Since Israel’s military operation in Gaza commenced in earnest, the party line among western politicians and corporate news media has been a familiar one: Israel has the right to defend itself against rocket attacks originating in the Gaza Strip. This frame immediately establishes Israel as the defensive agent and Hamas as the “terrorist” aggressor, and begets an intellectual dilemma that the Israeli military, through its propaganda channels, has blithely exploited.
“What would you do?” reads a caption overlaid atop an image of Paris, with the orange signatures of explosions photoshopped onto residential buildings in the environs of the Eiffel Tower. The answer, as far as the Israel Defence Forces are concerned, is implicit in the question: respond with lethal firepower.
But as Israeli historian Ilan Pappé contends, this Zionist tactic of isolating specific affronts from their broader political and historical context, in order to rationalize immediate military aggression, in fact predates the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.
“The Zionist strategy of branding its brutal policies as an ad hoc response to this or that Palestinian action is as old as the Zionist presence in Palestine itself,” wrote Pappé in an editorial published July 13 at the Electronic Intifada.
“[T]he Israeli propaganda machine attempts again and again to narrate its policies as out of context and turns the pretext it found for every new wave of destruction into the main justification for another spree of indiscriminate slaughter in the killing fields of Palestine.”
Once again, history is repeating itself. Israel’s apologists claim that its military has gone to great lengths to avoid harming civilians, but the facts on the ground belie this assertion. Numerous NGOs and news organizations have reported that between 75 and 80 per cent of more than 1800 Palestinian dead are civilians, including hundreds of children. In light of this, one might reasonably wonder if the Israeli military is inflicting civilian casualties on purpose (as was alleged in the 2009 Goldstone Report)—after all, though it possesses precision-guided ordnance unsurpassed in its sophistication, the Israel Defence Force (IDF) has resorted to banned white phosphorus munitions, DIME explosives, and flechette-filled shells. But the cynical Zionist propaganda machine has a ready-made answer: that Hamas is deploying civilians as “human shields”—and, by implication, that Israel’s military bears no responsibility for civilian casualties caused by its artillery.
By that logic, if an armed assailant takes hostages, the rational response is to pulverize everyone in the immediate vicinity in order to neutralize the threat to civilians posed by the hostage-taker.
This nonsensical position has been fortified in the wake of a specious “ceasefire” introduced by the coup regime of Egypt and briefly adopted by Israel, but rejected by Hamas, whose leadership claims it was never consulted on the pact. Having “rejected” that ceasefire, Hamas is cast as guilty for the Israeli military’s ongoing rampage, while Israel is entitled to virtual moral absolution for its crimes. (The U.S. State Department, among others, has echoed this amoral view.) Naturally, the fact that Israel has rejected several reasonable ceasefire proposals, including Hamas’s offer of a return to the 2012 ceasefire in early July, has not compelled most prominent politicians or the obsequious mainstream press in Israeli-allied countries to apply the same standard to Israel’s leaders.
Take a recent slaying of four Palestinian boys as a case in point: the youngsters, all members of the same family, were killed by shelling from an Israeli gunboat whilst playing soccer at a beach in northern Gaza. The fact that they were children, and apparently unassociated with “terrorist” activity, did not deter some of Israel’s apologists from immediately portraying them as human shields, in an effort to divert blame for their deaths to Hamas.
Over the course of its present incursion, dubbed “Operation Protective Edge,” the IDF has fired upon civilian infrastructure, including mosques, hospitals, several UN schools (despite having been notified as to their exact locations), a beachside cafe filled with soccer fans, a medical facility for people with disabilities, and the crowded Shujaiyya marketplace. At the time of this writing, UN figures indicate that Israel’s forces have leveled thousands of homes and displaced more than two hundred fifty thousand people—nearly 15 per cent of Gaza’s population, and counting.
In an interview with presenter Jon Snow of Channel 4 News (UK), Israeli spokesman Mark Regev repeated the usual boilerplate: that Hamas had compelled the Israeli armed forces to act, that rockets are “raining down” on Israeli cities, that Israel strives to avoid civilian casualties, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. But he also (perhaps inadvertently) posed a question that is worth interrogating further:
“Why are you [Hamas]…shooting your rockets?”
A problem with historical roots
Before the modern state of Israel came to exist, Arab-majority communities filled the land of historical Palestine. Prior to the 20th century, it was not uncommon for Arab and Jewish denizens of the region to coexist peacefully, at times tending each others’ gardens, and even babysitting one another’s children. Several crucial events occurred during and after the First World War that radically altered this dynamic.
