The following thoughtful article on the Gaza conflict was written by Peter Baldwin, the former left-wing MP and Hawke and Keating Government Minister. It sets out Baldwin’s reasons for supporting Israel, a rarity on the Left these days. The article takes the form of a letter addressed to the virulently anti-Israel UNSW academic Peter Slezak.
You will recall that at dinner after your engaging and informative talk to the Blackheath Philosophy Forum on 26 July the conversation turned to the Gaza conflict. It quickly became apparent that we disagreed fundamentally, but notwithstanding that the discussion remained polite and constructive. You, as I discovered, are quite an activist on this issue – a speaker at ‘pro-Palestinian’ rallies, blogger and a truly prodigious tweeter.
Reflecting on it afterward, I was frankly astounded by what you had to say about Hamas, Israel’s main adversary in the recent conflict. I said that Hamas taking control in Gaza was a disaster that made the current tragedy inevitable. You vigorously disputed this, saying that the Gazans were being punished for voting for the ‘wrong’ people. I then brought up the notorious Hamas Charter that advocates annihilating Israel and, citing religious authority, looks forward to exterminating every last Jew. You dismissed the Charter as of little relevance and referred me to various resources that argue the Charter is old hat, that a ‘New Hamas’ has evolved.
I don’t think this view can withstand scrutiny. Despite overtures, ‘truce proposals’ and conciliatory-sounding briefings for Western journalists, Hamas’ commitment to the destruction of Israel and ultimately to genocide of the Jews is undiminished. They may well be prepared to live with Israel within the 1967 boundaries for a period, or as they say “during this phase”, but this is merely a precursor, an opportunity to prepare to achieve their ultimate religiously sanctioned goals, set out with chilling clarity in the Charter, which Hamas would be in a vastly stronger position to pursue once ensconced in all the Palestinian territories.
Something very strange has happened to the Western Left in recent times, exemplified by its attitude to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and I say that as someone who was affiliated with the Left of the Australian Labor Party throughout by 22-year parliamentary career. On the one hand, this is the great age of political correctness, where the slightest implication of racism, sexism or homophobia is instantly condemned and the perpetrators required to do penance. Yet here we have clear advocacy of genocide, right there in plain sight in Hamas’ foundational document adopted in 1988. Whole forests have been levelled to produce anti-Israel resolutions. How many of these have called on Hamas to repudiate this foul, evil document? Some academic enthusiasts even argue that Hamas should be considered part of the ‘progressive Left’.
Israel, on the other hand, is the country that can do no right, blamed for a large share of the ills that beset the region if not the world. Even its friendliness to the gay community (in a recent poll Tel Aviv was rated the world’s top gay tourist destination) is derided at academic conferences as pinkwashing designed to mask its repression of the Palestinians. Meanwhile in Teheran gays are publicly lynched from cranes. No resolutions or conferences about that, needless to say. The Left has a singular obsession with the real or imagined misdeeds of Israel, giving little or no attention to far greater humanitarian calamities such as the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
The thing I find particularly disturbing is not legitimate criticism of Israel but the tacit or explicit support given to a movement that embodies everything the Left should stand against, one face of a hideous barbarism afflicting multiple locations throughout the Islamic world. It is impossible to reasonably pass judgement on the Israelis without taking account of the nature of their adversaries. This the ‘pro-Palestinian’ Left seems incapable of doing, and in effect ends up lending support to a futile and destructive rejectionism that will ensure the continuing immiseration of the Palestinians.
THE HAMAS CHARTER – MEIN KAMPF REDUX
At our dinner discussion the main issue we disagreed about was the nature of Hamas, a designated terrorist organisation that originally specialized in suicide bombings and has since moved on to rockets and tunnels. Hamas was successful in the Palestinian elections of January 2006, and took complete control of Gaza in June 2007 after an armed conflict with Fatah. This outcome was a disaster for the Palestinians, the Gazans especially, the Israelis, and for the prospects for peace. You disputed this, not even conceding that, in comparison, Fatah was the ‘lesser evil’.
