/ 12 April 2024

OPINION: Israel’s crackdown on calories

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An Israeli soldier sits on a tank before entering into the Gaza Strip on April 10, 2024 in Southern Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Since the catastrophic drone attack on the World Central Kitchen feeding scheme in Gaza that left seven aid workers dead, Israel has appeared weaker, and more directionless and isolated, than it has for many years.

The Israeli ultra-right has squandered its 7 October credit. The West, brimming with sympathy after the Hamas raid, has distanced itself from a government seen as unaccountable, unwilling to compromise and without a long-range plan.

Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently whined that his traditional allies are ganging up on him out of “ignorance and anti-Semitism”, has seemingly been forced into major concessions by a warning from United States President Joe Biden that continued American military support will depend on Israel meeting metrics that seek to minimise civilian harm and violence against humanitarian workers.

After months of barring or undermining mercy missions and repeated threats to invade the southern town of Rafah, it has withdrawn all its troops except those guarding the barrier between northern and southern Gaza and reopened at least two border crossings to relief trucks.

Domestic commentators are at a loss to explain this unannounced policy shift. Netanyahu has put a brave face on it, claiming it is a preparatory move towards further hostilities — but as the US has set its face against the Rafah operation, it seems stillborn.

At the same time, cracks have opened in the ruling coalition, with some of the more deranged ultras, notably Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Internal Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, dissenting from the fillip to humanitarian aid and itching to ramp up military action.

Their absence from the security meeting that adopted the new line — apparently because they were not told of it — was an extraordinary departure that prompted Gallant’s loud protests.

Amid US pressure, the failure of Netanyahu’s pledge to “destroy” Hamas and force the release of its hostages after six months of fighting, and the endless, aimless butchery of non-combatants, the extreme right appears to have lost its whip hand.

Also hanging darkly over domestic sentiment is the threat of two further war fronts in Lebanon and Iran, and Netanyahu’s weakening grip on power, sapped by multiple controversies and failures.

The World Central Kitchen airstrikes seemed the last straw for the US, which had previously taken the unprecedented step of abstaining in a United Nations Security Council vote on a Gazan ceasefire.

The strikes could hardly have been more provocative, or their alleged remedy better calculated to inflame critics — a hurriedly mounted sweetheart investigation, leading to a couple of mid-level sackings and a “formal reprimand” for a brigadier and general. 

The finding of grave errors of identification and coordination did at least concede some Israeli responsibility. But there was no detail about who exactly did what, and nothing to show whether there had been a high-level plan or merely a low-level botch.

Netanyahu’s deeply felt reaction, that the deaths were the “fortunes of war” — satirised by World Central Kitchen founder José Andrés as “Whoops! We dropped the wrong bomb!” — betrayed his underlying beef that the aid officials had no business being in a conflict zone.

The hard fact is that no Hamas militants or enablers were among the World Central Kitchen staff, and none carried a weapon.

With Hamas, small and ill-armed, still standing after six months of saturation bombing that has smashed 70% of Gaza’s buildings and killed 33  000, including 13  000 children, Israel’s reputation as the invincible master of precision warfare is indeed in tatters. 

But the World Central Kitchen operation appears to have been a precision affair in which unguided, “dumb” munitions were not used. Several circumstances suggest a calculated, almost coldly surgical methodology in which the vehicles were knocked out one by one.

Not one, but three drone strikes spanning 1 600 metres took place. After the first, the survivors, some injured, debouched to the second vehicle, only to be attacked again. Those remaining were killed in the third strike, when the last vehicle had gone off-road in an apparent bid to elude the pitiless pursuers.

Al-Jazeera mentions reports that after both initial strikes, the Israeli authorities were informed. 

Their hideous accuracy also implies the use of a surveillance drone, meaning that the control room would have had “full visibility” of the World Central Kitchen convoy and its prominent logos, British weapons expert Chris Cobb-Smith was quoted as saying. “It’s hard to see how this was an accident,” he added.

