“…free hummus still on offer to anyone who can tell me of a single example in history of a group – other than Hizbollah in 2006 – succeeding in liberating territory and then attempting to goad the occupier back in…”
Note: I am writing this as someone who opposed the Israeli blockade of Gaza, who opposes the Settler movement in the Occupied Territories, who opposed the Israeli incursion in to Gaza in November which helped precipitate the recent round of conflict, and who was angered at Israeli conduct during the December/January phase of this conflict. I write this also as someone who subscribes to and greatly appreciates the London Review of Books. I write, then, not in support of Israel, but against the taking of sides against Israel, against simplistic thinking, against the attempt to reduce a complex conflict into the battle of good and evil.
The LRB, a key platform for the liberal establishment that dominates British intellectual chatter, consistently takes a stridently anti-Israeli position. A piece, entitled “Israel’s Lies” by Henry Siegman, which kicks off the 29 January issue, is no exception. Like most of what the LRB publishes, it is a fine piece of writing, but, like most of what LRB publishes on this particular topic, is marred by a particular form of intellectual and moral dishonesty. Henry Seigman has form in this area, and it comes as no surprise that, at a time when much of the British left feels the need to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the LRB would want to publish his lies.
Siegman purports in the piece to take apart a number of Israel’s lies. Among Israel’s purported lies is that Hamastani Gaza has become “a launching-pad for firing missiles at Israel’s population” rather than a step towards Palestinian statehood. Despite the obvious truth of Gaza’s role as a launching-pad for such missiles (1,639 in 2007, 2378 in the first half of 2008, up to 3000 during the recent round of conflict), Siegman purports to refute this notion by claiming this:
“First, for all its failings, Hamas brought Gaza to a level of law and order unknown in recent years, and did so without the large sums of money that donors showered on the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. It eliminated the gangs and warlords who terrorised Gaza under Fatah’s rule. Non-observant Muslims, Christians and other minorities have more religious freedom under Hamas rule than they would have in Saudi Arabia, for example, or under many other Arab regimes.”
If we were to accept what Siegman says here as true, the argument would have the same structure as the following argument: “The notion that Germany under Hitler murdered its Jews is a lie because in fact Hitler made the trains run on time and in any event Stalin killed more people.” Or: “The claim that the My Lai massacre was a war crime is a lie because the American occupation made lots of Vietnamese people rich and anyway Pol Pot did some worse things.” Or “A chicken is not a bird because it’s really a farm animal and anyway a duck is more of a bird than a chicken.”
Quite simply, the extent to which Hamas brought Gaza law and order and religious tolerance is irrelevant to the question of whether it used this orderly and tolerant haven as a launching-pad for rockets. The extent to which the Wahhabi monarchy is a theocratic dictatorship is irrelevant to the question of Hamas’ responsibility for the attempted mass slaughter of Israeli citizens.
But even if we ignore Siegman’s request that we look the other way (at Fatah’s corruption and the Saudi’s religious totalitarianism), we cannot avoid the fact that he is lying about Hamastan. Gaza under Hamas has been lawless: a law and order situation that is summed up in the labyrinth of tunnels beneath its borders, by the persistence of independent terrorism by Islamic Jihad, by the extra-judicial detention, beatings and murder of Fatah activists and other oppositionists, by the naked rule of Hamas-linked warlords on the streets, by the carte blanche given to Hamas client clans such as the Doghmush, by the repression of trade unions including those of journalists and doctors. And, of course, beyond this, Hamas uses densely populated civilian areas as the base for its paramilitary assaults on Southern Israel, thus endangering the lives of the people they are supposedly keep safe.
As for religious tolerance, the period of Hamas rule has not only seen a Holy War against the Zionist entity; it has seen an attempt at the ethnic cleansing of the Christian population. In build-up to the Hamas coup in 2007, 40 purportedly Christian internet cafes and book outlets were bombed in Gaza. Days after the coup, a convent and convent school was bombed. Later in the year, there was the murder of the manager of Gaza’s only Christian bookshop by a Jihadi group (the Righteous Swords of Islam) which Hamas have tolerated. Today, Gaza’s Christians live in fear.
