It was a massacre that set the tone for a decade of siege and violence. The Israeli state’s first all-out war on Hamas in Gaza—launched ten years ago this month—ended with some 1,400 Palestinians killed, overwhelmingly civilians.
The enclave’s infrastructure was left in ruins.
Yet Palestinian resistance acted as an inspiration.
It fed into a burgeoning revolt against a dictator in Egypt. It saw giant demonstrations in Britain, and the growth of a mass international movement in solidarity with Palestinians.
The assault on the Gaza Strip—a tiny, overcrowded piece of land hemmed in on all sides—began on 27 December 2008 and lasted just over three weeks.
It was a war of terror on ordinary Palestinians.
One activist from Gaza, Muhammad Shehada—then 14 years old—later wrote, “The constant fear I first felt in those days has become chronic.
“Sleep is hard—nightmares and memories prey on my mind. Loved ones are always exposed to danger.”
Telling his story for the Electronic Intifada website, he described being trapped in Gaza—and the sick irony of Israeli leaflet-drops warning people to evacuate.
“We were just fish in a barrel at which the Israelis shot without restraint,” he wrote.
“We hugged every night as if for the last time, before we struggled to steal an hour of sleep.
“Above us, the sky lit up what seemed like every other second with airstrikes and artillery fire.”
Other Palestinians have told of how Israeli soldiers—after invading their neighbourhoods—shot civilians or held people at gunpoint.
Israeli soldiers have since spoken of how they systematically destroyed houses as they occupied neighbourhoods.
The most horrific part of this assault was surely the use of white phosphorous on densely populated areas.
When burst in the air, white phosphorous bombs send burning wedges of the chemical flying over a wide area. And if any comes into contact with human skin, it can burn to the bone.
Its use is forbidden in populated areas under international law. Particles are almost impossible to remove.
Yet in the aftermath the Human Rights Watch reported, “The unlawful use of white phosphorus was neither incidental nor accidental.
“It was repeated over time and in different locations, with the IDF ‘air-bursting’ the munition in populated areas up to the last days of its military operation.”
“Air-bursting” is intended to maximise the spread of the chemical.
There was widespread bombing of civilian areas too—some of it by deliberate, precision strikes.
By the end of the war Israel had destroyed some 3,500 homes—making more than 20,000 people homeless.
Hospitals and United Nations (UN) schools where Palestinians had taken shelter were shelled too.
John Ging, then Gaza director of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said 700 people had taken shelter in its main compound when Israel shelled it.
What’s more—Israel knew it. At the time UN workers had been in real-time communication with Israeli forces.
Eighteen schools were destroyed in the assault, along with more than 300 factories, miles of water pipes, reservoirs and wells.
Some £7 million worth of damage was done to Gaza’s electricity infrastructure.
It was all part of a deliberate strategy. In the months ahead of the invasion, the chief of the Israeli army Gadi Eisenkot outlined his “Dahiya Doctrine”.
Named after a Beirut neighbourhood which bore the brunt of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006, the idea was to target what Israel called Hamas’s “supporting civilian infrastructure”.
In the midst of the war Eli Yishai, then Israeli deputy prime minister, put it plainly.
“It should be possible to destroy Gaza so they understand not to mess with us,” he said.
Palestinian buildings were to be “razed to the ground so thousands of houses, tunnels and industries will be demolished.
“The operation will continue until a total destruction of Hamas.”
Yet for all the horror it unleashed on Gaza, Israel failed to do that.
Gaza had been under siege for more than a year when Israel’s assault began. A year earlier resistance group Hamas saw off an attempt to overthrow it—backed up by Israel, the US, Britain and Egypt—by Palestinian faction Fatah.
Now Israel wanted to destroy Hamas completely. It was all about restoring a Palestinian government ready to go along with the occupation.
Hamas had won the elections to the Palestinian government—the Palestinian Legislative Council—in 2006 after a campaign of determined resistance.
Unlike Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) it had boycotted the Oslo “peace process” that began in 1993.
The Oslo deal was presented as a path towards an independent Palestinian state. In reality it cemented the Israeli occupation.
Israel kept control of the borders of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, along with swathes of land inside the Palestinian territories.
It extended the occupation with new settlements and checkpoints while the newly-formed PA policed Palestinian resistance.
In contrast Hamas was associated with the Second Intifada—an uprising against the occupation that began in 2000.
And it was credited with forcing Israel to withdraw its settlements from Gaza in 2005.
So when Hamas stood for election in 2006 it won by a landslide.
Israel and its Western backers the US and Britain, who rely on it to prop up their control of the Middle East, couldn’t accept the result.
They claimed they couldn’t deal with a government that wouldn’t accept Israel’s right to exist or give up violence.
It was total hypocrisy. In more than a decade of supposed peace talks, Israel had never given up violence against the Palestinians or recognised any of their rights.
But in any case Hamas had effectively accepted Israel’s right to exist.
It called for a ceasefire based on Israel’s withdrawal from East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.
In practice this concedes Israel’s “right” to the land it seized from Palestinians through a process of ethnic cleansing in 1948.
Israel’s real problem with Hamas was that it wouldn’t drop its resistance until that was achieved.
And Hamas wouldn’t give up its demand for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the land they were expelled from in 1948.
This is something that Israel, as a state founded on racism against Arabs, can’t tolerate.
It claims the return of Palestinians to their homes would undermine its existence as a Jewish state.
So the US and Israel demanded that Fatah, which still controlled the presidency and PA security forces, launch a coup.
In 2008 journalist David Rose exposed a US plan to provoke a Palestinian civil war between Fatah and Hamas. This involved funding and training Fatah militias via Arab states.
There were growing clashes between Hamas and Fatah forces.
When 500 Fatah fighters marched into Gaza from Egypt in 2007, Hamas took action. By the end of the fighting Hamas had seen off the attempt to overthrow it.
But it was isolated in the Gaza Strip while the PA controlled the West Bank.
Israel imposed a blockade—with the support of the US, Britain and its ally Egypt—in the aftermath of that failed coup.
More than 11 years later, the siege has pushed Gaza to the brink of collapse. It has seen extreme violence against Palestinians.
The war on Gaza in 2008 was followed by two more in 2012 and 2014, both following the same pattern.
Most recently it has massacred Palestinian protesters who have gathered to protest at the border every Friday since March.
While the Arab ruling classes have largely abandoned people in Gaza, since the siege there has been increased international solidarity for the plight of the Palestinians.
In the build-up to the war in 2008, Egyptian soldiers attacked Palestinians who had demonstrated and broken out of Gaza into Egypt.
The attack led to demonstrations in Cairo that foreshadowed the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
After the revolution, Egyptians forced their government to open the border crossing during Israel’s assault of 2012.
And in Britain assaults on Gaza have often been met with mass demonstrations.
Ordinary people have built a legacy of solidarity with Palestinians that Israel is still trying to crush.