This post is a response to Israeli military attacks on Hamas which, along with unknown or doubtful gains in Israel’s security, has resulted in over 800 deaths and approaching 3000 wounded, much fear, loss and hunger, and the bombing of many of Gaza’s civic spaces. This post is overdue but not for lack of thinking or caring about it. It considers Hamas, antisemitism, death and destruction and what an end to these might require, touching on forms of protest, the representativeness of leaders, and a way to give to Gazans.
It is necessary to protest Hamas. Hamas are explicit about what they want. They have always made their genocidal intent towards Jews and their elimination intent towards Israel a central tenet. Ranged behind them are the government of Iran and different militant Islamist groupings. Together they make enough threats and aim enough rockets at Israeli civilians for Israelis to believe that they mean it. As a resistance to occupation Hamas are ethically and politically derelict, smashing political opponents and free speech, persecuting minorities, and entrenching defencism in Israel. Last week a Hamas spokesman abused the dead children of Gaza when he obscenely legitimised the targeting Jewish children everywhere. This is the group – elected by Palestinians in 2006 as the best choice on medical care welfare, education and corruption – with whom Israel must find an alternative to military aggression, in order to protect the lives of those under Hamas control. But whether actively or by omission, those who make it comfortable for Hamas to promote these views and practices should be ashamed. Shame on Stop The War, the Palestine Solidarity Movement and the blind eyes they and their supporters have been turning for years.
Secondly, some comments on British responses to the conflict and the implications for British Jews. I intend no contest of victimhood – it is quite clear who are dying now in their hundreds and in their youth. It is hard to think of anything which more represents victimhood than the violent death of a child. Israeli leafleting has proved ineffectual for hundreds of Gazans killed and wounded because Hamas and Israel put them in harm’s way and Israel pulled the trigger anyway. Ordinary Gazans have suffered the most abject, profound victimisation, and it is difficult to imagine how they will recover. It is less controversial than it should be that Hamas holds Gazan lives only marginally less cheap than Jewish lives. There are worlds between Hamas’ and Israel’s objectives in the region but there are also signs that Israelis do not grasp the full importance of the lives of Gazan non-combatants. I’d guess that Palestinians would feel the same way – but they aren’t the ones with the overwhelming military force.
Many, sympathetically or scornfully, have observed that Israelis are scared. So it’s bad news that, with few exceptions, at the recent demonstrations ostensibly on behalf of Gaza the rejectionist voices have been at their most ferocious. Advocates for Palestinians who do not hate Israel have to fight not to be completely overshadowed by those who do.
The shattered and lost lives must be the starting point when responding to the conflict – but as well as this we have to face the effects of the conflict here in our backyard. Attacks on Jews. Attacks on synagogues around the world. Bullying. Shootings. Menacing graffiti. Fear of reprisal. Baiting with Holocaust comparisons. Scapegoating Jews for the activities of Israel helps Hamas. But Jews, who have historically experienced these types of attacks for the reason-du-jour, must not be given to understand that they are a historic inevitability associated with being Jewish. This is part of the Palestine Solidarity Movement’s responsibility, although they have consistently ignored it.
Finally, what has defeated even the most experienced negotiators – how to stop the killing, wounding and dispossession of ordinary Gazans, the non-combatants, the children, all the people who can’t get out of harm’s way? They have experienced horrifying treatment. Not only have over 220 children – a quarter of those dead – been killed, there have been allegations of unambiguous breaches of international humanitarian law by the IDF. This from the Red Cross:
“The ICRC had requested safe passage for ambulances to access this neighbourhood since 3 January but it only received permission to do so from the Israel Defense Forces during the afternoon of 7 January.
The ICRC/PRCS team found four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses. They were too weak to stand up on their own. One man was also found alive, too weak to stand up. In all there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses.”
and from Christopher Gunness of UNWRA:
“Three Gazans were killed last night in an UNRWA school — Asma Elementary School in Gaza City – in an Israeli attack. They were among over four hundred people, who, earlier in the evening had fled their homes in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza and had been given refuge in the UNRWA school. The school was clearly marked as a United Nations installation”
“The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has put into effect a temporary suspension of movements of staff throughout the Gaza Strip, with serious consequences for its principal operations. This decision, taken after careful consideration of its humanitarian implications, was compelled by incidents in which UNRWA staff, convoys and installations have come under attack.
