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Political leaders often need to craft myths to back their military campaigns. They do so mainly for two reasons—first, to motivate their own armed forces, and second, to build a strong argument to convince people at home and outside about their actions. The mortal danger that Israel continually faces from the formidable Hamas firing countless missiles at their important targets and civilian centres has been the myth Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has successfully peddled to convince large sections of the Israeli populace as well as key international players to justify what is happening currently in Gaza. Perhaps this could be the reason why, after more than a 16-day military campaign that has led to the deaths of almost 800 people—a large number of them non-combatants, women and children—there has been no international outrage or effective steps to stop the murderous assault on Palestinians.
This silence on the part of the international community and key world players can be explained in the context of one giant player, the United States, Israel’s key backer. According to former Indian diplomat Talmiz Ahmad, the origins of the current crisis lie in the failure of the Barack Obama regime to convince Israel to restart the moribund peace process, which had been touted as a significant pillar of his administration’s foreign policy. Israel succeeded in bending the Obama presidency to its will in the same way that it bent and broke others earlier—by mobilising its formidable lobby. “After achieving this, Israel knew it had a free hand to pursue its agenda in Gaza—the emasculation of Hamas through the physical annihilation of its leaders, the systematic destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure and the killing of the largest possible number of Palestinians in the shortest possible time,” says Ahmad.
“The death toll reflects the asymmetry of power between the world’s fourth largest army and defenceless civilians.”
Led by President Obama, British and other western leaders have all offered their understanding and support for the Israeli action. The US Senate went a step further when it passed a resolution 100-0 in support of Netanyahu’s military campaign, callously oblivious to the hundreds of innocent people who have been killed and the thousands of others who have been displaced from their homes.
Interestingly, Jewish groups have been protesting in US cities against the Gaza campaign. Celebrated talk show host Jon Stewart also did his bit to highlight the Palestinian plight when he caustically remarked “whether lighter issues like Ukraine” should be discussed instead of Gaza since the issue was proving to be too sensitive for the American public. A large number of people, however, seem to have bought into Bibi’s myth of the Hamas missile threat being vastly more than what it actually might be.
“Israel is using Hamas as an excuse to pound Gaza. Nothing can justify the bombardment of civilians,” says Srinath Raghavan of Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. “The bombing of Al Wafa hospital is a clear violation of international humanitarian law.”
But what about the liberal voices within Israel and among the Jews outside?
“The liberal-left in Israel has bought into the narrative that it tried hard for peace, but were spurned by Palestinians.”
“The liberal-left in Israel has silenced itself over the past decade. It has bought into the narrative that while Israel made tremendous efforts at securing peace—by the Oslo Accords, by the Camp David offer made by Ehud Barak, and so on—the Palestinians have not only spurned these efforts but responded with a violent campaign of rocket attacks into Israel,” says Raghavan. “This has been the evolving narrative of liberals in Israel since the 2003 intifada and has been strengthened with successive campaigns against the Hamas.”
According to him, gone are the days when Israelis serving in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) would change into civvies and join protests demanding ‘land for peace’. “The upshot of this can be seen clearly in the trend of Israeli politics, where hardline parties on the right have become very important in recent years for the survival of successive coalitions,” he says.
This may not be the whole picture: Israeli newspapers like Haaretz—one of the oldest Jewish publications—and new web zines like +972 have been consistently vocal in their criticism of the government’s policy and trying their best to give a balanced view of the ongoing military campaign in Gaza. Yet, the feeling gaining ground among Israeli people is that they need to bury their differences and support Netanyahu’s military campaign if they are to prevent Hamas’s missiles from falling on them.
So, even as UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon decided to embark on an emergency visit to Israel and Palestine to stop the violence in its third week, the Israeli leadership made it clear it was in no mood to stop its ground and aerial assault until it destroyed Hamas’s cross-border ‘terror tunnels’.
“We the Left are very distressed by the Palestinian losses but it is the Hamas who is responsible.”
Going then by Netanyahu’s response and the international community’s inability to restrain him, it’s time to ask a question. Has Israel crossed over from being the utimate hard state—or a regional bully for its rivals—to a rogue state the world cannot stop?
That opinion is strengthening among civil society members in different parts of the world—even though their governments might be maintaining a tactical silence or even acquiescing in Israel’s action. Street protests in different European capitals and other western cities show a common sentiment: Israel is a rogue state. “The death toll in the current round of hostilities is a grim reflection of the asymmetry of power between the fourth strongest army in the world and a virtually defenceless civilian population,” says leading Israeli scholar Avi Shlaim. To illustrate his point, he points out how in the first 10 days of Israel’s aerial bombing, the ‘score’ read: 260 Palestinians, mostly civilians, dead, and one Israeli. The death toll rose to over 300 by the time Israel launched its ground offensive on July 17, destroying many more houses, hospitals and water plants and displacing some 50,000 people out of their homes. “Operation Protective Edge has thus turned the densely populated enclave on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean into a living hell,” says Shlaim.
However, there are a large number of people both within and outside Israel who believe that what Netanyahu is doing is perhaps the only, and the correct, path to take. “Israel is dealing with a situation that no other democratic country has had to face in recent years,” says Shira Loewenberg, director, American Jewish Centre (AJC), Asia-Pacific Institute. “Try to imagine that a neighbour of the US or India has smuggled or assembled thousands of missiles with a range of hundreds of miles, and that neighbour has declared a goal of inflicting the greatest possible damage on our countries. What would our governments do?”
