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January 23, 2009

Hamas Fights on Uneven Battlefield


by Thalif Deen

In the 1967 movie classic the Battle of Algiers, which recreated Algeria's war of independence against France, a handcuffed and shackled insurgent leader, Ben M'Hidi, is brought before a group of highly-partisan French journalists for intense interrogation.

One of the journalists asks M'Hidi: "Don't you think it is a bit cowardly to use women's handbags and baskets to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people [in cafes and night clubs]?"

Responding with equal bluntness, the Algerian insurgent retorts: "And doesn't it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on unarmed villages on a thousand times more innocent victims?"

"Of course, if we had your fighter planes, it would be a lot easier for us," he adds. "Give us your bombers, and you can have our handbags and baskets."

Like the Algerian insurgents, Hamas militants were not fighting on a level battle field – as the Israeli military unleashed its massive firepower on a virtually defenseless population in Gaza, killing over 1,300 Palestinians in the 22-day conflict.

"Perhaps it would be interesting to see the roles reversed: the Palestinians with American fighter planes and battle tanks and the Israelis with homemade rockets," says one Arab diplomat, striking a parallel with the Algerian insurgency.

Besides F-16 fighter planes, the Israelis also used a wide array of U.S. weaponry, including Apache helicopters, M60 battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and heavy artillery.

Frida Berrigan, a senior research associate with the Arms Trade Resource Center at the World Policy Institute, points out that the bulk of Israel's current arsenal is composed of military equipment supplied under U.S. assistance programs.

Israel, she said, has been supplied with 226 F-16 fighter planes and attack jets, more than 700 M60 battle tanks, 6,000 armored personnel carriers and scores of transport planes, attack helicopters and utility and training aircraft, bombs and tactical missiles of all kinds.

In contrast, the hundreds of erratic rockets used by Hamas were so crude that most of them missed their targets.

"Israel has enormous military resources," says Dr. Natalie Goldring, a senior research fellow with the Center for Peace and Security Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

And recent events have demonstrated that Israel can destroy large areas of the Gaza Strip.

"But it cannot effectively defend its people against even relatively unsophisticated rockets launched from there," Goldring told IPS.

Despite their size and sophistication, Israel's military forces have not produced peace. And they are not likely to do so.

"There is no sign that either side will be successful in using force to convince the other to surrender," she added.

Meanwhile, human rights organizations have accused Israel of using munitions and artillery that should never have been deployed in heavily populated civilian neighborhoods.

Amnesty International Thursday urged the Israeli authorities to disclose the weapons and munitions their forces used against Palestinians in Gaza.

Donatella Rovera, who is leading an AI investigation team in Gaza, said: "We now know that white phosphorous munitions were used in built-up civilian areas, although the Israeli authorities previously denied this."

She said: "Now we have irrefutable evidence of the use of this weapon, but the doctors who treated the first casualties did not know what had caused their injuries."

In a statement issued Thursday, AI said that other victims of the conflict have wounds which doctors say they are finding hard to treat because of uncertainty about the nature of the munitions which caused them.

"Doctors tell us they are encountering new and unexplained patterns of injury among some of the Palestinians injured in Israeli military attacks," said Rovera. "Some victims of Israeli air strikes were brought in with charred and sharply severed limbs and doctors treating them need to know what weapons were used."

AI also said that white phosphorous particles embedded in the flesh can continue to burn, causing intense pain as the burns grow wider and deeper, and can result in irreparable damage to internal organs. It can contaminate other parts of the patient's body or even those treating the injuries.

Dr. Subhi Skeik, head of the Surgical Department at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, was quoted as saying: "We have many cases of amputations and vascular reconstructions where patients would be expected to recover in the normal way. But to our surprise many of them died an hour or two after operation. It is dramatic."

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said that Israel's use of heavy artillery in residential areas of Gaza City violated the prohibition under the laws of war against indiscriminate attacks.

In a statement issued last week, HRW said one of its researchers on the Israel-Gaza border observed Israel's repeated use of 155mm artillery shells, which inflict blast and fragmentation damage up to 300 meters away.

"Firing 155mm shells into the center of Gaza City, whatever the target, will likely cause horrific civilian casualties," said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at HRW.

By using this weapon in such circumstances, Israel is committing indiscriminate attacks in violation of the laws of war, he added.

Asked about a possible change in policy under the new U.S. administration, Goldring told IPS: "The Obama administration, and its chosen Middle East envoy George Mitchell, face a daunting task."

But diplomacy has helped to produce a more peaceful situation between Israel and its neighbors Jordan and Egypt – progress that was once thought to be impossible.

"It will take both skill and luck to produce a similar result with Hamas. But the military option is clearly not working for either side," she added.

(Inter Press Service)


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  •  

    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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