There is a dreadful symmetry between the two incidents which last week virtually destroyed the allies’ moral case for their military operations in the Middle East: the killings at an alleged Iraqi wedding and the decision to open fire on protesters in Rafah, Gaza.
Both took place in border areas considered to be lawless. If the US story is to be believed their forces attacked a legitimate target: a suspected safe house used by foreign fighters close to the Syrian border, and during the operation 22 enemy were killed. In the Israeli version, their soldiers were engaged in an internal security operation against known Palestinian targets following the killing of 13 of their own soldiers in Rafah last week. Both operations involved the use of overwhelming force. In the Iraqi desert the US deployed armoured vehicles and aircraft to attack a target defended by gunmen. The Israelis used tanks and attack helicopters in support of a ground offensive aimed at destroying buildings and tunnels used by Palestinians to smuggle in arms from Egypt. Both accounts have been challenged by eyewitnesses.
The Iraqi account of the attack in Makr al-Deeb, a small town in a desert region near the border with Syria and Jordan could hardly be more different to the American version. Eyewitnesses claimed American missiles were fired at a wedding party, killing more than 40 people, including 15 children and 10 women.
One eyewitnesss said: “At about 3am, we were sleeping and the planes started firing. They fired more than 40 missiles. As soon as they started attacking, firing the first missile, I went away. I was running. There are no fighters. These are lies. There’s no resistance. Even the bride and the groom died.”
Eyewitnesses outside the Tel Sultan refugee camp in the southern Gaza town of Rafah told a similar story of ruthless violence against unarmed civilians – again including children. The Israeli Defence Forces used missiles and tank shells to break up a demonstration, killing 10 Palestinians and wounding at least 40.
The Israeli military authorities were at pains to point out that the four-day offensive had military aims, in this case the destruction of tunnels used for smuggling arms from Egypt into Gaza. Israeli defence officials insisted that civilians had not been targeted, that warning shots had been fired into a “an open field” and that Palestinian gunmen had infiltrated the demonstration. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who ordered the operation as part of his policy to pull out of Gaza, let it be known that he was “sorry” about the incident.
For the Israelis condemnation was not long in coming. Both the UN and the EU called on Sharon to halt operations in Rafah and, in a rare move, the Bush administration decided not to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s actions. There was also a rebuke from US secretary of state Colin Powell who said the “wholesale bulldozing of houses” was not “productive”.
The UN’s envoy for human rights in Palestine, Professor John Dugard, went further, describing the actions as “war crimes” and calling on the Security Council “to take appropriate action to stop the violence, if necessary by the imposition of a mandatory arms embargo”.
His recommendation was followed by a statement by Amnesty International urging the Israeli government to act quickly and decisively to investigate the incident: “ It is imperative that a thorough and independent investigation be promptly carried out . The scope, methods and findings of the investigation must be made public and those responsible for human rights violations must be brought to justice.”
Coming on top of the scandal at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, the offensive in Gaza and the Iraqi bombing will do nothing to help the cause of the US-led coalition in Iraq. The Bush administration was praying news coming out of Iraq would not get worse, but there is now a sense in Washington that the crisis is getting out of control. In addition to the drip-feed release of ever-more horrifying images of abuse, the case against the US is assuming such serious proportions that the words “homicide” and “murder” are now being used by military officials investigating the deaths of 37 detainees in Iraq and five in Afghanistan.