Hamas’ apologists try to differentiate Hamas from other Islamist groups in the news such as the so-called Islamic State and Boko Haram. Admittedly, Hamas generally avoids the extravagant cruelty of these groups, though the mask slips periodically as with the recent brutal killing of 16 men and 2 women accused of collaborating with Israel, carried out before an audience that included young children, the ruthless gunning down of Gazan peace protesters opposed to rocket launches, and the hurling of Fatah officials off the top of tall buildings during the 2007 Battle of Gaza. Hamas pursues a different media strategy to these other groups since discrediting and isolating Israel in the eyes of Western public opinion is a central part of its strategy, but it shares the same religious ideology and ultimate objectives.
This brings me to Hamas’ genocidal founding Charter, adopted in 1988 and never rescinded despite repeated calls to do so. On this, even Israel’s defenders often understate matters, pointing out the document calls for the obliteration of Israeli. But it is far worse than that. Here are some excerpts (the bold headings are mine):
Obliteration of Israel (Preamble): Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.
Genocide of the Jews (Article 7): The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.”
No peaceful solution (Article 13):Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement. Abusing any part of Palestine is abuse directed against part of religion. Nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its religion. Its members have been fed on that. For the sake of hoisting the banner of Allah over their homeland they fight. “Allah will be prominent, but most people do not know.”
Endorsement of Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Article 32): The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying.
The ‘pro-Palestinian’ Left maintains that Hamas should be recognized by Israel and the West as a legitimate partner in negotiating a permanent settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. How can that be squared with the Charter? Here the narrative asserts that Hamas has moved on since adopting the Charter, that a kinder, gentler ‘New Hamas’ has emerged more concerned with winning elections and meeting the challenges of civil governance. This view is expressed in the book by the American political economist Sara Roy, which you strongly recommended, titled Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector. This line has gained some traction. According to US Representative Nancy Pelosi (following assurances from Qatari officials) Hamas is “basically a humanitarian organisation”.
For Western consumption Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has said the Charter is “a piece of history and no longer relevant, but cannot be changed for internal reasons”. So what are we to make of an organisation that is incapable of repudiating a commitment to genocide for unspecified internal reasons? What does that say about this organisation, and those who comprise its leadership echelon? And even if, contrary to the facts, Hamas were to rescind the Charter, what does it say about the mentality of those concerned that they were prepared to adopt such a document in the first place? Should Israel place its existence on the line by allowing it to control a future state that includes both Gaza and the West Bank? You place great store on various proposals and utterances from Hamas spokesmen that imply acceptance of Israel within the 1967 boundaries. I contend such signalling is completely insincere, designed purely for Western consumption. This matter is taken up in detail in the next section.
In case you think Hamas have eased off on the calls for Jewish extermination, take a look at the translation of this sermon broadcast recently on the official Hamas channel Al-Aqsa TV.
And note this sickening children’s TV show broadcast on the same network in May this year in which the children are called on to kill the Jews.
You fault the Israelis for being unwilling to accept the Palestinian’s ‘choice’ of Hamas. But look at it from their point of view. Is it surprising the Israelis are reluctant to accept as a legitimate peace partner an organisation that:
- Refuses to rescind its founding Charter that calls for the complete obliteration of Israel.
- Calumniates Jews as a group in terms that recall the worst of 1930s Nazi propaganda, including citing the 19th century Russian forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
- Invoking scriptural authority, looks forward to completing Adolph Hitler’s project by exterminating every last Jew on the face of the earth.
- Continues to affirm Charter goals, including Jewish extermination, right up to the present day notwithstanding some faux conciliatory gestures for Western audiences.
- Takes pains to inculcate the next generation with this same hateful agenda.
As against all this, you point to instances of Israeli extremists. I don’t deny the existence of extreme religious zealots in Israel who have made some appalling statements. You sent me an article about the West Bank Rabbi Dov Lior, who sounds like a thoroughly execrable character. But did you notice the paragraph in the article that reads:
Lior was arrested in 2011 after months of refusing to appear for questioning for his endorsement of the book “Torat Hamelech,” or “The King’s Torah” by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, which justifies killing non-Jews.
