Those of us in the United States and certain other parts of the world are at a major disadvantage as we struggle to halt the Israeli assault on Gaza: namely, that there is a massive body of misperceptions and double standards that make it possible for Israeli officials to get away with bald-faced lies while providing obstacles to those of us who are pushing for a reality-based solution to the crisis. Pursuing a rational line of argument without feeding into the misperceptions can be like tiptoeing through a minefield. In particular, we need to be careful to avoid two pitfalls while we criticize Israeli policy: the first being the blaming of both sides for the violence and the second being the vilification of Hamas.
In referring to the ongoing crisis, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said “Let me be clear. I condemn unequivocally and in the strongest possible terms the ongoing rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian militants. But I also condemn the excessive use of force by Israel.”1 What’s wrong with this statement? First let’s look at the content. Obviously, the condemnation of Hamas was unequivocal and in the strongest possible terms, where as the condemnation of Israel included no such emphasis. Also, the Hamas rockets were labeled “attacks” whereas the Israeli bombs (where were not specifically mentions) were simply referred to as “use of force.” More importantly, Ban only condemned the “excessive” use of force by Israel, thus implicitly legitimizing violence by Israel up until the point it become “excessive,” which of course is a subjective call.
Moreover, we must consider the context of the statement. The immediate context of course is the increasingly brutal siege that Gaza has been subject to ever since Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank elected Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Israel controls Gaza’s coastline and air space and together with Egypt has sealed its borders. Aside from humanitarian aid from the UN that Israel intermittently allows to enter the strip, Gaza’s only lifeline to the world are tiny hand-dug tunnels through which daily necessities and, yes, small arms are carried through on hand and knee. Meanwhile, Israel seized Gaza along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem 41 years ago and has set about stealing the areas it finds desirable for colonial settlers and turning the rest into ghettos. Israel’s supplies of goods flow freely and its weaponry, which includes a large nuclear arsenal, is underwritten by the Unites States to the tune of three billion dollars per year.
Why is it that when Israel is the occupier, when Israel is in clear violation of international law, when Israel has broken more United Nations resolutions than any other country in history, does the head of that very organization issue a statement that condemns all violent resistance by the occupied while legitimizing the violence of the occupier so long as it does not become “excessive?” It is Israel that has broken into the home of the Palestinians and is stealing all that is valuable from them, yet Ban Ki-moon invokes only the intruder’s right to self-defense. This goes beyond being a double standard and completely turns the concept of self-defense on its head.
I single out Ban Ki-moon not so much because he is the world’s top diplomat but because his statements are symptomatic of a warped and simplistic notion of “balance.” Condemning both sides, even if the condemnation is equal (which it is not in Ban’s case), feels good as it implies that one is speaking from a morally lofty position, but it is lazy and in this case destructive. It is lazy because it avoids the hard work of understanding and explaining the situation, and it is destructive because it perpetuates misperceptions and double standards. We don’t have to endorse the firing of rockets out of Gaza, but we must reserve our condemnation exclusively for the Israeli side as its military occupation and siege of Palestinian land makes it singly responsible.
I personally doubt that the firing of rockets is a wise strategy. As these rockets from time to time kill people in Israel they enable intellectually lazy people to “condemn both sides” and give the Israeli propaganda machine a platform from which to spin the most far-fetched lies, such as when Tzipi Livni told the BBC on December 31 that “Hamas kills Israeli citizens on a daily basis.”2 Still, who am I to assume that were I subjected to 41 years of occupation and siege, completely forsaken by the “world community,” with no recourse to any authority willing to impose international law on my tormentors, that I would continue to remain patient and passive? Who among us can point to anything in our personal experience as evidence that we could restrain ourselves in the face of the desperate situation that the Gazans find themselves in? If we cannot, then we have no right to “condemn” their actions.
The second pitfall we must avoid is participating in the vilification of Hamas. This does not mean we have to be in denial about its history. Hamas was formed by the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood in 1987 in order to violently confront the Israeli occupation (the Brotherhood had until then deferred from violent confrontation). It’s charter (a non-binding document) is a bizarre and anachronistic call to arms. In its early literature it called for an Islamic state stretching from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. Until a year before winning parliamentary elections in January 2006 it carried out suicide bombings in Israel and against Israeli targets in the occupied territories.
However, starting in March 2005 it observed a unilateral cease fire which it maintained, despite sanctions and assassinations, until the June 9 2006 Israeli Navy shelling of a beach picnic that killed an extended family — women, children, and elderly.3 During the four and a half months between its election and the beach attack, 77 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military in Gaza alone, according to the Israeli peace group B’tselem.4 The Palestinian territories were subjected to economic sanctions. During that period Hamas did not attack Israelis. The two and a half years since then have been similar. B’tselem statistics shows that during the January 2006-November 2008 period, throughout Israel/Palestine 1504 Palestinians were killed by Israelis while 67 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, with the vast majority of Israeli fatalities NOT attributable to Hamas. Of the Palestinians, 282 were children, while five of the Israelis were children, and none of them killed by Hamas.
So we have a wide-spread misperception of Hamas as being a fanatic terrorist organization while the reality has been that they have refrained from violence for the past four years under all but the most extreme circumstances, even while being themselves continually under attack. It is this misperception of Hamas as being pathological extremists that paved the way for the current onslaught as it provides Tzipi Livni and the rest of the Israeli propaganda machine a convenient bogeyman while crying crocodile tears for the countless civilian casualties which they claim they try so hard to avoid. We need to stop sacrificing Hamas at the alter of false balance. Hamas was legitimately elected. Its current place on lists of terrorist organizations is due to political pressure and is in no way a reflection of its behavior in recent years. It is far less corrupt than the Palestinian Authority and far less violent than the Israeli government. We don’t have to become Islamists ourselves, we don’t have to agree with all its decisions, but we must recognize its legitimacy.
