Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
1. “I reaffirm my strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself. No nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders or terrorists tunneling into its territory…we are hopeful that Israel will continue to approach this process in a way that minimizes civilian casualties… ” –Barack Obama (7/16/14)
2. “Here’s the difference between us. We’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles” – Benjamin Netanyahu (7/13/14).
3. “Our people are convinced today that the only way to get rid of the occupation and establish their state is through resistance like all of the people of the world have done—just like what the American people did when they got rid of the British occupation. And as the French did when they got rid of Nazi occupation.” –Khaled Meshaal (8/4/2014).
4. “Not only are we going to give you more missiles—we’re going to be a better friend. We’re going to fight for you in the international court of public opinion. We’re going to fight for you in the United Nations”—Lindsey Grahm: US Republican Senator (8/1/2014).
How does one navigate through all the rhetoric surrounding the most recent Gazan crisis? Each quote above reflects a particularly oft-repeated theme most commonly used by governments directly involved in the conflict and parroted among media and supporters. The following article aims to flesh out their meaning and scrutinize their logic so as to better understand the complex dynamics that underlie this conflict.
1. Israel’s right to self defense
As a widely recognized sovereign state among the international community, Israel is justly entitled to self defense under article 51 of the UN charter. However, in a 2004 ruling, the ICJ stated that this argument cannot be invoked to justify military action in the Occupied Palestinian Territories given that the latter is not a sovereign state and is in essence controlled by Israeli military law. The Israeli narrative would counter this argument, claiming that the occupation of Gaza effectively ended with the withdrawal of all Israeli settlers in 2005. Yet even after 2005, Israel continued to exercise complete control over the movement of all goods and people entering and leaving Gaza. By any international standard, Gaza is still under occupation, the effects of which will render it “unlivable” by 2020. (While the dire humanitarian state in Gaza is largely due to the crippling blockade imposed by Israel and more recently Egypt, the blame must also be shared by the Hamas government, which invests more in rockets than in books or business.)
Israel claims to be acting in self-defense against rocket attacks and illegal incursions into their territory through tunnel networks. While it is indeed psychologically traumatizing to live in perpetual fear, the means by which the Israeli military reacts to these attacks is inherently illegal and disproportionate. According to international law, these attacks must be dealt with by the standards of occupation law and not the laws of conventional warfare; occupation law includes greater protection for civilians, as delineated in the Fourth Geneva Convention. This was most egregiously breached in the latest round of conflict at the most basic level of analysis where 70% of Palestinian casualties—by the most conservative standards—were civilians. Israel claims Hamas hides rockets in mosques, churches, hospitals, homes, schools and even kindergartens (as Ron Prosor, the Israeli representative to the UN, likes to emphasize) thus justifying military action in civilian areas leading to high casualty rates. Yet by any moral or legal standard, even if one targeted militant is in a populated civilian building, one cannot blow up the entire building to justify his/her death. Still, Israel insists that it went beyond its duty by providing warning to civilians through leaflets, phone messages, and warning bombs. This does not make an attack lawful or legal unless civilians were given the adequate time to evacuate the targeted site. Besides the fact that these “notices” are given many times only minutes in advance of a strike, (if given at all) the more important fact is, as John Ging, OCHA director highlighted,“[to] where should they flee? In the end, we don’t have the answer for them.” For Palestinians whose freedom of movement is restricted and especially for Gazans who are living in an open air prison; denied access to Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank; deprived of reconstructing an airport; limited in the 5.5km of accessible sea space, they have no where else to go. On top of that, during the war, the Israeli military declared 44% of Gaza a buffer zone to protect Israel from Hamas rockets. What this translated to was massive forced displacement and “scorched earth.” In a small 3 km wide strip of land, densely populated by 1.8 million people, anywhere else this act would be considered a crime against humanity, but in Israel, this is just another chore of what many Israeli officials refer to as, “mowing the lawn.”
2. Defining terrorism
The US, Israel, and the European Union are among the nations that consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Turkey, Qatar, and Iran are among the countries that consider Hamas operatives to be “freedom fighters”. How can one be a freedom fighter and a terrorist at the same time? It depends on where one places the emphasis: goals or modes of action. While there is no official United Nations definition for terrorism it is generally agreed upon that groups who intentionally target civilians are considered terrorists.
