A reader e-mailed me to say he’d stumbled across one of my articles about New York Times reporter Isabel Kershner’s pro-Israel bias (I assume he meant this one) and asked me to comment on an article that appeared yesterday titled “Israel Calls Up 1,500 Troops as Tensions Mount With Hamas“.
The reader, incidentally, expressed to me his own view that Kershner’s piece was “very biased against Israel”. I have a very different view of it for reasons detailed below. So here is my thought process as I read and dig into it. Here’s the first thing I notice from the lead paragraph:
Israel and the militant group Hamas seemed set on a collision course on Tuesday, with an escalation of cross-border clashes around the Gaza Strip, Hamas vowing to avenge the deaths of six of its fighters, and Israeli warplanes attacking dozens of targets in the Palestinian coastal territory.
Why isn’t this written instead as follows?
…Israeli warplanes attacking dozens of targets in the Palestinian coastal territory, and Hamas vowing to avenge the deaths of six of its fighters.
It is a typical pattern for the Times to deliberately obfuscate cause and consequence. What is the actual timeline here? Which came first, Hamas rocket attacks or Israeli airstrikes that killed Hamas members?
The Question of the Tunnel
Next Kershner speaks of a tunnel “in southern Gaza”:
On Monday, Hamas said that five of its fighters had been killed by an Israeli airstrike on a tunnel used for “resistance” against Israel in southern Gaza…
Did Hamas say it’s fighters were killed in a tunnel? Let’s turn to Haaretz to see what we can learn:
Nine Palestinian militants were killed over the course of the night, but Israel claims at least six of them died when a tunnel collapsed.
Hmm… Kershner then parrots an IDF spokesman suggesting that the tunnel could have been used for a cross-border attack on Israel:
Colonel Lerner said that the air force attacked the tunnel a couple of days ago and that when the Hamas militants entered it on Sunday night, possibly to use it for an attack on Israeli forces, it collapsed or exploded on them.
But let’s just assume that Hamas did say its militants were killed in a tunnel collapse. Where, exactly, was the tunnel? Was it one of those under the border with Egypt? If Israel is claiming the tunnel went under its border, did the Times do anything to confirm this?
Was Hamas really planning on using the tunnel for an attack on Israel, as the IDF claimed? Or was it using it for underground arms storage? Or was it built to defend against IDF incursions into Gaza? We can recall how an explosive was detonated in a tunnel below an IDF during an Israeli incursion into Gaza prior to its launch of “Operation Pillar of Defense”. Or was it used for smuggling goods and/or arms into Gaza from Egypt?
While Kershner cited the IDF spokesman saying the tunnel was attacked “a couple of days ago”, Haaretz specifies that it was attacked on Sunday. The IDF said that two days before, it had been drilling in the tunnel (on which side of the border fence?). The tunnel then collapsed on Sunday when explosives detonated, killing Hamas militants. Then Israel launched an airstrike on the tunnel in Gaza, according to the IDF.
But is that right? Or was the collapse really a consequence of the airstrike the IDF claims didn’t occur until after?
Still digging, I find that Haaretz reported,
Hamas’ armed wing confirms six of its members were killed in Israeli air strikes at a “resistance location” in the southern town of Rafah, at the Egyptian border early on Monday, a possible reference to a smuggling tunnel.
Precisely what I suspected! Was this item from Haaretz the source for Kershner’s own statement that “Hamas said that five of its fighters had been killed by an Israeli airstrike on a tunnel used for ‘resistance’ against Israel in southern Gaza”? Or was she citing the Hamas statement directly? Either way, why did she omit from her article the fact that Hamas said the tunnel was in Rafah along the border with Egypt?
Omitting a Week of Israeli Airstrikes and a Hamas Ceasefire Proposal
Returning to her article, Kershner then writes:
Two more Gaza militants, believed to belong to a radical Salafi group, were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Sunday night. Israel said they had been involved in the recent rocket fire.
… About 80 rockets and mortar shells fired from Gaza struck southern Israel on Monday….
Hamas’s military wing claimed responsibility for firing dozens of rockets into Israel for the first time in this latest round of hostilities, which began three weeks ago.
So as far as Kershner tells it in this article, Israeli airstrikes only began on Sunday following ongoing rocket fire from Gaza.
Never mind that Israel had already been bombing Gaza for nearly a week prior as a response to the murder of 3 Israeli teenagers by militants in the West Bank, the alleged mastermind of which was in Turkey.
Furthermore, Hamas expressed its desire for a ceasefire and the BBC reported early on Friday, July 4, that according to a Hamas official, Egyptian mediators had “succeeded in reaching a new truce between Hamas and Israel, and that the ceasefire agreement was to be announced within hours”.
Hamas in the past has struggled to get other factions to abide by its ceasefire agreements with Israel. Furthermore, it is Israel that frequently violates its agreements for calm with Hamas.
It was Israel, for example, that violated a six-month ceasefire in 2008, following which it launched its 22-day full-scale military assault on the civilian population and infrastructure of the Gaza Strip, code-named “Operation Cast Lead”.
