As the daily death toll rises in the Gaza Strip, the liberal apologists for the crimes of the state of Israel on appear to be thinner ground. The scale of the tragedy of Operation Protective Edge looks set to not only exceed, but dwarf that of the last Israeli massacre of Operation Cast Lead, in which 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children were killed, and some 5,300 injured – the majority of which were civilians. Those seeking to justify Israeli crimes in these instances usually fall back on the nonetheless benign intentions of the Israeli state, generally found in the expression of abstract principles about democracy. In doing so, they manage to perform impressive feats of intellectual acrobatics to ignore what representatives of the Israeli state actually say about their own intentions and goals.
I’ve already mentioned that IDF commanders have referred to Operation Protective Edge as a standard “shock and awe” tactic designed in part to erode Hamas' support and weaken Palestinian morale, and this is something which was very much at play in Operation Cast Lead, too. In Cast Lead, IDF soldiers were given specific instructions as to how much regard for the right to life of Palestinians the average soldier was to have in conducting warfare in a built-up occupied territory [emphasis added]:
“You don’t see a terrorist there [in the house]? Fire at the window. It was real urban
warfare. This is the difference between urban warfare and a limited confrontation. In
urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents. It was simply urban warfare in
every way. . . . They kept repeating to us that this is war and in war opening fire is not restricted. . . . our brigade commander at least once . . . went so far as to say this was war and in war as in war, no consideration of civilians was to be taken. You shoot anyone you see.”
That’s testimony from Breaking the Silence – an NGO which describes itself as “an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories”. On Operation Protective Edge, the founder of the organisation and former IDF soldier Yehuda Shaul had the following to say:
“One of the biggest lies of this operation and Cast Lead is that we’re doing everything to avoid civilian casualties. When you use artillery in a place like Gaza you can’t say you are taking every precaution. It’s not the case that generals are looking to kill more civilians, far from that. But we are far away from the official line that everything is being done to avoid civilian casualties.”
I’m of the perhaps unfashionable opinion that it doesn’t matter a damn whether the general of an occupying force pours himself a whiskey at the end of an evening, wipes the sweat away from his brow, and wonders if that artillery which hit a UN-run school should have been fired. The point is that there was still an unjustifiable attack on civilians, rather than whether the general was upset at the end of it. What matters is level of predictability and scope, and it takes a great deal of mental acrobatics to see the sheer scale of the atrocities committed in Gaza and to arrive at the conclusion that the Israeli military, in anything besides interviews and PR, concerns itself greatly with the lives of Palestinian civilians. Statements like the ones above merely corroborate what the average cynic would have suspected all along.
Liberal apologetics in the Huffington Post
A rather silly bit of apologia on the Huffington Post has been doing the rounds by a writer called Ali A. Rizvi, which asks that we consider 7 things before we pick a side in the “Middle East Conflict” (I think he means the Israeli assault on Gaza). The writer begins by claiming he’s been “accused” of being pro-Palestinian, though I'm not sure where – presumably some ultra-rightist on Twitter. A quick look through his post history shows him to be a new atheist who has devoted column inches to the supposed “myth” of Islamophobia whilst writing profiles of Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, who has in the past described Islam, a religion of over one billion adherents, as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and who has called for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the current assault on Gaza which has killed over 400 children at time of writing. I will leave the reader to decide upon the author’s professed neutrality, based on the intellectual company he keeps. Now, onto the substance, such that it is.
The first point made in the piece is a typical trope pulled out by IDF and Likud apologists, that it is wrong for the weight of international opinion to bear down so heavily on Israel, because there are more people dying in other conflicts. The big question mark placed at the end of this is the supposition of closet anti-semitism on the part of Israel’s critics. The author writes: “If I were Assad or ISIS right now, I'd be thanking God I'm not Jewish.”
However, there was a great deal of international outcry about the conflict in Syria, and the UK even had a vote in Parliament on whether or not to go to war over it. With the Islamic State, condemnation and outrage at the actions of the group is there in droves. It’s really possible to be in two places at once on these things. What’s perhaps a more important distinction is that the conflicts in Iraq and Syria represent an internal armed conflict – otherwise known as a civil war. Israel’s acts against Gazan civilians represent the acts of an occupying power against a civilian population. Under the Geneva Conventions, Israel has a greater responsibility towards the Palestinians than Assad has towards the Free Syrian Army or the other thousands of resistance groups that have cropped up in the conflict. The outrage against Israel for its actions, therefore, can be defended as an expression of a consistent principle of international law..
Aha – the author says - the Israeli occupation of Gaza ended in 2005 with the unilateral withdrawal of troops! Israel is no longer occupying Gaza since its troops left and has not done so for nine years, so it cannot be said to be bound by the laws of occupation! This point is completely bogus, since the laws of occupation don’t refer simply to “boots on the ground”, but to the exercise of effective control over the area. The UN, which is the most relevant authority in this case, still considers Gaza to be occupied. The only people arguing that the 2005 troop withdrawal constitutes an end to the occupation (which Israel has argued isn't even an occupation, so how could it end?) is the Israli government itself and it's not for individual states to dictate principles of international law to the international community. Occupation doesn't refer merely to troop presence but to exercise of “effective control” over an area, which is quite a complex legal principle, but Opinio Juris has a pretty good post on it here as a useful primer.
The Huffington Post piece, as of writing, has been shared nearly 50,000 times on Facebook, which suggests that some people are likely going to be persuaded by this sort of propaganda masquerading as moderated reason. Elsewhere, the author asserts that the conflict can be explained by the religious beliefs of the adherents, and points to a few quotes from Jewish and Islamic scripture to make his point, but it's an idealist point that should be rejected outright by anyone wanting anything besides a surface-level understanding of issues in the Middle East. Jews and Muslims live peacefully together just fine in other parts of the world. It's the interjection of Sykes-Picots and Balfour Declarations creating arbitrary borders in the Middle East that leads to conflict. It's true that the rhetoric used in these conflicts is often religious, but the overriding history of the Israel/Palestine conflict is one of politics, both local and geo-.
We are also told to ask ourselves exactly why Israel would deliberately want to kill civilians; the thrust of the point being that Israel should actually be commended rather than condemned for its conduct, because of the firepower it possesses and the capability for it to actually completely annihilate the population of Gaza if it wanted to means that the fact it hasn't demonstrates its high regard for civilian life. Of course, we could extend the very same point to a country like North Korea, which could, if it wanted to, simply shoot all of the 200,000 people it has in its concentration camps. The DPRK, then, should be commended for keeping its political prisoners alive. I just watched Vice's excellent documentary on ISIS – in which an ISIS fighter politely tells a man to get his wife to change the fabric on her veil. He could have beheaded her right there and then – so should he be praised for his exercise of restraint?
It's necessary to combat these sorts of predjdices, because they have a tendency to skew perspectives towards favouring a brutal occupying power at the expense of understanding of the issues. The election of Hamas as the dominant legislative power in the Occupied Territories was a goldmine for supporters of Israel – at last they could have confirmation that the Palestinians are inherently genocidal anti-semites. Let's ignore the fact that in the years before Hamas had far less popularity, or that Islamism was itself heavily fundedby Israel in the 80s to erode Fatah support. All that matters is that we're able to paint the Palestinians as a one-track minded, genocidal “other”, evidenced by the victory of Hamas.
Of course, there are some elements of the piece which pay lip service to the crimes of Israel, and at the end of the piece the author rather confusingly calls upon Israel to end the “occupation” which he'd earlier on argued didn't exist since 2005. That said, the overall tone is one of sympathy for and rationalisation of the occupiers and vilification of the Palestinians. Those of us, meanwhile, who value consistency and facts in our continued desire to understand these issues, would do well to leave this sort of thing well alone.