Ask any Israeli what they think about the air strikes on Gaza, and there is — according to a Haaretz poll — an 84 percent chance that they will tell you the Palestinians had it coming; that the deadly raids were not only justified but necessary to preserve the security of Israeli citizens. That it was self-defence. Prodded on the high number of civilian deaths, in particular the dozens of children killed by relentless Israeli missile and shelling raids, the answer is almost unanimous: they, the Palestinians, use civilians as human shields. Not our fault that some kids got in the way.
As of Tuesday, November 20th, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights counted 136 dead (including 91 civilians) and 941 wounded (including 922 civilians). Wednesday the 21st, the day of the ceasefire, proved to be the bloodiest yet, with 31 killed — 21 of whom civilians. Yet in a brazen display of inhumanity, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon had the guts to claim that “most of the people that were hit in Gaza deserved it, as they were just armed terrorists.” Israel just killed 34 Palestinian children. But in the eyes of its government, these “armed terrorists” had it coming all along.
Still, somehow, many smart and informed people are firmly convinced that Israel is not an aggressor. How could it be? Israel is the only democracy in the region; an economically advanced and culturally civilized country, having built a modern state from a pile of Biblical dust in just over half a century. Israel does not target civilians; it only acts in self-defence. It is they, the Arabs, who want to drive us into the sea and erase us from the map. It is they, the terrorists, who started this by firing rockets at us (fact check here). We, the Israelis, we just want to live in peace.
The sophisticated version of this argument — propagated by IDF spokespeople, US and EU officials, and educated “friends” of mine — laments the civilian deaths; but ultimately blames them on Hamas. Poor Palestinian kids, living under the yoke of a bunch of religious zealots, getting in harm’s way because they, the terrorists, put their babies next to the rockets. The terrorists knew we would take out those launching sites, so technically it’s their fault, not ours. We don’t kill babies. We just want peace.
The problem, of course, is that there is also a slightly less sophisticated (and somewhat more truthful) account of the attacks — coming from those actually calling the shots in government. Like Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who openly boasted that the goal of Operation Defensive Pillar was to “send Gaza back into the middle ages.” This ministerial candour is nothing new, of course. Ahead of the 2008 ground invasion of Gaza, Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai poetically threatened Palestinians with “an even bigger holocaust.” Yes. You read that right.
The overall sentiment on the street was expressed fairly well by a Tel Aviv resident, who confessed to a foreign TV crew that “we know they die by the score there. It’s not that we don’t know. We just don’t care.” No surprise, then, that — after a ceasefire was announced on Wednesday evening — an instant poll by Channel 2 found that a whopping 70% of Israelis actually oppose the ceasefire and would rather have the air strikes continue. As Energy Minister Uzi Landau put it, “we have to finish what we started.” So much for the peaceful and defensive attitude.
Clearly, the ceasefire is unlikely to last long. Commenting on the agreement, Prime Minister Netanyahu ominously warned that he has the “popular mandate” for “more forceful action” — i.e., a ground invasion — if the ceasefire fails. Israeli tanks are still on Gaza’s borders; its population of 1.5 million imprisoned within the narrow strip of land while drones continue to fly overhead seeking out future targets. Gaza remains under siege; its sea access blocked by Israeli battle ships and its land access severely constricted by IDF check points.
Just hours before the ceasefire went into effect, Israeli forces made sure to pound in a few last big hits. Perhaps the time pressure made the forces a bit less “surgical” in the their stated policy of avoiding civilian casualties: the Guardian reported that “the latest victims included Ibrahim Mahmoud Nasser Abu Nasser, 80, and his 14-year-old grandson, Ameera, who were cropping olive trees in Abassan village to the east of Khan Yunis refugee camp when a missile shot from the sky killed them both.” The harrowing report continues:
There were the two 16-year-olds – Mahmoud Khalil al-Arja and Ibrahim Ahmed Hamad – who died in an air strike near the southern Gaza border. Ambulance men could not reach their bodies for hours because of the continuing air assault.
