The Problem of ‘Defence’ in the Israel-Palestine Conflict

In the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, the rhetoric of defence permeates every aspect of Israeli discourse. The Israeli Defence forces defend and Operation Protective Edge protects. Self-defence remains the most potent justification for war. The feted attempts of the Bush and Blair administrations to justify their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan centred precisely on this point: self-defence. The Chilcot Enquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq War revealed the extent to which Tony Blair sought to maximise the ostensible threat to Britain posed by Saddam Hussain. The war was justified by a vastly augmented account of the imminent threat of attack, possibly nuclear. It was presented, in effect, as a defensive war.

The threat posed by Hamas to Israeli civilians is tangible, certainly much more so than that posed by Iraq in 2003. Mark Regev, Israel’s official spokesperson, tirelessly reminds us that since Operation Protective Edge began, 3,000 rockets have been fired into Israel by Hamas. In their crudest objective, that of killing Israelis, these rockets have been dismally ineffectual; from 2001 to 2014, only 32 Israeli civilians were killed. However, this in no way mitigates the argument for self-defence, as neatly summarised by Sean Hannity of Fox News, who has “a hard time understanding why there’s any moral ambiguity here”; “if 3,000 rockets were fired into American cities, I know what I’d want my president to do, I know what I’d want our military to do. I’d want them to destroy the enemy.” Thomas Hardy famously framed the moral dilemma of killing in war: “I shot at him as he at me”. “I shot him dead because – Because he was my foe. / My foe, of course he was”. Defence, of course it is. I shoot because he shoots, it is incidental that only he dies.

At least for Hardy the ‘he’ is a soldier, pointing a gun. In Gaza, which has suffered the overwhelming majority of combat deaths, it is Palestinian civilians who have lost their lives (the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has the figure at 84%, the UN at 68%). Hamas is widely accused of purposefully firing rockets from densely populated civilian areas in order that the return fire maximises civilian casualties. The wider objective being to provoke indignation from the international community toward Israel. In this, more sadistic enterprise, Hamas’ rockets have achieved much greater success. Israel has taken the bait, and has ruthlessly bombarded hospitals and schools in which Hamas are believed to have taken refuge. Thousands of Palestinian lives have been lost in this conflict and as images and stories of dead women and children are projected around the world, international support for Israel has wavered. However, this view of Hamas’ motivations have been widely undermined, particularly by the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, who said unequivocally that he has seen no evidence of Hamas using civilians as human shields, and Crisis Group’s Nathan Thrall. When backed into a corner by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of whom refuse to allow an elected Hamas to actually govern and bring about economic changes, it is little wonder they resort to violence. And in this way Israel’s construction of the group as evil terrorists becomes self-fulfilling.

Meanwhile, the IDF claims continuous victories. All the illegal tunnels through which Hamas moves from Gaza into Israel are now destroyed; many of the terrorists have been disarmed. These victories have also hardened internal support for the war and the continued oppression of the Palestinian territories. Writing in Haaretz, Amira Hass described Israel’s “moral implosion” and the “ethical defeat of a society that now engages in no self-inspection.” Polls show that 86% of Israelis oppose a ceasefire. The extreme-right has become so dominant that it is difficult to vocalise resistance. Anti-war protesters face violence from those who oppose them, which the police have allegedly ignored or in some cases even participated in, arresting only the anti-war campaigners when they clash with adversaries.

Ultimately, and as is so often the case in this enduring conflict, victory for both sides is equivocal and does not veil the basic fact that what has really occurred here has been a loss: of lives, of homes, of infrastructure. Disproportionately, a loss of Palestinian lives, homes and infrastructure. But perhaps most damaging of all, Palestinian and Israeli children are being nurtured in a climate of mistrust, suspicion, and fear. Benjamin Netenyahu, Israel’s prime minister, was conceived during the 1948 wars that formed Israel’s borders. He turned 18 just after the 1967 Six Day War, during which Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian guns bombarded Tel Aviv. This is still memorialised as a seminal victory in Israeli history, a victory that silenced Egypt and Jordan’s claims to jurisdiction over Gaza and the West Bank. ‘Victory coins’ were minted to celebrate, and the economy prospered after the pre-war crisis. The war also brought about a flourishing of the Zionist diaspora. I use the term ‘Zionist’ here because the war united an existent Jewish diaspora, specifically in America, in support of the Israeli state. Many had previously held the Israeli project at arms length, but after 1967 the Zionist cause became a unifying principal of American Jewish identity. Thus understood, Netanyahu, in the present conflict, is not just defending Israel from terrorists, he is protecting the territorial gains of that symbolic war.