As the Ottoman Empire dissolved, members of the victorious Triple Entente proceeded to incorporate vast swathes of the Middle East into their orbit, under the auspices of the newly formed League of Nations. France inherited what would become Syria and Lebanon, while Britain laid claim to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Transjordan (now Jordan, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories). Hoping to break a stalemate against their foes, the British made conflicting commitments regarding the land of Palestine to the Zionist movement and Arab leaders: the Balfour Declaration, which expressed favourability toward the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine; and a series of letters (the Husayn-McMahon correspondence), in which British High Commissioner for Egypt Sir Henry McMahon pledged to honour Arab independence in exchange for the Arabs’ participation in the overthrow of Ottoman rule. These apparently incongruous guarantees laid the foundation for a long period of restiveness in the British Mandate of Palestine, including anti-Jewish riots, an Arab nationalist revolt from 1936-39, a Jewish nationalist revolt in 1947-48, several acts of armed insurrection, and violent clashes between Arabs and Jews.
Significantly, the arrival of waves of Jewish immigrants, and later Holocaust survivors, in the 1930s and ‘40s piqued the urgency of the Zionist cause. In 1947, Britain announced its desire to relinquish its administration of Palestine, and the United Nations drew up a partition plan, awarding more than half the land of the former Mandate to the Jewish settlers, who had previously managed to secure only six per cent of the territory for an envisaged Jewish state. As one might expect, with a few exceptions, the plan was welcomed by Jews and rejected by Arab interests.
The months that followed the 1947 declaration featured a bloody armed conflict between Jewish Zionists and Palestinian Arabs, which culminated in a widespread campaign of ethnic cleansing. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab civilians were either killed (as in Deir Yassin), or expelled from their homes through coercion or intimidation, the purpose of which was to consolidate a Jewish demographic majority in what would become Israel. As the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said observed, his people would become secondary victims of the Holocaust.
Today, Israelis recall the events of 1947-48 as part of the “War of Independence.” Palestinian Arabs, on the other hand, remember it as the Nakba—Arabic for “catastrophe”—in which hundreds of thousands of natives were displaced.
The Gaza strip, a small, densely populated enclave wedged between Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean, has a population of 1.8 million, the majority of whom are refugees, or descendants thereof, uprooted either during the Nakba or in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. These displaced people live in crowded conditions, many in permanent refugee camps, and most suffer from material deprivation in various forms. Israel still legally denies them the right to return.
Throughout the country’s history, Israel’s political and military leaders have prosecuted not only an agenda of territorial expansion, but one that privileges the rights of Jews to land and self-determination over equal rights for Palestinians. Writer, activist and educator Yousef Munayyer of the Palestine Center in Washington, D.C., summarized this ideological program pithily in 2013 when he remarked that “Israel has always sought maximum Palestinian geography with minimal Palestinian demography.”
While specific episodes stand out, like the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, and expulsions of Palestinians from the Galilee in the 1970s, the fundamentals of the approach persist. One need look no further than the ongoing construction of settlements and incremental expulsion of Arabs in the still-occupied West Bank for proof.
Meanwhile, Israel guarantees to Jews around the world the right of “return” to the land upon which it sits, even if the family history of the people in question bears no historical connection to that land.
The bankruptcy of the Peace Process
In the late 1980s, Israel attempted to meet the mass, unarmed Palestinian uprising that became known as the First Intifada with repression. But, consistent with a pattern that has characterized the Israel-Palestine conflict for decades, this tactic only provoked an escalation of hostilities, causing the situation to spiral out of control. When the dust settled, hundreds of civilians and combatants were dead.
The First Intifada yielded several noteworthy results. For one, it compelled Israel to restrict the movement of Palestinians between the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza, and to require that Palestinians obtain military issue permits in order to transit among these locations.
Soon after the First Intifada, surreptitious talks began in Oslo, Norway between Israeli brass and officials within the Palestine Liberation Organization on a “peace process”—one which optimists hoped would deliver reconciliation between adversaries, and a two-state solution. Persistent lack of progress toward this ostensible goal, the ongoing occupation and cantonization of the occupied territories, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions by Israeli forces, and the complicity of the comprador Palestinian regime of Yassir Arafat (and later, his successor Mahmoud Abbas), provoked an existential angst amongst Palestinians. Car bombings, suicide attacks, and other violent incidents within Israel and the occupied territories in the 1990s and 2000s betrayed the depth of their anger, despair, and feelings of betrayal.
As Said and other Palestinian intellectuals have contended, these actions were not only reprehensible, but ultimately unproductive in terms of advancing the cause of Palestinian self-determination and freedom. If anything, they only served to diminish international sympathy for Palestinian nationalism, and to further intensify an Israeli preoccupation with state security.
The exalted Peace Process was formalized in 1993 with a famous signing ceremony on the White House lawn, but soon revealed itself to be a de facto barrier to regional peace and security. To this day, Israel has no clearly defined borders; adjoining the West Bank and Jerusalem, an unofficial frontier exists in the form of the Green Line, established with the 1949 armistice that ended the Arab-Israeli War (but never established a Palestinian state). However, slicing into the West Bank today is a serpentine barrier of reinforced concrete and barbed wire—a separation wall that serves as a tool of territorial annexation. Within the West Bank itself, hilltop settlements, access roads, and checkpoints have imposed an oppressive sclerosis on the Palestinian way of life.
