A beleaguered looking President Barack Obama appeared before the Washington press corps Friday to lash into Hamas for supposedly violating the 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire that his Secretary of State John Kerry and the United Nations had labored so tirelessly to secure.
“I have unequivocally condemned Hamas and the Palestinian factions that were responsible for killing two Israeli soldiers and abducting a third minutes after a ceasefire was announced,” Obama said.
But evidence supporting Obama’s claim of Hamas responsibility has been difficult to come by. Indeed, even the Israeli Army news desk was unable to provide Mondoweiss with a clear narrative or substantial evidence regarding the incident in question. Moreover, accounts published in Arabic by Hamas’s military wing along with details provided by the PLO indicate that the killing of two soldiers and disappearance of another actually occurred before the ceasefire went into effect — when Israel was assaulting Rafah.
“Today at 9:30, terrorists executed an attack from which two soldiers were killed and an additional is now missing and therefore he is suspected to have been abducted,” an Israeli army spokesperson told Mondoweiss. The army spokesperson went on to state that Hamas and the army “exchanged shelling,” yet they were unable to provide details on the source of the Palestinian fire. “They used several forms of fire simultaneously,” was all the spokesperson could divulge.
“I cannot confirm at the moment as we are still looking into it, but it may have been live bullets and a suicide belt,” which killed the soldiers, the army spokesperson said.
When asked why the army did not have a solid account of the events that broke the promised 72-hour ceasefire, the army spokesperson maintained, “There were terrorists and they attacked the soldiers, two soldiers didn’t just drop dead.”
Tweets from Gaza contradict official US-Israeli claims
The PLO and Palestinian Authority both insisted to Mondoweiss that Hamas fighters engaged Israeli soldiers inside Gaza well before the ceasefire took effect – and during an Israeli assault on Rafah leading up to the 8 AM ceasefire.
“They aborted the ceasefire from the beginning,” said Nabil Shaath from the PLO’s Central Committee.
A veteran negotiator, Shaath has become the de facto liaison between the PLO and Hamas. He confirmed to Mondoweiss that PA President Mahmoud Abbas received a briefing from Hamas this morning on the incident near Rafah. Shaath’s account reflects details provided directly by Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip.
According to Shaath, at after 6 AM, Hamas fighters engaged Israeli forces in Rafah. He maintained that it was then — almost two hours before the ceasefire went into effect — that the two Israeli soldiers were killed and the other went missing.
Shaath’s account was supported by dispatches published before the ceasefire went into effect by the official Twitter account of Hamas’s Qassam Brigades military wing. In a tweet published at 7:34 AM on August 1, the Qassam Brigades stated, “At 7 AM a group [of Hamas fighters] clashed with [Israeli] forces east of Rafah and caused many injuries and death to them.”
In a separate tweet published at 6:22 AM on the say day, the Qassam Brigades declared, “At 6:30 AM, a group of the Qassam infiltrated behind enemy lines at east Rafah and bombed a house that the enemy had taken as a stronghold with a Tandem missile after the enemies bombed the whole area.”
The following day, Qassam Brigades reiterated its description of the incident in an official statement: “The clashes began at 7.00am, before the proposed truce was in effect, while the enemy launched its attack on civilians at 10 a.m, blatantly violating the truce in aims of finding a missing soldier.”
Qassam Brigades added that it had “no knowledge regarding the soldier missing in action [Lt. Hadar Goldin] or his location or the circumstances of his disappearance” — a departure from previous instances when it trumpeted claims that it had captured Israeli troops. Despite the denial, Obama vehemently demanded that Hamas unconditionally release Goldin.
The ceasefire was first violated at 8:30 a.m., according to Shaath, when the Israeli army destroyed 19 buildings in an operation to demolish tunnels. “Destroying tunnels is destroying houses,” Shaath said, noting that the ceasefire allowed hostile Israeli forces to continue to operate inside the Gaza Strip, making violence almost inevitable. “We do not accept a ceasefire that allows the invader to attack and murder,” he declared.
Conflicting claims and evidence ignored
In announcing the brief ceasefire, Kerry said its terms authorized Israeli forces to carry out “defensive” operations against tunnels. He seemed unaware of the ramifications of such an agreement, or what Israel’s attacks on tunnels actually entailed. A glimpse at Human
Rights Watch’s bracing report on the Israeli army’s brutal assault on Rafah in 2004, “Razing Rafah,” which it conducted under the auspices of anti-tunnel operations, would have offered a glimpse of what was to come. (American activist Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer during the 2004 attack on Rafah).