Can you point to an instance anywhere in the Arab world where someone was arrested for inciting people to kill Jews? Not in Gaza I bet. Ponder the contrasting reactions to the murder of three Israeli teenagers followed by the brutal killing of a Palestinian teenager. In Israel the murder of the Palestinian was unequivocally condemned by almost everyone. Netanyahu called it an “abominable murder” and vowed to hold the perpetrators accountable; the condemnation included the Israeli right-wing press. Six suspects were quickly arrested and will face the full force of the law. Hamas hailed the killers of the Israelis as heroes and offered no condemnation, and made no attempt to arrest suspects. After initial denials, Hamas eventually claimed ‘credit’ for the kidnapping and murder.
Statements by relatively minor figures hardly provide grounds to accuse the Israelis of the same “genocidal racism” as Hamas, as you did in an email to me. They are clearly unrepresentative of the general tenor of public discourse in Israel, or of government policy. You also say Israeli attitudes are far more important as they have “vastly greater power and don’t hesitate to use it”. They clearly have an overwhelming preponderance of military power, but to imply they have made unrestrained use of it is absurd. If they had the same mentality as say, the Assad regime in Syria or the Allied powers in World War II, let alone a truly genocidal mentality, the Israeli air force could reduce the whole of Gaza to smoking rubble in a couple of days. There would be no warnings, no text messages, phone calls, leaflets, and the death toll would be a large multiple of what happened. There are plenty of questions about the tactics the IDF did actually use, and I make some observations about this below, but to suggest they engaged in deliberate wholesale slaughter is clearly false.
And imagine if the tables were turned and Hamas had the edge. A pointless hypothetical, you might say, except that Israel is being called on to accept the possibility of a Hamas-controlled state that includes the West Bank, which they openly gloat will allow them to “wipe out” Israel.
TRUCES AND ‘HUDNAS’ – FEEDING THE CHOOKS
A key part of the ‘New Hamas’ narrative is that Hamas has, since adopting the Charter, moved to de facto recognition of Israel. Supporters of this view point to several occasions where Hamas has proposed long-term truces, or to use the Islamic term that Hamas prefers ‘hudnas’. These are clearly not sincere proposals as Hamas spokesmen regularly refute any suggestion they will accept Israel on any boundaries, right up to the present day. This talk about hudnas is important however to give Hamas’ Western apologists and enablers something to fly with, and the media and some politicians are all too willing to take the bait. It calls to mind the expression ‘feeding the chooks’ that former Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen used when briefing the media.
A prime piece of chook feed is an interview given by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to the New York Times on 5 May 2009. The interview is cited in the book by Sara Roy that I mentioned above, which you strongly recommended Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector. Roy is one of the best-known academic apologists for Hamas:
The world must deal with what Hamas is practicing today. Hamas has accepted the national reconciliation document. It has accepted a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders including East Jerusalem, dismantling settlements, and the right of return based on a long term truce. Hamas has represented a clear political program through a unity government. This is Hamas’s program regardless of the historic documents.
Meshaal said something similar when meeting with a group of European parliamentarians around the same time. According to a report in Haaretz:
He said the Hamas government had agreed to accept a Palestinian state that followed the 1967 borders and to offer Israel a long-term hudna, or truce, if Israel recognized the Palestinians’ national rights.
Even if taken at face value and assuming Hamas would actually honor any long-term truce, the proposal amounts to a suicide pact for Israel. Note the insistence on the “right of return”, by which Hamas – and the Palestinian Authority for that matter – mean the ability of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return within the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel. The Jewish Israelis are expected to agree to an arrangement in which they are potentially reduced to a minority, possibly ruled by an organisation that cannot bring itself to repudiate a commitment to annihilate them and all their kind. Clearly they will never agree to this.
