This is the second of three articles in “Lessons on the Levant: history & voices in the Israel-Palestine crisis”, unpacking individual Israeli perspectives on the bigger picture behind current events. The author rejects in the strongest possible terms all causes of humanitarian suffering and remains firmly neutral in the greater political backdrop for the reasons outlined in his foreword. Before continuing with the present article, the reader is strongly advised to read the introduction to the series to better understand its aims and format.
Unless otherwise stated, the author claims no direct ownership over the political stances relative to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis which are expressed in this piece. The content has been informed by a mixture of primary sources including interviews of self-identifying Israeli, Jewish, Arab, and Palestinian students, as well as extensive secondary research. Unless otherwise stated, opinions expressed in cited works are not the author’s own.
Ben explicitly condemns antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, and intolerance in all their forms, and hopes for a lasting peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine crisis.
The reader is warned that the following text contains extended quotations pertaining to the Holocaust.
For all the disgust and shock that it causes, the evil of antisemitism is far from being a new phenomenon. As far back as the infamous events of Clifford’s Tower in 1215, the Jewish diaspora across Europe had already suffered persecution for no reason other than their faith. From forced displacement to social ostracization, this persistent feature of the Jewish story is one that we would rightly define today as a systematic and heinous hate crime, whose humanitarian toll was – and indeed is – a tragedy.
All this comes without evoking the horrors of the Twentieth Century, of which the Holocaust’s gut-wrenching figures are a terrifying reminder of our species’ darkest hour.
I start this article with such a sombre historic overview because the creation of Israel, the world’s only modern-day Jewish nation state, is an intrinsic part of it. Two years after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, a majority of governments at a United Nations summit concluded that more must be done to protect this community’s basic human rights, including the right to a life without fear of persecution.
In voting to remap the borders of a piece of the UK’s colonial apparatus with great historic significance for Judaism (as well as Islam and Christianity), the aim was clear. The Jewish diaspora were to finally have their spiritual home engrained into the statutes of international law, giving birth to a nation state whose course they could shape through democratic self-determination.
I will explore more fully the complex role of European colonialism in Israel’s genesis in the following article. The aim of this piece in the series, however, is not to focus on the past, but rather to use it so as to better inform an understanding of the present and in the same vein contextualise the criticisms that have been levelled at Israel.
In a democratically-elected government, those in power ultimately have one guiding principle regardless of political orientation: protecting their citizens from threats both foreign and domestic. Israel is no exception to this rule. Unlike many other nation states, however, Israel’s short history has already been marked by three invasion attempts, dozens of violent domestic actors intent on destroying its society’s way of life, and continuing interventions by foreign powers threatening to tear up the rules-based international order.
These political events do not come without a humanitarian toll. In 1948, neighbouring Arab countries blatantly disregarded international law in their attempt to crush the fledgling state of Israel at its source. The ensuing war displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and left tens of thousands of Israelis – some 1% of the population at the time – killed or wounded. The general atmosphere of terror was then made acute by the attacks which precursors to Hamas, such as Black September, conducted on Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. These would culminate in the bloody massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Even though fifty years have since passed, Israelis lament that fellow civilians going about their daily lives continue to be the victims of extremist violence.
It is against this backdrop of long-standing hostilities that we must make sense of the present day: the rocket strikes and violent reprisals encouraged by Hamas against Israel on one hand, and Israeli leaders’ state security policy on the other.
At this point, a little context on the plurality of viewpoints is essential. All members of the communities I have interviewed were quick to stress that Hamas and its paramilitary wing lie at the extreme end of the ideological spectrum in Palestine, and do not enjoy anything close to majority support.
“It is just like someone incorrectly claiming that a tiny handful of [radical, terrorist deviants improperly referred to as ‘Jihadis’ by Western media] are condoned by most Muslims,” an anonymous source explains to me. The beliefs of an extremist sect should never be equated with those of an entire people.Before this year’s internationally-led reconciliation efforts, Hamas’s radicalism had even led to bloody clashes with the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself – the more moderate administration officially in charge of Gaza and the West Bank. Irreconcilable differences on recognising Israel’s legitimacy and the use of armed violence came to a head in 2007, when Hamas launched an armed coup to wrestle control of Gaza from the PA. Dozens of Palestinian civilians died in the fighting, and the strip remains under Hamas’s unrecognised authority to this day
With the notable absence of armed uprisings and militia-esque tactics aside, a not too dissimilar situation of vastly diverging viewpoints can also be found amongst the Israeli community. Following this year’s elections Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party formed a government with merely 25% of the seats in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), and the balance of power remains as fragile as ever. As I write these lines, news is breaking that the premier is on the verge of being ousted by an opposition coalition after twelve years at the helm. The result would not be surprising: Netanyahu’s critics are vocal, and the vision Likud holds for Israel’s future has been hotly contested for many years
“They’re an extreme right-wing party”, remarks one Jewish student here at Oxford, “[…] think much further right than the Tories. Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] is batshit crazy.” It almost goes without saying that viewpoints within society are never monolithic, and individual citizens will regularly disapprove with the actions of party leaders.