These incidents, including yesterday’s tragic loss of life, occurred as a result of a breakdown in the effectiveness of the humanitarian co-ordination mechanisms established in coordination with the Israeli authorities. On numerous occasions in recent days, humanitarian convoys have come under Israeli fire even though their safe passage through clearly designated routes at specifically agreed times, had been confirmed by the Israeli liaison office.”
And the many desperate accounts from ordinary Gazan residents such as teacher Fida Qishta and young photo journalist Eman Mohammed. It is a terrible thing that Jeffery Goldberg feels obliged to remind IDF soldiers, in an open letter, about their moral responsibilities.
“Here’s the thing. You’ve got to help the children. You’re not Hamas. You’re better than Hamas. So act it. I once asked Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, the late, unlamented Hamas leader, if he would help an injured Jewish child if he came across one lying on the street. He said no.”
I have been following some discussion board conversations on the Web. It is not surprising but depressing that questions about what should be done to end the death and destruction remain unanswered, descending into recriminations and intentions to boycott Israel.
Some protest organisers encourage us to waste shoes at Downing Street and make common cause with the supporters of terror. More sophisticated and politically responsible forms of protest addresses Israeli reasons for the attacks and why they should be stopped. From prominent Britons and others, two letters strongly criticising Israel’s actions, appeared in today’s Sunday paper as Israel pledged to continue the operation.
In The Observer, a letter from a group sympathetic to Israel including a number of Jewish leaders:
“We are concerned that rather than bringing security to Israel, a continued military offensive could strengthen extremists, destabilise the region and exacerbate tensions inside Israel with its one million Arab citizens. The offensive and the mounting civilian victims – like the Lebanon war in 2006 – also threaten to undermine international support for Israel.”
Another letter in The Times, from a group with diverse attitudes to Israel, casts aspersion on the legality of Israel’s attacks, ending:
“We condemn the firing of rockets by Hamas into Israel and suicide bombings which are also contrary to international humanitarian law and are war crimes. Israel has a right to take reasonable and proportionate means to protect its civilian population from such attacks. However, the manner and scale of its operations in Gaza amount to an act of aggression and is contrary to international law, notwithstanding the rocket attacks by Hamas.”
The question of proportionality is key – for insights see Michael Walzer, which Kent Green Party should read and explain their use of ‘disproportionate’ in their boycott call. I can’t assess claims about international humanitarian law, but I think those who do not abide by it should be held to account.
These letters made me wonder if any group had corresponded with Hamas. It’s sometimes seemed in the past few weeks that Hamas have been talked about and talked over, and rarely talked to. Most regard Hamas, with resignation, as a force of nature which hates Jews in the same way that rain is wet or snow is cold. Others believe that they hate Jews in the same way that abused children grow up abusive themselves, but this is doesn’t stand up. Either theory sits ill with demanding that Israel negotiates with Hamas. It doesn’t help to view Hamas in this way if we expect political effort from Hamas.
Human Rights Watch, however, understands that Hamas has agency, and addresses it directly. HRW wrote to Ismail Haniya back in November last year. In a letter which acknowledged Israeli provocations, it stated:
“We also urge you to take all necessary measures to curb such unlawful attacks whether or not the current ceasefire remains in place or is extended beyond its December 19 deadline. Security forces under your control in Gaza have also demonstrated an ability to curb rocket fire. On at least two occasions, Hamas security personnel arrested people accused of firing rockets. On July 10 at least three members of the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades were detained for firing rockets. All were later released however, and no charges were brought against them.”
And from time to time, breaking into the constant drone of genocidal rhetoric as ratified in its charter, Hamas makes a small, meagre, but significant nod to a two-state solution. This is something for Israeli and Palestinian politicians to pounce on and use.
