If you understand the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, you’ve been misinformed
1 Jul 2021|

On 15 June, the always tenuous ceasefire was broken with incendiary balloons launched from the Palestinian territory and Israeli airstrikes on Gaza in retaliation. The Middle East has probably yielded more Nobel Peace Prizes than any other region, yet peace in the Middle East is unlikely in my lifetime and may not eventuate in God’s lifetime.

After 11 days of fighting between Hamas and Israel in which around 250 people were killed, mostly Palestinians in Gaza (sometimes said to be the world’s biggest open-air prison) and 12 Israelis, a ceasefire took hold on 21 May. As always, both sides claimed victory. Israel said it had destroyed much of the ‘infrastructure of terror’ and decapitated the senior Hamas leadership while demonstrating the remarkable success of its Iron Dome missile defence shield in hunting, intercepting and killing incoming rockets mid-flight. More than 4,000 rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel. Some fell short, some fell into uninhabited areas, most were intercepted and destroyed mid-flight, and some landed in residential areas where Israel has built a network of bomb shelters. Does the success of Iron Dome lessen Israeli urgency to look for political solutions to the enmity with neighbours?

Given the very modest military returns, it’s hard not to think that the primary motive behind Hamas’s rocket barrage was to provoke an Israeli military response as a means of rallying the faithful, and any waverers, behind the Palestinians and causing international embarrassment to Israel. Hamas wins by the mere fact of surviving, and this time Palestinians also emerged from the fighting with their unity strengthened. The BBC reported that morale among the Palestinian armed groups is intact and perhaps even stronger. Hamas suffers no reputational damage in the Arab world for Israeli civilian casualties of its rockets and garners international sympathy and worldwide Muslim support for any Palestinian civilian casualties of Israeli strikes, giving it an asymmetric advantage in the propaganda war.

Israelis are not far wrong in saying they use missile defence to protect their civilians while Hamas uses civilians to shield missiles. Hamas thus has little incentive to minimise civilian casualties. And indeed placards in Western countries that quickly framed the conflict as one for racial justice—Palestine can’t breathe and Palestinian Lives Matter—leveraged the perception of Palestinians as the dispossessed victims. Will this foster the growth of anti-Semitism in the West? A long-term cost to Israel could be the first stirrings of civil war between its Jewish and Palestinian-Arab citizens.

The deadly violence in May occurred against the backdrop of decades of unremitting hostility and killings and a month-long escalation of tensions in Jerusalem. The origins and the complexities have deep roots in history—prejudice against the Jews deeply embedded in Christendom, European colonialism, and power asymmetry between Israel and its enemies in the region either singly or even collectively. The core issues that sustain the conflict include Israel’s right to exist, the Israeli occupation of land conquered in wars, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, the status of Jerusalem, and a state of Palestine. The last three Gaza wars were in 2008, 2012 and 2014. As the strikes on 15 June confirmed, the century-old conflict hasn’t been either resolved or frozen, but merely paused until the next killing of a Palestinian by an Israeli policeman or settler, or the next killing of an Israeli by an Arab terrorist or Hamas rocket.

The competing moral arguments—that reparation for the Europeans’ genocide against Jews was paid in Palestinian currency and that the right of Israel to exist as the Jewish homeland was earned with the lives of millions of Jews exterminated in the Holocaust—are not directed at each other, but to the world at large. Politics explains the creation of the state of Israel, the life-threatening hostility directed at it by various groups in the region and its grim determination to defend its very existence by any means of its own choosing, stretching the boundaries of permissibility in the process by unilateral interpretation. With the Holocaust indelibly seared into the Jewish consciousness, never again is Israel likely to outsource its moral compass on national (as in the Jewish nation, not the state of Israel) security to anyone else, friend or foe.

If Hamas resistance is defined by terror, Israeli occupation is rule by fear and overwhelming force that confiscates or razes Palestinian property and colonises Palestinian land with impunity. And global politics explains the failure to hold the main conflict parties accountable for their acts of illegality and possible criminality in the self-repeating cycles of escalation, civilian casualties and impunity.

The West continues to act as the enforcer of the historically unjust redrawing of demographic equations in territorial jurisdictions. Burdened by Holocaust guilt, the West seems unable to draw any moral red lines that Israel may not cross. Instead, the setting of the West’s moral compass on the region’s conflicts is outsourced to Israel. The result is that conduct that many Western governments would consider unacceptable for themselves or others is rationalised or not opposed when done by Israel.

Equally, however, because of the powerful continuing resonance of the Holocaust, the Jewish nation is not prepared to tolerate existential threats to its only homeland; nor is it willing to depend ever again on others’ goodwill for its survival. Instead, Israel is determined to ensure its continued existence as a Jewish nation, and as the only state for the Jews, by its own means, including whatever force it takes. Thus, Israel is as grimly determined to defend, protect and preserve its existence as its enemies are to destroy it.

As for the UN system, the Human Rights Council in Geneva is focused obsessively on Israel; the veto-paralysed Security Council in New York compensates by granting Israel virtual immunity against consequences for defying a succession of resolutions over the decades; and the international criminal justice machinery has until recently conferred virtual impunity on Israeli generals and Hamas commanders from independent international investigation and prosecution. The combined result of the three separate pathologies is to discredit the entire UN machinery in almost all relevant constituencies in the core Israeli–Palestinian conflict.