In the course of the eight-day aerial bombardment of Gaza by Israel – using drones, F-16s and Apache helicopters – more than 1350 buildings were hit. They included military depots, which are considered legitimate targets under international humanitarian law. But the police stations, TV stations, a local healthcare centre, ministries, road tunnels and a bridge that were also targeted are legally protected as civilian infrastructure. To justify their destruction, Israel argued that ‘they belong to a terrorist entity.’ This is an argument that would render all public buildings and physical infrastructure in the Strip legitimate targets: it is not accepted by international lawyers outside Israel.

Israel’s attempt to provide any sort of legal defence at all, however tenuous, is a response to the Goldstone Report, which alleged (before Goldstone himself recanted) that both the Israeli military and Hamas had committed war crimes during the 2008-9 conflict, and that Israel might even be guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’. During the Goldstone storm, in a speech delivered at an Israeli security institute, Netanyahu called organisations that claimed to support the principles of human rights and international law the third strategic threat to Israel’s security – third after Iran and Hizbullah. Israeli think-tanks, like some of their Western counterparts, now refer to this ‘third strategic threat’ of legal action against state militaries as ‘lawfare’: the use of international law as a weapon by a non-state party, to make up for its weakness on the field of combat.

Mindful of the danger of further exposure to international legal action, during Operation Pillar of Defence Netanyahu ordered the military to exercise restraint so as to avoid the level of destruction seen in 2008-9. Israeli experts in international humanitarian law were more closely involved than they ever have been before in the planning of the attacks, and the military repeatedly proclaimed its commitment to minimising harm to civilians. The number of casualties was much lower than during Operation Cast Lead, when ten times as many Palestinians were killed, though as the operation approached its end the number of casualties rose: as the list of targets was depleted, the air force had no choice but to drop bombs on more populous neighbourhoods, with a higher risk of collateral damage.

But Israel is no longer content merely asserting that its aerial bombardments are justified under international law. It has begun to experiment with new kinds of bombing. After the 2008-9 attack, human rights advocates undertook an investigation using techniques associated with the new field of ‘forensic architecture’. In so doing they discovered the traces of a new Israeli strategy: small-scale craters caused by impacts on what had been the roofs of destroyed buildings. The Israeli military let it be known that it was using this tactic – known as ‘knock on the roof’ – again during Operation Pillar of Defence. It involves firing low-explosive ‘teaser’ bombs or missiles onto houses designated for destruction, with the intention of making an impact serious enough to scare the inhabitants into fleeing their homes before they are destroyed completely.

Israel makes much of the fact that it always tries to warn civilian inhabitants of impending bombings. The new procedure is a twist on the established ‘knock on the door’ method, which involved telephoning a house – with a recorded message, or using an Arabic-speaking air-force operator – to inform the inhabitants that in a few minutes the building would be destroyed. Sometimes phones that had been disconnected for months because the bill hadn’t been paid were suddenly reactivated in order to relay these warnings. According to the Israeli military, during the last 24 hours of Pillar of Defence, thousands of such calls were made to residents of Gaza, warning them of incoming strikes. (Israel can penetrate Gaza’s communication networks so easily because its telephone networks and internet infrastructure are routed through Israeli servers, which has advantages both for the gathering of intelligence and the delivery of propaganda.)

Of course, many inhabitants of Gaza don’t have a landline or a mobile phone. In these cases, an IDF spokesperson recently explained, the military’s legal experts recommend the use of leaflets to encourage people to leave their houses before they are destroyed. Teaser bombs are just another means of sending a warning. In 2009, an IDF lawyer said: ‘People who go into a house despite a warning do not have to be taken into account in terms of injury to civilians … From the legal point of view, I do not have to show consideration for them.’ To communicate a warning can indeed save a life. But the strategy is also aimed at changing the legal designation of anyone who is killed. According to this interpretation of the law, if a warning has been issued, and not heeded, the victim is no longer a ‘non-combatant’ but a voluntary ‘human shield’. In this and other cases, the laws of war prohibit some things but authorise others. This should give pause to those who have protested against Israel’s attack only in the name of the law.

We will learn more about the way Pillar of Defence was conducted when, over the coming weeks, it becomes possible to start reading the rubble. Some of what we know about the 2008-9 assault comes from an archive – the Book of Destruction – compiled by the Hamas-run Ministry of Public Works and Housing. The archive contains thousands of entries, each documenting a single building that was completely or partly destroyed, recording everything from cracked walls in houses that still stand, to complete ruins. The ministry will no doubt put together a new archive following the latest attack. Its list will be a close parallel to the one contained in a document owned by the Israeli military. This is the Book of Targets in Gaza, a thick blue folder that the outgoing chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, who presided over Operation Cast Lead, passed to his successor in a televised ceremony at the beginning of 2011: ‘I want to hand over something I carry with me all the time,’ he announced.

Now that the bombing is over, evidence will be accumulated (and allegations made and contested), not only by speaking to survivors and witnesses but by using geospatial data, satellite imagery of destroyed buildings and data gathered in on-site investigations. But investigation is difficult: in Gaza ruins are piled on ruins, and it isn’t easy to tell them apart. The wars of 1947-49, the military incursions of the 1950s, the 1956 war, the 1967 war, the 1972 counterinsurgency in the refugee camps, the first intifada of 1987-91, the waves of destruction during the second intifada of the 2000s, and now the two attacks of 2008-9 and 2012, have each piled new layers of rubble on top of those produced by their predecessors.

The visible ruin is an important symbol in the public display of occupation and domination: it demonstrates the presence of the colonial power even when the colonist is nowhere to be seen. Before it withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Israel demonstrated its control over the enclave by means of its settlements. (In 1980, Ariel Sharon, then minister in charge of the settlements, said he wanted ‘the Arabs to see Jewish lights every night no more than five hundred metres away’.) After the military relocated to the Strip’s perimeter and bulldozed the settlements, inaugurating this new era of colonialism, the destroyed buildings – standing like monuments, unrepaired, unrepairable – became the most significant visual affirmation of Israel’s domination.

But Israel’s real power over Gaza is invisible. It is the ability of the Israeli air force to maintain a perpetual ‘surveillance and strike’ capability over Gaza – drones can stay in the air around the clock – that made the territorial withdrawal possible. Together with its control of the Gazan subsoil – manifested in the robbing of much of the water from coastal aquifers – and over the airwaves, including the use of electromagnetic jamming technology, all that is left for the inhabitants of Gaza is the thin surface of the earth that is sandwiched between Israeli-controlled zones. No wonder they try to invade the space below and above them with tunnels and rockets.

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