“How would India have reacted if a PoK-based Islamist fundamentalist organisation fired on civilians for years?”
Historian Shlomo Avineri, who teaches at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, forwards a similar argument. “Imagine how India would have reacted if an Islamist fundamentalist organisation, based in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, would have fired for years hundreds of missiles at India’s civilian population,” he says.
But as parallel and differing narratives come out of Israel and elsewhere to explain the current violence in Gaza, many experts say that to understand the present situation one needs to go back to 2006, when Hamas entered the scene as a legitimate stakeholder on the Palestinian landscape. One could in fact go back even further, to the beginning, circa 1948, when Palestine was partitioned to create Israel. Between then and now, the Palestinian share of the land has shrunk (see graphic), while that of Israel has increased consistently and substantially. Israel, for all practical purposes, remains the occupying force in Palestine.
In 2005, however, Israel agreed on a unilateral disengagement from Gaza. But its pullback did not help the people of Gaza Strip as it only managed to turn it into an ‘open prison’. The following year, when Hamas came to power through a free and fair election, Israel and the US refused to recognise it as democratically elected government and effected a series of economic measures to overthrow it. Israel’s economic blockade since 2007 and cutting off of Gaza from West Bank—the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority—has subjected the 1.8 million inhabitants to a form of collective punishment, something proscribed by international law.
For Israel, though, a new challenge and threat arose from the coming together this April-May of Fatah and Hamas to form a unity government through a peace accord. Netanyahu denounced the move by describing it as “a vote not for peace but for terror”. Experts, however, feel that the accord was, in fact, “remarkably moderate both in its composition and in its policies”. Hamas not only refrained from imposing its members on the new government—largely comprising Fatah officials, technocrats and independents—but also handed over power to the pro-West PA in Ramallah. Moreover, Hamas also supported the unity government’s decision to accept the three conditions—the recognition of Israel; respect for past agreements and renunciation of violence.
“We need to make a fundamental distinction between Israel and Hamas, between fireman and arsonist.”
Israel, says Shlaim, responded to this promising development with an ‘economic warfare’. By preventing 43,000 civil servants in Gaza from moving to the Ramallah government’s payroll from that of Hamas and with its decision to tighten the siege around Gaza’s borders. Thus they nullified the main benefits of the merger between the two Palestinian forces.
“Israel provoked this bloodshed by its massive arrest campaign of over 500 Hamas supporters in the West Bank and the killing of several unarmed civilians there after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli settlers,” says historian Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair for Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University.
According to him, Israel’s security services knew the three settlers were dead from the beginning, and that this was an act of a ‘rogue cell’ and not the work of Hamas. But the Israeli government suppressed this information to launch its hysterical propaganda campaign that could justify an attack on Gaza. “When Hamas did not rise to the bait and exerted efforts to halt the firing of rockets by smaller groups in Gaza, Israel escalated by killing several Hamas militants, provoking the desired response of rockets fired at Israel,” says Khalidi.
What then is the real impulse behind Israel and its premier launching its sustained onslaught on Gaza? According to Richard Falk, former UN special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine, “I believe the true motives of this hideous attack on Gaza are two: first, to warn the PA leadership in Ramallah that moves toward reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah will not be tolerated; second, to remove Hamas as an obstacle in the Israeli moves to incorporate most of the West Bank into Israel, and move toward an Israeli one-state solution. The Knesset just elected Reuven Rivlin as the next president of Israel, and he is a prominent Israeli ‘one-stater’.”
“By parroting Israel’s deceitful ‘self-defence’ talk, the US is being complicit in what could well be war crimes.”
The AJC, on the other hand, counters is that it is the Hamas which is responsible for the large human casualties in Gaza because it has been using innocent civilians as ‘human shields’. “This, then, is a time for moral clarity in the international community,” says Loewenberg. “We need to make a fundamental distinction between Israel and Hamas—between the fireman and the arsonist, between the democratic regime and the despotic regime.”
However, if isolating and marginalising Hamas was Israel and Netanyahu’s intent, the current military campaign is achieving exactly the opposite. Hamas’s original aim in reconciling with Fatah, says Khalidi, was to escape its domestic and regional isolation. Once the Israeli attack on Gaza began, Hamas and its allies were determined not to accept a ceasefire once again, as they had in 2009 and 2012, without a guaranteed end of Israel and Egypt’s crippling siege and blockade of the Gaza Strip. “This has now become the position of the entire Palestinian national movement, including the PLO and PA in Ramallah. Palestinian reconciliation, instead of taking place on Fatah’s terms, is now happening in line with Hamas’s,” says Khalidi.
Is then there a way out for Israel’s military campaign to end?
“By parroting deceitful Israeli talking points about ‘self-defence’ and ‘human shields’, the US and its allies make themselves complicit in what may well amount to war crimes,” says Khalidi. “Until they’re willing to end Israel’s impunity and allow the UN to stop this carnage, it’ll continue.” One only hopes the Obama administration manages to look at the human tragedy in Gaza with the same empathy as it did on Ukraine, and with the same urgency.
History Of A Conflict