The phenomenon of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel began with the eruption of the Second Intifada in 2000. Israel’s response to that uprising was to tighten security even further, restricting the flow of people and goods into and out of Gaza. In 2005, Israel’s leadership responded to international pressure by unilaterally evacuating Jewish settlers and withdrawing troops from Gaza. But contrary to a common misconception, this did not mark an end to the occupation; in fact, Israel further straitened its restrictions, and now exercises control over most of Gaza’s perimeter (except for the Rafah crossing with Egypt), imports and exports, construction materials, fishing rights, access to water, and electricity. The fact that Gaza remains occupied has significant legal implications, since international law prohibits the use of force to suppress an occupied people’s struggle for self-determination, and maintain an occupation.
An untenable situation in Gaza
The deleterious impact of the siege on Gaza on the daily life and psyche of its residents is significant. Poverty is rife, more than a third of the workforce is unemployed, farmers and merchants confront frequently insurmountable barriers in trying to move their products to market, and roughly four-fifths of the population is dependent on international aid to meet basic needs—a number sure to rise following Israel’s latest military operation. Many have only intermittent access to water, and sewage treatment facilities lie in ruins, causing raw sewage to pour out into the sea, and at times, onto the streets. Power brownouts and blackouts are commonplace, as Israel constrains the supply of electricity, and fuel for Gaza’s only power plant (recently destroyed). Shootings, demolitions of homes and farms, and extrajudicial assassinations by Israeli forces still occur regularly. As one might expect, the rate of PTSD among Palestinians in Gaza is extraordinarily high.
The bogeyman that allows Israel to rationalize its siege and frequent military assaults on Gaza is Hamas, a militant Islamist organization which took political authority in parliamentary elections in January 2006, and is considered a terrorist group by Israel and several other countries. But the the rise of Hamas from its former fringe status owes more to a Palestinian repudiation of the occupation and the bootless peace process, than to an endorsement of the group’s hard-line Islamist creed. The open defiance of Hamas and its notable successes in provision of social services, compared to the total complicity, corruption, and incompetence of the PA, enabled the former to capitalize on popular dissatisfaction with the reality on the ground.
In June 2006, Hamas operatives abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid, aiming to secure the release of Palestinian political prisoners. The IDF responded by launching Operation Summer Rains, the first of its major military engagements in Gaza. (Israel would eventually secure Shalit’s freedom through a prisoner exchange in 2011.)
The following year, Fatah (the Abbas-led party that dominates the West Bank-governing Palestinian Authority) sought to reassert control over the occupied territories, leading to a period of fighting in Gaza between Fatah and Hamas. When the dust settled, Hamas retained control over the Gaza Strip, and the regime of Abbas continued its governing partnership with Israeli (and international) security forces in the West Bank.
Since the 2006 campaign, Israeli forces have launched three more major offensives against Gaza—in 2008-’09, 2012, and now 2014. Combined, these operations have inflicted thousands of deaths and many more injuries, and destroyed much of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. In most instances, the stated motive for Israel’s actions has been that rocket fire from Gaza endangers (and occasionally kills) its civilians, and that Israel has a right to defend itself.
All people have the right to live their lives free from the fear of injury or worse. But recent history provides little cause for optimism that military strikes on Gaza will yield the security and peace of mind that Israelis rightfully desire. The overwhelming cost for Palestinian civilians in terms of death, suffering, and despair, provides another compelling reason to (at the very least) question Israel’s motives and strategy.
Israel’s weapons include F-16s, bombs, tanks, and propaganda
While macabre and disturbing, the messaging that emanates from the Israeli government also presents a fascinating case study in propaganda.
Hasbara (a Hebrew word that roughly translates as “explanation” or “justification”) has played an increasingly prominent role in Israeli military engagements since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which culminated in an Israeli-abetted massacre in the Beirut neighbourhoods of Sabra and Shatila. The hecatomb elicited international condemnation, and Israeli officials recognized the necessity of redoubling their endeavours to turn the tide of public opinion.
But, as Deepa Kumar explains, the convoluted PR efforts of the Israeli establishment have been blunted in 2014, due in no small part to the dispatches of on-the-ground reporters and bloggers, disseminating a compelling counter-narrative through social media channels like Twitter.
Mercifully, no longer are the subservient mainstream media able to monopolize the flow of information to the extent they have in the past. Activists, demonstrators, and journalists have consistently held major outlets to account for poor editorial and logistical judgements. The resultant public pressure has yielded some encouraging results, like the reversal of a decision by NBC News to withdraw its expert Middle East correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin from Gaza, and a critical discussion on BBC airwaves of the British public broadcaster’s tendentious coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But there is still a long way to go.