Photographs show that a missile punched a hole through the large logo on the roof of one of the vehicles. Responding to an Israel Defence Force (IDF) claim that the operation took place “at night in confused conditions”, a Guardian journalist asked incredulously: “So you don’t have night vision technology?”

Equally sinister is the fact that the al-Rashid coastal road, the site of the strikes, was the subject of an explicit “deconfliction” protocol between World Central Kitchen and the Israeli authorities giving aid convoys immunity from army attacks.

Commentators argue that every inch of the road from the warehouse in central Gaza, where the convoy dropped a hundred tonnes of food, must have been known and tracked by the IDF.

Was there intentionality and premeditation, as required for the US charge of first-degree murder, or were the strikes murder in the second degree, where the murderer acts with disregard for human life and a “depraved mind”. 

The average Israeli soldier’s mental state, described as “painful and vindictive” after 7 October, is further suggested by routine reports of Israeli war crimes and humanitarian transgressions against non-combatants.

These include the desecration of mosques and churches; the death of at least 480 health workers in hundreds of attacks on health facilities; the killing of 177 staff members of the UN relief agency UNRWA, based on the wholly unsubstantiated claim that some were implicated in Hamas atrocities; and the death of 100 journalists in one of the deadliest wars for the media on record.

IDF members have been blunted and desensitised to Palestinian death and suffering by years of military overlordship and legal impunity.

How many Israelis care that a third of Gazans are facing famine, the result of a virtual blockade of aid trucks entering the Strip, reinforced by searches, permit denials and periodic violence near distribution points?

The number of truck crossings has fallen from a pre-war average of 500 to 168. Since January, 300  000 residents of northern Gaza cut off by the IDF have survived on an average of 245 calories a day — the recommended minimum level is 1  800 to 2  400 for women and 2  000 to 3  200 for men.

UNRWA, seen as the only agency with the staff and infrastructure to provide food and medical aid on the required scale, has been barred from operating in various parts of Gaza, including the north, where the starvation risk is greatest.

After the airstrikes, World Central Kitchen, which had opened a maritime supply route from Cyprus to circumvent the land obstacles, withdrew its Open Arms vessel before it was fully offloaded. The American relief body Arena and the United Arab Emirates, responsible for 25% of foreign aid to Gaza, also decamped.

World Central Kitchen had sent 430  000 meals to the blockaded territory through its sea route, and was preparing a further 1.2  million for the starving North.

Last October Gallant vowed to halt food, electricity, water and fuel supplies to Gaza’s “human animals”. It is in the context of the apparent use of food as a weapon — another page from the Putin playbook — that the convoy airstrikes could be seen. Care International has reported the first deaths of Gaza’s children from malnutrition.

Such factors call into question IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi’s plea that the airstrikes were “a mistake”.

Intentionality can work in two ways — through explicit and direct government policy, as in Hitler’s anti-Semitic persecution, or through more oblique messaging, such as when the authorities broaden the permissibility of unlawful killing or fail to prosecute it.

One example, originally reported by the news website +972 and rerun by The Guardian based on information from Israeli security sources, is the alleged raising or lowering of the bar for civilian casualties depending on the target’s importance. An Israeli spokesperson denied this.

One source said the scope was greater in the war’s early stages, “when we were permitted to kill 15 or 20 civilians in airstrikes using dumb bombs which destroyed entire homes”. 

“You don’t want the waste expensive V [guided] bombs on unimportant targets”, the source said, particularly as AI had produced a list of 37  000 people of interest. When targeting senior Hamas operatives, a ratio “in the low triple digits” might be permissible. 

What the World Central Kitchen airstrikes have done is to bring the world back to its senses about the fundamentals of the Israel/Palestine conflict. As the UN secretary general António Guterres remarked, 7 October was frightful but did not happen in a vacuum. 

The Palestinians are victims of violent dispossession, and they are not going to forget it. They are not going to be wiped out, permanently blockaded in a tiny enclave or driven into the desert. The sooner Netanyahu’s ultras grasp the fundamental fact of their permanence and right to life, the better for all of us.

Drew Forrest is a former political editor and deputy editor of the M&G.