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Eyal Weizmann: Short Cuts

In the course of the eight-day aerial bombardment of Gaza by Israel – using
drones, F-16s and Apache helicopters – more than 1350 buildings were hit.
They included military depots, which are considered legitimate targets under
international humanitarian law. But the police stations, TV stations, a
local healthcare centre, ministries, road tunnels and a bridge that were
also targeted are legally protected as civilian infrastructure. To justify
their destruction, Israel argued that ‘they belong to a terrorist entity.’
This is an argument that would render all public buildings and physical
infrastructure in the Strip legitimate targets: it is not accepted by
international lawyers outside Israel.

Israel’s attempt to provide any sort of legal defence at all, however
tenuous, is a response to the Goldstone Report, which alleged (before
Goldstone himself recanted) that both the Israeli military and Hamas had
committed war crimes during the 2008-9 conflict, and that Israel might even
be guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’. During the Goldstone storm, in a
speech delivered at an Israeli security institute, Netanyahu called
organisations that claimed to support the principles of human rights and
international law the third strategic threat to Israel’s security – third
after Iran and Hizbullah. Israeli think-tanks, like some of their Western
counterparts, now refer to this ‘third strategic threat’ of legal action
against state militaries as ‘lawfare’: the use of international law as a
weapon by a non-state party, to make up for its weakness on the field of
combat.

Mindful of the danger of further exposure to international legal action,
during Operation Pillar of Defence Netanyahu ordered the military to
exercise restraint so as to avoid the level of destruction seen in 2008-9.
Israeli experts in international humanitarian law were more closely involved
than they ever have been before in the planning of the attacks, and the
military repeatedly proclaimed its commitment to minimising harm to
civilians. The number of casualties was much lower than during Operation
Cast Lead, when ten times as many Palestinians were killed, though as the
operation approached its end the number of casualties rose: as the list of
targets was depleted, the air force had no choice but to drop bombs on more
populous neighbourhoods, with a higher risk of collateral damage.

But Israel is no longer content merely asserting that its aerial
bombardments are justified under international law. It has begun to
experiment with new kinds of bombing. After the 2008-9 attack, human rights
advocates undertook an investigation using techniques associated with the
new field of ‘forensic architecture’. In so doing they discovered the traces
of a new Israeli strategy: small-scale craters caused by impacts on what had
been the roofs of destroyed buildings. The Israeli military let it be known
that it was using this tactic – known as ‘knock on the roof’ – again during
Operation Pillar of Defence. It involves firing low-explosive ‘teaser’ bombs
or missiles onto houses designated for destruction, with the intention of
making an impact serious enough to scare the inhabitants into fleeing their
homes before they are destroyed completely.

Israel makes much of the fact that it always tries to warn civilian
inhabitants of impending bombings. The new procedure is a twist on the
established ‘knock on the door’ method, which involved telephoning a house –
with a recorded message, or using an Arabic-speaking air-force operator – to
inform the inhabitants that in a few minutes the building would be
destroyed. Sometimes phones that had been disconnected for months because
the bill hadn’t been paid were suddenly reactivated in order to relay these
warnings. According to the Israeli military, during the last 24 hours of
Pillar of Defence, thousands of such calls were made to residents of Gaza,
warning them of incoming strikes. (Israel can penetrate Gaza’s communication
networks so easily because its telephone networks and internet
infrastructure are routed through Israeli servers, which has advantages both
for the gathering of intelligence and the delivery of propaganda.)

Of course, many inhabitants of Gaza don’t have a landline or a mobile phone.
In these cases, an IDF spokesperson recently explained, the military’s legal
experts recommend the use of leaflets to encourage people to leave their
houses before they are destroyed. Teaser bombs are just another means of
sending a warning. In 2009, an IDF lawyer said: ‘People who go into a house
despite a warning do not have to be taken into account in terms of injury to
civilians … From the legal point of view, I do not have to show
consideration for them.’ To communicate a warning can indeed save a life.
But the strategy is also aimed at changing the legal designation of anyone
who is killed. According to this interpretation of the law, if a warning has
been issued, and not heeded, the victim is no longer a ‘non-combatant’ but a
voluntary ‘human shield’. In this and other cases, the laws of war prohibit
some things but authorise others. This should give pause to those who have
protested against Israel’s attack only in the name of the law.

We will learn more about the way Pillar of Defence was conducted when, over
the coming weeks, it becomes possible to start reading the rubble. Some of
what we know about the 2008-9 assault comes from an archive – the Book of
Destruction – compiled by the Hamas-run Ministry of Public Works and
Housing. The archive contains thousands of entries, each documenting a
single building that was completely or partly destroyed, recording everything
from cracked walls in houses that still stand, to complete ruins. The ministry
will no doubt put together a new archive following the latest attack. Its list
will be a close parallel to the one contained in a document owned by the Israeli
military. This is the Book of Targets in Gaza, a thick blue folder that the outgoing
chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, who presided over Operation Cast Lead,
passed to his successor in a televised ceremony at the beginning of 2011: ‘I
want to hand over something I carry with me all the time,’ he announced.

Now that the bombing is over, evidence will be accumulated (and allegations
made and contested), not only by speaking to survivors and witnesses but by
using geospatial data, satellite imagery of destroyed buildings and data
gathered in on-site investigations. But investigation is difficult: in Gaza
ruins are piled on ruins, and it isn’t easy to tell them apart. The wars of
1947-49, the military incursions of the 1950s, the 1956 war, the 1967 war,
the 1972 counterinsurgency in the refugee camps, the first intifada of
1987-91, the waves of destruction during the second intifada of the 2000s,
and now the two attacks of 2008-9 and 2012, have each piled new layers of
rubble on top of those produced by their predecessors.

The visible ruin is an important symbol in the public display of occupation
and domination: it demonstrates the presence of the colonial power even when
the colonist is nowhere to be seen. Before it withdrew from Gaza in 2005,
Israel demonstrated its control over the enclave by means of its
settlements. (In 1980, Ariel Sharon, then minister in charge of the
settlements, said he wanted ‘the Arabs to see Jewish lights every night no
more than five hundred metres away’.) After the military relocated to the
Strip’s perimeter and bulldozed the settlements, inaugurating this new era
of colonialism, the destroyed buildings – standing like monuments,
unrepaired, unrepairable – became the most significant visual affirmation of
Israel’s domination.

But Israel’s real power over Gaza is invisible. It is the ability of the
Israeli air force to maintain a perpetual ‘surveillance and strike’
capability over Gaza – drones can stay in the air around the clock – that
made the territorial withdrawal possible. Together with its control of the
Gazan subsoil – manifested in the robbing of much of the water from coastal
aquifers – and over the airwaves, including the use of electromagnetic
jamming technology, all that is left for the inhabitants of Gaza is the thin
surface of the earth that is sandwiched between Israeli-controlled zones. No
wonder they try to invade the space below and above them with tunnels and
rockets.

Eyal Weizman is an architect and director of the Centre for Research
Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London. His recent books include
The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza.

Source: London Review of Books

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