It looks as if the shine is beginning to wear off Mahmoud Abbas' run for the PA Presidency, among Americans and Israelis who were previously touting him as the "pragmatic" PLO leader, i.e. the one who will sign off on an imposed one-and-a-half-state solution and declare that an end to the conflict. Suddenly the "grandfatherly" Abbas has thrown a spanner in the works: instead of running as the candidate who is acceptable to Israel and the U.S., he has gone off-script and is inexplicably running as a candidate who is acceptable to his own electorate.
The issue that seems to have set off alarm bells is Abbas' widely-reported reference to Israel as "the Zionist enemy" in a campaign speech at Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip on 4 January 2005. This is language uncomfortably reminiscent of the "Zionist entity" rhetoric that regimes hostile to the very existence of the Jewish state use as an alternative to uttering the name "Israel", and reflects a level of anger and hostility toward the Israelis that is uncharacteristic of Mahmoud Abbas.
Apparently, the context in which Abbas uttered those words didn't merit the same banner headlines as the words themselves. Despite what the headlines in the U.S. media suggest, Abu Mazen didn't just pluck some isolated reference to "the Zionist enemy" out of the air in order to annoy the Israelis. This is what he actually said to the crowds in Khan Younis:
"We came to you today, while we are praying for the souls of the martyrs who were killed today by the shells of the Zionist enemy in Beit Lahiya..." (from the same CBS report previously linked)
So his words were actually an angry reaction to the fact that the IDF had just killed seven Palestinians in nearby Beit Lahia by firing two tank shells into the field where they were working, in an apparent response to an earlier attack from the same area by Hamas militants who fired four mortars at the Jewish settlement of Nissanit.
As Ali Abunimah noted, National Public Radio managed to report Abbas' reference to "the Zionist enemy" without any reference whatsoever to that fact that he was responding to these killings. While Abbas' words were extreme and troubling to NPR, the deaths that provoked them were utterly ignorable. It is as if al-Qaeda were to blow up seven American children, prompting an angry vow from President Bush to hunt down the bastards that did it, and the U.S. news media responds by ignoring the dead children altogether while clucking and swooning over the Presidential use of the word "bastards".
CBS at least referred to the fact that the killings had taken place but, in the usual "he-said-she-said" regurgitation of competing claims that passes for U.S. news reporting, managed to insinuate that the victims probably deserved it anyway, by disseminating the IDF's palpably false claim that "at least four of the dead were members of Hamas and it is not the first time the militants have used children as shields". (A claim that CBS could have debunked by simply checking with journalists on the scene as the clearly civilian fatalities - overwhelmingly children - were brought into Kamal Edwan Hospital in Beit Lahia).
Mahmoud Abbas of course doesn't get his news courtesy of CBS. So when he made his angry reference to the "Zionist enemy", he knew the sad truth that the dead "members of Hamas" were actually a family of farm labourers at work in their own fields: 12-year-old Mahmoud Ghaben; his 13-year-old brother, Bassam Ghaben; his 16-year-old brother, Hani Ghaben; his 10-year-old cousin, Rajeh Ghaben; his 12-year-old cousin, Jaber Ghaben; his 22-year-old cousin, Mohammed Ghaben; and a family friend, 20 year-old Jibril al-Kaseeh.
Eleven other labourers harvesting potatoes and strawberries on the Ghabens' farmland were wounded, four of them critically. Two of the critically wounded suffered double leg amputations, and one a single amputation.
Neither CBS, NPR, nor any other U.S. news source that I am aware of mentioned what really should have been the most newsworthy aspect of the Ghaben family killings, which is that they were killed by the illegal use of two Flechette tank shells, making their deaths a grave breach of international humanitarian law. Apparently, it was more important for U.S. news to swoon over the fact that Abu Mazen used the words "Zionist enemy" than it was to report that the killings he was reacting to were, technically, a War Crime. You have to go foreign reporting, specifically to the British Guardian newspaper, to find even a passing reference to the munitions used in the Beit Lahia killings:
Mahmoud Abbas, who is expected to win Sunday's election for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, condemned "the Zionist enemy" yesterday after seven children on their way to pick strawberries were mistaken for Palestinian militants and killed by Israeli tank shells.
The tanks used anti-personnel shells, which throw out thousands of metal darts in a deadly cloud. Children aged 10, 12, 13 and 14 and three 17-year-olds were killed. A further 11 people were injured, four critically.
The dart-releasing anti-personnel shells that the IDF uses in the Gaza Strip are U.S.-made M494 105mm APERS-T rounds that rupture upon impact releasing approximately 5,000 small darts ("flechettes", pictured left), that scythe indiscriminately through anything in their path for a distance of up to 300 metres from the point of impact (further if the shell is detonated mid-air). Flechettes are not automatically illegal: they have a legitimate use as an anti-personnel weapon against massed ranks of enemy soldiers. A weapon that wipes out indiscriminately members of a crowd of enemy combatants might be unpleasant, but isn't illegal. If that same weapon is used in a crowd control or internal security situation however, its use becomes, as Jane's Defence Weekly delicately puts it, "problematic". Yet this is exactly how it is used in the Gaza Strip:
Who would have believed that the Israel Defense Forces would fire flechette shells at a soccer field where children were playing, wounding nine people, including two children, without anyone protesting? In fact, the story was barely reported.
Only those who saw the hundreds of small black metal spurs scattered over a wide area from the shell - as was the case in an incident half-a-year ago in which four members of the Abu al-Hajin family were killed in the Gaza Strip - or saw the results of the post mortem of three Palestinian youths whose bodies were split apart by such shells a few months ago, can understand what a truly horrific weapon this is. The use of the type of weapons to which the flechette belongs has been banned by international law. In Israel, this weapon, which is no different from the appalling devices used by terrorists who pack nails into their explosives, is legal.