A toxic political climate in Israel
The talking points of Israeli officials, though they may have initially sounded reasonable to ill informed news consumers, have grown increasingly bizarre.
Ayelet Shaked, a rising political star in Israel and member of the fascistic Jewish Home Party, recently took to Facebook to call for the genocide of Palestinians, and murder of the mothers of “terrorists.” In a recent interview with Wolf Blitzer of CNN, the leader of Shaked’s party and a member of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet, Naftali Bennett, upbraided Hamas for its “massive self-genocide” in Gaza. (Thus, in his own way, Bennett legitimated the view that Israel is engaged in genocide, an accusation that commonly draws ridicule when articulated by outside critics.) Not to be outdone, Netanyahu described the civilian fatalities in Gaza as “telegenically dead,” callously insinuating that Hamas is using civilian deaths in Gaza to garner sympathy for its cause.
To the extent that Netanyahu’s propaganda line contains a shred of veracity, one must wonder why Israel seems so eager to leap headlong into the trap.
The Israeli government’s delusional aspirations for a military solution
The Netanyahu regime’s stated pretext for “Operation Protective Edge” is the imperative of self-defence. But the government’s ostensible conclusion—that overwhelming force is the solution to the rocket menace—relies on a series of delusional premises: that a military operation which claims vast numbers of innocent lives and ravages Gaza will somehow diminish the will of Palestinians to fight back against an indefinite siege and occupation, and temper the allure of recalcitrant groups like Hamas; by extension, that the security of Israeli citizens will be enhanced over the long term; that Hamas is an institution comprising suicidal lunatics devoted to the mass genocide of Israeli civilians, and therefore inherently averse to good-faith diplomacy.
But perhaps most importantly, it is absurd to suggest, as the administration has, that renewed rocket launches from Gaza over the past month arose spontaneously, and that Israel bears no responsibility for the outburst.
A turbulent period
The year 2014 had been filled with turmoil in the Israel-Palestine region.
In May, in the first Egyptian national election since the coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi from the presidency in 2013, former commander of the armed forces and coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi tallied a suspicious 96 per cent of the popular vote. Unlike his supplanted predecessor, Sisi is a committed ally of Israel and vociferous opponent of Hamas. Soon after the election, Egypt fortified its role in the bilateral blockade of Gaza, and moved aggressively to seal off supply tunnels from its own side of the border. (Note that no ground invasion of Gaza was necessary in order to achieve this.) With this crucial access point obstructed, and an adversary in power in Cairo, Hamas faced an existential crisis: it was unable even to pay the salaries of government workers. Starved of options, the principals of Hamas grudgingly turned to their former foe, the Abbas-led PA, to seek rapprochement.
The reunification of the two sects of Palestinian government infuriated Netanyahu, but was conditionally embraced by the Obama administration. This temperamental disconnect between the president of the U.S. and the leader of its foremost client state continues to inform the events that have followed.
In order to curry international sympathy for its heavy-handed tactics, the Israeli administration and its sympathizers have endeavoured to portray Hamas as fanatical, anti-Semitic, and devoted to the destruction of Israel at any cost. Like all effective propaganda, these charges contain kernels of truth: Hamas’s founding charter cites the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—an anti-Semitic forgery that chronicles a bogus Jewish plot of global domination. Said charter also contains a passage that glorifies the killing of Jews by Muslims. Holocaust denial is rife within Hamas, even today, and its commitment to armed struggle is apparent. However, the group abandoned suicide attacks in 2005, and in advance of the 2006 elections, dropped its appeal for the obliteration of Israel from its political manifesto. (Incidentally, Fatah was also ideologically committed to the elimination of Israel until 1993, when the vaunted Peace Process began.) In 2010, Hamas’s political leader Khaled Meshaal suggested that the Charter was an obsolete historical document that could not be changed for bureaucratic reasons.
Israel’s history of supporting the predecessor of Hamas as a counterweight to Arafat’s PLO, and a tool designed to scuttle the prospect of a peace agreement, is also worthy of note.
The truce that concluded Israel’s 2012 incursion into Gaza, like other ceasefires that have taken place before it, contradicts the claim of Hamas’s intransigence and aversion to diplomacy. Officials on both sides of the conflict acknowledge that Hamas honoured that ceasefire for 19 months. According to UN data, just two mortar shells and nary a rocket exited Gaza in a three-month period between the effectuation of the ceasefire in November 2012, and February of 2013. Israeli operatives, on the other hand, violated the terms of that agreement repeatedly over the same timeframe—four assassinations, 13 IDF incursions, 30 discrete attacks on fishing boats, 63 shootings, and 91 non-lethal injuries were sustained by Palestinians in Gaza. It goes without saying that a ceasefire observed by only one party to a conflict cannot be regarded as legitimate.