The IDF claims that Hamas uses “human shields” in order to increase international sympathy by raising the death toll. While the terminology is not quite accurate, it must be said that because Hamas conducts military operations in a highly densely populated area, it is by nature putting civilians at grave risk. One must understand however that Hamas is not just a militant wing, it is also a political and social organization with hospitals, schools, homes and other institutions. By this logic, targeting “Hamas” means targeting all these locations regardless of whether or not they hold militants or weapons. Additionally, while rockets were found in UN schools twice, one must also acknowledge that theses schools were empty and out of UN control. Also, as Ging mentioned, in past conflicts, both sides violated the inviolability of UN property by placing rockets or launching attacks from them, but in no way does it justify further attacks on schools and hospitals.
In the past, the accusation of Hamas deliberately using ‘human shields’ has not turned out to be true, but the validity of this statement with regards to the recent conflict has yet to be determined thus far. What has been documented, however, is the systematic use of Palestinians by the Israeli army as human shields in previous conflicts as well as in the most recent. All this is not to say that Hamas does not openly endorse and practice terror tactics. However, the fact that many states themselves adopt terrorist tactics only renders the term more hackneyed.
For Hamas, and for many Palestinians, their actions constitute resistance against an aggressor and an occupier. According to various UN General Assembly resolutions, armed resistance against an occupier is justified. (See, for example, UN GA resolution 3246 from 29 November 1974: “Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, particularly armed struggle.”)
In this conflict, Hamas killed 69 soldiers and 4 civilians with weapons that had far less accuracy and precision. On the other hand, Israel killed over 2,000 Palestinians, the overwhelming majority civilians including almost 500 children. Israel has the most sophisticated and accurate weaponry available and is the most advanced army in the region, not in the least thanks to US taxpayers. Israel has also not shied away from tapping into its wide arsenal of illegal weapons in its wars such as white phosphorous, enriched uranium, and most recently DIME. Israel’s assault on Gaza is also a clear implementation of the Dahiya doctrine, a military strategy practiced in Lebanon during the 2006 war to fight Hezbollah militants, where civilian infrastructure is deliberately targeted with disproportionate force. If the world insists on labeling “terrorists,” to fit a simplistic image of “good” and “bad,” then what do all these documented actions make Israel?
3. Justified resistance
In early June, Hamas and Fatah formed a “government of national unity” which reconciled the two main Palestinian factions and ended a seven-year rift. While many things still needed to be worked out, including important questions about the recognition of the state of Israel and the future of the militant wing of Hamas, the international community applauded the effort as a step towards unity and sovereignty. But Israel could not accept the unity government and perceived it as a threat to its upper hand status as a free wielding power. And thus conveniently, came the kidnapping of the three Israeli seminar students in the Occupied West Bank (Area C to be more accurate, meaning the area of the West Bank directly under Israeli control). The Israeli government milked the publicity out of the story (#BringBackOurBoys) and intentionally withheld the information of their deaths to the public for days while also imposing a gag order to prevent journalists from reporting. Netanhyahu and others immediately and directly blamed Hamas (for which the authority had no direct responsibility in) and subsequently engaged in a period of collective punishment arresting 600 Palestinians including many children and government officials who had been previously released from jail. This along with the reprisal killing of Mohammed Abu Kedeir, and the torture of his Palestinian-American cousin Tariq Khdeir, stoked the flames of hatred among extremists on all sides and intentionally put Hamas in a position where it had to act. When asked in a France 24 interview what he would say to his Hamas allies, Majed Bamya, a representative of the PA, replied, “How can we bring back Hamas to more moderate politics if in 10 years of the Abbas government, this Israeli government created over 100,000 settlements on our land? […] How can we convince our people that the current Israeli government is a partner in peace and not an occupying power and an apartheid government when this apartheid government continues the construction of the wall, incursions in our cities—even in the West Bank—continues to kill Palestinians and children? What should we say to them today, to the Palestinians, we who had defended this peace project and this project of liberation by political and pacific means?”
