Israel's sordid history of massacres carries a political message

The killing of 45 civilians in a displacement camp in Gaza adds to a long list of victims accumulated in this war and over the decades. This brutality is meant to send Palestinians a message.

Israel's sordid history of massacres carries a political message

An Israeli air strike on the refugee camp in Rafah on Sunday killed more than 45 civilians, according to sources in Gaza. The next day, an additional 21 were killed in an Israeli bombing of another nearby displacement camp. These victims join the more than 36,000 Palestinians—predominantly women and children—killed in the Israeli offensive that began after Hamas's attack on Israel on 7 October.

And despite international warnings against an offensive in Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city, Israel has pushed forward in its offensive there. As a result, the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had sought refuge there have been forced to pack up and flee once again.

Read more: In Rafah, Gaza's displaced are caught between tanks and tents

But this isn't Israel's first rodeo. It has committed a long list of massacres—from Deir Yassin to Tantura, from Kafr Qasim and Bahr el-Baqar to Qana. These traumas have been indelibly etched into the collective consciousness of Palestinians and Arabs. They define Israel's image in the Arab world and have withstood the passing of time—mostly because they have never stopped.

Intimidation tactic

Israel's objective is the same as it has always been since its inception as a state in 1948: intimidation to pressure Palestinians to abandon their land. Of course, 1948 carries a much different meaning for Palestinians. They refer to it as the Nakba or catastrophe when more than 700,000 Palestinians were uprooted from their lands and forced to become refugees in neighbouring countries.

Records made public from Israeli archives rarely reference the massacres and mass killings that preceded the Nakba. Such crimes are not typically documented in official records, but rather, they are greenlit with a nod or wink to let soldiers know they have the liberty to kill civilians.

Israeli violence doesn't always come with an operational goal. Sometimes, it is deployed simply to send Palestinians a message.

And this practice carries on today. Even in the occupied West Bank, the killing of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers or settlers often goes unpunished, with the perpetrators either acquitted or handed lenient sentences.

Additionally, Israel's use of violence doesn't always come with an operational goal. Sometimes, it is deployed simply to send Palestinians "a message", to establish deterrence and to make the "enemy" think twice about carrying out any attack or uprising. 

Madman approach

And finally, Israel's use of violence also seems to be adopting the "madman" approach. The term first emerged during America's standoff with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. At the time, the US administration made a concerted effort to portray Nixon as unpredictable and capable of resorting to extreme tactics like using nuclear weapons if pushed.

Israel seems to be utilising this approach as well. It can be seen through its repeated threats to "turn Lebanon into another Gaza" and to destroy Iran's nuclear programme. It wants countries in the region to fear it.

To this end, Israel will push forward with its Rafah offensive, despite the mounting global pressure to stop. In its view, it needs to completely destroy Hamas to reestablish its deterrence. Neither the halting of American weapons shipments, EU warnings, ICJ decisions, and European recognition of a Palestinian state will convince Israel otherwise.

And it plans to use its countless massacres in Gaza as symbolic capital to use as leverage in future negotiations and as proof that it means business and will go to any length to achieve its goals.

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