This is a guest post by BobFromBrockley and is cross-posted at brockley.blogspot.com.
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.