Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Keeping it Real in Israel and Palestine

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.


Anonymous said...

Something for you to look at further Jon, since the media do not tell the whole story in a lot of cases...

And this is what the IDF soldiers are telling:

"We went into Shuja'iya, to discover and destroy the Hamas' Terrorist Tunnels. We discovered there an entire underground-city, with multi-shaft, wide tunnels, with Wi-Fi & air-conditioning systems, concrete walls, and stocked to the ceiling with weapons and explosives. Some of the tunnels are so wide, that they can ride back and forwards on Vespa type scooters..."

July 21st, 2014: One of the IDF's Wounded that did talk...

"And then came the worst! The Hamas "fighters" started sending towards us 13- and 14-year-old Palestinian children, running at us, wearing explosive-laden suicide-bomber belts!! Those children were death-trapped, and became human-bombs, by their Community's adults!!"

"We were trained to fight adult-soldiers or any other skilled adults, enabling us to defend our families and countrymen. But this?? We had no other option but, in self-defense, to shoot them at as far a range from us as we could, before the "responsible-adult" that sent them - used his mobile-phone to detonate the belts, and kill us".

One of the injured soldiers ended up by saying: "I do not know if I'll ever be able to sleep again: the pictures of those poor children, killed by my gun, will probably never leave me!"

Let us conclude with the sad words of one of Israel's past Prime Ministers, the late Mrs. Golda Meir:

"We may be able to forgive the Arabs for the killing of our children. We cannot however forgive them, for forcing us to kill theirs! Peace will come when the Arabs start to love their children more than they hate us!".

Jon Eastgate said...

"Forcing us to kill theirs" sounds like cheap justification to me. No-one is forcing the Israelis to bomb Gaza. And why are you commenting anonymously? Please identify yourself if you plan to continue.

Tetraetc said...

RE: "Hamas rockets almost never hit their target"

Well, they kinda don't have a target, nor do they have the ability to have a target. Hamas is just firing said rockets blindly, hoping that they hit somewhere. (The rockets they use are cheap and unsophisticated)

RE: "Israel has technology to stop the rockets"

Well, with 56 dead Israelis, it's evident that they can't stop all of the rockets. And when the Hamas rockets cost nearly 1/10th of the cost than the missiles Israel uses to intercept said rockets... it's not all that hard for Hamas to simply overwhelm the defences.

RE: Hamas killing Israel, Israel killing Hamas comparisons.

You must remember, Hamas is an organisation that wants to kill an entire nation.
Israel (well, the government) only wants to end Hamas, and other similar "terrorist" organisations. They don't want to kill all Palestinians.

(Stewart BTW)

Jon Eastgate said...

Hi Stewart, I never realised Tetraetc was you! 53 of the 56 Israeli dead are soldiers killed in the ground invasion. Only three civilians have been killed in the current round of hostilities. Yes, Hamas rockets do sometimes hit someone but very rarely given the number that are fired. And yes, as I say Hamas is ugly and evil, but the people being killed are not Hamas they are Palestinians of all sorts.

Tetraetc said...

Unfortunately, yes Israeli strikes have definitely killed a large number of Civilians, but my point was more "Israel wants to kill Hamas Militants, Hamas wants to kill Israeli Civilians" (Both sides are failing at their goal...)

Jon Eastgate said...

Yes, if the stories quoted by Anonymous above are true, the blockade has been an abject failure in stopping Hamas from acquiring arms, but it has been a stunning success in making them angry and prepared to fight. That's how the spiral of violence works - each act of violence produces an equal or greater response and without a deliberate attempt to change the game it goes on for ever.

Mike Westerman said...

Add to the mix Jon $3.1B US aid 90% of which is military (RN this morning) and you can see no solution in sight. I think you've raised some key questions: how many Palestinians does the IDF think it needs to kill before they surrender (ie where is the military solution)? If there isn't a military solution why does the US keep funding one? With the strife between Sunni and Shia in Iraq and Syria threatening to draw Iran in on the side of the US against ISIL there is significant potential for the conflagration to widen dramatically, including strengthening the resolve of pro-Palestinian Sunni groups in our region. Maybe it is time for the international community which created the problem to step in and unilaterally solve it.

Jake said...

Was reading this article and thought it might be food for thought for you: another angle to think about Jon. Comes from a magazine called "Israel Today" via web.

"When violence flares between Israel and the Palestinians, it always becomes a game of numbers, the facts and root causes of the confrontation be damned.

And so, Israel always ends up being the loser, given that it actually tries to protect the lives of civilians, and far more effectively uses its military might to slay the enemy.

In other words, Israel will always suffer less casualties, and will therefore always be blamed.

The Palestinians, and in particular Hamas, know this well, and work to further game the system by artificially inflating casualty figures and manipulating their interpretation.

This is to be expected. What really gets Israelis frustrated is that the world happily plays along with what couldn’t be a more transparent deception.

Mid-way through the latest Gaza war, US President Barack Obama was rumored to have told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that 1,000 dead Gazans was the limit before Israel would start to face heavy international pressure.

