My family and friends include a number of stong supporters of Israel. A lot of conservative Christians feel this way, for reasons which include their understanding of Biblical prophecy, their immersion in the history of Israel via our shared religious heritage, and a fear of the spread of Islam. This means at a time like now my Facebook feed is flooded with pro-Israeli propaganda.
I find it distressing. I am not a supporter of Hamas. As far as I can tell they're an unprincipled group of religious ideologues. Nor do I have anything against Israelis. However, in the context of a war in which there are currently 200 Palestinian casualties for every Israeli one I think Israel's supporters need to ask themselves some serious questions. What could lead someone, particularly a Christian from a neutral country, to lend support to the stronger party in such an asymmetrical war?
In the interests of keeping it real, I've taken to updating the death toll each day on Facebook. The resulting discussions have been lively. I'm no expert on Middle Eastern history and politics but I know bullshit when I see it. There is a lot of it in the pro-Israeli arguments that fly past me each day. Here are three of the low-lights.
1. "There is no such thing as the Palestinian people."
The argument goes that prior to the creation of Israel in 1948 there was no Palestinian people or nation and never had been, and that it is a creation of the Arabs who want to destroy Israel.
Like a good deal of propaganda, this is a falsehood wrapped in a truth. It's true that there was no Palestinian nation. Prior to 1948 there had not been an independent nation of any kind in this location (or in most of the Middle East) since the first century BC, when the Roman Empire took effective control through their puppet Herod the Great. Since then the area has been controlled by a succession of imperial powers, including the Byzantines, the Arabs and the Ottoman Turks. When the Turks lost their empire at the end of World War 1 the Middle East was divided between the European powers, and their respective territories became the basis of the current national boundaries.
The creation of Israel was unique in this situation. All the other states took their citizenship from their existing residents and their rulers were taken from the local elites. The families that provided hereditary governors under the Ottomans became kings of small nation states sponsored by the departing Europeans. However, in the wake of the Holocaust the United Nations acceded to a long-standing British plan to create a homeland for Jews. The nation of Israel was declared in 1948 in an area which had a mixed population, including some people of Jewish descent but a substantial majority of Arabic background.
The declaration of the Israeli nation brought simmering tensions to a head - war immediately broke out, firstly between the new Jewish rulers and the local Arab communities and quickly drawing in the neighbouring Arab nations. Israel won a decisive victory and the result was the displacement of some 700,000 people of Arab descent, about 80% of the Arab population. The majority of these ended up just over the borders in Gaza and the West Bank, controlled respectively by Egypt and Jordan. There they settled in what were essentially refuge camps and organised their ongoing resistance, giving birth in the process to a sense of Palestinian national identity. These areas were annexed by Israel in the 1967 war and have been under Israeli military control ever since.
So in a sense, Palestinian national identity was born along with the creation of modern Israel. But this does not change the fact - people were displaced from their ancestral homes and their lands were taken by immigrants from around the world. Their descendants remain stateless and largely landless to this day.
2. "Israel is acting in self-defence".
Self defence is the oldest excuse for military aggression in the book. Once again, fact is mixed with fiction. The Hamas rulers of Gaza have a considerable supply of primitive rockets which they regularly fire into Israel. This is certainly an act of aggression. It is undoubtedly harrowing for Israelis who live near the border (and this is a very small country) but the Israeli military has a sophisticated missile interception system which is a highly effective means of self-defence and Hamas rockets rarely hit their targets. This is not a new situation. In 2007 the ongoing tension broke out into open war and Israel invaded Gaza, with huge loss of Palestinian life. After that invasion Israel imposed a land and sea blockade on Gaza which is still in place seven years later, sucking the life out of Gaza's economy in an effort to prevent weapons from being smuggled in.
This stalemate was broken recently by the abduction and murder of three young Israelis in the West Bank. (Unlike Gaza, the West Bank is controlled by a Fatah-led government). The murderers were connected to Hamas but it is not clear that they were acting with any official foreknowledge or approval from the Hamas leadership - Israel says they were, Hamas says they weren't. In the subsequent Israeli response 350 Palestinians were detained including the entire Hamas West Bank leadership, five Palestinians were killed and further restrictions were placed on already highly regulated movements in and out of Palestinian communities.
Hamas accused Israel of collective punishment and the situation rapidly escalated. Hamas started firing an increasing barrage of rockets from their bases in Gaza, and in response the Israeli military sent guided missiles at various targets in Gaza which they claimed were missile sites but which also, or instead, were ordinary family homes. This has been followed by a ground invasion. As a result while only three Israeli civilians have been killed since the start of this particular exchange, some 800 Palestinian civilians have died including over 200 children.