Dozens of strikes on Gaza City killed nine civilians, including two children. A plane hit two cars with a missile each. Five people died. The PCHR said they were all civilians. Another missile struck a garden, killing a man and wounding his eight-year-old grandchild.
About 15 minutes later, a plane fired a missile into a busy road, Baghdad Street. Four died, including an 18-year-old woman. Again, all were believed to be civilians.
Clearly, then, faced with these facts and official statements, the argument of self-defence becomes increasingly shaky. While there are two aggressors to this particular episode — Israel and Hamas — only one of them is an occupying power. When that occupying power (which just happens to be the fourth most powerful military force on the planet, receiving over $3 billion in military aid from the US per year) kills 34 children living in a state of near-total destitution, can it still credibly invoke the excuse of self-defence?
According to Nobel Peace laureate Barack Obama, “Israel has every right to defend itself.” But as a lawyer, Obama should know that — from a legal perspective — this is blatantly untrue. The UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the US State Department and the International Court of Justice all consider the Gaza Strip to be “occupied territory.” Under Article 51 of the UN Charter (for what it’s worth), people living under occupation have a legal right to take up arms and resist their occupiers, while the occupying power has the duty to withdraw.
But let’s go with the Israeli argument for a while, and assume that the people of Gaza somehow “started it” (whatever that may mean) by launching the initial rockets to which Israel subsequently responded “in self-defence” (an assertion that is blatantly untrue, since on November 4th, days before the rocket attacks, the IDF already killed an unarmed mentally-impaired Palestinian, and four days later, shot a 13-year-old boy in the head while he was playing football with his friends). But anyway, let’s go with the Israeli argument for a second:
Even if Hamas were the aggressor initiating the violence, does an entire population of 1.5 million people truly deserve this kind of brutal collective punishment at the hands of one of the world’s most oiled war machines? Even if Israel were merely acting in self-defence, has it not dawned on anyone that the sheer numbers (over 150 Palestinian deaths vs. 5 Israeli) are so vastly out of proportion as to render the entire concept of self-defence utterly meaningless? Clearly this kind of disproportional “self-defence” only breeds further resistance. Ultimately, it leaves Israel itself worse off.
Therefore, even from a narrow Israeli security point of view (which I do care a great deal about, since several close friends and my girlfriend’s family live in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv), the air strikes do not seem to make any sense: political support for Hamas, which was steadily going down ahead of the air strikes, has suddenly exploded again. Tel Aviv hasn’t experienced any bombings in years; but on Wednesday morning 21 Israelis were injured as a bomb struck a bus, indicating that Israel, bound by its own “logic of escalation,” is actually making life for its citizens more unsafe.
But the lives of Palestinians and the security of Israelis do not seem to be issues that the Netanyahu government — or the military-industrial complex behind it — are very concerned about. Instead, while Palestinians ran for their lives and Israelis ran for their shelters, Netanyahu and his ministers were busy devising strategic plans to sabotage the efforts of the moderates within the Palestinian Authority (PA) to find a lasting solution to the conflict by pushing for a two-state solution through the UN. Thus, while it waged war on Hamas, Israel simultaneously sought to marginalize Fatah.
From the perspective of the occupier, there is a very straightforward reason for this: on November 29, PA President Mahmoud Abbas is due to address the UN General Assembly to try to obtain an upgrade of Palestine’s status as a “non-member state”. The problem for Israel is that, as a non-member state, the Palestinians would obtain the right to join such organizations as the International Court of Justice, which has been a major force of opposition to Israel’s illegal occupation of Gaza, East-Jerusalem and the West Bank — and the construction of Israel’s wall in the West Bank in particular.
