The Guardian, Monday 5 January 2009
"There was only one certainty as Israel's tanks and thousands of troops this weekend launched their biggest assault on Gaza for four years: the number of civilian casualties will rise exponentially. Israel may phone, text, drop leaflets and fire warning missiles at Gazans trapped in their homes, but the reality is that there is nowhere for 1.5m people to run. Gaza is a ghetto from which there is no escape.
Just before the ground offensive was launched on Saturday, Israel lobbed a shell into Palestine Square, Gaza City's main shopping area and five Palestinians were killed. Earlier, they flattened the American International School, the one private school in the strip, which itself had been attacked by militants. Another air strike destroyed a mosque in Beit Hanoun during evening prayers killing around a dozen Palestinians. Yesterday afternoon a mother and her four children were killed by an air strike in Gaza City. As Israeli forces battled last night on the outskirts of Gaza City, the killing of innocent Palestinians continued.
The last time the tanks rolled into Gaza in February and March last year, more than half the Palestinian casualties were civilian, according to Human Rights Watch. That pattern is now set to be repeated. After a week's aerial bombardment, the death toll already stands at nearly 500, of which approximately 70 are children and 27 women, according to independent Palestinian sources. Of the 2,650 Gazans injured, more than 270 are women and 650 children. So much for Israel's claim that their targets are Hamas militants. Even if you stretch the term to include policemen, this is a "surgical" operation in which civilians will die in their hundreds.
There are, however, many uncertainties. The ghost of Israel's humiliation at the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 hangs over this enterprise and Israel will want to exorcise it. ........ But even if the Israeli army succeeds in its aims and destroys Hamas both as an army and as an organisation, it will have also destroyed the last remnants of government in the strip. Israel would have fought its way back to where it was in 1994, before the advent of the Palestinian authority, and back in direct control of Gaza. That is plainly not what it wants, because it would mean re-assuming control of 1.5 million Gazans as well. Putting a proxy Palestinian government in place would be just as fraught. Destroying the infrastructure of Hamas's rule in Gaza would also wreck the effective government on which any future ceasefire would depend. To take one small but relevant example, half of Gaza's ambulances have already been destroyed.
Hamas is more than just a guerrilla army. It is a political movement as well. As such, Hamas will have been seen to have borne the brunt of the occupier's might and Hamas's claim to assume the leadership of the Palestinian national movement will have been enhanced as a result. If the United Nations stands by as the ground operation continues, Fatah in the West Bank will increasingly be seen by the Palestinian street as a Vichy regime, fit only for collaboration. The disunity among the Palestinian factions seen last week in the West Bank should not be misinterpreted as acquiescence. There is real anger too, of the worst sort - anger without effective leadership. There is only one way out of the political trap which Israeli forces are now entering, and that is an immediate ceasefire. It would enhance Hamas's credibility, but not as much as a total military victory might."