27 May 2004 Edition

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'They could all be dead'


"They could all be dead," screamed the tabloid headlines of a popular British newspaper.

Was this a reference to the Iraqi prisoners of Abu Ghraib, beaten and abused by their American captors? Was it a reference to the Israeli Army's bulldozer and helicopter gunship onslaught against the Palestinian refugees of Gaza? Or was it some comment on the Coalition bombers' night time assault on homes in the remote Iraqi village of Mukaradeeb?

If anyone was in any doubt about the warped standards of some sections of the Western media, they need only consider the coverage of a minor incident in the British House of Commons last Wednesday. The Sun newspaper's banner headline referred to a what-might-have-been story. What if the condoms thrown from the balcony of the British parliament's debating chamber during Prime Minister's question time, had been filled with anthrax, or nerve agent or, or, or whatever? In what one breathless journalist described as "true statesmanship", Tony Blair, after the first impact, glanced over his shoulder only momentarily before continuing with his speech.

After the proceedings were suspended, British Chancellor Gordon Brown, in a moment of unselfish philanthropy, only left the chamber after carefully covering the offending purple powder with pages of documents. After all, it's the British way. When faced with a crisis, throw a lot of paperwork at it. And all this would be very funny had it not been for the international backdrop against which this parliamentary pantomime took place.


In the visitors' balcony at the time of the incident were two members of the Palestinian Authority. Only a few hours earlier, the Israeli army had opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in Gaza, killing ten people and seriously injuring 45 more. The attack brought the number of Rafah Palestinians killed to 33 in two days.

The rally had been a peaceful challenge to an Israeli imposed curfew of the nearby Tel al-Sultan district of Rafah's large refugee camp. The demonstrators had carried food, water and medicine that they planned to distribute to their besieged neighbours. They were met with Israeli tank rounds and a helicopter missile.

This time, the what-might-have-been stories were not needed. The deaths were real, not conjured by a tabloid imagination, but there was still plenty of media myth making. Adopting the standard justification used by armies of occupation throughout the world, the Israeli army initially claimed its forces had issued prior warnings and that it had not opened fire against unarmed civilians but "armed men" within the ranks of the demonstration. The army later changed its cover story to "one armed man".

On the morning of the killings, the British Guardian newspaper had described the Israeli army's invasion of Rafah as a "huge crackdown". The Guardian is probably the most sympathetic British newspaper to the Palestinians' plight but even they couldn't break out of the rhetoric of legitimacy. The term "crackdown" casts the Israeli army and their political masters as the law enforcers, relegating the Palestinians as the lawbreakers.

Yet what kind of law is it that allows thousands of heavily armed troops with hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles smash their way through a residential area? What kind of law enforcement causes civilians to flee with a handcart of belongings or simply the clothes on their backs? Amnesty International is in no doubt. The mass destruction of civilian housing is a war crime, it warned.

The Israelis described the assault as part of the war against terror. The army chief of staff General Moshe Ya'alon said the assault on Rafah was intended to destroy tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt. But this 'justification' followed an earlier gaffe by the general, who initially described his mission simply in terms of the destruction of Palestinian homes. Such a military operation would violate the Geneva Convention. The general changed his story and the operation went ahead.

In an unguarded moment an Israeli spokesperson described the operation in terms of "weeding the garden". But 16-year-old Asma Mughayar and her younger brother Ahmed were not weeding a garden when Israeli army snipers targeted them from an occupied building overlooking the Mughayar family's home. Asma was collecting laundry from a washing line and Ahmed was feeding the family's pigeons on the flat roof of their house. Both were shot through the head and died at the scene.

But Israeli soldiers, like other armies of occupation, take no responsibility for their actions. Indeed, prior to what Israel has inexplicably called Operation Rainbow, the army publicly exonerated itself of all responsibility. In a leaflet distributed throughout Gaza, residents were told that the intended mass destruction of their homes and any subsequent killings had been brought upon them by "terrorists". Blaming the victims for their own victimisation is, of course, the classic response of an army of occupation.

Who gets marries in the desert?

