Hamas shows indifference to any 'rules' of war. And reportage has failed to keep pace with the Islamists' innovation.
Amid all the international criticism of Israel's fighting tactics in Gaza these past few days, from the gentle to the hysterical, from the supercilious chiding about disproportionate response to the vicious Nazi comparisons, one prominent aspect has curiously escaped marked comment.
Israel is bombing mosques in Gaza. Six of them and counting.
In recent years, the purported disrespect for Islam displayed in the writings of authors such as Salman Rushdie has been sufficient to provoke death sentences and mass rallies. The dissemination of Danish cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad, one of which showed the prophet with a bomb in his headdress in an artistic critique of the hijacking of Islam by extremists, prompted violent demonstrations around the world that rather underlined the cartoonists' point.
But today, with Gaza mosque after mosque targeted by the Israel Air Force, this unprecedented assault on Islamic places of worship has passed without particular hysteria.
Part of the reason is that critics and protesters are focusing on Israel's broader "crime" of trying to defend its civilians against ever deeper and more devastating Hamas rocket attacks. But still, the repeated direction of Jewish fire-power into Islam's places of worship, one might have assumed, would inflame the Arab world and its supporters into an orgy of anti-Israel fury.
As of this writing, that hasn't happened.
And it hasn't happened because the Islamists know they've been found out.
In a terrible incident on Tuesday, Israel hit an UNRWA school, and in the subsequent explosions a reported 40-plus people were killed, many of them civilians. An outraged UNRWA emphatically denied an IDF claim that a Hamas mortar battery had been firing from the school, and that secondary blasts indicated the presence of further explosives there; the Associated Press cited eyewitness accounts of "a small group of militants firing mortars near the school and running away." The accusations and counter-accusations will rumble on, and there's little likelihood of a definitive narrative emerging.
As regards the mosques, by contrast, Israel's declaration that it is firing on them because they are hubs of Hamas terrorism has met with no emphatic denials, no aggrieved assertions from Hamas clerics that their buildings are innocent places of humble worship, no pleas to the international community to enter the buildings and document their purity.
Britain's Observer newspaper reported last Sunday, after the IAF struck the Ibrahim al-Maqadma mosque in northern Gaza's Beit Lahiya, that Al-Jazeera's Gaza correspondent, Ayman Mohyeldin, believed the attacks "could galvanize the Arab world into taking action against Israel." But this doubtless objective correspondent's professional assessment did not prove prophetic.
The name of that mosque rather gives the game away, of course. Maqadma was one of the founders of Hamas and its military chief. He was killed in an Israeli helicopter strike in Gaza in March 2003, soon after a series of Hamas terror attacks, including a suicide bombing on an Egged bus in Haifa that killed 17 people.
Israeli security officials say the mosques that have been struck, long known as centers of Islamist indoctrination and vicious anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish incitement, are being used as weapons stores, command centers, as cover for networks of tunnels - in short, Hamas military positions. Again, there has been no frenzied rush by Gaza's clerics to dispute this devastating accusation.
"We did not easily take the decision to hit mosques," an Israeli security official said this week. But one of those targeted was the entry point to a whole series of tunnels, he said. Another was a storehouse for Grad missiles fired into Israel. (On Wednesday, the IDF released footage of a rocket being launched into Israel from immediately adjacent to the wall of a mosque.) "When you see, day after day, people going back into a mosque for their rocket supplies," the official said, "you have to act."
Along with the absent protestations of innocence, however, there is also a regrettable absence of internal Islamic condemnation of the abuse by Hamas of its holy places. Imagine the intra-Jewish storm were a synagogue's sanctity to be compromised in any remotely comparable manner. So where are the Islamic leaders, in Gaza and beyond, bitterly castigating Hamas for its unholy disrespect? And where are the horrified rank and file worshipers?
The leaders' silence only bolsters the perception of Islam as a religion inexorably being overwhelmed by violent extremists, with its moderates intimidated into silence. The tacit complicity of the worshipers - some of whom have lost their lives in recent days when the IAF struck, even though attacks were timed to avoid prayer services - underlines the extent of support and tolerance for Hamas's brand of Islam in Gaza. No surprise there; some two-thirds of Gazans chose to vote for Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections.
THE DESECRATION of the mosques is only one expression of Hamas's egregious indifference to any hitherto accepted "rules" of war.
Civilians are supposed to be off limits. So too, by extension, homes, schools and places of worship. Yet Hamas stores its ammunition and manufacturers its weaponry in precisely such places. On the very first day of Operation Cast Lead - 10 days, that is, before the tragic incident at the UNRWA school - Israeli security sources specified that Hamas was operating at or close to schools in some of Gaza's most dense population centers. The initial air strikes, which hit targets that had been evaluated for many months, eschewed numerous key Hamas positions precisely because they had been so callously established in the heart of civilian areas.