Abbas is therefore being put under immense pressure by the hard-line Netanyahu government — as well as the United States — not to seek a UN vote. Indeed, on November 14th, the first day of Israeli air strikes on Gaza, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to “overthrow Abbas” if he pushed ahead with his statehood bid in the UN. Similarly, Minister of Strategic Affairs, Moshe Yaalon, warned that Palestinians would pay a “heavy price” for the vote. The reason, of course, is that a successful vote would seriously jeopardize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation.
Prior to the air strikes, the government already considered a number of dramatic options to deter the Palestinian push for non-member status in the UN, including the annulment of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the withholding of Palestinian tax revenues, the expansion of Israeli settlements, and the annexation of occupied West Bank territories. But Abbas resisted. He even rejected a personal appeal by President Obama to postpone the vote. Despite the opposition, the Palestinian bid is now almost certain to go through, with the PA counting on the support of at least 150 countries in the 187-member General Assembly (the resolution only needs a simple majority to pass).
It is not surprising, then, that the Israeli government wants Abbas out. “The number of ministers who say we must keep the Palestinian Authority alive is decreasing rapidly,” one senior Israeli official told the New York Times. “More and more ministers today see the Palestinian Authority as a strategic threat.” Netanyahu faces serious complications, however, since he cannot be seen publicly forcing out Obama’s preferred partner for a potential future peace process. He needed an excuse to deflect attention away from the PA’s “legitimate” road towards a two-state solution, while simultaneously dividing the Palestinian people to undermine the push for statehood. In this respect, for Netanyahu, the rain of rockets from Gaza couldn’t have come at a better time.
While the military mission behind the air strikes was to cripple Hamas’ operational capacity, its political effect was the exact opposite: to boost Hamas’ popularity, weaken Fatah, and further divide the Palestinian people. According to former senior US State Department official Robert Danin, Israel “contributed to Hamas’s rise in stature by holding it responsible for rocket fire from more radical groups in Gaza. In calling upon Egypt to rein in the Gaza leaders, Hamas’s centrality grows rather than diminishes. It is this that draws leaders from throughout the Middle East rushing to Gaza while skipping Ramallah to court the Hamas leadership. Yet by bypassing Ramallah and President Abbas, they further marginalize the moderate leaders.”
The conclusion is simple: to discredit the moderate Palestinian bid for statehood, Netanyahu needed images of Palestinian aggression. Since most Palestinians chose not to exercise their legal right to militarily resist the Israeli occupation of their homeland, and since the moderates of the PA sought to resist the occupation non-violently through the UN route, Hamas’ rockets were precisely what Netanyahu needed to strengthen his hand. With its military command being as belligerent as it is, all Netanyahu had to do for Hamas to “open the gates of hell,” was to nudge them a little. By killing their military leader, for instance. Just hours after offering him a truce deal.
By now, it is clear that the bellicose Zionism at the heart of the Israeli state and the Islamic fundamentalism of Hamas go hand in hand. Neither could survive without the other. Netanyahu — and with him the entire Israeli war machine —needs the religious extremists of Hamas to legitimize a fundamentally illegitimate occupation to a fearful Israeli public and an increasingly oppositional international community; while Hamas needs Israeli aggression to win the despairing hearts and minds of the Palestinian people. That’s how the conflict is perpetuated. Neither party can live with peace.
So yes, as always, there are at least two sides to this story — and two violent aggressors. Both Israel and Hamas are rattling the war drums. Both Israel and Hamas are dead-set on revenge and destruction. But while the warmongering may come from two sides, there is only one occupying force; only one military superpower; and only one aggressor that has managed to systematically kill dozens of civilians on the other side. Whatever you may think of the fanatics in Hamas, the past week has taught us one thing: right now, they are Netanyahu’s single most important ally in undermining the push for a sustainable two-state solution to bring lasting peace to the Middle East.
Meanwhile, millions of terrorized Palestinians and brainwashed Israelis remain hopelessly stuck in the middle. And Netanyahu starts to look scarier with the day.