To grasp the catastrophic scope of destruction in Gaza, there are three new resources of exceptional importance. First, Lewis Whyld‘s The Gaza War Map: it’s an interactive map keyed to a series of panoramic images which transports you to 20 sites from Beit Hanoun south to Rafeh and it is, appropriately, devastating.
Second, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has released its Gaza Crisis Atlas: 110 pages of maps and high-resolution satellite imagery. It’s a remarkably systematic survey, whose primary purpose is to assist aid and development agencies in planning and responding to the crisis, but it’s also an indispensable resource for anyone wanting to grasp the intensity of the prolonged Israeli assault on Gaza and its people. The text and captions are available in eight languages, and you can zoom and print individual pages.
Finally, there’s MediaTown‘s drone-shot video of the destruction of Al-Shejaiya; its brevity does not sacrifice its impact:
Even hardened US military officers were stunned by the unrelenting and indiscriminate nature of the bombardment. Throughout the offensive the Pentagon compiled reports twice a day on Israeli military operations, and according to a summary of the barrage on 20-21 July ’11 Israeli artillery battalions … pumped at least 7,000 high explosive shells into the Gaza neighborhood, which included a barrage of some 4,800 shells during a seven-hour period at the height of the operation…’
“Eleven battalions of IDF artillery is equivalent to the artillery we deploy to support two divisions of U.S. infantry,” a senior Pentagon officer with access to the daily briefings said. “That’s a massive amount of firepower, and it’s absolutely deadly.” Another officer, a retired artillery commander who served in Iraq, said the Pentagon’s assessment might well have underestimated the firepower the IDF brought to bear on Shujaiya. “This is the equivalent of the artillery we deploy to support a full corps,” he said. “It’s just a huge number of weapons.”
Artillery pieces used during the operation included a mix of Soltam M71 guns and U.S.-manufactured Paladin M109s (a 155-mm howitzer), each of which can fire three shells per minute. “The only possible reason for doing that is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible,” said the senior U.S. military officer. “It’s not mowing the lawn,” he added, referring to a popular IDF term for periodic military operations against Hamas in Gaza. “It’s removing the topsoil.”
“Holy bejeezus,” exclaimed retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard when told the numbers of artillery pieces and rounds fired during the July 21 action. “That rate of fire over that period of time is astonishing. If the figures are even half right, Israel’s response was absolutely disproportionate.” A West Point graduate who is a veteran of two wars and is the chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C., he added that even if Israeli artillery units fired guided munitions, it would have made little difference.’
Before I let Gard continue, it’s important to remember that the onslaught did not end that night. Here is a remarkable video which shows the shelling of Shejaiya market on 30 July (more updates and images from #shejaia here). Imagery of Shejaiya before and after the bombardment was distributed to Israeli soldiers in Brigade 828 as ‘a victory momento‘ and spur to maintain their ‘fighting spirit’.
Even the most sophisticated munitions have a circular area of probability, Gard explained, with a certain percentage of shells landing dozens or even hundreds of feet from intended targets. Highly trained artillery commanders know this and compensate for their misses by firing more shells. So if even 10 percent of the shells fired at combatants in Shujaiya landed close to but did not hit their targets — a higher than average rate of accuracy — that would have meant at least 700 lethal shells landing among the civilian population of Shujaiya during the night of July 20 into June 21. And the kill radius of even the most precisely targeted 155-mm shell is 164 feet. Put another way, as Gard said, “precision weapons aren’t all that precise.”
Senior U.S. officers who are familiar with the battle and Israeli artillery operations, which are modeled on U.S. doctrine, assessed that, given that rate of artillery fire into Shujaiya, IDF commanders were not precisely targeting Palestinian military formations as much as laying down an indiscriminate barrage aimed at cratering the neighborhood. The cratering operation was designed to collapse the Hamas tunnels discovered when IDF ground units came under fire in the neighborhood. Initially, said the senior Pentagon officer, Israel’s artillery used “suppressing fire to protect their forward units but then poured in everything they had, in a kind of walking barrage. Suppressing fire is perfectly defensible. A walking barrage isn’t.”
The implication of those closing remarks is that such an indiscriminate barrage is a clear violation of international humanitarian law: and the epic scale of that violation is made clear in the maps, imagery and video I’ve cited here. It also amounts to collective punishment of a whole community, so it comes as no surprise to discover that the Israeli Supreme Court (‘sitting as the High Court of Justice’ – a phrase that has the same moral resonance as the Israeli Defence Force) has recently endorsed the ‘deterrent function’ of collective punishment (even though it too is prohibited under international humanitarian law). But even the Court insisted that such a measure had to be ‘proportionate’.
All of this is much on my mind as I head to a meeting in Oulu, Finland, where I’ll be talking about ‘Trans-border transgressions: legal geographies and spaces of exception’. The case studies on which I’ll draw are the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (mainly Waziristan) and Gaza. More soon.