The double wedding celebration in the remote Iraqi village of Mukaradeeb had been the biggest event for years. A large canvas awning had been erected in the garden of the home of Ashad Rakat, father to one of the grooms. A band of musicians entertained the guests, who danced and feasted the day away.

In the late evening, guests heard the sound of American jets overhead and they saw the headlights of a passing military convoy heading across the desert. But all was quiet when they finally left for home around 10.30pm. As is customary, close family members of the two couples stayed overnight in the home of the host.

At 3am the bombing started. According to survivors the tent pitched for the wedding ceremony was targeted first. "The US planes dropped about a hundred bombs on us," said a man from the village. "They hit two houses where the wedding had been held and then they levelled the whole village. No bullets were fired by us, nothing was happening."

Initial reports from the US military said the attack that been provoked by gunfire. The media suggested that the attack "had all the hallmarks of a similar incident in Afghanistan two years ago". The US military had attacked a wedding party, killing 48 and wounding over 100 civilians, after guests had fired Kalashnikovs as part of the celebration.

But in the Iraqi village of Mukaradeeb, there had been no firing and at the time of the attack the village was sleeping. When the bombing started, Haleema Shihab ran from the house in which she had been staying carrying her youngest child in her arms. Alongside ran her two young sons.

As she cross a field a shell exploded, fracturing her legs and knocking her to the ground. As she lay on the ground, another round hit her in the arm. Her two sons were already dead, one decapitated by the first shell. As an American soldier approached, she hid the child in her arms and kept very still. The soldier kicked her and left her for dead. "I pretended to be dead so he wouldn't kill me," she said.

Over 40 people were killed during the US attack, 27 members of one family, their wedding guests and the band of musicians. Eleven of those killed were women and 14 children.

"We took ground fire and we returned fire," insisted Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, USA deputy director of operations in Iraq. "We operated within the rules of engagement."

Major General James Mattis, Marine commander, dismissed the idea that a wedding party had been attacked. "How many people go to the middle of a desert to hold a wedding?" asked the Major General. "Let's not be naïve. I don't have to apologise for the conduct of my men."

Double standards

A few hours later and many miles away, when the purple powder began to descend in the British House of Commons, no doubt the politicians momentarily thought that the war on terror was suddenly being played out on their own doorstep. The fact it was nothing more than a handful of harmless dust thrown in a domestic dispute did not stop the media inviting us to empathise with that misguided moment of trauma.

The media, both British and American, had played an honourable role in exposing the widespread abuse of Iraqi prisoners in the US-run Abu Ghraib jail. But we were never asked to empathise with those being abused; they remained, naked and hooded, literally faceless captives. Instead, we were asked to understand the motives of their torturers.

For America's liberal press, it was a class issue and could be explained away as something to do with the "trailer trash" background of one of the female soldiers involved. For some right wing commentators, it was a combination of war trauma and boredom.

A popular right-wing American radio host, Rush Limbaugh, suggested that the rape and torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib was no more serious than many college fraternity pranks. "Have you ever heard of emotional release?" said the despicable Limbaugh.

On the BBC's Today Programme, an Israeli military spokesperson expressed "regret" at the growing number of civilian casualties incurred during Operation Rainbow, as if in targeting a residential area, the inflicting of death and injury upon residents can be portrayed as unintentional.

The American Government expressed its shock and disgust at the photographs of US soldiers 'humiliating' Iraqi prisoners. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld assured the media that his "impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe is technically different from torture and therefore I am not going to address the torture word".

US President George Bush expressed his "regret" and apologised, as if the brutal treatment handed out by US soldiers to prisoners in Abu Ghraib had nothing to do with the American administration's refusal to classify captives as POWs under the Geneva Convention, or even prisoners subject to ordinary judicial protection.

The soldiers of Ariel Sharon's government might carry out atrocities, but in the rhetoric of legitimacy, Israelis, by virtue of their status as a persecuted racial/religious minority, can never be portrayed as fascists or racists. The soldiers of Bush's America and Blair's Britain may be involved in the torture of prisoners and the murder of civilians, but by virtue of their status as Christian democrats, they can never be depicted as brutal as dictators like Saddam Hussein.

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