But upon whom would the world rely for those casualty figures? And who would differentiate between the number of civilians and combatants killed in the action?

Why, the United Nations, of course! But wait, from whom did the UN get those numbers? From none other than Hamas itself, the very entity busily engaged in a global public relations war against Israel.

Sounds reasonable.

Belatedly, a number of major media players are calling into question the veracity of the figures provided by the Hamas Ministry of Health and the UN’s presentation thereof.

An analysis by The New York Times revealed what Israeli bloggers had been pointing out for weeks: that a disproportionate percentage of the casualties were men of fighting age.

According to the article:

“The Times analysis, looking at 1,431 names, shows that the population most likely to be militants, men ages 20 to 29, is also the most overrepresented in the death toll: They are 9 percent of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents, but 34 percent of those killed whose ages were provided. At the same time, women and children under 15, the least likely to be legitimate targets, were the most underrepresented, making up 71 percent of the population and 33 percent of the known-age casualties.”

Why were only 1,431 names examined? Didn’t over 2,000 die in Gaza? Well, maybe. Hamas was also caught duplicating names on the list of casualties provided to the media and the UN, which themselves didn’t bother to check for such inconsistencies.

Not wanting to be left looking the fool, the BBC also quickly changed its tune, admitting that “if the Israeli attacks have been ‘indiscriminate’, as the UN Human Rights Council says, it is hard to work out why they have killed so many more civilian men than women….In conclusion, we do not yet know for sure how many of the dead in Gaza are civilians and how many were fighters.”

The Washington Post had already noticed that something was awry much earlier, with one of its lead bloggers lamenting that “the media has engaged in journalistic malpractice by reporting casualty figures for civilians coming from Gaza as gospel.”

Much closer to reality is a detailed analysis by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Information Center, which found that there was a rough 1:1 ration of combatants to civilian casualties in Gaza. If accurate, such a ratio would be unprecedented for modern urban warfare, and would speak highly of Israel’s efforts to avoid civilian casualties.

Jon Eastgate said...

Hi Jake, thanks for your comments. A couple of things strike me as odd in what you say.

First of all, I find it hard to accept that the "loser" in an armed conflict is the one that has the fewest casualties. That seems to me to be a bizarre understanding of the function of armed conflict. In the interests of "keeping it real" it seems to me that when one party suffers minimal damage and another has large casualties and significant damage to housing and infrastructure, it seems clear who "won".

It is, however, reasonable to think about this differently. Is this a conflict which can ultimately be decided by military force? It seems to me that it can't because neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have anywhere else to go. Hence while it achieves some short-term objectives by destroying Hamas military infrastructure, it does so at the expense the longer-term objective of achieving peace and reconciliation which is ultimately the only way the conflict can be solved. This also, as you say, plays into Hamas's hands because they are the party of confrontation on the Palestinian side, and an uncompromising Israel sidelines those Palestinian parties which favour compromise. It seems to me that this counter-productive strategy is driven as much as anything by Israeli domestic politics, with the current Israeli regime also working to sideline its more moderate rivals.

The other odd thing I would point out is your analysis of casualty figures. It makes sense that the initial Palestinian casualty figures may be wrong, but if I work on the figures you are presenting here, there are over 1400 Palestinians killed and these include over 700 civilians, including an unstated number of children. This figure requires a huge amount of sugar to make it palatable. You trumpet it as a human rights triumph. If you accept this logic I assume you would be prepared to accept Hamas as absolute human rights paragons, considering that according to Israeli figures 63 Israelis have been killed in the conflict including 3 civilians, a ratio of 20:1.

In reality all these figures prove is who has greater firepower. Hamas would have killed more civilians if they could. The fact that they couldn't suggests that Israel is exaggerating the threat in order to justify the war.

Tetraetc said...

One can lose a war, even if they killed more of the enemy than they lost, if the entire word turns their back on your side. Jake is saying that Israel is losing, and Hamas winning, because Hamas is turning the world against Israel.

Also his comment regarding casualty figures is to illustrate the point that Hamas is claiming that 1400 people died, and over 700 of them were civilians, but if you look at the actual data, 700 of them were more than likely combatants, and not women/children. Hamas spreading misinformation so that people side with Hamas, and not Israel. (If Israel killed 500 combatants, less people would cry out in anger than if they killed 500 civilians)

I believe that is what he is trying to say anyway.

Jon Eastgate said...

On the figures, Jake might disagree but I read him as quoting reports of 1400 (1431 names) as opposed to the 2000+ initially claimed.

On Hamas winning the propaganda war, I think it depends on your perspective. The propaganda war in the Arab world was won long before Hamas even existed. In the Western world there is widespread condemnation of the bombing of the UN schools but not of the invasion in general - if you listen to Julie Bishop, say, or Obama or Cameron they are mainly echoing the Israeli line about the right to self-defence, but with the proviso that UN installations are a bridge too far. You'll know the world has turned against Israel when the US starts withdrawing funding.