Vic Alhadeff – of NSW JBD fame – has decided to raise his voice on the issue of Israel’s strikes on Gaza. It should be remembered, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies is perhaps our leading communal organisation.
Now, it is my view, as I’ve said before on this blog, that such an organisation should not claim to speak on behalf of the Jewish community when it addresses political questions, as quite straightforwardly, political opinions are almost never entirely representative. Thankfully, this article was not printed as coming from a leader of the Jewish community, and the Australian even consulted a variety of Jews on the Gaza attacks.
Alhadeff’s article, nevertheless, coming from such a prominent figure, is important to have a look at, as he represents much of the establishment’s views. Furthermore, what he writes will constitute the orthodox, received wisdom on the war, so it’s worth seeing how it stands up to critical scrutiny.
In Alhadeff’s rendition, the situation between Gaza and the state of Israel is something like if terrorists started bombing northern Australia. Australia offered the terrorists a truce, which was rejected, and Australia was unable to take any diplomatic or political measures to solve the problem. Australia then attacks the terrorist’s bases, only to find that it has, unfortunately, and through no fault of its own, killed some civilians as well.
Alhadeff considers this an accurate analogy, but in fact, it would be more accurate if it were reversed. Gaza has not only been under Israeli occupation for over 40 years. It has been under an intense siege for years, which, as noted on this blog, has seen a skyrocketing of poverty, unemployment, dependency on food aid and so on. There has been a grave deterioration in living conditions, such that children’s growth is being stunted. The Gazans have suffered from previous bombings and massacres, and the Israeli army sometimes conducts raids where it arrests Palestinians, who are also routinely subjected to torture.
Consider also Gaza’s first experiment in what could almost be called democracy. Israel, pretending to be the only democracy in the Middle East, continues to occupy Gaza, but it allowed the Palestinians to hold their own free and fair elections for their pseudo-mini-government in the occupied territories. The Palestinians chose Hamas in 2006. When Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier in June of that year, “Israel arrested dozens of Hamas members throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including eight ministers in the Hamas government and some 20 Hamas parliamentarians. Others were arrested in the following weeks.” It was “clear that this was retaliation for Shalit’s abduction, and that the detainees were meant to serve as bargaining chips for his release.” These are not my words, but those of a Haaretz report of only a little over a month ago. It went on to note that there was little evidence any of those arrested had actually done anything wrong. Kidnapping a people’s democratically elected representatives, in the view of Haaretz, to be used as “bargaining chips”, is “the way of terror organisations”.
One could go on and on. However, let us turn to Hamas and Gaza. According to Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, Qassam rockets fired from Gaza killed 18 Israelis and Palestinians from June 2004 to the end of 2007. Citing UN figures, they note that over a hundred Qassam rockets were, on average, fired at Israel each month during this period.
Consider now 2008. Using Israeli government figures, from January through May, there were perhaps more than 200 rockets fired at Israel each month on average. However, in June there began a decline – which is attributable to the ceasefire Israel and Hamas agreed upon. This ceasefire was to include Israel easing its blockade of Gaza, and also ceasing its own fire – conditions Israel substantially reneged upon. From July through October, there were perhaps 3 rockets and 3 mortars fired on average each month. Plainly, Hamas was fairly effective in securing almost completely an end to rockets fired at Israel. Even Ehud Barak, it should be noted, had in August hailed the truce for halting the barrage. This was despite Israel’s continued detention of its own elected representatives, despite Israel’s continuing occupation, despite Israel’s continued blockade of Gaza, which has brought tremendous suffering to the entire population.
What happened in November to change what was a fairly effective ceasefire? Well, by the reckoning of Israel’s government, it all changed on November 4. The Israeli army launched a raid in Gaza, killing seven members of Hamas. Hamas and other militant organisations, by the reckoning of this report – which, I must stress, you can find at Israel’s government website – attacked Israel “with a massive barrage of rockets” – and this bit is crucial – “In retaliation”. That is to say, Israel attacked and killed seven members of Hamas during a ceasefire, to which Hamas felt compelled to respond, which was the breakdown in the truce. The report goes on to note that after the increase in rocket firings, Israel “began closing the crossings for longer periods”, which “led to shortages of basic goods in the Gaza Strip”. It is interesting that Alhadeff’s rendition of reality is even more favourable to Israel’s government than Israel’s official government story.
Another striking thing about this report, which I will repeat, I found at Israel’s website of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs – is that it is basically consistent with Hamas’s version of events, as reported in Egyptian paper Al-Ahram. In the issue dated from 25-31 December, Ayman Taha, a high ranking Hamas official, said that Israel “killed” the truce with its “unprovoked attack” in Gaza, which he said killed 20 Hamas members. He was then quoted as saying that Hamas would reject a ceasefire where Israel would be able to “attack us militarily and tighten the stranglehold on us economically.” Instead, Hamas would renew the truce “only if Israel halts all aggressive activities, lifts all forms of the boycott that it has imposed on a million and a half people in Gaza for more than two years, and applies the truce to the occupied West Bank. In addition, he added, the truce will have to be backed by international guarantees since his movement can no longer “trust agreements made by Israel.””