The instinctual desire to protect and defend is coalesced with a distinct memory of persecution. Past conflicts furnish the armoury of modern nationalism. The Battle of Kosovo in 1389 was appropriated as a source of unification during the break-up of Yugoslavia. Scottish nationalists hail the long forgotten Battle of Bannockburn, whose 700-year anniversary coincides with the referendum for independence. The Israeli news channel Arutz Sheva, in a recent piece, defines the ‘existential’ threat posed by Hamas to the unity of the Jewish disapora. “In fact, the world wide Jewish unity we are witnessing today in the face of another existential threat is a major tikkun [spiritual fix] for the sinat chinam [baseless hatred] that originally led to the Second Temple’s destruction.” Rhetoric of this sort is deviously self-perpetuating. The gross asymmetry of Israel’s attack on Gaza is justified by the idea that Israel is fighting on behalf of global Jewry against two thousand years of oppression and most importantly the Holocaust. Enabled by the most technologically advanced military in the region, this idea gives Israel a limitless mandate to destroy its enemy, regardless of civilian casualties. The result is a lot of widows, widowers, and orphans, whose experience of war will lead to militarisation. And so the war will go on.

But the accusation of disproportionality is not sufficient, because it tacitly concedes that Israel’s war is ‘just’. The underdog is fetishised in the American liberal ideology, in continental European welfare politics, and, of course, in the Old Testament, in the fable of David and Goliath. It disturbs our intuitions of sympathy to see David, the historic King of Israel and a key figure in Jewish messianism, outgrow Goliath, and ruthlessly crush him. And yet it is still David, and recognisably so, remarkable given the 3 millennia time lapse. As supporters of Israel are quick to point out, Gaza’s relative ‘smallness’ does not make the war unjust. Phillip Gourevitch seeks to expose the fallacy that “might makes wrong” in The New Yorker. Proportionality is a problem, and yet it should not eclipse our basic moral compass. In this sense Jeffrey Goldberg is right to argue that it is “a dereliction in responsibility on the part of progressives not to try to understand the goals and beliefs of Islamist totalitarian movements.” He offers the following passage from the much-cited Hamas charter of 1988:

“The Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realisation of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The day of judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jews will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say ‘O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”

Clearly, this is an incendiary document. Its ultimate argument is that jihad is not won until all the world’s Muslims kill all the world’s Jews. What is less clear is the extent to which bombing Palestinian women and children is the surest means to eradicate this kind of ideology. What Goldberg and Gouevirtch are really doing is using the Hamas charter as a source of legitimacy for otherwise illegitimate acts. Of course, it plays neatly into the hands of Israel’s greatest ally, the United States, who seek to legitimise their morally untenable position in order to maintain their own vested interests. Not only is America Israel’s greatest arms dealer, but it also sees Israel as a base to retain influence in an unstable region. The American political establishment cannot seriously claim to possess a consistent moral voice. In 2011, Obama vetoed a UN resolution condemning all Israeli settlements since 1967 as illegal, but he was quick to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea as an illegal territorial expansion. The mirage of codified policy is ultimately determined by the caprices of presidential favour.

The legitimacy of this system of US foreign policy is maintained by the projection of “evil” onto their enemies. However, the scope of “enemies” can be extremely ambiguous. For example, Sam Harris sees the 1988 charter as evidence of radicalised moral inferiority not just of Hamas, but of the entire Muslim community:

“There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel if they could. Would every Palestinian support genocide? Of course not. But vast numbers of them—and of Muslims throughout the world—would. Needless to say, the Palestinians in general, not just Hamas, have a history of targeting innocent non-combatants in the most shocking ways possible.”