Kidnappings, collective punishment, and escalation
In June, the kidnapping (and subsequent murder) of three Jewish settler teenagers in the West Bank aroused international sympathy. Netanyahu, however, showed few apparent qualms about parlaying the tragedy into a long-awaited political opportunity to dissolve the Palestinian unity government.
Almost immediately, the prime minister accused Hamas of involvement in the teens’ disappearance, but publicly revealed no evidence to that effect. By the end of the day of the kidnapping, the Shin Bet (Israeli secret service) possessed intelligence indicating that the boys had already been slain by a rogue militant cell based in the West Bank, and released this information to media outlets—including the New York Times—on condition that those news organizations submit to an embargo. A carefully orchestrated campaign of propaganda and incitement followed, in which Netanyahu appropriated and modified the Twitter hashtag #bringbackourboys, and ordered Operation Brother’s Keeper in the West Bank—which included hundreds of arbitrary arrests, the bulldozing of homes, and six Palestinian deaths—and retributive airstrikes on Gaza. Hamas has consistently denied any involvement in the abduction of the three teens.
The Israeli government’s contention that Israel has the right to defend itself appears reasonable on the surface. It becomes problematic, however, once one considers the ongoing occupation, dispossession, and systematic oppression of Palestinians, the unwillingness of Israel’s current leadership to entertain any possibility of a two-state solution, the vast imbalance of power and military technology between the two sides, and the tacit implication that Palestinians have no corresponding right of self-defence against Israeli aggression.
Automatic, and virtually unconditional, support for Israel
Scores of craven western politicians, news organizations, and current affairs commentators have endorsed Israel’s right of self-defence without acknowledging any of the aforementioned considerations.
The press frequently toes the party line through a pretense of “objectivity” grounded in flawed assumptions. For example, on July 11, the hosts of current affairs broadcast The Current, a radio program of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), posed the question of whether Israel’s assault on Gaza was justified. The query presupposes that the Israeli military’s aggression in Gaza came in response to (random?) Palestinian rocket attacks, when in reality the inverse is true. This tendentious frame, which de-contextualizes the hostilities, has typified mainstream media coverage of the events of the past few weeks in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.
The pressure exerted on western politicians by the Israel lobby is intense, and Israeli military actions that inflict hundreds of Palestinian civilian casualties put the moral fibre of current and aspiring lawmakers on conspicuous display. For their part, U.S. senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have all but confirmed their status as PEPs (progressives, except on Palestine) by adding their signatures to a unanimous resolution that inculpates Hamas for both the current hostilities and the mounting death toll.
Incidentally, the opening sentence of that document regurgitates the preposterous view that the rocket launches from Gaza are “unprovoked.”
In Canada, Prime Minister Harper and Foreign Minister Baird, arguably the most adamant supporters of the Netanyahu regime among all of the world’s statesmen, have unequivocally approved Israel’s military action, blamed Hamas for Palestinian civilian fatalities in Gaza, and sought to commodify the Israel-Palestine conflict as a political wedge issue. The Harper administration’s main opponents, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair, have effectively followed suit, condemning Hamas for its rejection of a token Egyptian “ceasefire” proposal, championing Israel’s right of self-defence, and calling on “both sides” to de-escalate. Green Party leader Elizabeth May has called for an immediate end to the “cycle of violence,” and endorsed an insipid party motion that denounces settlement-building in the West Bank as an impediment to regional peace and stability—consistent with the Harper government’s official position. None of Canada’s major federal party leaders has directly addressed the occupation, the continuous siege on Gaza, or the period of extraordinary repression that preceded “Operation Protective Edge” in their recent statements.
War crimes, tactics of resistance to occupation, and international law
According to numerous UN resolutions from 1970 onward, often tailored specifically to the Palestinian case, occupied peoples have the right to resist occupation by “all necessary means at their disposal”—which, one surmises, includes rocket and mortar fire. Israel’s leaders make a valid theoretical case, however, that civilians should not be subjected to fear and endangerment. (That said, the Israeli army’s commitment to protecting civilians in Gaza, a duty of occupying forces under international law, is questionable in the most charitable interpretation.)
It is clear that some rockets from Gaza have been aimed in the general direction of Israeli cities like Sderot, Jerusalem, and Beersheba. But in pointing this out, one must also acknowledge that the explosives in the arsenal of militants in Gaza are inherently imprecise, and often fall short of or otherwise miss their intended target (sometimes exploding within Gaza itself). Many Israeli military installations are also in close proximity to major population centres—the headquarters of the IDF, for instance, is in Tel Aviv. It would be impossible for militants in Gaza to aim their projectiles with sufficient accuracy as to strike military targets near urban areas without imperiling civilians in the process—they simply lack the requisite technology.