-- The IDF's 'Permissiveness' In The Territories, Ha'aretz, 9 Feb 2003
In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel is bound by international law to make every effort to distinguish between those Palestinians who are combatants and those who are not involved in hostilities: the use of an indiscriminate, 'kill-'em-all-let-God-decide' weapon like the Flechette does not meet that criterion. In the Gaza Strip in particular, where militants and non-combatants are not only indistinguishable but also packed together in the most crowded piece of real estate on the face of the earth, the use of flechette shells passes from the "problematic" to the illegal.
Although it does not discuss it publicly, the IDF has nevertheless certainly used Flechettes on several occasions during the current intifada, in situations where the deaths of large numbers of innocent civilians were not only foreseeable, but absolutely inevitable.
For example, on 20 October 2003, an Israeli assassination squad killed Hamas activists Khalid al-Masri and Iyad al-Hilo as they drove through the Nusseirat refugee camp near Gaza City. They were killed by a missile that struck their car, and dozens of bystanders were horrifically wounded - at least 10 of them fatally - by a second missile that struck while EMS personnel were treating the victims of the first. IDF spokesmen denied that the appalling civilian casualties were anything to do with their operation. They insisted they had used Hellfire missiles in the attack, which would have been lethal only to those in the immediate vicinity of the car, and made available to international journalists a video of the killing showing that no bystanders were in the immediate vicinity at the time (ergo it could not have been the Israeli missiles that killed the bystanders). Fortunately, one Israeli Knesset Member, Yossi Sarid, who knew from a classified security briefing that the IDF was lying about the munitions it had used at Nusseirat, forced it to come clean by threatening to go public with his information:
The Israeli military has admitted that it lied about a rocket attack on a Gaza refugee camp, which according to the army led to no casualties, but which the Palestinians have claimed killed 14 civilians.... [T]he army now admits that it lied in briefings to the Israeli and foreign press, because the second rocket was not a Hellfire missile. The military refuses to identify the weapon used, on the grounds of "operational security". But the speculation is that it was an American-made Flechette, which is illegal under international law because it fires thousands of tiny darts over hundreds of meters, causing horrific injuries. Israel has used similar weapons in Gaza in the past...
Evidence from the attack scene indicated that the second missile exploded in the air, not on impact, suggesting an intention to cause casualties in a wide area instead of just destroying the vehicle.
-- Israel Admits It Lied Over Missile Raid on Camp; The Guardian, 21 Nov 2003.
And on 6 March 2003, an Israeli tank fired a Flechette shell into a crowd of Palestinians watching firefighters at work on a blazing furniture store, following an IDF incursion into Jabaliya Refugee Camp in the northern Gaza Strip. Nine civilians were killed in the attack, including five schoolchildren (four of whom were decapitated). Describing the incident for the U.K. Independent newspaper:
... [m]ost witnesses told the same story: that the first burst of shrapnel that cut down the fireman, Mr Abu Jalili, came from an Israeli tank. They said it fired a shell packed with flechettes, arrow-shaped pieces of metal designed to inflict mass casualties, straight at the fireman, and that the flechettes and shrapnel ripped through a crowd watching from an alley opposite.
The IDF denied that it had fired into the crowd, and suggested that Palestinian casualties were caused instead by a booby trap bomb they had themselves set in the furniture store. Unfortunately for the IDF, the explosion was captured on TV news footage:
[F]rom the television footage it was clear that the shrapnel which killed the fireman did not come from the furniture store, but from an entirely different direction. Nor was there evidence of a large blast at the furniture store: the large iron doors were still intact and hanging from the hinges.
What the television footage appeared to show was that the tank had fired in the direction of the fireman and the civilians near him. Slowed down, you could see how the shrapnel flew in one direction, over, around, through the fireman, bursting as it hit the road.
Then the machine-gun fire began. All the fire came from the same end of the street as the first burst of shrapnel, and Palestinians fled from it – which meant it was almost certainly Israeli fire.
Additionally, the Israeli civil rights group B'Tselem knows of at least nine, and possibly as many as fifteen, other Palestinians killed by Flechettes since September 2000; and we can now add to that total the seven killed two days ago in Beit Lahia.
The interesting thing about these incidents involving Flechette shells is that they have all occurred in the Gaza Strip. This is because the IDF's Central Command has forbidden the use of Flechettes in the West Bank, precisely because of the the danger they pose to innocent civilians not involved in hostilities. IDF Southern Command (which has responsibility for Gaza), however, continues to use them and, as Gideon Levy reported, the rationale behind permitting in Gaza what is forbidden in the West Bank is amazing:
Israel says it uses the flechette only in the Gaza Strip, explaining... that in Gaza, there is a clear division between Jewish settlements and Palestinian locales.
So, Israel knows that by using Flechettes it will indiscriminately kill innocent civilians, and refrains from using them in the West Bank, where Jewish settlers live in proximity to Palestinian civilians and might be among the innocent civilians killed or wounded. It continues to use them in the Gaza Strip however, because in Gaza there is a separation between Palestinians and settlers, so the innocent civilians killed will only be Palestinian (and can presumably be explained away with a deceitful "it is not the first time the militants have used children as shields"). Isn't that unbelievably callous? And just a little bit newsworthy?
Apparently not. Five dead Palestinian children isn't news for NPR. Five dead Palestinian children killed by illegal weapons isn't news for NPR, CBS or anyone else. All that matters is that Abu Mazen said "Zionist enemy".