This history begs two questions. Firstly, how do you determine who started such a conflict? Was it started by the murders, the heavy-handed Israeli response, the Hamas rockets, the Israeli counter-rockets? Do we locate its origin back in the 2007 conflict and the subsequent blockade? Or do we keep going further back, all the way to 1948 and beyond, the cycle of attack and counter-attack that has been going on for almost a century?
Secondly, in the face of such an overwhelming disparity in firepower, at what point does self-defence become all-out aggression? When Israel has the technology to prevent any damage from Hamas rockets, where is the justification for the killing of civilians and children in the quest to prevent their launch?
3."Hamas' charter calls for the destruction of Israel, making a fight to the death inevitable."
It's true that Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and Israel is likewise committed to the destruction of Hamas. It may even be true that Hamas uses civilians as human shields by placing rockets in residential areas, although there is not much else in Gaza. The Hamas leadership has the morals of a pack of wild dogs.
However, Hamas is not the only Palestinian organisation. The 1995 Oslo accord between the Israeli government and the Fatah-led Palestinian Liberation Organisation involved PLO recognition of Israel in exchange for Israeli legalisation of the PLO and creation of an interim system of self-government in the West Bank and Gaza. It envisaged a five-year period of negotiation to settle outstanding issues including the status of Jerusalem, the status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and ongoing Israeli military presence in the Palestinian territories.
This was a landmark agreement and a rare moment of hope in the conflict. However the concessions were hugely unequal. While the PLO agreed to recognise Israel, Israel did not agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state, merely a form of interim local autonomy. It did not agree to withdraw its troops from Palestinian territory, to dismantle illegal Jewish settlements or to lift restrictions on Palestinian movement.
It got worse from there. No movement was gained on the outstanding issues. Israel became frustrated at ongoing terrorist attacks from extreme Palestinian groups and when the Palestinian Authority couldn't or didn't detain the perpetrators, the Israelis intervened directly. Restrictions on movement were tightened, Israeli military presence intensified, more Jewish settlements were built.
As time went on, positions on both sides hardened. Israelis elected a government in which Likud entered into a coalition with right-wing nationalists who advocated a hard line and no concessions. Meanwhile, the combination of frustration with Israel's immovability on key issues and frustration with corruption and misgovernment by Fatah led to the rise of Hamas, first winning local government elections and finally in 2006 gaining a majority on the Palestinian Authority. Israel refused to recognise their election or have any dealings with them, and over the next couple of years Palestinian governance descended into chaos. Fatah seized back control in the West Bank while Hamas remains in control in Gaza meaning that there are in effect two separate Palestinian authorities. Both are under extreme pressure from Israel, still losing land to expanding Jewish settlement, subject to progressively increasing restrictions on movement including the infamous barrier and the Gaza blockade. Lip-service is still occasionally paid to the "roadmap to peace", mainly by the Americans, but to all intents and purposes the Oslo process is dead.
You can take whatever message you want from this history. It seems to me that despair and hope are both possible responses. It is possible to see this as a story of irredeemable failure. Negotiation has been tried and failed, and now the only solution possible is a military one. In the short term there can only be one winner of an all-out war because Israel's firepower is so overwhelmingly superior. This is the solution advocated by many of my friends and family, and many hard-liners in Israel as well as their supporters overseas. This is the position of Christians for Israel, a pernicious group which has previously made an appearance on this blog.
The problem with this is that it's not actually a solution. There are currently about 4 million Palestinians packed into the West Bank and Gaza. They are stateless so they have nowhere else to go. Every death is another angry family looking for revenge. Unless the Israelis resort to genocide they will have to find a way to come to terms with this Palestinian presence and find a path to reconciliation. I'm convinced that genocide would be a bridge too far for the descendants of Holocaust survivors. If they did go that far, the hatred of their neighbours would be pushed to unprecedented levels, even the US would no longer be able to support them and their days would be numbered. The fates of the Israelis and the Palestinians are inextricably bound together.
This means that ultimately the problem will only be solved by negotiation, and this will require compromises from both sides. Palestinians will have to recognise Israel and guarantee its security. Israel will have to support and assist the creation of a Palestinian state with the land and resources to sustain its citizens. Or perhaps the parties could pull something unexpected out of the box. Perhaps they could agree to create a single secular state with equal citizenship for the four million Palestinians alongside the current 8 million Israeli citizens. Perhaps the UN Security Council will solve the problem by creating a Palestinian homeland in some other country nobody understands with a name no-one can pronounce, like Kyrgyzstan. After all, no-one lives there, do they?
In the meantime, the situation is difficult and gut-wrenchingly sad. Children are dying. They are Palestinians but more than anything they are humans. The solution is not easy. None of the parties come out of the conflict smelling of roses. Israel certainly doesn't. Whatever excuses you may offer, it's their rockets doing the killing. I understand that people have different views and that they are passionate about them. All I ask is that my friends don't expect me to swallow Israeli propaganda.