Analysis. The massacre of Rafah recalls the strategy of annihilation perpetrated by the Sri Lankan military against civilians in a ‘No Fire Zone’ in 2009. This time we’re watching it live.

Israel launched 60 attacks in two days on Rafah safe zones since the ICJ ordered a halt

As all eyes are on Block 2371 in Rafah – the perimeter designated as a “safe humanitarian zone” by the Israeli military on May 22, before it bombed it on May 26, massacring at least 45 civilian refugees in their tents – a 2009 confidential telegram intercepted by Wikileaks, describing the plight of civilians in the final days of the civil war in Sri Lanka, comes to mind.

Sent in mid-May from the U.S. Embassy in Colombo to the State Department in Washington, the telegram recounted how the bishop of Mannar had telephoned to ask the embassy to intervene on behalf of seven Catholic priests trapped in a so-called No Fire Zone, set up as a safe area by the Sri Lankan military.

The bishop estimated that there were still between 60,000 and 75,000 civilians confined in that zone, located on a small piece of coastal land about twice the size of New York’s Central Park. After the bishop’s call, the U.S. ambassador spoke with the Sri Lankan foreign minister, asking him to alert the military that the majority of the people remaining in the No Fire Zone were civilians – it seems he was concerned that because of the intense artillery fire, that strip of land along the sea had become a death trap.

Similar to the experience of Palestinians currently taking refuge in Rafah, at one point the Sri Lankan army unilaterally declared that it had established No Fire Zones, encouraging the civilian population to head there through leaflets dropped from planes and megaphones.

As some 330,000 internally displaced persons gathered in these zones, the United Nations built temporary camps, and, together with many humanitarian organizations, provided food and medical assistance to the desperate population. But it was apparent that the Tamil Tigers had also retreated to the No Fire Zones on the coastal strip of land, where they had previously built a complex network of bunkers and fortifications, from which they would mount their final resistance.

While the Sri Lankan military claimed to be engaged in “humanitarian operations” intended to “liberate civilians,” an analysis of satellite images, and numerous witness testimonies, showed that the military was continuously attacking that area with mortar fire and artillery fire, turning the safe zones into killing fields. Between 10,000 and 40,000 trapped civilians died in these so-called safe zones, while thousands were seriously wounded, often left on the ground for hours and days without receiving treatment because virtually every hospital, both permanent and temporary, had been hit.

The similarities between Sri Lanka in 2009 and Gaza in 2024 are striking. In both cases, the military forced the displacement of thousands of civilians, directing them to assemble in “safe zones” where they would supposedly not be harmed.

In both cases, the military then bombed the safe zones, indiscriminately killing and injuring large numbers of civilians.

In both cases, the military also bombed medical units responsible for saving civilian lives.

In both cases, military spokespersons justified the attacks, admitting that they had bombed safe areas but claiming that the Tamil Tigers and Hamas were responsible for the civilian deaths because they had hidden among the population using them as human shields.

In both cases, Western countries criticized the killing of innocents but continued to give weapons to the respective armies. In the case of Sri Lanka, Israel was among the main suppliers of weapons.

In both cases, the United Nations claimed that the armies were committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In both cases, the governments mobilized teams of experts who employed contorted legal devices to justify the massacres. Their interpretation of the rules of engagement, and of the application of basic concepts of international humanitarian law including distinction, proportionality, necessity and the very notions of safe zones and warnings were put in the service of genocidal violence.

However, while in Sri Lanka it took time to gather evidence of violations and conduct independent investigations, the global focus on Gaza and the live-steamed images of decapitated children and charred bodies in Block 2371 could yet prevent a full repeat of the Sri Lankan horror.

The genocide in Gaza is not happening in secret. Media reports showed that the “safe zone” south of Wadi Gaza was hit with 2,000 kg bombs, killing thousands of Palestinians sheltering there. The International Criminal Court collected evidence and sought arrest warrants against Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who stand accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The ICJ observed Israel’s use of unrelenting violence against civilians and ordered the government to “immediately halt” the Rafah offensive, stressing that its actions were not sufficient “to alleviate immense risks (including that of not being protected by the Genocide Convention – n. ed.) to which the Palestinian population is exposed as a result of the military offensive in Rafah.”

But even in the presence of a ruling by the highest international court, Israel continued to bomb the Rafah safe zones, launching more than 60 attacks in the 48 hours following the ICJ order. All eyes are on Gaza, yet Israel continues to perpetrate its crimes in broad daylight undeterred, while the U.S., U.K., France and Germany continue to supply it with weapons.

The ICC and ICJ have spoken out, as have South Africa, Ireland and Norway. The university camps and the global solidarity movement are calling on their governments to demand an arms embargo and a ceasefire, seeing with their own eyes that Israel has turned the safe zones it had created into death camps. As in other situations of extreme colonial violence, Israel’s acceleration of its extermination practices and its clumsy attempts to portray them as law-abiding are symptoms of the demise of its project of dispossession. Former colonial powers like the United Kingdom, France and Germany should know this well. The United States should know this well. All eyes are on Gaza. And on them, too.

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