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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Who started the Gaza war?

Amnesty International, in its report on the Gaza war, introduces the topic this way:
At 11.30am on 27 December 2008, without warning, Israeli forces began a devastating bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip codenamed Operation “Cast Lead”. Its stated aim was to end rocket attacks into Israel by armed groups affiliated with Hamas and other Palestinian factions.
The name of the report is "ISRAEL/GAZA: OPERATION ‘CAST LEAD’: 22 DAYS OF DEATH AND DESTRUCTION."

This is a pretty typical description of how the war began. People know that Hamas and other groups had been sending rockets into southern Israel but the conventional wisdom is that Israel started the real war.

It just so happens that Hamas declared war a full three days before Israel did. And this little fact has all but disappeared.

On Wednesday, December 24th, a full three days before Israel's response, Hamas announced "Operation Oil Stain" (or, "Oil Slick" in some translations.)

On that day, they shot over 40 Qassam rockets and over 80 projectiles altogether towards civilians in Israel. It was by far the biggest barrage that Israel had seen since February.

I can only find a single reference to "Operation Oil Stain" in English-language Palestinian Arab media, but Hamas press releases continued to call it by this name even well after the Israeli response started. They never considered it a one-time operation. Hamas looked at Israel's response as being a part of a war it started. For example, here is their press release from December 28th, and this one from January 1st.

A couple of days later Hamas changed its tune, using both the "Oil Slick" term as well as the new term "Battle of Discord" on January 3, and using the new term exclusively on January 4th.

In other words, for about a week after Israel's counterattack, Hamas took credit for starting the war. Once it became clear that Hamas could gain more political points by claiming to be victims of Israeli aggression, they abandoned their earlier boasting about Operation Oil Slick and the media and human rights groups ignored Hamas' declaration of war in every single report to date.

This is a typical case of meta-bias, where the very framing of the description of the war is designed to make it appear like Israel was the aggressor (look at using Amnesty's phrase, "without warning, Israeli forces began...") While of course Israel's response was indeed devastating, Amnesty and other groups ignore that it was a response to a very specific, planned and declared attack from three days before. And by framing the conversation this way, they force any counterarguments to be within this erroneous framework and take Hamas off the hook.

It will be interesting to see if the UN's Goldstone report due out this month will look at things any differently. But given its mandate, that possibility is remote.