It is astonishing to find that the level of violent conflict in the world at present has pushed stories about ISIS rape and murder of Christians in Mosul down to third place in the news. Western military intervention in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan was in large part based on a narrative that as countries become more civilized, they will naturally turn into Western-style liberal democracies. The wave of violence across the Middle East shows what empty hubris this myth really is.
The tragic shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and the horrific killing of civilians, and particularly children, in Gaza have jostled for first place in the news. We wonder how one airline could have suffered two such tragedies in so short a period of time, and reel at the agony of relatives who do not know what will happen to the bodies of their loved ones. But the coverage of Gaza, particularly on social media, has highlighted another deadly dynamic in Western coverage. Just as the camera of the news crew cuts out the wider context of the picture we are seeing, social media coverage has often prohibited the asking of questions about the Israel/Gaza conflict. We are expected to move from our horror at child deaths straight to condemnation of one side in the conflict—and to ask questions about such a move is (in my experience) greeted with disgust or disdain.
How we use social media in this case really is a matter of life and death. As John Gray points out, ISIS, Hamas and other Islamist groups are very adept at making use of social media. Why did Hamas start firing rockets randomly on Israeli citizens without warning? The only really plausible explanation is that they knew that Israel would retaliate; that because of their superior weaponry and defence, the Israelis would suffer many fewer casualties than the Palestinians in Gaza; that by siting rockets in schools and hospitals there would likely be civilian casualties; and that this would cause an outcry in Western media leading to pressure on Israel to make concessions. It appears to have worked. Every time we take sides in response to the horrific stories of death, we are participating in this process—making it more likely that Hamas (or other groups) will do the same again.
An excellent piece in the New York Times at the weekend highlighted the other problem with Western responses—or in fact any idea of taking one side or the other:
The failure to acknowledge the humanity and legitimate interests of people on the other side has led to cross-demonization. That results in a series of military escalations that leave both peoples worse off.
Israelis are absolutely correct that they have a right not to be hit with rockets by Hamas, not to be kidnapped, not to be subjected to terrorist bombings. And Palestinians are absolutely right that they have a right to a state, a right to run businesses and import goods, a right to live in freedom rather than relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land.
Both sides have plenty of good people who just want the best for their children and their communities, and also plenty of myopic zealots who preach hatred. A starting point is to put away the good vs. evil narrative and recognize this as the aching story of two peoples — each with legitimate grievances — colliding with each other.
There is a useful video that has been doing the rounds, and gives a basic outline of some key historical moves—it is worth watching as part of understanding the context.
This is brief overview, and there are some important things that need fleshing out here—and some impressions that will no doubt be contested.
The first important thing to note is that the process of Jews settling in Palestine did not suddenly happen in 1947 as you might infer from the video. It started in the 19th century as a result of the rise of Zionism, particularly under the leadership of the Austro-Hungarian Jewish writer Theodor Herzl. Hebrew began as a modern spoken language when Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, living in the Old Quarter of Jerusalem in the 1890s, forbade his wife and children from saying anything at home unless they said it in (biblical) Hebrew. The kibbutz I lived on in my year out, Kfar HaMaccabi, was established by members of a Jewish youth movement from Czeckoslovakia and Germany in 1936.
Like many of the problems in the Middle East, this one had its roots in the decisions by the former colonial powers in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Just as the problems with ISIS and the borders of Iran and Iraq have their ultimate origin in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, the problems of the two-state settlement in 1948 go back to the British promising the land of Palestine simultaneously to Arabs and Jews, the latter in the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
There was a significant change in Israeli politics, when it elected its first right-wing Likud government, led by Menachem Begin in 1977. Up until then, the state had been governed by the Labour party under a more liberal, European style of democracy. The reason for the change was primarily demographic; European Ashkenazi Jews had a lower birth rate than Sephardic Jews who had emigrated from Arab states, and who had a much less tolerant attitude to the Arab nations who had been oppressing them. In other words, Israel began to treat the Arab nations much more as they had been treated.
This makes the peace agreement of 1978 with Egypt all the more remarkable. But the change in outlook led to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the first war that was not pre-emptive of or in response to an Arab invasion of Israel. I was shocked to learn that the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila had been created by the Lebanese refusing to allow Palestinians refugees to settle and integrate (as in other Arab countries) and that the massacre there was carried out by Lebanese Arabs, though with Israeli collusion.
The theoretical commitment of Israel to exchange land for peace has been seriously compromised by the illegal settlements on the West Bank—though Israel has removed settlements in the past, at significant political cost.
In reflecting on what is happening, we also need to be honest about the nature of Hamas as a movement. It come to power by means of a coup in 2007, which means that there is no longer a single Palestinian Authority governing Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as there had been previously. The coup was a battle between Hamas and Fatah, and relations between these two movements seems to be as complex as relations between either of them with Israel itself. During the fighting, both sides were guilty of serious violations of international law, including the murder of prisoners and civilians, and throwing opponents to their deaths from the top of buildings:
These attacks by both Hamas and Fatah constitute brutal assaults on the most fundamental humanitarian principles. The murder of civilians not engaged in hostilities and the willful killing of captives are war crimes, pure and simple. (Human Rights Watch)
Alan Johnson highlights the difference in the formal positions of Israel and Hamas to the current impasse about the future of the land:
People do not know that when Israel left Gaza in 2005, the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – who, like Rabin and Barak before him, and like Olmert after him, had crossed his Rubicon, finally accepting the need to divide the land – said: “We desire a life living side-by-side, in understanding and peace. Our goal [in disengaging] is that the Palestinians will be able to live in dignity and freedom in an independent state, and, together with us, enjoy good neighbourly relations.”
They do not know that the reply from the Hamas bomb-making chief Mohammed Deif was instant. On the website of the Izz-al Din Qassam Brigades he declared: “I thank Allah the exalted for his support in the Jihad of our people. I ask for your assistance to our jihad… We shall not rest until our entire holy land is liberated … To the Zionists we promise that tomorrow all of Palestine will become hell for you…”
They do not know that Hamas describes Palestine as “an Islamic Waqf (Endowment) consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day” or that it pledges “Israel will exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it”.
They do not know that Hamas rejects all possible compromise with Israel, and all possibility of a negotiated peace in the following terms: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavours.”
As the New York Times piece makes clear, this does not mean either side is all good or all bad—many Israelis have voiced criticism about Government policy or the behaviour of their own troops—though with a free press in Israel, they are allowed to do so.
How does all this affect our response to the current tragedy? It doesn’t mean we should not grieve. But for me it does mean we should be very careful to take sides, or suggest simplistic solutions—still less become part of the social media phenomenon, which is now helping to exacerbate this conflict. The best way to understand it is as an unreasonable response to an unreasonable provocation. And the Palestinian people have been oppressed by the other Arab nations and their own leadership as much as by the State of Israel.
We need to pray and work for peace, and the coming of God’s kingdom of justice for all.
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