Moving on, Siegman takes on Israel’s next “lie”: that Hamas is a terrorist group. “In fact,” he writes, “Hamas is no more a ‘terror organisation’ (Israel’s preferred term) than the Zionist movement was during its struggle for a Jewish homeland.” Again, even if we accept Siegman’s counterclaim as true, it has the same structure as the refutation above: a chicken is not a “bird” because a duck is a “bird”. Whether or not Zionists committed terrorist atrocities (whether or not a duck is a “bird”) is irrelevant to the question of whether or not Hamas does (whether or not a chicken is a “bird”). The truth is that Hamas most manifestly does commit terrorist atrocities: it constantly fires rockets intended to kill civilians in southern Israel, because it does not see a distinction between civilian and military targets.
But what of his claim that “the Zionist movement” was a “terror organisation”? It is true that the IZL and LHI committed acts of terrorism from 1937. However, IZL (Irgun, the military wing of the right-wing Revisionist minority current) were marginal within the Zionist movement; LHI (the Stern Gang) was even more so. The overwhelming majority of the global Zionist movement and of the Jewish community in Palestine, the Yishuv, condemned LHI and IZL. The 1937-8 terrorist attacks by IZL on Arab civilians (during the second stage of the small-scale civil war known as the Second Arab Revolt) was condemned throughout the Palestinian Jewish press and by the Yishuv’s leadership. There was a brief period of co-operation between the terrorist right and the Haganah, in Autumn 1945, when they jointly carried out operations against British military infrastructure targets like bridges. But for the most part, to quote the source Siegman uses (Benny Morris’ Righteous Victims), “due to its meager resources and manpower, almost consensual Yishuv opposition to anti-British terrorism, and successive, effective British clampdowns, sometimes assisted by tip-offs from the Haganah and IZL, the LHI’s stance was never really translated into action” until 1946, while IZL’s 1946 return to terrorism under Begin’s leadership (targeting buildings rather than people) led to the “Saison”, when Haganah teams attempted to wipe out IZL. IZL’s 1937-38 outrages against civilians and LHI’s brief, spectacular period of full-blown terrorism in summer 1946 – when the King David Hotel was bombed, with 91 casualties, British, Jewish and Arab – were the aberration rather than the rule before the 1947-48 war.
Benny Morris characterises the war as really two wars: a guerrilla civil war between two armed citizenries up to May 1948 followed by a conventional war between the State of Israel and the combined armies of its Arab neighbour states. It was during the second phase of the civil war – after the Jewish community had suffered sustained damage at the hands of Arab guerrillas who initially outgunned them – that the Haganah committed the acts of ethnic cleansing Siegman mentions. Although I would condemn those acts, they cannot be seen as “terrorist”, but as part of a spiralling guerrilla war. They comparable not to Hamas’ ballistic assaults but to some of the phases of KLA action during the Balkan civil wars or to some of the atrocities of the Republican armies during the Spanish Civil War.
To talk of “the Zionist movement” as terrorist in this period, then, is like talking about “the socialist movement” as terrorist because of the brief existence of the Red Army Faction and the Weather Underground. This kind of sloppy totalising narrative, with “the Zionist movement” presented as a single, homogeneous, undifferentiated and eternally unchanging entity plays into the antisemitic narrative of “the Zionist entity” and mirrors right-wing discourse on the inherently terrorist nature of “the” Arabs or “the” Palestinians. In fact, LHI had far less claim to represent “the Zionist movement” as a whole than Hamas has a claim to represent the Palestinian nationalist movement as a whole.
And what of Hamas? Siegman says “it is too easy to describe Hamas simply as a ‘terror organisation’.” True. It is too easy to describe a chicken “simply” as a “bird”, but it is a bird nonetheless.
The terrorist actions of the IZL and LHI were disastrous for the Zionist cause. The 1937-8 IZL anti-Arab bombs turned neutral Arab opinion in Palestine towards the Mufti and his far right Palestinian nationalist movement, making the possibility of the two people sharing the space less possible. The 1946 LHI anti-British bombs halted Churchill’s move towards a workable two-state solution, leading to the zero sum game that the two sides have been playing since 1947, which neither side can win without wiping out the other. Hamas’ rockets have likewise been a disaster for the Palestinian cause, undermining any steps towards meaningful Palestinian freedom. Henry Siegman and the LRB, in seeking to exonerate Hamas, are complicit in this disaster.
