Amidst the war of words raging on in the media regarding the recent Gaza war, supporters of each side have tended to distill their vocal support into a handful of oft-repeated phrases. Having ready-to-go, prepackaged phrases like these make it easy to shore up support for your side, since people tend to think that if something is said often and loud enough, it must have at least some degree of truth to it. But that is precisely what makes these platitudes particularly damaging: they become so common-place and so easy to regurgitate, that newcomers to the debate enthusiastically adopt them without considering the validity of their content. In fact, when someone brings one up, it is an almost sure sign that they don’t have any arguments of their own to use to defend their position and so have resorted to using one of these ‘off-the-shelf’ arguments instead. The wide proliferation and constancy of these points does nothing to shore up their validity.
These aphorisms (for that is what they have become) tend to be either unsound – that is, they rest on dubious or outright false claims of fact – or they are invalid – the facts that are assumed do not lead to the purported conclusion. In this post I focus on the invalidity of the claims, not because the factual nature of them is any less important, but because I find that disagreements on fact are more likely to grind to impasse, since the two sides arrive at a fundamental disagreement about what authority they can trust to get facts from. Of course, inevitably, I must make reference to some facts, but I hope for the most part that they are those which are less controversial.
The first, and most popular claim, is that of Israel’s right to self-defense. It is asserted that Israel’s invasion and bombardment of Gaza is a response to the bevy of rockets fired at Israel by Palestinian militants. This line of reasoning is often summed up in what has become the trite phrase “what would any other country do if they had thousands of rockets landing on their territory?” The point here is, apparently, that Israel’s use of force is not excessive nor disproportionate, given the nature of the threat they face.
First, it should not be asked, what would another government do? The only morally relevant question is what would another government be justified in doing. National governments quite frequently violate not only basic moral principles but also the set of international laws to which they claim to adhere. The fact that we live in a world of excessive state violence does not excuse or absolve the actions of any one instance of that excess.
Secondly, to ask the hypothetical is this way is incredibly misleading. Yes, if rockets were being fired, unprovoked, from a neighbouring country, a government would (perhaps) be right to do what it could to stop them. But that is not what is happening here. Palestinians are retaliating to and resisting ongoing Israeli occupation of what the international community has declared is their rightful territory. So that hypothetical can only begin to make sense if you also stipulate that the country against which rockets are being fired has established a blockade around their neighbouring country, with the declared intention of putting the inhabitants on a ‘diet’ – that is, controlling the flow of food and and supplies into the territory, and only allowing in the bare minimum for the people to survive. The (now going on) 7 year blockade of Gaza is a grotesque form of collective punishment, imposed on the Palestinians for committing the grave crime of voting the wrong way in a free and fair election. Israel has no right to defend this blockade, and it is the blockade that Palestinians are trying to erase.
Putting it another way, perhaps the most obvious answer here is to simply turn the rhetorical question on its head, whereupon it takes on real power: “what would any other people do if they were trapped in the world’s largest open-air prison, subject to periodic invasions and bombardments by the one of world’s most sophisticated militaries?”. The answer, of course, is that they would resist. That is the desperate choice the Palestinians in Gaza have to make: they can either die slowly and miserably under the siege, or die giving their last breath to lift the siege that has forced them to live in this prison. I don’t know which one I would choose, but I do know that the existential problem inherent in that awful choice is a far more wretched one than that faced by Israel, for which we are supposed to show understanding.
Turning now to the specific issue of the rockets. The targeting of Israeli civilians by Palestinian militants is a grave crime, and the innocent civilians of Israel should be lamented over no less than the innocent civilians of Gaza. But as a whole, the rockets are miserably ineffective – described by the Guardian as little more than ‘useless fireworks’. This is not to trivialize the very real state of fear in which residents of southern Israel live because of the rockets, but it is to put them in perspective: four civilians (three Israeli citizens and one Thai national) were killed by rockets in the most recent attack. Over the same period, more than 1400 Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli warplanes and tank shells. So if we are to condemn Hamas for inducing a state of terror among Israelis, we must condemn 300 times over the IDF for the much stronger state of terror it imposes on the Palestinians.
People here will be quick to point out that it is the intention of Hamas militants to kill many more civilians, and that were it not for Israel’s Iron Dome system, which intercepted some rockets, many more civilians would be killed. I will come to the issue of ‘intention’ later, but with respect to the alleged efficacy of Iron Dome, it is worth pointing out that in the 2008-09 war, before Iron Dome was deployed, a similar number of civilians, namely 3, were killed. Either Iron Dome is not as effective as is claimed or (more likely) comparisons between the two scenarios are statistically meaningless precisely because the number of deaths in both cases is so small.
The next claim we hear is that Hamas uses its civilians as ‘human shields’ and that this tactic is what explains the large amount of civilian deaths on the Palestinian side. The blood of innocent Palestinians, it is said, is on the hands of Hamas, since they deliberately store rockets in Palestinian homes, knowing that Israel will bomb them, and that the resultant loss of innocent life will elicit sympathy for their cause. This argument is nothing more than a perverse form of victim blaming, and shows to what ludicrous depths the masters of war have to stoop in order to try to defend the indefensible. It is always and everywhere wrong to kill civilians, and when such a crime is committed, responsibility rests solely with the perpetrator of the crime. Hamas did not induce Israel to kill the four boys playing on the Gaza beach, nor did it induce Israel to drop bombs on hospitals and power plants throughout the Gaza strip. When families are killed in their homes at night, they tell us it is their fault for staying in their homes. Where are these people supposed to go? Putting aside the fact that the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, where is anyone supposed to go when their land is under siege and being bombarded from above. A UN shelter? How would that have turned out?