The reference to a ‘long term truce’ – rather than a permanent peace – is one of a number of such references to which the Hamas apologists attach great store. But what do Hamas have in mind when they talk of a truce? To most Westerners, this would be interpreted as an intermediate step leading to a permanent settlement.
Actually ‘truce’ is a somewhat inaccurate rendering into English of the Islamic concept of hudna, which in Islamic tradition is a temporary expedient that provides an opportunity to regroup, rearm and prepare for the next round of battle. The original hudna was a ten-year arrangement that, according to the Islamic scriptures, Muhammad made with a rival tribe. The hudna held only for 18 months before being broken, when a stronger Muhammad was able to fulfil his ambition to conquer Mecca. According to Wikipedia:
The use of the term hudna to mean truce can lead to misunderstanding. Historically within the civilisation of Christendom calling a truce has been understood as a movement towards permanent peace and an agreed resolution of the conflict. The Arabic term does not contain this meaning at all, being used to get the other side to stop fighting or hostilities or other uses of power or force which look like they will lead to the defeat of the jihadi. There can be no assumption that anyone seeking hudna has any intention of surrender or permanent cessation of hostilities; just a time to rest, regroup and revive.
In May 1994 Yasir Arafat was embarrassed by the leaking of what he thought was an off-the-record talk at a mosque in Johannesburg, South Africa, where his remarks in English were surreptitiously recorded. On being criticised about concessions made to Israel in the Oslo negotiations, he made a sly reference to the original hudna:
I see this agreement as being no more than the agreement signed between our Prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh in Mecca… we now accept the peace agreement, but only in order to continue on the road to Jerusalem.
Hamas MP and spokesman Mushir Al Masri spells it out clearly in the video below, where he says:
A ‘truce’ in the dictionary of the resistance means preparing for the next battle… Our resistance will keep on developing, producing and filling its arsenals and in the production of surprising elements for the next battles until the Zionist enemy leaves our land, with the help of Allah.
And what does the gentleman from Hamas think can be achieved by utilizing the breathing space provided by a hudna? Again, the following video is helpfully explicit, with the Hamas spokesman looking forward to new and improved missiles, suicide drones, naval commandos – and much more:
As it happens, Meshaal’s conciliatory pose for the benefit of New York Times readers is blown apart in the pages of Sara Roy’s own book. In the Afterword to the Paperback Edition at page 246 she mentions his visit to Gaza in December 2012 (he is normally safely ensconced in Qatar). Roy notes:
Yet some of Meshaal’s statements to the tens (and, according to Hamas, hundreds) of thousands of people who came to hear him stood in striking contrast to his more pragmatic and conciliatory position on ending the occupation and acceptance, in effect, of a two-state arrangement based on 1967 borders.
That’s putting it rather mildly. Here is what he said (as quoted by Roy):
Palestine is ours, from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land. We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take … The state will come from resistance, not negotiation.
Here is the video of the full rant:
Roy actually manages to put a positive spin on all this, going on to claim Meshaal had prevailed against even more extreme opponents and to ask:
Does Meshaal’s re-election signal a desire for greater moderation and pragmatism within Hamas as Eldar suggests?
So, according to Roy, Meshaal is the voice of moderation in Hamas. I doubt the Israelis will be reassured.
Hamas apologists also claim that a historic opportunity for peace was squandered by Israel’s and the US opposition to the creation of a ‘unity government’ of Hamas and the PLO arising from the reconciliation agreement of 23 April of this year. In an opinion piece in the New York Times of July 17 this year Nathan Thrall argues the reconciliation government would have locked Hamas into recognition of Israel and concludes:
The current escalation in Gaza is a direct result of the choice by Israel and the West to obstruct the implementation of the April 2014 Palestinian reconciliation agreement. The road out of the crisis is a reversal of that policy.