Following the incident in Rafah that left two Israeli soldiers dead and one presumed missing, Kerry immediately declared that Hamas had committed an “outrageous violation of the ceasefire.” White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest echoed Kerry by accusing Hamas of “a barbaric violation of the ceasefire agreement.”
But sources offer starkly conflicting accounts of the incident in question. The Israeli army claimed to Mondoweiss that Lt. Hadar Goldin went missing at 9:30 AM, an hour and a half after the ceasefire was declared. Yet Obama claimed that the attack occurred “minutes after the ceasefire began.” For their part, Qassam reported engaging and killing Israeli soldiers well before 8 AM.
So when did the incident actually occur? And why was Obama’s information so dramatically different from details the Israeli army was furnishing journalists with?
More importantly, why was the Obama administration so quick to jump to conclusions?
Framing Hamas, driving the death toll
Perhaps the answer was credulousness or sheer laziness, with its diplomatic corps and intelligence services neglecting to examine sensitive details from sources on the ground. But the more likely explanation is that Washington has sought to frame Hamas as the aggressor to enable Israel to intensify military operations disproportionately directed against a besieged civilian population.
Since violence escalated in mid-July, the Obama administration has demonstrated a disturbing pattern of legitimizing suspect Israeli claims about Hamas’s malevolence and bad faith. In each case, the administration provided political cover for disproportionate Israeli violence, deepening the damage to civilian life in the West Bank and Gaza. And in each case, Washington’s claims were ultimately discredited — but only after Israel had ratcheted the violence up to a frightening new stage.
The first case of irresponsible enabling by the Obama administration occurred in the immediate wake of the kidnapping of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank on June 12. It was on June 15, before evidence was made public about the kidnapping suspects’ identities, that Kerry pointed the finger at Hamas, suggesting that the organization’s leadership had authorized the crime. His words helped justify Operation Brother’s Keeper, an army rampage through the West Bank in which thousands of Palestinian homes were raided, over 500 were arrested without charges, and 6 civilians were killed.
A month later, Israeli Police Spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld finally admitted what was widely known and had been extensively documented: Hamas leadership had no role in or advance knowledge of the kidnappings. But by then, the damage to the West Bank had already been done. Kerry has yet to retract his demonstrably false and damaging claim.
The next case of Obama administration enabling came on July 15 as the military regime of Egypt – a ferocious antagonist of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas – introduced a ceasefire proposal developed in intimate collaboration with Israel that would not have lifted the 8-year-long siege of Gaza. Hamas had not been consulted on the proposal or even briefed on its details, exposing it as a hollow document conceived as a ruse to frame the Palestinian faction as rejectionists. Kerry brought the Israeli-Egyptian scheme to its fulfillment when he launched into an indignant condemnation of Hamas for rejecting the Egyptian proposal, accusing the group of “purposely playing politics.”
Kerry’s statement was a political boon to Netanyahu, providing the Prime Minister with all the cover he sought to initiate and expand ground invasion of Gaza. Hamas’s refusal to accept the proposal “gives Israel full legitimacy to expand the operation to protect our people,” Netanyahu declared on July 15.
Human catastrophe with no end in sight
Some thousand civilian deaths later, with morgues filled with the bodies of children and the UN no longer able to care for the 25% of the Gaza Strip forced to flee from sectors of the Gaza Strip that resemble post-apocalyptic moonscapes, the Obama administration was at it again. As before, they blamed Hamas without the benefit of anything remotely resembling substantial evidence.
In turn, Washington provided political legitimacy to military operations aimed at an occupied and vulnerable civilian population with nowhere to flee, allowing the killing to continue unabated. Following the collapse of the ceasefire, Israel bombarded Rafah with US-supplied F-16’s and tank artillery, decimating the center of the city and killing over 70. At the time of publication, the death toll is rapidly rising.
Meanwhile, the talks scheduled to take place in Egypt over the next 72 hours seem to have fallen into shambles.
Obama has described the scenes of human misery pouring out of the Gaza Strip as “heartbreaking.” If only he and his administration had demanded evidence before enabling Israeli aggression, he might have been able to forgo the empty displays of hand-wringing. More importantly, hundreds of innocent lives might have been spared from a marauding army operating behind a shroud of impunity.