PALESTINIANS around the world on Saturday commemorated the sixth anniversary of the beginning of Israel’s 22-day offensive on the Gaza Strip in 2008-9 that left more than 1,400 dead.
This year’s commemorations take place in the shadow of another Israeli offensive over summer – the third major assault in six years – that left nearly 2,200 Palestinians dead and 110,000 homeless.
Until this year, the 2008-9 assault was the bloodiest sustained Israeli assault on Palestinians since 1967, with more than 80 per cent of victims thought to have been civilians.
The offensive, known by its Israeli operation name ‘Cast Lead,’ began on December. 27, 2008 around 11.30am, when Israeli warplanes launched more than 100 airstrikes on Gaza simultaneously.
The airstrikes killed hundreds of police officers and civilians, including dozens of police cadets who were attending their graduation ceremony, and injured more than 2,000 Gazans on the first day alone.
On January 3, 2009, meanwhile, an Israeli ground offensive began around 9pm, with Israeli soldiers, artillery, tanks, and other units raiding the Gaza Strip by land as the assault continued by air and sea.
Israeli forces famously used a number of internationally-banned weapons such as white phosphorus, a chemical that enters the body and burns the skin from the inside.
More than 5,500 Palestinians were injured in the assault while around 50,000 were displaced.
Israel launched the attack at the conclusion of a six-month ceasefire with Hamas that it repeatedly violated, despite Hamas’ general adherence.
On November 4, a month-and-a-half before Cast Lead began, Israel launched an unprovoked attack on Gaza that left six Hamas members dead and led to a number of Palestinian rocket firings into Israel.
Critics pointed out that the attack was carried out on the same day as the US elections and went nearly unreported in the international media.
Cast Lead itself, meanwhile, was launched in the media lull between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
The utter devastation of Cast Lead was previously unimaginable in Gaza, which – despite having survived decades of Israeli military occupation – had never before been so viciously assaulted from air, land, and sea.
Cast Lead is also considered one of the first wars in modern history from which there was no possibility of flight or refuge, as both Israel and Egypt kept the border with Gaza tightly sealed, preventing Gaza’s 1.7 million residents from escaping.
The scenes would be repeated again only three years later, however, when Israel launched an assault in November 2012 that killed around 160 Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians.
Less than two years later, Gaza would again fall prey to an Israeli military assault, in the bloodiest year for Palestinians in the occupied territories since the occupation began in 1967.
Throughout the entirety of the last six years, the Israeli siege on Gaza has persisted, and the majority of the Strip’s population has been reduced to poverty and dependence on international aid as the vast majority of imports and exports have been blocked by Israel.
The siege has also prevented reconstruction as cement and other building materials are among the imports banned by Israel. As a result, today the landscape of the Gaza Strip continues to be marred by the physical reminders of all of the wars of the recent past.
The Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip on Saturday said it was planning to hold celebrations on the 50th anniversary of the movement at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Gaza this week.
The announcement comes after celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat in Gaza were cancelled in November, after a series of explosions targeted Fatah leaders in the Hamas-led coastal strip.
The Fatah branch in Gaza called upon Palestinians in a statement to take part in ‘lighting the flame’ for the movement in the square on Wednesday, December 31.
The group said that all activities celebrating the anniversary of the establishment had been approved by Fatah’s central leadership.
The move comes less than a month-and-a-half after the explosions rocked the homes and cars of a number of Gaza officials, causing no injuries but shaking confidence in the unity government between the two groups.
Some Fatah officials blamed Hamas as having direct or indirect responsibility for the attacks, but Hamas denied responsibility and condemned the incident, calling it a ‘criminal act’.
Fatah and Hamas signed a unity deal in April, and in June the West Bank and Gaza were brought together under a national consensus government of independent technocrats.
The Gaza war commemoration came in the wake of news that an Egyptian committee has finished surveying the homes of individuals living between 500-1,000 meters of the Gaza border in preparation for the extension of a buffer zone on the border to a width of 1,000 metres, which Egyptian military revealed on Friday.
The move comes after the destruction of hundreds of homes inside the 500-metre area previously, as part of a wider effort to ensure that the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip be fully carried out.
The technical engineering committee that carried out the survey examined around 1,200 homes in the area in preparation for their demolition in the 13-kilometre long stretch of border territory.
Work on the buffer zone on the Egyptian side began in February 2014, but was at the time slated to extend only about 300 metres in urban areas and 500 in rural areas.
After a bombing killed more than 30 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai in October, however, the military stepped up the campaign to build the buffer zone amid accusations of Hamas support for the group that carried out the attack, which Hamas has strenuously denied.
Both sides of the border are densely populated as the city of Rafah originally extended in both directions, a growth that was the result of the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula for more than a decade following the 1967 war.
In the early 2000s, Israeli authorities demolished thousands of homes in Palestinian Rafah in order to create a 300-metre buffer zone on the Egypt border, but after the pull-out in 2005, many moved back into the area.
The Egyptian government, which has actively destroyed smuggling tunnels underneath the border and directly targeted Hamas since a military coup in summer 2013, has now promised to uproot as many as possible to ensure the creation of a buffer zone on its side.
The border area used to be host to hundreds of tunnels which Gazans used to import goods to get around the seven-year-old Israeli siege of the territory.
• A Hamas leader on Saturday said that the draft resolution in favour of Palestinian statehood presented to the UN Security Council was ‘disastrous,’ and that it has ‘no future in the land of Palestine.’
The leader’s statements come amid growing criticism at home of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ push for the UN to recognise Palestine as a state, as some have called the move a symbolic gesture that distracts from the larger struggle to end the Israeli occupation.
Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahhar, however, took a different approach, saying in a statement that Hamas would not accept the resolution because of its focus on the 1967 borders, and not on the entirety of historic Palestine, which includes the lands where Israel today sits.
He said that the movement will only accept the complete borders of the 1948 lands and that the movement refuses to consider allowing to be Jerusalem a capital for both Palestinian and Israeli states.
The statement points to the uphill battle Abbas has at convincing the Palestinian public that pushing the resolution is a useful move, even as he is confronted by pro-Israeli pressure abroad.
Hamas has long maintained that the Israeli occupation must be dated to 1948, when Israel was created through the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in what became Palestine.
Abbas’ Fatah party, however, has focused instead on building a state in the remaining lands of historic Palestine that Israel occupied in 1967 – the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.