One of the main features of the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza is an explosion of emotive, poorly informed claims and counter-claims – finger-pointing attempts to excuse today’s violence by recourse to history.
These have also been features of endless Facebook and Twitter posts and exchanges – useful certainly for mobilising opinions but explaining nothing in depth, just giving the “activists” of the age the certainty that, simply by pushing buttons in comfort of their homes, they have protested.
Of course, this conflict will not be decided by Facebook – but nor will it be solved in any other way in the near future. As the cycle of violence grinds on – now with the apparent shelling of a UN-run school used as a shelter – this same facile replacements of debate will continue. We badly need to disentangle these careless social media claims and justifications, thrown casually around like confetti (or shrapnel).
All things in proportion
“Israel has a right to defend itself”. This is of course true; Israel is a recognised state and nothing will change that. Notwithstanding huge controversies as to where its state borders are, it has the same rights to self-defence as any other state.
However, defence is not an arbitrary term, and is far less elastic than some might think. It is governed by laws of war, and proportionality is a key aspect of those laws.
Insofar as Iron Dome, the Israeli anti-ballistic missile shield, has almost universally protected against loss of human life from Hamas rockets, it can be said that defence was well deployed. But the right to “forward defence”, in this case military action to prevent further rocket attacks from non-Israeli territory, immediately runs into the problem of proportionality. The right to defence is not controversial; the proportionality of forward defence is.
As a general rule, proportionality is tied to the offence caused. The damage inflicted by a defensive response should not therefore exceed the damage oneself has suffered. In the case of the Israeli ‘forward defence’ in Gaza, several hundred civilian deaths is a hugely disproportionate response to, at time of writing, two civilian deaths. As a second general rule, force should be proportionate to the objectives established for the military operation.
The question in Gaza, then, is: what are the objectives?
This is where the waters get really murky. One obvious objective, the destruction of Hamas’s tunnel systems, has never been satisfactorily accomplished by military means; the tunnels cannot be destroyed by bombing suburbs and neighbourhoods above ground.
Hamas’s rocket-launching capacity, similarly, has scarcely been undercut by the previous Israel-Hamas skirmishes. Aside from the obvious point that the rockets kept in the tunnels are rendered all but ineffectual by Iron Dome, because they are simple systems, no amount of degradation now will prevent the rebuilding of capacity tomorrow. Secondary school children can build what Hamas builds.
The aim of undercutting Hamas as a credible governing body makes little sense either. Resistance to Israeli attacks tends to strengthen Hamas – which, after all, was democratically elected by a highly frustrated and besieged people. Degrade Hamas beyond the point of total impotence and other more radical groups will arise, just as Hamas arose to counter the corrupt ineptitude of Fatah.
The last thing Israel needs, after all, is ISIS on its doorstep.
Something must be done
The kneejerk reaction, the sense that “something must be done”, is understandable – but the “something” will have consequences that will haunt the Middle East for decades to come.
The July killing of three Israeli teenagers was immediately blamed on Hamas, even though it was more likely the work of an autonomous Hebron brigade. In retaliation, vengeful Jewish extremists burned to death a Palestinian teenager – and the stage was set for war.
If the key objective is “to teach Hamas a lesson”, then it is a lesson inflicted upon over 1.8m people who have no means of escape.
Surrounded on all sides
On the Israeli side, two operational justifications are being given for the massive collateral damage Operation Protective Edge has incurred. Again, neither makes much sense given the circumstances.
The first, “we issued warnings to civilians to evacuate and they did not”, fails to consider that in a condensed area which is blockaded on all sides, civilians have nowhere to run. The second, that “Hamas embeds its rocket launchers near civilian facilities”, including beaches and hospitals, is undeniably true in a narrow sense – but again, in such a small and densely populated space, it is difficult to escape proximity to civilian infrastructure.
All Gaza is surrounded. The border with Israel is only 50 km long, and the southern border with Egypt only 10 km. Israel operates a naval blockade along the coastline of Gaza. It is possible to traverse the entire length of Gaza in a single hour. In that sense, it is a sitting duck.
It should be pointed out that the Egyptians carry political blame here too. There would be no successful blockade of Gaza if the Egyptian border was not also sealed and controlled. The al-Sisi government’s differences with Hamas mean that there is no Arab solidarity in this case, and that Gaza has been finally and fully reduced to a larger-than-normal Palestinian refugee camp.
Such camps dot the Arab region. In the countries that host them, the Palestinians are denied rights and full freedom of movement. The Arab world has offered no coherent response to Israel’s offensive; it seems it will risk nothing for Hamas, for Fatah, or the Palestinians in general.
Israel’s rhetoric of self-justification has two elements: the looming shadow of the Holocaust, and the accusation that any criticism of Israeli policy or Zionist ideology is anti-Semitic. Tragedy and guilt are regularly deployed in Israel’s defence.
Emphatically, the Holocaust was an immense betrayal of all civilised values and an indictment of Europe for harbouring, in its very heartland, the terrible creativity to attempt the industrialised extermination of a people. What is, however, of great moment in terms of the Jewish holocaust is precisely its European dimension – the industrialised apotheosis of centuries of discrimination and persecution. This would deeply scar any people. By the same token, it excuses no people for inflicting mass pain on another.
As for the anti-Semitic element, this all too often serves merely as a get-out clause. Israel is an inescapable state presence; while it has yet to achieve universally recognised state borders, the true debate is where those borders lie, not whether the state should exist.
But the original Zionist vision of Herzl and others was for an independent state to be a “homeland for the Jews”. This was a vision articulated long before the Holocaust, and was not solely centred on an Israeli homeland in Palestine. Proposed settlements in South America and Uganda were part of the debate of the day.
When Israel was in fact finally established, its first incarnation was as a secular and socialist state. The kibbutz movement attracted much Western admiration. The Israel of today is rather different.
We forget at our peril the quite huge violence done to Palestinians living in the area at the time of Israel’s founding. In fact, the Balfour Declaration is only a part of a post-imperial Western division of the Middle East, which has of course led to unending tragedy.
Even so, Israel’s vision of itself has evolved over time. It is still struggling to be a fully realised nation, but the vision of a secular, socialist Israeli state still attracts many admirers. These admirers are not anti-Semitic, even when they protest current Israeli policy towards Gaza with immense anger. They recognise that Israel cannot enjoy a just future existence if it is premised on the suppression of other people.
As for the current war in Gaza, the different premises I have picked out here are deployed carelessly in argument and seldom developed, just used to retaliate against other premises until they get lost in the fog of livid social media posts – not unlike the fog of war.
But the fact remains that none of Israel’s commonly stated objectives is likely to ever be achieved.
Israel is tiny. Even taken together, Israel and Palestine, the two-state solution of the original Balfour Plan, are tiny. As things currently stand, Netanyahu’s policy means there will surely never be a two-state solution, a long-lost and always improbable outcome. The Netanyahu policy is to expand Israel, suppress Palestine, and enclose Palestinians within easily surrounded municipalities under weak or weakened leadership.
The situation in Gaza is the prime example: a one-state policy which demands the continual suppression of the neo-Palestinian state within. The current situation cannot be sustained. It is not just. And whether Israel wipes out Hamas or somehow learns to deal with it, Gaza’s terminally gloomy prospects will not improve.
And it does nothing to change the bitter irony of this violence, perpetrated as it is by a state created for the victims of World War II.
This wretched conflict will provide no barrier against Israel’s “enemy within”, and cannot win Israel a secure future – much less a just one.
Stephen Chan is Professor of World Politics at SOAS, University of London. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.