Israeli brass frequently claim moral superiority on the question of “human shields,” but this claim is dubious, and entails an illogical assumption. Aside from the fact that the use of Palestinian human shields by IDF soldiers over the years is well documented, would it be remotely logical, or conducive to a successful armed resistance, if Palestinian militants stored their weaponry out in the open, as if to facilitate their elimination by Israeli forces? Obviously, the answer is no. Considering the circumstances they confront, Palestinian militants are obliged to conceal their weapons. And given the extraordinary population density of Gaza, it is all but inevitable that ordnance is stored in proximity to civilians, and even in buildings formerly or presently occupied by civilians.
One might also note that, when confronted with a British occupation and a condition of vast military inferiority prior to the foundation of the state of Israel, Zionist militant groups like Irgun and the Stern Gang also stored their weapons in civilian areas and structures, including synagogues.
In any event, over the course of its various offensives against Gaza since 2006, the Israeli military has shown little aversion to leveling schools, mosques, and hospitals on suspicion that they contained projectiles and/or affiliates of Hamas, regardless of whether or not civilians happened to be present. Thus, the (alleged) use of human shields in Gaza offers little to no advantage in terms of “protecting missiles,” contrary to a popular Israeli propaganda dictum.
Another dimension in which Israel claims moral superiority to Hamas is in its habit of dropping leaflets, firing warning shots, and ordering civilians to evacuate over the phone. (Leave aside the fact that several Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli “warning shots.”) This argument invokes an obvious false equivalency, since Palestinian armed resistance groups (Hamas being only one among several) lack the ability to drop leaflets or target specific structures within Israel with consistent accuracy. Israel’s air force hardly merits praise for such meager attempts to abide by its legal obligations to protect civilians under occupation. And one must wonder, if the roles were reversed, if Palestinian armed groups advised Israeli civilians of their intention to level military installations or the homes of IDF commanders (a degree of destruction that Palestinian projectiles generally cannot inflict anyway), would Israel countenance the ensuing barrage? Would Palestinian militias be praised for their moral rectitude and judiciousness?
The term “terrorism” has been denuded of real meaning
The common accusation that Hamas is a “terrorist” group and therefore deserving of automatic contempt ignores several crucial realities.
There is no doubt that Hamas has resorted to tactics that, in the view of most decent people, amount to terrorism, including suicide bombings. Hamas has occasionally claimed that its rocket fire is intended for military targets, but there is no way to ascertain with certainty whether many of these claims are true. What is certain is that rockets imperil civilians, and for that reason, may constitute war crimes. On the other hand, numerous UN resolutions affirm the right of resistance to occupation. Thus, to ascertain whether or not Palestinian militants commit war crimes is a more complex task than their denouncers typically claim.
Sometimes, the oft-abused labels of “terrorism” and “terrorist” are sufficiently potent to suspend critical thinking and obfuscate historical (and contemporary) context.
Writing in the London Review of Books in 2009, Rabbi Henry Siegman, a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, reminds his readers of the long history of resort to force, and attacks against civilians, by militant groups within the Zionist movement. Siegman contends that several points of resemblance exist between these paramilitary organizations and Hamas:
“Israel’s government would like the world to believe that Hamas launched its Qassam rockets because that is what terrorists do and Hamas is a generic terrorist group. In fact, Hamas is no more a ‘terror organisation’ (Israel’s preferred term) than the Zionist movement was during its struggle for a Jewish homeland. In the late 1930s and 1940s, parties within the Zionist movement resorted to terrorist activities for strategic reasons. According to [Israeli historian] Benny Morris, it was the [Zionist militant group] Irgun that first targeted civilians…
“In a number of Palestinian villages and towns the IDF carried out organised executions of civilians. Asked by Ha’aretz whether he condemned the ethnic cleansing, Morris replied that he did not:
A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.
“In other words, when Jews target and kill innocent civilians to advance their national struggle, they are patriots. When their adversaries do so, they are terrorists.”
Several Zionist paramilitary organizations became involved in armed struggle, and even attacks against civilians, in the 1930s and ‘40s. These included Haganah, Irgun, and the Stern Gang—which would combine to form the early IDF. Haganah was responsible for much of the campaign of ethnic cleansing that precipitated the Nakba. Irgun carried out the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1942. The Stern Gang plumbed the depths of Realpolitik in the 1940s by seeking a strategic alliance with Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in an effort to secure the transfer of Jews to Palestine and defeat the British. Later, its members would join Irgun in prosecuting the Deir Yassin massacre.
Menachem Begin, the leader of Irgun at the time of Deir Yassin, would go on to co-found the right-wing Likud party, become Israel’s sixth prime minister in 1977, and share the Nobel Peace Prize with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1979. Yitzhak Shamir, the Stern Gang leader and a fellow Likudnik, first assumed the office of prime minister in 1983. Benjamin Netanyahu would serve as a deputy minister in Shamir’s government in the 1990s.