However any suggestion of recognition of Israel within any boundaries was immediately repudiated by Hamas spokesmen. The ‘moderate’ Khaled Meshaal said “Our path is resistance and the rifle, and our choice is jihad” and called for a joint strategy that would lead to the “liberation of our lands and holy sites and the return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes”. This was reiterated on August 17 by Hamas spokesman Samir Abu Zuhri who made it clear the Hamas goal was the “liberation of Jerusalem”, not lifting the Gaza blockade:
Note the chant about 20 seconds into the video:
Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews…
The threat of Khaybar refers to the Muslim slaughter and expulsion of the Jews in a town of the name in northwestern Arabia in 628 CE.
But the most telling response came from the deputy chairman of the Hamas political bureau as reported by the Middle East news agency Al-Monitor:
Hamas will not recognize Israel,” Mousa Abu Marzouk, deputy chairman of Hamas’ political bureau, told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview.
This is a red line that cannot be crossed,” said the 63-year-old Hamas leader who played a pivotal role in achieving the reconciliation deal with Fatah on April 23.
Abu Marzouk’s remarks come as Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meet in Qatar. The Hamas leader added that the Quartet’s requirement that Hamas recognize Israel “do not concern us one bit.”
“We would have spared ourselves seven years of misery under the siege and two wars in 2008 and 2012 had we wanted to recognize Israel,” he said.
Note especially the final paragraph. Clearly, Hamas’ primary goal is to annihilate Israel even at the cost of inflicting untold misery on their own people.
You sent me a link to an article by John Lyons in the Australian newspaper of 4 September that cites Hamas adviser Ahmed Yousef saying to Lyons that Hamas would renounce violence and settle for a state on 1967 boundaries. The problem is that, as shown above and as acknowledged by the author of another article you strongly recommended, Jerome Slater, Hamas says different things on different days. It also says very different things in English to Western audiences and in Arabic to Palestinian audiences. Even if we take them at face value, all its proposals are tied to the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees – and their descendants – into Israel proper, not a future Palestinian state. It would be trivially easy to find some excuse to breach any such arrangement, has happened with the original hudna. And the Charter remains intact, sanctified by scriptural authority.
Jerome Slater puts the best possible slant on it:
Despite the occasional mixed signals and contradictory rhetoric, there simply is no doubting the ongoing evolution of Hamas thinking.
Mixed signals? Here is a much less benign but far more plausible take on Hamas’ evolving thinking. Hamas would very much like to have control of all the Palestinian territories outside the 1967 borders, but not as a permanent settlement. Rather, it would facilitate achievement of their ultimate and constantly reiterated goal, a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea” that includes, in Khaled Meshaal’s words, “every inch” of Israel. With a much longer border with Israel, much greater proximity to Israel’s main population centres and the ability to import weapons and dual-use items without let or hindrance, they would be able to make life pretty much intolerable in Israel, indeed they are already talking about how control of the West Bank would allow them to “wipe out Israel”.
If you were an Israeli would you be prepared to bet your future, and that of your descendants, on that not being the real plan?
ABSOLVING HAMAS – ROCKETS, TUNNELS AND HUMAN SHIELDS
According to the ‘pro-Palestinian’ Left, Hamas can do no wrong. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but not that far from the mark. One of the items you sent me after our discussion was a link to a video dated 3 August of a speech you gave to a ‘pro-Palestinian’ rally in downtown Sydney in which you said the following:
We hear about rockets, tunnels, terrorists, targeted pinpoint surgical attacks, human shields and crossfire. I teach philosophy and language and I care about precise language – it’s bullshit.
I am unclear as to what, precisely, you are saying here. You have acknowledged elsewhere that Hamas firing rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas of Israel is a violation of international law, and it is indisputable that Hamas has expended great resources, years of effort, and the lives of hundreds of children to build a vast network of tunnels beneath densely populated areas of Gaza to protect its key personnel, command posts and other parts of its military infrastructure, to smuggle weapons and goods in from Egypt, as well as to provide a means of inserting terrorists into Israel. The one thing the tunnels are not available for is to protect the civilian population of Gaza, Hamas’ propaganda strategy being to ensure such casualties are maximized when the inevitable Israeli retaliation for their attacks comes.
