect the greatest killing, and the most powerful case under international law against the Israelis, has occurred because of (c) the shelling into packed civilian areas. From both Jabaliya and Zaitoun, I would say there is no way of shelling into these areas, even against a military target – ie a mortar or a rocket cell – without killing civilians.
I asked the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) what were the rules of engagement for artillery firing into Jabaliya. They replied: “We never reveal this, ever. It’s a security issue.”
Some 40 per cent of Gaza’s territory is now off-limits to Palestinians. About a quarter of the population has moved either into camps or other family homes. As I’ve written before, people are clinging to homes because they believe the Israelis will take the land if they leave – possibly for a permanent buffer zone – and because all their wealth is locked up in their homes.
Additionally, having seen the cramped UNRWRA camp with its donkeys and heat and lack of water, there is a disincentive to go in there until you have no other option. The Israelis have asked Palestinians to leave the following areas: Beit Hanoun; Shejiya; east Khan Younis; southeast Rafa; and Hebet Adas.
I asked the IDF if they had a clear demarcation line to inform people of what the limits of these hazily defined places were: they did not. They give the names to COGAT (Co-ordination of Government Activities in the Territories –an Israeli government agency). I asked why leaflets were dropped to the south and west of Jabalia when I was there yesterday telling people to leave. They could not give an answer. This prior notification strategy may be designed to indemnify Israel against breaches of international law but it cannot, particularly because the communications are unclear. They may warn that Shejaiyah is off-limits, but where does it start? The people killed in the last evening’s horrific shelling of a market on the edge of Shejayiah is a case in point: we were filming on that street two hours before; it was well this side of the unofficial border between east Gaza City and Shejiyah.
I rang the IDF to ask what was going on. They began: “during yesterday’s pause, 26 rockets were fired”. I then asked how many artillery shells they fired during the same period (I heard many). They replied that the ceasefire was only in areas not occupied by the IDF but, in areas they controlled, they carried on fighting. Yet we know that one of those shells likely killed the civilians at Shejayia – the IDF is still investigating: 20 dead and 160 injured.