Hamas has for years been diverting Israeli electricity supplies to the Strip for weapons manufacture. This week, it cried humanitarian disaster even as it commandeered some of the food, fuel and medical supplies flowing into Gaza and blocked others.
Hamas gunmen, even more cynical than their Hizbullah counterparts, are fighting out of uniform - they look like innocent civilians, deserving of protection, until they pull out guns or rush at IDF soldiers with suicide-bomber belts. Security officials say some are maintaining a years-long practice of taking children with them when they prepare missile attacks into Israel, confident that the IDF won't touch them. Sometimes, the officials say, they have children with them when they confront soldiers at close quarters, as well.
ISRAEL DID prepare more effectively than in 2006 to clarify the asymmetry of the wars it is now regularly forced to fight, against terrorists who have ruthlessly recast the theater of war in a civilian environment.
The IDF spokesman's rapid, if vehemently disputed, response to the UNRWA school shelling contrasted with the long hours of official silence that followed the IAF's strike on a building in south Lebanon's Kafr Kana close to Katyusha launch sites at the end of July 2006, in which more than 20 civilians died. IDF spokespeople have been much in evidence on Arabic TV stations, and competent officials have articulated Israel's narrative in many languages across TV world.
But Hamas prepared well, too.
Hizbullah prevented the televised documentation of its uniformed fatalities, and thus protected its forces' morale. Hamas, too, has managed to censor most evidence of its aggression and of its losses; that's easier to achieve when your gunmen are clad as civilians in life and in death.
Hamas's push for legitimacy has not been hindered, either, by certain media outlets' openness to its message. Pride of place here goes to the UK, fast becoming the mother of misguided democracy, where a major television network two weeks ago invited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to deliver a Christmas message as an alternative to the queen's traditional broadcast. Channel 4's scheduling chiefs didn't show the Iranian president at the same time as Her Majesty, according to an insider quoted by the London Times, because "We didn't want to imply an equivalence between the two." Bless them.
This week, Britain's Guardian published an op-ed article by Hamas's Khaled Mashaal, headlined "This brutality will never break our will to be free."
Damascus-based Mashaal has graced the Guardian's columns before; in February of 2007, he penned a piece on the just-signed Fatah-Hamas Mecca power-sharing agreement titled "Our unity can now pave the way for peace and justice." Four months later, Hamas viciously overthrew the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in Gaza, with the deaths of more than 100 fellow Palestinians in circumstances some way short of peace and justice, but Mashaal's credibility with that newspaper was apparently unharmed.
The Guardian also published an informative obituary of the man who oversaw that coup, Nizar Rayyan, the Hamas terror chief killed by Israel on January 1. The Guardian obit categorized Rayyan as a "political leader" and described him as "a man of the street... He was famed for fighting alongside his men and being seen with them publicly. And he was not merely a fighter. He was highly regarded as an Islamic academic."
In this cynical new theater of war, journalists discredit themselves and their profession if they fail to look beyond the immediate and into the context. Why is the Israel-Gaza border not quiet? Why has Hamas been firing rockets into Israel for years? Who is to blame for the presence of civilians in the combat zone? These are the kinds of questions that have not been asked enough, if at all, on would-be fair-minded TV and radio stations these past two weeks.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials - whose government provides electricity for the enemy, sends in food and medicine, and telephones terror chiefs to warn them that their homes are about to be blown up so that their families can be evacuated - are relentlessly assailed for purported indifference to Gaza's suffering. If no Palestinian official is available to answer the wider questions, then reporters have an obligation to explore them themselves.
Gaza is by no means the only combat zone where Iranian-Islamist terror tactics are deliberately placing civilians in the line of fire. The footage is clearer than ever, but right and wrong are harder to discern these days in many places where the guns are firing and the bombs are falling. Death and injury to civilians on one side of the battle zone may not be principally the responsibility of the combatants on the other side. A keener focus is required. Too little journalism, for now, is keeping pace with the extremists' cynically innovative methodologies.
HAMAS EXPLOITATION of civilian suffering reaches its apogee when it comes to the hospitals.
Earlier this week, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin briefed ministers to the effect that part of the Hamas leadership was operating from a bunker constructed under Gaza City's main Shifa Hospital. There have been reports of sightings in the hospital wards, and of the commandeering of ambulances.
Very early in Operation Cast Lead, Hamas announced, falsely, that it was moving all patients out of Shifa, because, it claimed, Israel was about to bomb the hospital. Israeli officials publicly and immediately dismissed the notion as Hamas propagandist misinformation, of which there has been plenty. This was more than a week before Diskin dropped his bunker bombshell. Plainly, Hamas knew it had every reason to fear an Israeli attack on the hospital.
In fact, a senior security official said this week, Israel would under no circumstances target Shifa. Hamas leaders, safely protected by the civilians they deliberately placed in harm's way, can evidently sleep soundly.