And human shields? Hamas would help their Western defenders by refraining from boasting about the success of the human shield strategy on Arabic language media, as Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri does in the video below. Note the first part, where families are described going to the roof of a house “to prevent the Zionist warplanes targeting it” in response to Israeli warnings that an attack was imminent.
It is beyond dispute that Hamas has deliberately located rocket launch sites, command posts and weapons stockpiles in hospitals, schools, hotels and densely populated residential area. The evidence for this is available from a multitude of credible sources, though you would never guess it from much of the Western media. The UN has acknowledged the storage of weapons stockpiles in its schools (which it then returned to Hamas). According to John Ging the UN Relief and Works Agency Gaza director:
Yes, the armed groups are firing their rockets into Israel from the vicinity of UN facilities and residential areas. Absolutely.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay accused Hamas militants of violating international humanitarian law by:
locating rockets within schools and hospitals, or even launching these rockets from densely populated areas.
Journalist Richard Behar has set out an extensive compilation of the evidence in a recent article that appeared in Forbes magazine.
The evidence includes video footage of rocket launches. Here is a sample:
1. Finnish television report of a rocket launch from the back carpark of the Al Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest. The journalist says “right in the back parking lot of Al Shifa Hospital a rocket was launched, two o’clock in the morning. Really, it happened right in the area, the sound of it was really loud”. The Washington Post reported that the hospital had become a “de facto headquarters for Hamas leaders, who can be seen in the hallways and offices”.
2. Footage from Indian television station NDTV showing the assembly and launching of a Hamas rocket from outside a hotel located in a densely populated area. The Indian reporter described the pervasive fear among reporters of reprisals by Hamas against anyone reporting these launches. Generally they refrain from doing so until safely out of Gaza.
3. France 24 television reporter startled by rocket launch from within a heavily populated area, right next to a UN facility.
So why haven’t we heard more about this? Part of the answer is Hamas intimidation. The Foreign Press Association complained about “blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox” intimidation of journalists in Gaza by Hamas, including the Indian TV journalists whose story appears above. The Forbes article by Richard Behar I referred to above maintains there is systematic bias on the part of some Western media organisations including the New York Times, the BBC and CNN. The only coverage about this in the Australian press is an article in The Australian by two researchers at the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Committee.
The evidence that Hamas has launched attacks and placed military facilities in or in close proximity to civilian installations is overwhelming. The larger point is that Gaza as a whole has been turned into one big human shield, sitting above a subterranean world of tunnels that protect key Hamas personnel, weapon stockpiles and manufacturing facilities, and command centres. This network is concentrated in particular suburbs, and these are the ones that have suffered the greatest damage. The tunnels are purely military installations, with no access to for the civilian population – there are no public bomb shelters in Gaza. By systematically denying or ignoring this reality and attributing all blame for civilian casualties to Israel, Hamas apologists and sections of the Western media are integral to the success of this strategy, rewarding it and ensuring its continuation.
So how should Israel respond to an adversary that thinks nothing of putting its own civilians at risk? The Israeli author and intellectual Amos Oz, a founder of the Peace Now movement, strong critic of the West Bank settlements, and one of the earliest advocates of a two-state solution after the 1967 war, draws an analogy: Suppose you found yourself being fired at by a neighbour across the street who does so with a child on his knee. What would you do? Oz thought that Israel had no choice than to mount a military operation, even though this would inevitably lead to civilian casualties, though he thinks the level of force was excessive.
One can quibble with Oz’s analogy. One thought that occurred to me was to ask whether Israel could not just sit out Hamas’ relatively ineffectual rocket attacks protected by the Iron Dome system and its extensive civil defence measures. There are several problems with this. For one thing it is clear that had Hamas’ sinister ‘attack tunnel’ strategy, which Israeli intelligence services grossly underestimated before entering Gaza, come to fruition as planned later this year there was the potential for terrorist attacks and hostage taking on an appalling scale. Furthermore there is no doubt that Hamas strives relentlessly to improve its capabilities, with attempts to smuggle in more potent missiles and other weapons, maybe with chemical or biological warheads in future.