Even taking all of this history into account, one is obliged to reckon with the often arbitrary distinction between state violence and non-state violence. A general precept of “terrorism” is that it must be carried out by non-state actors in order to qualify as such. However, the Palestinian people have been systematically denied a state, which implies that virtually all forms of violent resistance Palestinian militants undertake (including tunnels that almost exclusively target military objectives) are deemed “terrorism.” By contrast, contemporary Israel’s actions—including collective punishment, the illegal annexation of land, and the Dahiya doctrine, which authorizes attacks on civilian areas—are legally exempt from the designation of terrorism.
Violence against civilians is never a legitimate tactic, and is virtually certain to exacerbate the Israel-Palestine conflict no matter which side perpetrates it. The condemnations of “terrorism” that emanate from the self-righteous mouths of Israeli leaders and their allies are simply bereft of moral validity.
The way forward
By now it should be abundantly clear that “Operation Protective Edge” will not enhance the security of Israel and its citizens over the long term, and that the cost to Palestinian civilians of the onslaught—and the ensuing humanitarian crisis—is horrendous and border-line genocidal. Contrary to what chauvinistic Zionists and their apologists may suggest, there is no deliverance to be found in blaming Hamas. There can be no military solution, and no moral victory at the expense of innocent lives.
American-Israeli writer Emily Hauser, in a recent article in Ha’aretz examining the IDF’s record of “stopping terror” and keeping Israelis safe, arrived at the obvious conclusion: that violent attacks directed at Gaza have failed to diminish Palestinian resolve and determination to resist; if anything, the assaults have only hastened the political ascendancy of extremist factions, like Islamic Jihad, next to whom Hamas is relatively moderate. Of course, in no way is this a uniquely Palestinian phenomenon—in Israel too, the fear of terrorism has empowered political hardliners like Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, and the abominable Avigdor Lieberman—all of whom make Netanyahu appear restrained and rational by comparison. That insecurity begets political extremism is one of human history’s clearest lessons.
But the derelict Peace Process is unlikely to proffer tolerable answers either. The negotiations’ stated goals of securing permanent regional comity and self-determination for Palestinians have both failed; any suggestion of progress toward them in the past has proven illusory. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who, perhaps out of naivete, has sought to revive the discussions, has seen his efforts repeatedly frustrated. One rather obvious stumbling block is Israel’s continued construction of settlements, and annexation of territory, and expulsions of native communities in the West Bank throughout the negotiations. Equally important, the U.S.’s representation of itself as an impartial mediator is devoid of credibility. Even under Obama, whom right-wing fanatics accuse of enmity toward “the Jewish state,” the U.S. administration delivers billions of dollars in foreign aid and armaments to Israel each year, and the president has reiterated (again and again) his unequivocal support for Israel’s “right to defend itself.” At best, his expressions of concern over the civilian death toll in Gaza have sounded plaintive and diffident, and have not been reinforced with action.
We should all be so lucky as to have enemies whose antagonism toward us resembles Obama’s antipathy toward the Netanyahu regime.
Where, then, is resolution to be found? Is lasting peace an attainable objective in Israel-Palestine?
Certainly peace is achievable, but unless it is accompanied by justice, there is no realistic possibility that it will endure. The simple-on-paper answer to the immediate clash is for Israel to end its siege on Gaza and occupation of the West Bank, and to permanently evacuate and dismantle the West Bank settlements it has constructed. For those Israelis preoccupied with security, this option may at first seem unpalatable, but they need also consider the threat to their security that the status quo represents.
Can Israel, in all its military might, ever succeed in stamping out Palestinian resistance? History would suggest that the answer is no. If Israelis desire lasting peace and security, they must be prepared to respect the human rights of the Palestinians. There is no alternative.
But the Netanyahu regime is remarkably hard-headed, and has amply demonstrated the firmness of its commitment to raw power as a first resort in times of strife. The application of pressure, in the form of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, is a necessary but probably insufficient means of forcing Israel’s hand.
What a permanent end to the occupation might look like
Exponents of Zionism have differed over the years on how best to achieve a Jewish state, but their prescriptions for the demographic form of that state have been similar: namely, that Jews should constitute a robust majority. The ramifications of this imperative on Israeli society and policy today are multifarious: from the longstanding denial of the right of return to Palestinians displaced in 1948 and thereafter, to discriminatory housing provision in the form of the Acceptance to Communities Law and other legislation, to an increasingly penal and rejectionist stance toward asylum seekers from African countries, to a bill demanding allegiance to “the Jewish state” in exchange for citizenship, to various other forms of discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel, who constitute one-fifth of the population. The rationale behind these measures is readily ascertainable if one comprehends the logic of Zionism. If Israel is to remain a “democracy” in the western sense (a multi-party, one-person-one-vote state) while retaining its “Jewish character,” it must preserve a Jewish demographic majority. And if this circumstance does not arise naturally, it must be contrived.