But even in the face of this greyscale, the fact stands out that Hamas, unlike Likud, are labelled a terrorist organisation by western administrations including the USA– consequently posing a tangible and ongoing threat to the safety of every Israeli citizen. And as with any nation, Israel’s government is consequently left with a moral duty to act.
In the past, Israel has spared no effort in finding a peaceful agreement to the crisis through diplomacy and other ‘soft force’ channels. Israelis will point out that, during the Oslo Accords of 1993, their country put the humanitarian interests of Palestinians above their own political interests when the government recognised the Palestinian Liberation Organization – a group appearing on the US list of terrorist organizations at the time – as a representative for the people of Gaza and the West Bank. They will also dismiss the Palestinian viewpoint that this was a ‘one-off’ exception to the general preference for hard force characterising Israeli military policy. Instead, they suggest, it is an example of a long series of goodwill gestures designed to foster mutual cooperation. A decade later, they might add, the Israel Defence Forces and other Jewish communities in Gaza and North Samaria went as far as unilaterally withdrawing from the lands in an effort to further reduce tensions. Palestinians contextualise that both areas were deemed to be under “Israeli occupation” since the 1967 Six Day War in the eyes of international law.
Yet when dealing with a terrorist group like Hamas, soft force simply does not work. “Hamas”, I am told by another Jewish student, “will accept nothing less than the total destruction of Israel as it is known and the expulsion or massacre of all Jews in the Levant.”
The statement is most certainly strong, but comments made by the group’s leaders or its self-declared covenant shows it to be no exaggeration. In the words of Article 7 from this document: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and kill them.” This same document alleges that the Jews were behind the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and control the world’s media.
Negotiating territorial concessions with an adversary intent on the destruction of the other is not dissimilar to the policy of appeasement of the 20th century. Israel can make reasonable compromise after reasonable compromise. Hamas will only stop bombing buses full of school children when the Jewish state has been purged from the face of the earth. The smallest of steps back by the Israeli leadership has opened the door to further, immediate bloodshed.
But the consequences of allowing antisemitic terrorists to carve up Israel one piece at a time in this way go far beyond the Levant. As one contact makes explicit, Jewish communities across the world perceive Israel’s continuing integrity as an absolute necessity. “The Holocaust serves as chilling proof of the consequences of a world without Israel: [for it to disappear] would be to ask us to gamble with our lives based on a promise that when it comes down to it, the non-Jewish world will break their pattern of millenia and save us – even though when the biggest test came they did nothing.”
“In the eyes of Israel and many diasporic Jews, it can ultimately be summed up in one short sentence: you give an inch, and they will take six million.”
In this light, having tried and failed through no fault of their own to resolve the dispute through soft force, most Israeli citizens would argue a different approach is consequently needed to protect to protect themselves and their beliefs from the tangible threat of ethnocide. In the case of Hamas, this means following other Western countries’ doctrine towards dealing with terrorists intent on destroying their way of life, and fighting fire with fire.
To help make sense of this counterfactual argument in real-word terms, the second Jewish student from earlier paints two different scenarios.
“Let us start by imagining that Hamas were to fully disarm and disband. The rocket launchers fall silent, the bus bombings end, the remuneration of the families of suicide bombers comes to a close, and there you have it: not a single civilian more would die. The IDF [Israel’s army] does not shoot civilians just for kicks.”
“And now let us imagine that other world: the world one in which the IDF stops. They are now the ones who turn off the missile defence system against Hamas rocket attacks; who cease surgical airstrikes against Hamas commanders; who tear down the physical barrier in the Gaza Strip. The result? An entire society left exposed to attack by an enemy whose beliefs and aims have been made horrifically clear.
Even though the IDF’s comprehensive rules of engagement try to avoid them, civilian casualties do occur, and they are terrible and tragic. They should be kept to a minimum as much as possible. But what is the alternative?”
But even if Hamas broke with tradition and kept their word to disarm in exchange for territorial concessions this time around, Israelis stress their society would still be a stroke away from humanitarian catastrophe.
Put simply, the United Nations chose a tense part of the world for Israel’s foundation. Nearby Iran still vows to bring “death to Israel” on regular occasions, all whilst providing Hamas with material, training, and commanders with which to carry out that aim . It follows that, should Israel show any perceived weakness in its domestic affairs, hostile foreign powers could feasibly seize the opportunity for a major military conflict – just as they have done time and time again in the past. Israelis point to 1948, 1967, and 1973, in which the slightest hint of internal weakness led to all-out war with their neighbours. They repeat that the consequences do not bear imagining.
Mr. Netanyahu and the rest of Israel’s current leadership therefore find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Ask most moderate citizens and politicians and they will tell you that they only want to live in peace within a land they have called home for generations. But when seeking peace itself risks further war, proponents of using more than just soft force to deal with Hamas and all other terrorist groups in Palestine would claim they are merely acting in a long-term form of self-defence.
Ben would like to thank A.M; N.R , and all other anonymous voices from the Israeli, Jewish, Arab, and Palestinian communities for their extensive contributions to this series’ content and inception.
Ben also thanks George Beglan for his input as an undergraduate reading for Law, and Sabrina Fernandez for her illustrations.