So the notion that Israel could have just sat out the Hamas onslaught may provide an interesting topic for a university seminar on moral philosophy, but is something that no real-world government faced with this situation could or would do. Once the decision was taken to respond militarily to attacks emanating from densely populated areas, civilian casualties were inevitable. Could Israel have done more to minimize them, more than the phone calls, text messages and ‘warning rockets’ and careful targeting that they used? There clearly were serious failures, leading to appalling results. But what we can say with certainty is that these were not intended. As the Israelis know all too well, every high profile tragedy is a propaganda windfall for Hamas, and a corresponding nightmare for them.
A full exploration of the proportionality of Israel response would require a separate article, but it is clear that the claim Israel killed indiscriminately is false. Had it done so, the death toll would have been far higher and, as belatedly acknowledged by the BBC and New York Times, the age and gender profile of casualties would have been different (most media accepted figures on the combatant/civilian ratio provided by the Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry, on which UN estimates were also based). A detailed analysis of the pattern of targeting shows that the strikes were aimed at specific areas close to the border where Hamas infrastructure was most concentrated.
THE GAZA WITHDRAWAL – A COUNTER-FACTUAL
At this point it is useful to engage in some counter-factual history, to ponder how things might have been, after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. This withdrawal provided the opportunity for an altogether different future for the people of Gaza, an opportunity tragically squandered.
From August to September 2005 under Ariel Sharon’s government Israel carried out a withdrawal from Gaza, both military and civilian. The entire population of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, around 9000 people in all, was removed, forcibly in many cases.
The decision to do this was hugely controversial in Israel. It was defeated at different stages within the Knesset (parliament), the cabinet, and the Likud Party, prompting several ministerial resignations and the withdrawal of Sharon’s coalition partners. It required the formation of a new government with Shimon Peres in January 2005 to secure passage. Sharon was accused of selling-out by sections of the Right while gaining some praise from the Left. Among the most vocal opponents was Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned from the cabinet just before it ratified the first phase of the disengagement plan on August 7 2005. In his first speech after resigning Netanyahu warned that the Gaza withdrawal would create a “huge base for terror”.
Internationally the response was positive. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised Sharon’s “courageous decision”; EU Foreign Minister Javier Solana welcomed the decision as representing “an opportunity to restart implementation of the Road Map”. Copious amounts of development aid were on offer. An Agreement on Movement and Access was made between Israel and the Palestinian Authority shortly after that would have opened up border crossings, established a safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank and set in motion development of sea and air ports. The Israelis left behind a substantial economic infrastructure, including 3000 high technology greenhouses. There was considerable optimism about where this could lead, with talk of Gaza becoming the “Singapore of the Mediterranean”.
A great opportunity, but one that was lost almost immediately. The rockets starting flying literally within hours of the last Israeli troops withdrawing and have not stopped since, some 11,000 between then and the start of hostilities in July 2014. The election of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006 led to an embargo on aid by the members of the Quartet, and in the aftermath of the Gaza War that saw the expulsion of Fatah from Gaza the Israelis and Egyptians imposed restrictions on non-humanitarian supplies (these were relaxed in 2010). Hamas directed huge resources away from civilian construction into building its subterranean war making apparatus, and used this in successive rounds of conflict with Israel. The result was a devastated Gazan economy, parts of Gaza reduced to smoking ruins and thousands of wrecked lives.
Imagine that things had turned out differently. Suppose that when the Israelis withdrew in 2005 the leadership in Gaza had decided to focus on the pursuits of peace, developing Gaza’s economic and social infrastructure, fostering mutually beneficial relations with Israel and the region, and building thriving industries in areas where Gaza has natural advantages such as tourism and horticulture. The people of Gaza could today be enjoying one of the highest living standards in the region. Instead of appearing prescient, Benjamin Netanyahu’s prediction in August 2005 that Gaza would become a “huge base for terror” would have been falsified. This could have provided the basis for a broader two-state solution to the Israel- Palestinian solution based on mutual trust. As things have turned out, Gaza may have fatally weakened the chances for such a solution.