This piece, by Benjamin Pogrund, is from The Guardian.
This is a hard time to talk about pursuing peace in the Middle East, only days after the horrendous war in the Gaza Strip, and with the possibility of further fighting and deaths and destruction. On the one side, Palestinian bitterness about the heavy toll suffered in Israel’s onslaught will not quickly be assuaged or forgiven. On the other side, Israeli mistrust about Palestinian intentions, exemplified by Hamas’s indiscriminate firing of thousands of missiles at civilians and its dedication to destroy Israel, will not easily be stilled.
Yet President Obama has moved swiftly and has appointed George Mitchell as his special peace envoy. It remains to be seen how far the United States will be willing to go in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: whether it will rely on words and persuasion, or use muscle in applying pressure. And the extent to which it stays the course will depend on success in dealing with US priorities – the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
Mitchell flies in on Wednesday and starts with the advantage that the end goal is known and widely accepted: a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine as friendly neighbours, and Israel accepted by all or most Arab states. The framework is also known: the end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the opening of the Gaza Strip; agreement on borders and withdrawal of all or some settlements, or compensatory land swaps; resolution of the refugee issue; Jerusalem as a shared capital; shared control of the Holy Basin.
Much discussion has gone into these issues, at Camp David, in the Clinton Parameters, at Taba and the Wye Plantation, in the Road Map, at Annapolis. Inasmuch as details are known, agreement between Israelis and Palestinians has been reached to varying extents.
How will Mitchell approach his task? Will he bring Israelis and Palestinians into discussions in the hope that they will negotiate a final accord?
Another way is to go to the basics and satisfy the question: what does each side need?
Israel is the strong party in the conflict. But even with its military might and economic power, it has a deep-rooted existential fear that must be met. It is also supposed to have morality, springing out of the Judaism that underpins the existence of the Jewish state. Plus Jewish sensitivity to persecution, derived from centuries of terrible historical experience, magnified by the Holocaust, and brought into the present by unceasing Arab hostility since the state was founded in 1948.
The historically created anxiety about continued existence is not always a force for good: Israeli destructiveness hurts others and contradicts the state’s sense of moral purpose. The drive for survival pushed Israel into a pre-emptive strike against Arab neighbours in 1967. Unexpected victory led to hubris and later the growth of religious messianism. That was aided and abetted by the declaration by Arab states in Khartoum in September that year: no peace with Israel, no recognition, no negotiations. That hardened Israeli attitudes.
The consequences of 1967 are seen today in the continuing occupation of the West Bank, with nearly 300,000 Israelis in settlements and another 200,000 in suburbs built to extend Jerusalem. The settlers have permeated government, in the civil service and the army, and enjoy influence out of proportion to their numbers. The deceptions and illegal channelling of government funds for their cause are well-documented. The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, promised to curb settler expansion, but did very, very little. There has been no action even towards the more modest goal of evacuating the 80,000 settlers in 80 settlements beyond the new security barrier.
So much land has now been seized from the intended Palestinian state, so many settlements and roads have been built, that the possibility of two states is being questioned. Some say that the point of no return has already been passed. Others argue that it must be possible because it must be.
(On the face of it, a one-state solution is the natural goal. Jews and Arabs live in the same tiny part of the world, and universal values point to a single, shared state where people will live happily together. Unfortunately, it does not stand up to scrutiny: first, the vast majority of Israel’s 6 million Jews will not agree to it now or in the foreseeable future. Who will force them to enter into an arrangement that they see as the death-knell of their existence? Second, a single state is not remotely a practical possibility for the foreseeable future given the intense fear, hatred and prejudice that divide the two peoples. It is fantasy to believe that they can be persuaded to live together. A loose confederation between Israel and Palestine, based on shared economic interests, with Jordan joining in, is a possibility. With time, if trust develops, it could grow deeper. But that’s another story.)