The Israeli people have given solid support to the recent attacks on Hamas, even given the inevitable death and destruction this was always going to entail, and even though they also accept that an end to the occupation is the only chance of peace. They perceive an existential threat, and Hamas, its sponsors Iran and other terrorist groups are largely responsible for this. It would be convenient to believe, as Jeff Halper, quoted in The Observer, opines, “The Israeli public is being held hostage by its own leadership”. However, while this is likely to be true for the people of Gaza and Hamas, it is not convincing in the case of Israel. For example, it was only when Olmert relinquished power that he began to speak freely about the need to end the occupation and its settlements.
Elections are coming, and it seems that the Israeli political classes have given up on trying to convince the Israeli people that Hamas does not pose an existential threat. Even Meretz gave its support to Operation Cast Lead. Instead of urging Israelis to keep faith with a political solution the governing Israeli coalition substitutes lethal braun for politics and attempts, bloodily, in advance of the upcoming elections, to prove to the Israeli electorate that it can defend them better than the right-wing Israeli political grouping round Likud. Dismayingly, attitudes to the conflict are hardening in Israel.
Israel has state power, and the overwhelming balance of military power, but like the Palestinians Israel has its share of extremists and they are becoming more active. These people, who have attacked even Zionist peace activists and Israeli security forces working towards an end to the settlements, thrive on Hamas actions, insisting that Israelis have nothing to gain by ending the occupation and can only survive through military control of the Palestinian Territories. They must be proved wrong. The Israeli government has belatedly begun to confront them.
Huge numbers of Gazans are in immediate danger and require immediate and urgent protection and humanitarian relief. The blockade against Gaza and the occupation which stifles and humiliates the West Bank have endured because nobody has come up with a better idea to protect Israelis. Now is the time to talk to the Israeli people, as the PLO did so constructively an unprecedentedly last year in an advertisement in Haaretz reiterating the terms of the Arab peace proposal.
The most urgent concern is the people of Gaza. One of the Observer letter signatories Shalom Lappin emphasises the humanitarian reasons which should form the basis of any response to Israel’s strategy in Gaza:
“Relying on overwhelming military force to respond to terrorist provocations invariably imposes horrendous suffering on innocent Palestinian civilians while entrenching the agents of terror in their midst. We have no alternative but to pursue rational, long term political options that promote moderation and marginalise extremists.”
They need protection, humanitarian assistance and dignity, now. The next stage is summarised by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. When both sides admit they are not carrying out all their obligations, that “should be the way for both of us to carry out our obligations.” The stage after that is a negotiated political solution, about which I am fairly ignorant. I think I share this ignorance with most people, and perhaps it is this which causes thoughts to turn to simple solutions such as unconditional withdrawal and ending the blockade. The political right makes mincemeat of anything this simplistic.
Knowledgeable people with more informed ideas include John Strawson, who councils seeking UN Security Resolution supporting a new ceasefire resolution under Chapter VII, to allow negotiations to proceed. Marwan Muasher’s The Arab Center (RSA podcast) was recorded before this latest outbreak. Jonathan Freedland advocates clandestine discussions with Hamas. He chaired a recent debate (MP3) on strategies for conflict resolution at the Royal Society of Arts which should be an interesting listen, given the presence of at least one panellist who would be delighted if Israel was bombed across from another who’s an academic expert on security. While the Israel Green Movement, a new Israeli party just launched during this crisis, works on its position paper, leading member Gershon Baskin writes in the Jerusalem Post of the hundreds of imprisoned political opponents, broaching the idea of regime change and concluding,
“…there may be a possibility to rebuild Gaza and heal some of the wounds of this battle – if Gaza truly becomes free from Israeli occupation and control and if there is a return to sincere negotiations for a permanent status agreement, without excuses and without delays. Israel would have to demonstrate its intentions of engaging a reunited Palestinian Authority of the West Bank and Gaza by freezing all settlements, removing outposts, removing checkpoints and allowing Palestinians to see a real horizon of freedom.”
There is a Trade Union Congress appeal for humanitarian aid to Gaza to which you can donate.