There is a broader point here. Time and again, Palestinian representatives and their advocates in the West find reasons why opportunities like this should not be taken up because it fails to provide full ‘justice’ to the Palestinians. In the case of Gaza they raise Israel’s continued control of sea and air approaches, or they complain about continued West Bank settlements. In my view, anyone genuinely concerned about the welfare of the Palestinians would urge them to set aside considerations of (unattainable) ultimate justice and instead try to imagine what life would be like for the Palestinians today if they had embraced the opportunity for peaceful development afforded by the Gaza withdrawal. Or by the Clinton-sponsored proposal in 2000 that would have given the Palestinians 94 percent of the West Bank (plus 3 percent in a land swap), East Jerusalem and a $38 billion compensation package for the refugees; or the 2007 Olmert proposal. Or for that matter the original UN partition of Palestine in 1947. Not full justice, you might object, but an incomparably better outcome for the people concerned.
A striking feature of this latest round of Gaza fighting is that the decision to launch Operation Protective Edge had the support of the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis, across the political spectrum. According to a recent poll, 92 percent considered the operation justified, and that even included 67 percent of self-described Leftists. The same poll showed much less agreement about the way the campaign was waged, but the dissenters overwhelmingly thought Israel should have prosecuted the campaign more aggressively to achieve a decisive victory over Hamas.
These figures are surprising given the high civilian death toll, Israel’s own casualties and the overwhelmingly negative coverage of Israel’s actions in the world media. While there is a far Right religious fringe, the Israeli electorate in the main shares many of the characteristics of a typical Western democracy where this level of consensus for a military campaign is very rare. Unlike its neighbours, including the Palestinian territories, Israel has a lively and contentious democratic life where strong critics can and do have their say.
How do we account for this consensus? My reading of it is that most Israelis feel they are confronted by an appalling dilemma, with an enemy on their doorstep committed to the annihilation of their state and each one of them personally. An enemy that is perfectly prepared to launch indiscriminate attacks on Israel’s civilian population in a way deliberately calculated to maximize casualties amongst its own population when the inevitable response comes in order to discredit and isolate Israel in the eyes of the world.
An Israeli author who visited Australia recently, Yossi Halevi, described the potential impact of Hamas’ rocket attacks in an article for the The Australian newspaper:
The images of Israeli dislocation are hardly as heartbreaking as the images from Gaza. And yet the psychological consequences are significant. For years, Israelis in some southern communities have arranged their lives so they are always within seconds of a shelter. But recently these southerners have been calling into radio talk shows with a common refrain: we can’t take it anymore. There is a real possibility of a permanent mass defection from this part of the country. And if Israelis can’t live on the border with Gaza, the same may prove true for those who live on the border with Lebanon. Many Israelis will draw the conclusion anticipated by Arafat: There is no future here.
This is clearly Hamas’ strategy. Make life intolerable for the population of Israel as part of its long-term strategy to eliminate the Jewish state altogether. And imagine how much more severe the problem would be if Hamas were to gain control of the West Bank as well as Gaza, with a far longer border and much greater proximity to the main Israeli population centres and the freedom to import weapons and dual-use items without restraint.
I will conclude on a slightly philosophical note. Like you (correct me if I’m wrong) I think the best ethical framework for judging actions and policies is Consequentialism, the viewpoint that calls on us to focus on practical results rather than sentiments, motives, displays of solidarity – or even ruminating too much about what ‘justice’ ultimately requires. I doubt the Israel-Palestine dispute will finally be resolved by some grand bargain that all the parties sign on to and implement in good faith. Rather than hang out for this, a more plausible approach is to pursue every opportunity to ameliorate life for those concerned and to implement partial solutions that can build trust and lay the basis for better things. The tragedy of Gaza is that just such an opportunity was squandered.