So, what was the state of the ceasefire as its end approached in December? Israel killed a member of Islamic Jihad. IJ retaliated by firing rockets at Israel. Hamas arrested several of its members, and Israel responded by bombing Gaza. Indeed, recall that a memorable part of December was also taken up with Israeli pogroms against Palestinians, whilst the Israeli military looked on, only to later find that Israel’s justice system did not think it worth holding Israeli settlers accountable for their rampages and atrocities. Despite this, the article just linked to in Haaretz notes that Hamas would not fire at Israel “unless provoked”. However, as Haaretz also noted, it didn’t matter, because Ehud Barak had decided to invade Gaza “over six months ago”. So, despite Hamas’s success in maintaining the ceasefire, and the possibility of renewing it, Israel had already planned – and put into motion – its plan to attack Gaza.
There was, however, a window of hope. UN official Karen Abu Zayd was reported in Haaretz saying that there was to be a 48 hour lull. As she said, "There was only one rocket that went out on Friday, so it was obvious that Hamas was trying, again, to observe that truce to get this back under control". However, Israel launched its attacks on Saturday, and the rest is history. Indeed, the views of Abu Zayd are worth considering further, as she also noted that “Hamas had observed the truce quite strictly for almost six months, certainly for four of the six months, and that they got nothing in turn – because there was to be kind of a deal," Abu Zayd said. "If there were no rockets, the crossings would be opened," she said. "The crossings were not opened at all."
And so, we find, using just Israeli human rights organisations, the UN, and Israel’s government website, that the picture of Hamas intransigence, in the face of Israeli restraint, is almost the complete opposite of Alhadeff’s picture of reality. Indeed, Alhadeff even says the attacks “continued unabated” after the truce’s end, despite the obvious contrary reality, just cited by Abu Zayd. Hamas is also cited as opposing a renewal of the truce, despite it seeming quite plainly that the matter was certainly not so simple. Consider, for example, the reported view s of the head of the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, on December 21. He thought that Hamas was “interested in renewing the relative calm with Israel”, but wanted to “improve the cease-fire conditions”. Specifically, it sought to “[cancel] the blockade of Gaza, [obtain] a commitment that Israel won’t attack, and [to expand] the cease-fire to the West Bank.”
Without wishing to legitimise or justify the Qassam rockets – which quite plainly no sane or decent person could or would want to do – it seems, contra Alhadeff’s assertions – that Hamas acted with considerable restraint, in the face of Israeli crimes and provocations. Indeed, given that Israel actually planned the invasion of Gaza in advance, it seems plain that Israel had been hoping for an excuse to invade for a while, whilst even being cynical enough to use the lull just noted as an opportunity for its massive strikes to be a surprise.
So, let us return to Alhadeff. He notes, plainly, that any fair minded person should grant Israel the right to defend itself. Indubitably. But why didn’t it simply defend its citizens by seeking to continue the ceasefire with Hamas? Hamas’s demands are an Israeli ceasefire, and ending the blockade, which has been a tremendous crime against the entire Gazan population. As noted, Israel’s government admits that it has led to shortages of “basic goods”. Does Alhadeff think it unreasonable that a deal should be reached between Israel and Hamas, whereby the populations of both Israel and Gaza don’t have to live in fear of being bombed, and where Gaza’s population have access to things like electricity and bread?
Alhadeff then asserts – without evidence – that Israel’s intentions are “clearly to avoid harming civilians.” But if this is the case, why has Israel launched military strikes, instead of agreeing to a ceasefire? As reported in a BBC article cited above, Barak acknowledged in August that an invasion of Gaza would not halt the barrage of rockets. He did, however, admit that the ceasefire had been effective. In that case, if we believe Barak instead of Alhadeff, every person Israel has killed in Gaza has been unnecessary. Alhadeff then pontificates about the necessity of proportional responses in response to danger – as if Israel’s murder of hundreds of Palestinians in days response to rocket strikes that have killed no more than a few dozen in 8 years – makes any sense as a proportionate response.