Likewise, the eight-day war in 2012, dubbed “Operation Pillar of Defense”, was begun by Israel when it used the opportunity of a ceasefire that had just been brokered by Egypt and that was being honored by Hamas to draw a Hamas official out of hiding in order to assassinate him.
Returning to Hamas’s offer to enforce a ceasefire, Israel’s response was to demand that Hamas instead “accept a unilateral ceasefire” (emphasis added). An unnamed official said that “quiet will be met with quiet”, but that message was quickly renounced by Israel’s Foreign Minister, who in effect advocated that Israel should continue its airstrikes even if Hamas enforced a cease fire unilaterally.
Needless to say, no ceasefire occurred.
The following day (Saturday, July 5), a spokesperson for the Popular Resistance Committee said that any ceasefire must include an end to Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza, which is a policy of collectively punishing the civilian population in violation of international law. Haaretz noted that the statement “contrasts with Hamas’ stance, which does not place new conditions for a ceasefire”, and amounted to a questioning of Hamas’s authority.
It should come as no surprise that no mention of Hamas’s offer of a ceasefire made it into Kershner’s report. Nor should it surprise anyone that she begins her timeline of Israeli airstrikes as though they had only begun on Sunday after continuous rocket attacks when in fact Israel had been continuously bombing Gaza the entire previous week.
Continuing the Timeline
We come to Sunday, July 6, when Israeli airstrikes began very early in the morning. The IDF claimed around 4 am that it had struck “underground rocket launchers”, among other targets (the same aforementioned tunnel, perhaps?). The first Palestinian rocket attack Haaretz reported occurred later, early in the afternoon, and continued throughout the rest of the day, as did Israeli airstrikes. Seventeen rockets struck Israeli territory in all.
Furthermore, far from acting to ease its policy, Israel tightened its illegal blockade, announcing that Gaza fisherman would be restricted from 6 to only 3 nautical miles from shore. (It has been extended to 6 nautical miles following Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012).
Again turning to Haaretz (which cites Reuters), we learn that four Hamas militants were killed during the night early on Monday in what the Israeli daily described as “the biggest single Israeli hit against Hamas since 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense.”
By around 3:30 am, Haaretz reported, seven Hamas militants were confirmed dead. Two Islamic Jihad members had also been killed. By morning, it was “still unclear whether the [tunnel] collapse was the deliberate result of the Israeli attack”. Haaretz added, “It remains to be seen if last night’s airstrikes will prove to be a turning point, leading to an escalation in the rocket fire to Israel’s south.”
Another Hamas member was killed early Monday in northern Gaza. A Hamas spokesman described Israel’s overnight airstrikes as a “grave escalation” and threatened that Israel would “pay the price”.
The IDF then called up 1,500 reservists in preparation for “for an escalation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip”. The security cabinet then decided to significantly escalate its operations against Gaza. Hamas claimed responsibility for rockets fired into Israel later Monday night.
This was the first time since the current round of violence began that Hamas had claimed responsibility for rocket fire.
The Hamas political leadership also again expressed through Egyptian mediators its desire for a ceasefire. The political leadership, however, was at odds with Hamas’s military wing, an Egyptian official told Haaretz. On Sunday, it had “seemed that they were heading toward a cease-fire and that things on the ground had calmed down”, but then came Israel’s overnight escalation of airstrikes and a reversal from Hamas’s military wing.
The IDF later on Monday announced the commencement of “Operation Protective Edge”.
Early this morning (Tuesday, July 8), Israel launched a series of airstrikes, hitting more than 50 targets in Gaza. Following strikes on the homes of Hamas members, the Hamas military wing said Israel had “crossed the red line” and threatened retaliation. Hamas official Musa Abu Marzouk said “attacks on civilian homes is a serious escalation” and that “the time when attacks on homes went without a response has passed.”
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced that Operation Protective Edge “will not be over after a few days”. Prime Minister Netanyahu told the IDF to “take off gloves” and make Hamas “pay a heavy price” for what he described as Hamas’s “escalation”. He further instructed to the IDF to prepare for a ground invasion of Gaza and met with foreign officials in an attempt to rally international backing for Israel’s military operations.
At least 16 Palestinians have been killed in airstrikes since this morning. The Israeli cabinet has discussed calling up an additional 40,000 reservists, and IDF ground raids into Gaza are occurring, although it has said that for now, there will be no ground invasion.
This seems a repeat of Israel’s bluff to launch a ground invasion during Operation Pillar of Defense. As Amos Harel writes in Haaretz, Israel has for now only called up 1,500 reservists.
In comparison, during Operation Pillar of Defense, the cabinet authorized a call-up of 75,000 reservists, a move initiated by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Israel threatened a ground operation without really intending to carry it out — and Hamas blinked.
Under Egyptian pressure, Hamas agreed to a cease-fire. The problem is, it will be hard to repeat this ploy this time around. Hamas knows how the story ends.
I include a detailed discussion of Operation Pillar of Defense in my forthcoming book Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Stay tuned! Subscribe to my newsletter below for inside looks and updates about the book.