‘Sorry’ is the best Israel can do

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One would think, imagine and hope that following the double tragedy in Gaza on Wednesday 30 July – the Israeli shelling of a UN school in northern Gaza which killed 16 Palestinians, after which at least 17 Palestinians were killed in a strike on a busy market in Shejaiya – Israel would stop the fighting which is now spouting Palestinian blood by the bucket.

However, the only thing Israel said it planned to do if it discovered it was responsible for the strike on the UN-run school in the Jabaliya district of Gaza City, would be to apologise.

That’s it. Apologise.

So, for the at least 116 Palestinians it killed on Wednesday; for the more than 1,390 Palestinians killed to date in this 24-day offensive  — two-thirds of the victims are civilians and nearly half of those are women and children; — and for the some 425,000 people in Gaza displaced by the fighting, as much as 25 per cent of the population of the territory, Israel will do nothing more than to say it is sorry.

But before Israel does even that, there is still more blood to shed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he will not stop the operation in Gaza until the tunnels constructed by Hamas have been destroyed, ceasefire or no ceasefire. To this end, Israel confirmed mobilising another 16,000 additional reservists, hiking the total number called up to 86,000.

As if that increase in military might was not enough, it comes on the heels of the announcement from Washington that it had agreed to restock Israel’s dwindling supplies of ammunition.

So, despite UN human rights chief Navi Pillay slamming Israel for its attacks on homes, schools and hospitals — “none of which appears to me to be accidental” — and despite rights group Amnesty International urging Washington to halt arms supplies to Israel, Israel has decided to snub all and sundry and to go ahead with its mission to obliterate all people and all things Palestinian in its path of wanton destruction.

That goes for places that should be the safest in this conflict. There are over 200,000 Palestinian civilians seeking shelter at 86 UN sites in Gaza which rest on safety red lines not to be crossed. But these sites are in fact in the line of Israeli fire, thus making them the furthest thing in the world from safe.

The UN says the precise location of the school in Jabaliya was communicated to the Israeli army 17 times before the attack. And like the UN school in Beit Hanoun, which was serving a shelter for families in Gaza but in which 16 people were killed and 200 injured when Israel shelled it last week,the coordinates of both schools were given to the Israeli military, so Israel knew exactly where these shelters were.

For the Israelis to say Hamas fighters were in these compounds, or near them, or had stockpiled weapons in them, so Israel had to shell them, is complete lunacy. There is no How-To guidebook to help Israel fight Hamas, but there are rules of engagement, even in a war. One cardinal rule is not to allow civilians to get caught up in a cross fire or strike an enemy compound close to or right in a civilian population. There is no such thing that Israel hopes it has good aim and that it won’t hit civilians. There’s no such thing that Israel had no choice but to fire on a UN shelter in order to get at its opponent’s fighting units. In such a situation, Israel has no choice except to hold its fire, even if that means failing in a mission. The alternative is a massacre of innocents.

There is a clear precedence for such attacks. These assaults on UN-run shelters in Gaza immediately brings to mind the biggest and most infamous attack on a UN complex by Israel, the 1996 shelling of the UN compound near the village of Qana in southern Lebanon. Flashback to that strike, amid heavy fighting between the Israeli Defence Forces and Hezbollah during Operation Grapes of Wrath, of the 800 Lebanese civilians who had taken refuge in the compound, 106 were killed and around 116 injured in one of the worst incidents ever of civilians being targeted in a Middle East conflict zone.

The crucial fact is that a United Nations investigation later stated it was unlikely that the Israeli shelling was a technical or procedural error.

So, forward to Gaza. When the same IDF claims that they do no target civilians, and that they do not target UN shelters, they are not to be believed. They have done it before, and now, they have done it again.

How ironic it is that even though Israel continuously tells the UN to take in civilians so that they are not put in harm’s way, it is Israel that shells these supposedly safe havens, killing the very people Israel claims is worried about their safety.

Ironic or deliberate? We choose the latter.

Despite the deliberate defiance of obligations that international law imposes on Israel, despite rising international calls for a halt to the bloodshed, and despite the number of Palestinians killed passing Israeli Operation Cast Lead in 2009-2010, until a ceasefire is reached, much more Palestinian blood will flow.

But not to worry. Israel will apologise.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.