Alhadeff accuses Hamas of using the civilian population of Gaza as human shields. But this is to obscure the obvious facts of Gaza. Firstly, Hamas is the represented government of the Palestinians, and is deeply entrenched in Palestinian society. Why shouldn’t members of Hamas feel free to live in their own homes? Secondly, as it is recognised that Qassam rockets are indiscriminate weapons, unable to distinguish between civilian and military targets, it is immoral to use them to attack Israelis. Why shouldn’t the exact same criteria of judgement apply to Israel’s bombing of densely populated areas? Thirdly, Alhadeff ignores obvious evidence that Israel is attacking targets without military significance. Consider, for example, one of Israel’s latest military triumphs. As reported in Haaretz, Israel dropped a one tonne bomb on the home of a high ranking Hamas political leader, Nizar Rayyan. In the process, it killed eighteen other people, including four of his children. Does Alhadeff consider it proportionate to kill 19 people, in order to kill one of them, because he is among the more hawkish of Hamas’s political leaders? Would Alhadeff support Hamas bombing the home of someone like Matan Vilnai, who threatened the Palestinians with a “shoah”? But put all this aside. If Alhadeff recognises that Israeli air strikes will be unable to discriminate between civilian and military targets, for whatever reason, shouldn’t he then consider them as immoral as he considers the no less discriminate Qassam rockets?
Alhadeff goes on to wonder why Gazans would attack Israel, considering that Israel withdrew its military and civilian presence from there in 2005. Alhadeff speculates that the reason is revealed by Hamas’s charter – all Hamas wants is to expel or kill the Jews in Israel, and that it doesn’t attach much priority to establishing a Palestinian state. If Hamas would just stop smuggling weapons, building tunnels, and firing rockets, Israel would stop attacking and blockading it.
Whilst it is refreshing that Alhadeff notes that his source for these claims is the Israeli Foreign Minister, it is again striking that this very ministry reveals his claims to be untrue. This is perhaps with the partial exception of tunnelling and weapons smuggling. Tunnels have been built for Gazans, as a way of alleviating the horrors of Israel’s intense siege. As for weapons smuggling – why does Alhadeff consider it illegitimate for the elected government of the Palestinians to try to build up their weapons supply, but legitimate for Israel to build up its own? I think this surely rests on the racist assumption that the Palestinians do not have a right to defend themselves – and nowhere in Alhadeff’s article does he even vaguely reference this right, let alone that they might even have any grievances against Israel – whereas Israelis do. Furthermore, why is it legitimate for Israel to restrict Gaza’s access to things like food and electricity in response to rockets being fired? Surely, this constitutes terrorism – severely punishing 1.5 million Gazans, in response to the actions of a handful of its inhabitants.
Alhadeff is right to note how ugly – and also, anti-Semitic – Hamas’s disgusting charter is. Indeed, there are many things that we can – and should – dislike about Hamas. However, it is not so plain that he accurately represents what Hamas may or may not consider as the root of its conflict with Israel. Merely sticking to published statements by its members, it is plain that Alhadeff has cherry picked its ugliest rhetoric from 20 years ago, ignoring signs of its increasing moderation, and moves towards accepting a two-state solution. The byline of a recent op ed in the Guardian by a Hamas official ran, “We are not engaged in a religious conflict with Jews; this is a political struggle to free ourselves from occupation and oppression”.
However, let us consider Israel’s tremendous efforts to avoid civilian suffering in Gaza. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a report on Gaza from 24 December to 31 December. Consider just what it reported on Palestinian access to water. Israeli airstrikes on 27 December in Gaza City and east of Jabalia “extensively damaged two water wells, rendering a population of 30 000 Palestinians without water.” The Gazan water utility (CMWU) has tried to redirect their access to water to different water wells, increasing the strain on them. The CMWU itself is “largely dependent on fuel donations from UNRWA, UNICEF, and other humanitarian organisations.” This is significant, because water supplies for Palestinians depend on electricity to pump water. Indeed, even these water supplies are at risk of carrying diseases, because a month’s supply of chlorine, necessary to disinfect the water, was not allowed into Gaza on 29 December. UNICEF reported that current supplies would only last a week.
This, however, is for those Gazans fortunate enough to have access to water. Consider the desperate appeal of 10 Israeli human rights organisations. They called on Israel’s defence minister to “restore fuel supplies to hospitals, water wells, and other vital humanitarian institutions.” Without looking at the dire effects on hospitals trying to operate on 4 hours of power a day, at a time when 1500 Palestinians had already been injured – consider the effects on water supplies, not affected by Israel’s bombing, but merely by its siege. “Without access to pump water”, say the 10 organisations, “60% of Gaza residents on average receive clean water once in 5-7 days, and some people have been without water supply for 10 days.”
Now, let us return to the ending of the truce. Hamas called for an end to the blockade, and a ceasefire that would also cover the West Bank. In return, Israelis would also live in peace. For those who think Gazans deserve access to clean water, and that no one, Palestinian or Israeli, should have to live under terror of rockets or bombs from the sky falling on their homes and killing their families, this should have been a no brainer. It is perhaps time that so-called supporters of Israel opened their eyes, instead of reflexively encouraging Israel to continue its subjugation of the Palestinians. Perhaps if they noticed that Israeli crimes endanger not only Palestinians, but also Israelis, they would not be so reckless with the lives of both.