Finally, I would like to address some double standards that we should be aware of. One that we are probably all aware of is the notion of self-defense. Israel claims that because rockets are fired at it from Gaza its entire military operation is an act of self-defense. Leaving aside the issues of who under international law can claim self-defense (which would favor the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation) and leaving aside the fact that is was Israel that broke the cease fire in November (the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported last month that it was Israel’s November 4 incursion into Gaza that violated the cease fire that had been holding for five months),5 how is it that the Palestinian’s right to self-defense is not recognized when they are being starved via a blockade all throughout the recent cease fire.
But what is rarely if ever pointed out is the double standard regarding who is a civilian. In the media discourse on the conflict, it is a given that anyone associated with Hamas, even if as a policeman or government official, is not a civilian. Someone who has ever had any military training with Hamas (or any other group) is a “gunman” regardless of whether he is outside bearing arms or eating dinner at home with his family. He is considered a fair target for Israeli missiles to summarily execute. Considering the massive imbalance between the number of Israelis who have been kill by Palestinians over the years and the number of alleged Hamas “gunman” who have been killed (not to mention imprisoned), it is obvious that the overwhelming majority of these “gunman” have no Israeli blood on their hands. Yet this is never questioned. Meanwhile, Israeli society is highly militarized and has nearly universal conscription and reserve service for Jews that starts with three years of active duty service starting at age 18 (or 21 months in the case of women) and continues with reserve duty units until the age of 40 (or 26 for women).6 Yet active or reserve duty Israeli military are treated as civilian if they are at home eating dinner with their family. If an apartment building where a Palestinian “gunman” resides is flattened, the press typically treats the “gunman” as a fair target even if it laments the “collateral damage” suffered by his dead neighbors. On the other hand, news coverage of an attack on an Israeli disco frequented by young adults of mandatory service age would never mention the fact that many or most of the victims were members of the Israeli military. They would all be treated as civilians. I must emphasize that I am not trying to rationalize such attacks, merely pointing out the double standard.
Another double standard that is absolutely central to the underlying problem of the conflict but is not dealt with at all in the media is the double standard about who is allowed to come to Israel to live. People who fled their homes in 1948 in what is now Israel and their descendants are not allowed to return to their homes, yet the Israeli “Law of Return” allows any Jew in America or elsewhere the right to immigrate to and live in Israel.7 Not only that, but Jews from around the world are free to settle in the West Bank and East Jerusalem even as current residents are pushed steadily pushed out of their homes and off their land for bureaucratic and “security reasons.” This underscores the nature of Zionism as practiced by the Israeli state as an ethnic cleansing project whereby one ethic group is pushed off the land through violence and intimidation to be replaced by another. It is not my intent to be insulting to people who consider themselves supporters of Israel, but decades of immunizing Israel from any form of criticism and demonizing Palestinian political forces has led to such insensitivity and a warping of morality that decent, well-intentioned people wind up supporting an ethnic cleansing project.
There is also the double-standard in insisting that Hamas and all Palestinians recognize Israel’s “right to exist” while Israel effectively prevents a Palestinian state from existing. As a matter of fact, the “right to exist” itself does not exist in international law. The concept of a “right to exist” has always been used primarily with regards to Israel. Google “right to exist” and see for yourself. Nobody tried to invoke the Soviet Union’s or Yugoslavia’s right to exist. Our own government does not recognize the right of this or that country to exist. This is not to be confused with diplomatic recognition, which governments of independent states extend to each other. Rather, it is a simple recognition of a government as representing a given country at a given time. Yet Hamas, which is political organization and not an independent state, is expected to give recognition of an undefined right to exist to an occupying power that will not even specify within what borders it intends to exist. Meanwhile, no other country on earth, let alone a political organization, is subjected to violent coercion in order to get it to recognize this non-existent right of a hostile state.
The last double standard I want to look at does not contrast attitudes towards Israel with those towards Palestine but rather Israel with the United States. These two countries are similar in so many ways. Both were founded by immigrants who steadily pushed the indigenous people off the land, both have become affluent and extremely militarized, and both have an exceptionalist view of themselves. However, we Americans are free to criticize our own country for illegally occupying foreign lands, unleashing violence and torture on their populations, and exploiting their resources. However, if we Americans make those same criticisms of the Israeli government we are called anti-Semitic. It doesn’t make one anti-Semitic to speak the truth, and if anyone is anti-Semitic it is those who insist that Israel’s Jews should be allowed to follow a different set of rules, as if all this violence is somehow in their blood! No, militarism and exceptionalism are self-destructive forces, both in Israel and the United States. If anything threatens Israel’s continued existence, it is these self-destructive tendencies. Anyone truly interested in what is best for the people in both countries must speak out against their delusional leaders.
- Video embedded in “Gaza attacks continue as UN calls for ceasefire,” Guardian, January 1, 2009. [↩]
- Youtube video of BBC interview with Tzipi Livni, Dec 31, 2008. [↩]
- “Beach strike shakes Hamas cease-fire” CNN, June 9, 2006. [↩]
- B’tselem website. [↩]
- “UNRWA chief: Gaza on brink of humanitarian catastrophe” Reuters article appearing in Haaretz, November 21, 2008. [↩]
- NYSTROM Division of Herff Jones, Inc., Serving the Country: Military Service around the World. [↩]
- Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Website. [↩]