Harris, in his shameless political incorrectness, provides a neat articulation of the American colonial project in the Middle East. Franz Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, describes this basic act of colonial oppression: “As if to illustrate the totalitarian nature of colonial exploitation, the colonist turns the colonised into a kind of quintessence of evil.” In the American neocolonial project, this process is manifest in one word: terrorist. The terrorist is baseless; it hates humanity, and wants to destroy it. Just as the French Manichaen social division in Algeria followed racial lines, so the accusation of terrorism veils a tacit racism. The terror laws in the America and Europe institutionalised the distinction between human and terrorist in legal due process. Rights previously considered ‘human’ were suspended, initially undoing habeas corpus before sweeping away notions of privacy and freedom of expression.

In Gaza and the West Bank, the Israeli colonial project is more explicitly Fanonian. Importantly, it comprises the spatial dimension that underlies Fanon’s analysis. During the Algerian war, the Kasbah in Algiers was ghettoised. Commerce was controlled by the French military; the movement of goods, electricity, fuel and water was limited. Perhaps most significantly in terms of psychological oppression, the movement of people was rigorously controlled. The same process was at work in Apartheid South Africa where forced resettlements located people according to their racial ‘groupings’. And this is precisely the dynamic we see between Israel and Gaza. Since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, Israel and Egypt closed their borders with Gaza, excepting extreme medical necessities. Israel has bombed Gaza’s only power station, while terminating its own supplies to the region. Fisherman are granted access to only three of the twenty kilometres of coastline granted them by the Oslo agreement. And three UN Relief and Works Agency shelters have been bombed, actions described by Ban Ki-Moon as “criminal”.

This is not a defensive war against active combatants, it is a virulent attack against the industry and infrastructure of a largely innocent civilisation. The occupants of Gaza hold a secondary status to those of Israelis, a dynamic perpetuated by the constancy of warfare. The ‘enemy’ is invariably a different thing to the ‘citizen’. Citizens certainly don’t expect to live under the watchful gaze of heavily armed unmanned drones. The explicitly military aspect to the imprisonment of Palestinians in Gaza corresponds to Fanon’s basic premise about colonialism. The process of dehumanisation of a colonised or enslaved people is limited by the simple fact they are and will remain, even under the most oppressive regimes, human. According to Fanon, “At the very moment when [the colonised] discover their humanity, they begin to sharpen their weapons to secure their victory.”

On a basic psychological level, when faced with violent oppression and the vastly limited set of choices that this entails, humans resort to violence. And it is through this lens that we must try to understand Hamas. It does not ‘represent’ the people in the same way that a cry of physical pain does not ‘represent’ a personality. Hamas is symptomatic of a much wider violent dynamic in Israel and Gaza. In this respect it exhibits many parallels with Fanon’s beloved Front Liberation National, who lead the Algerian resistance. However, our conclusion is not Fanon’s – that we should rise up in support of Hamas and slaughter the coloniser, (a process that Aimé Cesaire chillingly described as a ‘baptism’). On a very basic level I do not condone Hamas’ actions, or Fanon’s conclusions. Rather, Fanon is useful in that he exposes the fallacy of Israel’s self-defence. His most important premise is that the first act of violence in the colonial dynamic is not the gunfire of the resistance; it is the act of colonisation. The logic that ‘they shoot so we defend’ does not apply to Hamas, because it overlooks the extensive violence undertaken by the Israeli state.

So long as people are violently denied their basic human dignity, the emergence of violent grass-roots organisations like Hamas is inevitable. Israel, like all colonial powers, is engaged in continual, tacit violence, violence which is often hidden by its omnipresence. It is difficult to imagine a more chilling representation of this than the silent hymns of her unmanned drones. Peace demands reciprocity. Flattening Gaza for the sake of killing a few Hamas militants is not an expression of peace. If this war is to end, it is the violence of the Israeli state that needs mitigating, not that of Hamas.

—Alex Hough


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