Critics of modern Israel often term it an “apartheid state,” and while several points of comparison exist, the analogy is an imperfect one. Within Israel, non-Jews are still entitled to civil rights which natives and people of colour in apartheid South Africa lacked, including the right to vote, run for public office, and join the judiciary. However, as outlined above, these rights for minorities are all subject to the preservation of a Jewish demographic majority through artificial means.
In the occupied Palestinian territories, on the other hand, conditions of life are markedly worse than the adversity suffered by blacks in the South African bantustans. Restrictions on movement, checkpoints, constraints on economic development, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial assassinations, colonization and land seizure, decrepit institutions, a lack of civil rights, and the absence of democracy and self-determination characterize the quotidian existence of Palestinians in these areas, even in times when the Israeli military is not launching prolonged waves of airstrikes and ground incursions (as it does in Gaza every few years). No people should be obliged to endure the situation that Palestinians in the occupied territories now face, and the instransigence of Israel’s leaders in the face of this permanent state of crisis is a source of profound resentment and mounting defiance.
There are a few potential avenues that Israel can take in order to advance the situation in a positive direction. (All of these must commence with an end to the blockade on Gaza and the occupation of the Palestinian Territories.)
Israel could demonstrate a real commitment to a two-state solution—envisioned at the outset of the peace process and supported (on paper) by Israel’s staunchest allies, including the U.S., the EU, and Canada—by withdrawing settlers from the West Bank and permitting the foundations of an autonomous Palestinian state to take shape under the purview of human rights and international law. But this dream is fading, if not vanquished. Inveterate problems, like the non-contiguity of Gaza and the West Bank, Israel’s unwillingness to allow a right of return for Palestinian refugees, and the partition (or lack thereof) of Jerusalem all continue to pose significant, and possibly insurmountable, hurdles. Add to these difficulties Israel’s insistence on populating the West Bank with settlements, Likud’s opposition to genuine Palestinian statehood, and refusal to countenance the involvement of Hamas in negotiations on a two-state settlement, and the realization of such a compromise seems downright fantastical—even before one entertains the prospect of a unified Palestinian state with its own army, control over its borders, autonomous civil institutions, and regular parliamentary elections.
At least three other possibilities exist: a single, plural state in which the rights of Jews, Arabs, and ethnic and religious minority groups enjoy equal respect; the “no-state solution” favoured by Noam Chomsky, who considers this the “optimal outcome”; and what seems to be the endgame of the process that is currently underway: the ongoing construction of settlements and access roads, and incremental expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories, yielding an eventual consolidation of Eretz Yisrael under the banner of Zionism.
The establishment of a single state would necessitate one of the following scenarios—1) Israel (or the entity that succeeds it) relinquishes its “Jewish character” in favour of becoming a plural society with an Arab demographic majority; 2) Israel abandons majoritarian democracy and adopts minority-rule ethnocracy, similar to that which prevailed in apartheid South Africa; or 3) a gradual process of ethnic cleansing continues to displace Palestinians from the territories Israel now controls, resulting in the preservation of a Zionist state and electoral “democracy.”
Of those three options, the first seems the most consistent with universal respect for human rights. But to even explore the notion of a one-state (or no-state) solution would require one to concede that Israel’s “right to exist” as a Jewish state is a legal fiction: no state exists by right; all states exist by fiat.
That said, it is important to acknowledge the problem of anti-Semitism—a bigotry this author both abhors, and regards as an impediment to the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. No one could plausibly deny that some critics of Israel are anti-Semitic, just as some opponents of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe are racist, and some decriers of the Iranian theocracy are Islamophobic. But to dismiss all condemnation of a deeply flawed regime as so much bigotry, and therefore devoid of merit, is to commit an equally flagrant error. Furthermore, nothing fans the ugly flames of anti-Semitism like the Israeli government’s incessant occupation, suppression of Palestinian national aspirations, and commission of periodic massacres, all while arrogating to itself the right to speak and act on behalf of world Jewry.
Ultimately, there can be no lasting peace in Israel-Palestine without justice for all ethnic and religious groups who inhabit the region. Long-term, structural change is required in a manner that respects international law, and the human rights of both Palestinians and Israelis. But Israel is the party best positioned to initiate that process, and the U.S., through its billions in annual aid to Israel, is arguably the outside entity best positioned to exert influence over Tel Aviv. The longer Israel pummels the Gaza Strip with brute force, kills civilians, destroys livelihoods, and rejects an equitable ceasefire, the more it foments defiance among the local population and, paradoxically, increases popular support for resistance.