I use the phrase ‘victim blaming’ quite deliberately, because it is also the tactic deployed to try to excuse or mitigate accusations of rape. It is tragic that she was raped, they say, but maybe she shouldn’t have been in that neighbourhood to begin with, when she knew it was dangerous; or maybe she shouldn’t have been wearing that outfit, or drinking those drinks. These (feebly transparent) attempts to shift blame from where it ought to reside serve only to confirm how distant from any consistent moral position apologists for crimes such as these have to go. It is a double injustice, since it first excuses the perpetrator, and, second, blames the victim herself!
It is also worth pointing out that to say that these resistance groups hide amongst the population is sort of a red herring: the resistance is the population. Hamas doesn’t have an army – they have fighters, drawn from the people in Gaza who have decided – incorrectly and unjustly, in my view, but nevertheless have decided – that they must use violence to bring about some respite from the occupation under which they live. Just as the Vietcong in Vietnam, or the FLN in Algeria, or the Communist resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe, they are fighting to expel foreign forces from their land.
Now, those who don’t go so far as to try to blame deaths of Palestinians on the Palestinians themselves will still retort: well, the difference is Israel does not intend to kill civilians, whereas Hamas does. As Sam Harris put it, regarding the killing of civilians in Gaza “we know that this isn’t the general intent of Israel. We know the Israelis do not want to kill non-combatants, because they could kill as many as they want, and they’re not doing it.” We have to ask ourselves, however, what constitutes an intention. In so far as we cannot read minds and divine their ‘true intention’, we must accept that the inevitable and forseeable consequences of an individual’s action constitute an intention. Suppose as an act of malice you decide to set fire to part of the house of someone you don’t like. You don’t want to kill them – in fact, perhaps you believe them to be out of town – but you do want to commit serious damage. But then it turns out that the fire gets out of control, and that an entire family is sleeping inside, who all perish. Well, when you are subsequently brought before a magistrate, you cannot, at that point claim, well look, I didn’t intend to injure anyone with my act. Why not? Because the inevitable and foreseeable consequences of setting fire to a house is that you will injure someone. Once you choose to commit that action, it is not up to you what happens, so it is morally meaningless what you intended to happen. How does this relate to the conflict? Well, when you fire tank shells into the middle of a crowded city, it is again, irrelevant what your true intention was, because the inevitable and foreseeable consequences of your action is that you will kill civilians living there. The philosopher Hegel had this exact idea in mind when he gave his approval to the phrase, “The stone belongs to the devil when it leaves the hand that threw it.” If you throw a stone near a window, you may not intend, nor indeed actually cause, any damage. But the risk of serious damage is clearly there and it is no good to disown that risk when it comes to fruition.
Inevitably following on the heels of this talk about which side has the worse ‘intention’ comes the issue of the Hamas Charter, and it is this issue to which I would now like to turn. The Hamas Charter is an abhorrent, contemptible document, full of vicious language and hateful claims resting on total falsehoods about the world. It is also true that the people who most often reference this document are not Hamas members themselves, but Israeli supporters. They use it to try to show how monstrous Hamas are, since the more monstrous they can depict Hamas as being, the more justified they feel they can be in confining all Gazans to live in a constant state of imprisonment. It is entirely overlooked, of course, that the majority of Gazans today were not even alive when the charter was written and that Hamas itself has not officially adopted the charter as part of its political programme since it won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Those facts must be irrelevant, since they don’t fit the desired narrative of US-Israel apologists.
And while we are scrutinizing political charters, we would do well to look at that of Likud, the governing political party in Israel. The Likud Platform of 1999 (written much more recently than the Hamas charter) “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.” So it denies the right of the Palestinian state to exist, just as the Hamas charter denies Israel that right. The crucial difference, of course, is that unlike Hamas, the Likud party doesn’t just confine that rejectionist idea to an old piece of paper – they actually act on it. They are carrying out that policy in the West Bank: with the construction of the West Bank wall, in gross violation of international law, and the expansion of the illegal settlements, the Israeli government is slowly dismantling any idea of a Palestinian state. These actions deny the Palestinians a right to statehood much more than Hamas’ charter could ever do to Israeli statehood.
The next objection we hear, and the final one I will address in this post, is about the disproportionate media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Many more people are dying in other conflicts around the world, it is said, and yet we focus so much attention on Israel. Isn’t that indicative (they say) of a prejudice? The idea that a state or group should be exempt from criticism simply because other states commit similar or worse crimes is an argument we would do well not to dignify with a response. But there is a more salient point here that is worth spending time on: what makes Israeli crimes so deserving of attention is that every single one of them is enabled by the support, diplomatic and financial, of the United States. The US funds Israel to the tune of $3 billion per year. We provide them with the weapons used to enforce the occupation. Whenever a UN resolution calls upon Israel to settle the conflict based on international law, it is the US which vetoes it, providing Israel with a diplomatic shield under which it can continue to annex Palestinian territory. It is no exaggeration to say that Israel could not do what it is currently doing without the support of the United States, which therefore makes us complicit in every one of those crimes.
There will, of course, always be an inexhaustible supply of specious arguments that apologists for state terror will use in order to try to justify themselves. I have tried here to address what I have found to be the most widely disseminated ones, in the hopes of preventing people from falling for this kind of sophistry.