This article originally appeared in an edited form at LobeLog.
With U.S. bombs dropping in Iraq once again and Israeli troops having moved out of Gaza, the fighting between Hamas and Israel has faded a bit from the headlines. The battle for the narrative of the 2014 Gaza conflict is now stepping up its intensity, and, as usual, the truth seems to be losing.
If one wants to understand what has happened in Gaza and in Israel over the past few months, it is important to understand not only the underlying causes, but the immediate triggers as well. It is something of a victory that one of those underlying causes, the siege of the Gaza Strip, has remained in the center of discourse, after spending much of the past seven years off the radar and outside of diplomatic and media discussions.
But one overarching point has become a virtual theme not only in Israel, but in the United States and much of Europe as well. That point is that this latest conflagration started as a result of Hamas rockets being fired upon Israel. It is important to recognize that only a willful misreading of the timeline can bring about this conclusion.
Two events set the current escalation in violence in motion. One was precipitative: the unity government agreement between Fatah and Hamas. That move was welcomed, however conditionally, by the U.S. and the international community, but was bitterly opposed by the far-right government currently in power in Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was concerned that a unified Palestinian government would be better able to restart the peace process to which he is so opposed, and possibly to even wrangle international pressure toward some small concessions from Israel. He needed an opportunity to shatter that unity government without incurring the wrath such open defiance could bring, especially from Europe.
The second event was the spark that gave Netanyahu just what he wanted. The kidnapping and murder of three youths on the road from an Israeli settlement presented Netanyahu with an opportunity and he seized it.
By the morning after the event, the Israeli government knew the youths were dead. In Israel, they are somewhat accustomed to people being killed, but when they are held captive, the country is incensed. So, Netanyahu maintained a charade of the young men being alive to whip the country into a frenzy.
As the anger in Israel built up, Netanyahu stoked the Palestinian fire with a massive operation in the West Bank, targeting Hamas operatives. They did this despite the fact that they knew that this was not a Hamas operation, but one perpetrated by the Qawasmeh clan, which is affiliated with Hamas but is notorious for acting on its own. Recently, Israel has tried to cover up this aspect with claims about the perpetrators having received “funding” from Hamas. But that is a thin tale, considering that no funding for this act was needed.
Israeli forces swept through the West Bank, sometimes encountering resistance which resulted in several Palestinian deaths, brought the day-to-day lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians to a halt, and arrested hundreds without charge, including many who had been released in 2011 as part of the swap for the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. That was a breach of the exchange agreement and a very sore point for Palestinians across the board.
It was at this point that one of the quietest periods in rocket fire from Gaza began to crack, although Hamas was not yet the party firing. Matters escalated from there, with all the horrors, bloodshed and destruction that we’ve witnessed since.
That picture obviously doesn’t paint Israel in a very favorable light. So it’s no surprise that it is being distorted by the constant repetition, from a great many quarters, that “no country would tolerate rockets being fired at it or tunnels being dug across its border.”
We’ve been hearing that line or support for it even from people critical of Israel’s swath of destruction across Gaza. It is often a justification for Israel’s actions, within a criticism of Israel “going too far,” perhaps even way too far. But this was a lot more than a justifiable response taken too far.
Israel’s “right of self-defense” was defended like a holy relic. But little is ever mentioned of the requirement under international law for an occupying power to ensure the safety of the people under its occupation. In other words, Israel is the one that is ultimately responsible for the safety of Palestinians not only in the West Bank but also in Gaza. Israel controls Gaza’s coastline, airspace and most of its borders as well as holding a “buffer zone” inside it. That means that, even under the kindest interpretation, Israel is at least responsible for protecting Gaza from outside attack.
No doubt, Israel is also absolutely responsible for the safety of its citizens. It certainly does have every right to protect Israeli civilians from attacks, whether from within or without. That, however, is not the same as the right of self-defense.
The tunnels, which have become a terrifying specter for Israelis despite the fact that they’ve been there for years in some cases but haven’t been used until this conflict was in full swing, did not necessitate the massive destruction that Israel caused in Gaza. Egypt managed to find a way to destroy hundreds of tunnels without levelling Rafah, for example.
And, of course, it is true that countries do not tolerate cross-border fire and infiltration. But in most cases, countries avoid the whole question by not occupying territory over their border. True, Israel is not the only country engaging in occupation; but the examples are few and far between these days, relics of a bygone age when colonialism was in style. That’s why Israel is contending with these vexing issues. Because while sovereign states have the right of self-defense, and the responsibility to protect their citizens, occupied people also have the right to resist. We don’t hear that very often.
Of course, that right to resist does not mean Hamas or any other Palestinian group has the right to target civilians or put civilians at undue risk with indiscriminate weapons. Any legitimate inquiry into the events of recent weeks must look at those crimes as well.
But the narrative needs to be kept in perspective. First, any judgment of what has happened here needs to include the capacity of each side not only for destruction but also for avoiding undue destruction. It must also look at the scope and scale of damage to each side, of course.
But a reasonable narrative must be fuller than that. The entire escalation was caused by Israel’s attempt to shatter the Palestinian unity government. It probably went farther than Netanyahu, who is not adventurous by nature and tends to be more reluctant to engage in larger scale military actions than most of his predecessors, really wanted. But this did not start when Hamas escalated rocket fire. Nor did it start with the goal of eradicating infiltration tunnels.
If people believe Israel was justified in its actions, then they should be defending the actions Israel actually took. Instead, the narrative is being shaped by the opening sentence in too many quarters, stating that “no country would tolerate rockets and tunnels.” One hopes reality can continue to shine, but when even many critics start their critique of Israeli actions that way, it’s hard to hold on to hope.