Gaza, accusations of genocide, and fear and loathing in Israel

Recent events

Recent events in Gaza and the largely western media feeding frenzy that accompany it have little connection with reality on the ground but a rather predictable association with what I would call background anti-Semitism that permeates the western liberal establishment much like background radiation in the natural world; ever present, largely benign but nonetheless unhelpful to rational analysis.

In particular the absurd tagging of the tragic events in Gaza with the word ‘genocide’ needs rigorous rejection.

But to start let’s look at two questions in the context of Gaza before moving onto the wider Palestine issue. One, was military action avoidable in Gaza and, two, were civilian, especially children, casualties unavoidable.

I would argue that the answer to both questions is a resounding no.

Every people have a right to self-defence from constant rocket attacks, and despite the low casualty level the effect on quality of life in Israel is significant. The Israeli military response was as precisely targeted as is possible in a densely populated built-up area. There are always exceptions, the tragic death of four boys playing football on a beach comes to mind.

The figures for civilian casualties shifts all the time though the Israeli claim that male adult deaths were not all civilian has an unavoidable logic given what we know about the way Hamas operate. The tragic deaths of so many children, copy from heaven for western news editors, is also largely caused by Hamas operational decisions rather than deliberate infanticide by Israeli forces.

The repetitive nature of provocation in the form of rocket attacks seems clearly designed to engender a response that can be exploited to show the people of Gaza as victims. A strategy that has had a certain amount of success in a social media dominated world; has there ever been a more effective device for mass propagation of shallow argument than Twitter.

 

A brief history of modern Palestine

The history of modern Palestine is complicated but worth a very brief summary.

At the end of World War One four centuries of Ottoman rule ended and the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, Palestine, became a British protectorate. The British, in a case of classic mismanagement that characterised the end game of the British Empire (the other was what was known as East Pakistan following partitioning of India), made two throwaway promises, one to the Jews, the Balfour Declaration, one to the Palestinians, the McMahon Agreement; both documents promising Palestine to the Jews and Palestinians respectively and both poorly crafted and open to misinterpretation. So the British true to form made a complicated situation far worse.

In the thirty years up to the end of the Second World War Jewish migration increased considerably from about 4,000 in 1931, rising to 62,000 four years later, and then the mass exodus from Europe in the 1940’s following the holocaust. (Incidentally, for most of this period, and the four hundred years of Ottoman Empire, Jews and Arabs lived in relative harmony, as is usually the case where political activity is minimal). The British tried and ultimately failed to contain the increasing tension caused by exponential increases in Jewish migration, and in 1948 the Jewish state of Israel was formed in an act of UDI.

In the decades that followed we witness what I would call classic nation birth, with clear winners and losers, not dissimilar to the birth pangs of both Australia and the United States of America (the losers here being the Aborigines and American Indians respectively), characterised by a land grab by Jewish settlers armed with greater determination, funding and organisation (a sort of Last Chance Saloon desperation for a life – they wanted it more). To the outsider, western liberals in particular, it’s an ugly process, but with its own remorseless logic and I suspect conclusion, a greater Israel that will include the West Bank territory in its entirety.

 

Back to genocide

The generally accepted (Lemkin) definition of genocide is met when all of the following are present

  1. Disproportionate or mass killings of a people
  2. Serious bodily or mental harm
  3. Inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of a group
  4. Measures intended to prevent births
  5. Forcibly transferring children of one group to another group.

So clearly nonsensical to describe recent events in Gaza as a genocide; it’s just a short military event in a built up area with the expected casualties.

In the context of the wider Palestinian situation, in particular, the West Bank, the charge has more traction in that both points 2 and 3 hold (in my opinion), but still well short of a genocide.

The real threat to Israel

Israel today is still a secular state and a democracy, a rarity in that part of the world. However this is slowly changing with the ascendancy of the right and religious fundamentalist settlers.

Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, based at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in an interview with Spiegel, reveals some interesting, and ominous, changes occurring in Israeli society.

Some extracts which I found particularly relevant, and disturbing, follow.

On the increasing militarization of Israeli society

“Israel is a colonial military power, a militarized society and a democracy all folded into one. The army, for example, controls the Palestinians through a wide network of colonial tools, such as checkpoints, military courts (governed by a legal system different from the Israeli system), the arbitrary granting of work permits, house demolitions and economic sanctions. It is a militarized civil society because almost every family has a father, son or brother in the army and because the military plays an enormous role in the ordinary mentality of ordinary Israelis and is crucial in both political decisions and in the public sphere. In fact, I would say that “security” is the paramount concept guiding Israeli society and politics. But it is also a democracy, which grants rights to gays and makes it possible for a citizen to sue the state.”

 

On less interaction between Jews and Palestinians

“Israelis and Palestinians used to be mixed. They worked as construction workers and as cheap, underpaid labor. Then the wall was built. Then the road blocks came, which hampered the Palestinians’ freedom of movement. The massive reduction in work permits followed. And in a few years Palestinians disappeared from Israeli society. The Second Intifada put the nail in that coffin, so to speak. The nature of Israeli leadership has also changed. The messianic right has progressively gained power in Israel. It used to be marginal and illegitimate; it is now increasingly mainstream. This radical right sits in Parliament, controls budgets and has changed the nature of discourse. Many Israelis do not understand the radical nature of the right in Israel. It successfully disguises itself as “patriotic” or “Jewish.””

 

On fear

“Fear is deeply engrained in Israeli society. Fear of the Shoah, fear of anti-Semitism, fear of Islam, fear of Europeans, fear of terror, fear of extermination. You name it. And fear generates a very particular type of thinking, which I would call “catastrophalist.” You always think about the worst case scenario, not about a normal course of events. In catastrophalist scenarios, you become allowed to breach many more moral norms than if you imagined a normal course of events.”

 

The full interview can be found here http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/interview-with-sociologist-eva-illouz-about-gaza-and-israeli-society-a-984536.html

The appearance of effortless ‘fly-swatting’ of poorly organised Arab armies in short successful wars distracts from deep internal scarring of Israeli society which if not corrected will prove its eventual undoing.

So rather than Hamas and other terrorist groups, and hostile neighbours, the real threat to Israel comes from within; the failure to rise to the challenge of building a secular and inclusive society where both Jews and Palestinians can live in harmony.

Israeli is important to European security and European support and influence is critical given its position on the edge of Europe in an age of increasing Islamic fundamentalism. This support should not be unconditional however.

Boycotts, academic and economic, in particular represent pointless grand standing; the importance of building bridges both within Israel, between Jews and Palestinians, and between Israel and her European and Middle East neighbours cannot be over emphasised.

My own, overly optimistic, hope is that a one state solution will eventually be achieved. Indeed it may be an unavoidable result of the ongoing settlement policy. Given the criss-crossing of settlements on the West Bank reducing the feasibility of a two state solution Israel may have no choice other than to assimilate Palestinians, on an equal basis, in a greater Israel or face a huge humanitarian problem too close for comfort.

The reduction of the Palestinian people to ghetto dwellers, confined to areas not seen as first choice by settlers, is no long term answer.

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