Tell Israelis that there must be a Palestinian state on the West Bank and, while opinion polls show majority agreement, many will worriedly say that Palestinians cannot be trusted and it would be foolhardy to allow them within missile range of Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport. In evidence, they will point to Gaza, which Israel quit in 2005 only to be pursued by thousands of missiles. Respond that Israel did not really quit but kept Gazans locked inside and you will be told that Palestinians had the chance of creating something – as with the prosperous greenhouses and the buildings they took over from settlers, but chose instead to plunder them and give violent vent to their hatred of Jews.
Trust is impossible in this cycle of accusation and counter-accusation. Yet trust is needed for Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank and allow Gaza to breathe. The end of occupation will not in itself bring peace, but it is the crucial first step to make all else possible.
How to get Israel to take the first step? Palestinians have to convince them that mass murder does not await them and that their Jewish state is secure. The Palestine Liberation Organisation, representing the mainstream, has already made a mighty and painful compromise in acknowledging the reality of Israel inside the 1967 borders. It has also turned away from suicide bombings, which did so much during the second intifada to drive most Israelis to the right and reject any notion of achieving peace with Palestinians.
The world has to be intelligent and understanding in persuading or pushing Israel to change its ways. If it commits human rights abuses, it must be as subject to international condemnation as any other nation; but singling it out as the singular source of evil is so bizarre and contrary to truth that it achieves nothing except anger and derision. The yelling and accusing and boycotts are counterproductive because they only entrench Israeli beliefs that they are the victims of prejudice and hypocrisy; rather try to pledge security and safety.
For Palestinians, the imperative need is the end of occupation so that they can have freedom, the right to govern themselves, the right to a life of dignity, security and economic empowerment. The Palestinian Authority must have continued support in developing effective and corruption-free government, so that it can show its people that it can produce peace dividends for them.
Palestinians also have to reach accord among themselves to bring both Fatah and Hamas into government. As matters stand at present, Israel, the US and the EU demand that Hamas accept Israel’s existence, that it forswears violence and endorse previous treaties agreed by the Palestinian Authority. Is it able to do this? Will its Islamist ideology, bedded on hatred of Jews and the Jewish state, permit it? Will Iran, its patron and arms supplier, intent on its own power-seeking agenda in the region, allow it?
If these anxious questions cannot be resolved, uncertainty and instability will continue, with the ever-present danger of missile attacks by Hamas and the inevitability of Israeli counter-attacks. The civilians on both sides of the border will continue to be victims of violence.
Some argue, however, for another approach: the reality of Hamas cannot be denied and it must be part of the solution; further, that Hamas cannot be forced into meeting the recognition and other demands; instead, Israel must seek to make contact, however informally, to achieve at least a de facto relationship, in the hope that, over time, Hamas will be nudged into accepting the reality of the Jewish state. Contact, invaluable in itself, will also help to overcome Sharon’s blunder in 2005 in withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza and ignoring the common-sense need to deal with Palestinians as partners on shared practicalities such as border access and health control.
Whether the hardliners inside Hamas will agree to any contact with Israel is unknown. But the only way to find out is to try it, is the argument. As for worry that giving Hamas status will undermine Fatah, that can be met by Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and ensuring that Fatah is enabled to run a genuine government.
These are the strands that George Mitchell will be picking up. He can also turn to the Arab Peace Initiative: Sharon brushed it aside when the “land for peace” offer was first announced in 2002. Olmert has been more encouraging, but, astonishingly, it seems that no practical steps have yet been taken to talk to the Arab states to find out what devil might lie in the details or what compromises might be possible.
Whatever President Obama, via Mitchell, does or doesn’t do, he cannot impose a whole new order. Ultimately, the solutions are in the hands of Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides need leaders whose vision of the future, and fear of sliding into catastrophe, will cause them to lead their people towards mutual acceptance and peace. For Israel, might such a leader possibly emerge from the general election on February 10?
But if Israel in 2009 is doing things of which we disapprove, why does that mean that we shouldn’t remember the Holocaust, which happened before Israel existed?