During the latest 72-hour ceasefire, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were able to return to what had once been their homes. Many emerged from their shelters to find that the places they knew no longer existed. Homes in which they were born and raised, that held within their walls memories of the lives they lived, had been reduced to rubble.
The casualty totals were staggering. Before firing resumed, 1,875 had been reported killed, 429 of whom were children. Another 9,536 had been wounded, including 2,877 children. At the peak of hostilities, more than one-quarter of all Gazans were internally displaced and of that total, 65,000 are now permanently without homes. What remains unknown is how many bodies are buried under the rubble and how many homes, though standing, will be deemed unfit for habitation, creating an even more desperate situation in Gaza.
With or without an infusion of massive amounts of international aid, clearing away the mess of this war will take years. Streets can be cleaned, but the wounds, both physical and mental, will not soon heal, nor will the survivors easily erase the feelings of helplessness, despair and anger with which they have been left.
As Palestinians took advantage of the 72 hour calm to sift through the ruins and attempt to reconstruct their shattered lives, Israel began a clean-up operation of its own. Instead of brooms and shovels, their tools of choice were full page newspaper advertisements, "studies" and a "setting the record straight" press conference by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What they attempted to clean up was not the mess they left in Gaza, but the damage they had done to their image.
Their relentlessness in waging war was matched by their efforts to reshape the narrative of what happened during the bloody month-long onslaught. Using misdirection and fabrication, they spared no effort to provide reinforcement for their supporters and sow confusion among the public at large.
The blood of the dead had not yet dried and the bodies of the missing had not yet been recovered when the Israelis released studies arguing that the body counts issued by a number of United Nations agencies operating in Gaza were wrong and, of course, biased against Israel. Based on a preliminary review of the names of what they claimed were the first 150 dead Palestinians, the Israelis concluded that one-half were, in fact, fighters. Extrapolating from that unscientific “sample” they advanced the facile conclusion that one-half of all the casualties must have been fighters – this, in a brazen effort to deny the UN claim that more than 70 per cent of those who died had been civilians. In the days that followed, their misdirection worked. Instead of dismissing these unscientific studies, both the Washington Post and the New York Times carried major stories about the “disputed body counts”. Doubt had been sown.
Then, on the first day of post-cease-fire negotiations, Mr Netanyahu held a press conference and two pro-Israel groups placed full-page advertisements in US newspapers both of which regurgitated the arguments Israel had been making since the conflict began: Israel is the moral nation, Israel is the victim and Israel cares more for Palestinian life than Palestinians do – since it was Israel that provided warnings and even aid, food, water and electricity to the people in Gaza, while Hamas used civilians as human shields.
Mr Netanyahu feigned sadness for the loss of life while placing the blame squarely on Hamas: they made us do it; they wanted to increase the number of dead, so they could use it against us; our actions were proportionate and the justified response of a civilised victim nation fighting against evil.
By any measure, this Israeli clean-up operation was an obscene form of self-absolution designed to provide supporters with talking points, while creating confusion among all-too pliant reporters. The purpose was to change the public's understanding of the scenes of entire neighbourhoods that had been destroyed, or the entire families that had been wiped out, or the civilian targets that had been struck by deadly missile attacks. Instead of being seen as evidence of disproportionate force by a callous occupier, Israel wanted all of this to be seen as the inevitable and tragic consequence of what the very evil Hamas "forced" the very moral Israel to do.
There is plenty of blame to cast in Hamas’s direction. They had agreed to a reconciliation government which much of the world had accepted and which provided them an escape hatch from their growing political isolation. They had the opportunity to become responsible partners with the fledgling Palestinian Authority. They knew that Israel was hellbent on destroying this Palestinian unity and should have known, from their earlier experience in 2006, that Israel would provoke and bait a trap for them. And yet, as before, their macho bravado and their insistence on military resistance once again led them into a fight they couldn’t win. Having said this, nothing absolves Israel’s inhumane behaviour. They lied their way into this war and committed heinous crimes throughout.
As I write, the ceasefire has ended and the pathologies of both parties are playing out again. Why Hamas thinks that this round will end any differently is a mystery. Why Israel believes that it will be able to force the Palestinians to settle for humiliation and continued economic strangulation is not a mystery.
After the 2008-2009 Gaza war, Israel was able to escape scot-free. Using the same clean-up tools of misdirection and fabrication, it was able to keep the US solidly in its corner. When that failed, it resorted to intimidation to silence critics. Believing it can get away with the same plan, Israel sees no reason to change course. As a result, Hamas also sees no point in changing its behaviour, and so the sad saga will continue until there is international intervention and equal doses of justice and accountability for the misdeeds of all parties.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa