As the week of fighting in Gaza finally ends, there is relief across the world no matter which “side” one is on. Despite political differences, there is a natural horror with which we look upon those caught in the crossfire, imagining ourselves in their wretched plight. Yet perhaps confused by the superior firepower of the Israeli Defence Forces, there are many who hold Israel responsible for the ongoing suffering in Gaza. No doubt, there is much that Israel’s political leaders have mucked up over the years and in more than one arena, but their constraints on the Palestinian Question – even accepting a two-state solution – are genuine.
To begin with the immediate conflict, the discrepancy in the number of casualties is interpreted to mean guilt; the overwhelming firepower is translated as the empty roar of the guilty. Yet the fact that fighting began after over 800 rockets were fired into southern Israel by Harakat al-Muqawana al-Islamiya is not given equal prominence. Furthermore, it is disregarded that the lower number of Israeli casualties is not by design, but because Hamas relies mostly on cruder technology rockets. Knowing full well the limitation of means, Hamas engaged with the IDF from its urban bases in Gaza, endangering civilian lives. This conflict – and many others before it – has nothing to do with victory in battle and all to do with garnering international sympathy for the Palestinian cause at the expense of innocent civilians.
The solution, we are told, is a negotiated permanent settlement. It doesn’t take a Mensa IQ to understand that this asymmetric war can never be won by either side. Yet who should Israel negotiate with? Hamas, the present government of the Gaza Strip, does not truly represent Palestine. It is a Sunni Islamist outfit designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States and is largely viewed by the West as an obstacle to peace, particularly since it has not eschewed violence as a means of policy. Its approval among the people it governs fluctuates wildly, from the mid-sixties to the low teens depending upon the headlines of the day.
More importantly, it is difficult to see how Israel can be asked to negotiate with a group that has sworn its destruction. The Hamas Charter, which its advocates are quick to disregard, insists not only on a united Palestine but one over which the Muslim flag will fly, and states that renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of the religion of Islam. The battlefield reversals and the diplomatic failures have shown Hamas to be more willing to negotiate with Israel than its doctrinaire position – in July 2009, Khaled Meshaal, the exiled chairman of Hamas, announced that the group was willing to accept a Palestine based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital provided that Palestinians also had the right of return. Yet many fear this to be only a temporary measure, given Hamas’ refusal to explicitly eschew violence or amend their charter. Is Hamas trying to have its proverbial cake and eat it too?
Suspicion of Hamas’ intentions also arises from the repeated public professions of its leaders. Hamas leaders like Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh have proudly declared, “death for the sake of Allah is our most supreme desire.” Just three months ago, Yussuf al-Sharafi, a Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, announced on Hamas TV, “Allah, take the Jews and their allies; Allah, take the Americans and their allies…annihilate them completely and do not leave anyone of them.” Anti-semitism is rife in the occupied territories; from television shows to school curricula, a message of hate is pounded into the populace. In Jewish experience, it has been unwise to ignore such exhortations to genocide, particularly from governments.
The Palestinian cause need not be as hopeless as it is now. Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad have proven to be capable administrators and are seen as serious partners for peace in Israel as well as the West. They have both eschewed violence and Fayyad has brought a semblance of governance to the West Bank. Unfortunately, they are not able to control extremist elements and every deal Israel strikes with Hamas – the ongoing trilateral talks between Israel, Egypt, and the Hamas, for example – undermines them further.
There is also this to be asked – why was Ehud Barak’s 2000 and Ehud Olmet’s 2008 peace offer rejected? It accepted the 1967 borders, division of Jerusalem, joint custody of the Jerusalem basin, and a token right of return. Supporters of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas say that these were difficult deals that could not be sold to the Palestinian people, but that did not seem to stop Anwar Sadat in 1979 or Hussein bin Talal in 1994. It is a leader’s job to sell his people the wisdom of hard decisions sometimes, not make excuses.
Another standard refrain is that Palestinians have tried everything and they have no choice but terrorism (what else does one call suicide bombings and random murder?). But what is “everything”? It certainly covers a lot of activities, from general strikes, non-violent resistance, mass demonstrations, lobbying foreign governments, etc. Politics is the art of repetition; imagine a political party that turns to revolution because their one rally was not well-attended! As Michael Walzer writes, the “resort to terror is merely ideologically last, not last in a series of action, just last for the sake of the excuse.” Hamas does not have the political strength and this weakness is their excuse. This confuses weakness vis-a-vis Israel and weakness vis-a-vis their own people. Terrorism relies on a consequentialist argument, that the end justifies the means – but which nation has been born from the smouldering remains of a car? Furthermore, if “all is fair in love and war,” what makes IDF actions morally reprehensible?
The fact is that the Palestinians, for all their suffering, have been cursed with what one commentator called the worst liberation movement in history. No group yet has genuinely represented the vast majority of Palestinians; they have committed acts of terrorism and advocated genocide; they’ve had no vision of Palestine since the Crusades; and for all the claims Hamas and its advocates make of just war, they are nothing more than terrorists killing wantonly – their own as well as their opponents.