While it is easy to attack and criticize the effectiveness of armed resistance in the long term, for those who live in these desperate times, whose daily lives are severely impaired by the occupation, patience understandably starts to wear thin after 67 years of occupation and over 40 years of peaceful negotiation and diplomatic attempts. People want immediate and tangible results. While only time will tell if the Palestinians can gain these results through violent resistance, for the time being, things look exactly where they started before the violence. How then, can Khaled Meshaal—Hamas’s political leader—declare “victory” when Hamas’s clearly stated aim of the war was to lift the blockade and alleviate the daily suffering of Gazans? The most recent negotiated ceasefire only includes undefined and open-ended references to future talks on ending the Israeli blockade that will, like in previous settlements, probably never transpire. Hamas would say that its victory is in its resistance. While this holds some truth, the rhetoric only goes so far. Since coming to power, Hamas has not been able to achieve constructive gains for the Palestinian people. But if true Palestinian sovereignty cannot emerge by peaceful means, and Hamas’s violence will only result in more deaths and vague promises for lifting the blockade, what is left for Palestinians?
What do all these charges of grave violations of human rights amount to if Israel continues to carry on with impunity? The US policy of unconditional and uncritical support of Israel in the international community and especially at the UN security council is what has allowed Israel to enjoy decades of impunity.
On July 16, the same day Hamas and Islamic Jihad offered Israel a hudna or 10 year truce in exchange for lifting the blockade and releasing prisoners, Congress approved $351 million in aid to finance Israel’s Iron Dome defense system during the 2015 fiscal year. Then on July 20, while the Israeli army was razing Shujayea in what even the UN called an “atrocious action,” Israel’s defense ministry secretly negotiated a deal with the U.S. military for 120 mm mortar shells and 40 mm illuminating rounds costing around $3 million. On August 4, when Hamas agreed to an Egyptian sponsored ceasefire and the day after an Israeli airstrike killed 10 people outside a UN school, Obama signed another bill giving Israel $225 million in emergency funding for its Iron Dome defense system. US hypocrisy when it comes to the Israeli Palestinian conflict needs no further elucidation than this. The US has long lost credibility as an effective and impartial negotiating power in the conflict.
It is this position of privilege that Israel enjoys, which contributes to its seemingly insincere attitude in peace negotiations. In reality, it has less to gain from the establishment of a Palestinian state with defined borders, and more interest in maintaining inefficient cycles of peace talks during which it can continue its process of illegal incursion and expansion into Palestinian territory. If Israeli impunity—which is intrinsically linked to US protection—continues unabated, it will drive more Palestinians to espouse more violent and radical means of opposing Israel. This would likely increase the frequency of bloody conflicts, while not advancing the cause of Palestinian statehood, and would in essence serve to justify Israel’s rhetoric of the increasing threat of “terrorists” and would give weight to its attempt at rationalizing the use of illegal and disproportionate use of force against the Palestinian population.
Yet if this US-Israeli relationship is so certain, and if the verdict is always given in favor of Israel, then why did Senator Grahm feel the need to add in her remarks that “we’re going to fight for you in the international court of public opinion”? Israel undoubtedly is losing the war on public opinion; direct images, startling casualty statistics, and eyewitness accounts cannot be unseen or justified by any means. This summer, hundreds of thousands of people from all organizations and walks of life gathered in the world’s capitals to protest what they perceived to be a slaughter in Gaza. The question remains: is public opinion and international solidarity effective in changing state policy? Do we need to wait for further wars in Gaza and alarming and unavoidable death tolls to build an effective coalition of support to hold Israel accountable for its crimes against humanity? What would such justice look like? Frank discussions of these questions are the foundations from which to build a united front committed to ending Israeli impunity.
In the end, one needs to think critically and independently about these themes repeated in the discourses of politicians and news media. These statements should never be taken at face value and the deliberate choice of words should not be simply overlooked. Only with such a process and standard for analyzing the rhetoric and deciphering the logic, can we hope to have a more informed and active public capable of changing the seemingly intractable conflict.
 My translation.