This week the United Nations Human Rights Council published its investigation into last summer’s Gaza conflict.
Reading the report, and following the media coverage, reminded me just how topsy-turvy is the world of Israel and Gaza.
Even the language used to label the event is peculiar in its lack of precision and descriptiveness. Using the word ‘conflict’ deliberately removes any sense of blame or emotion in relation to what took place. It allows journalists and politicians around the world to give the impression of academic detachment and impartiality to what took place during those 51 days last summer.
But I’m not sure how you can be academic and impartial once you are familiar with the historical context, the disparity in weaponry and, most importantly, the death toll suffered by each side.
As I listened in my car to the BBC Radio 4 evening news on Monday, I wondered what a more casual listener, less caught up in the agonies of the Holy Land, would make of the UN’s key finding:
“…both Israel and Palestinian militants may have committed war crimes.”
To my ears there was something deeply misleading about the UN’s even-handedness, which was reflected in the BBC’s reporting. I’m quite sure many listeners would have been mentally shrugging their shoulders and wishing a biblical plague on all concerned.
So here’s a little context to clarify matters.
On one side, the State of Israel has one of the world’s most technologically advanced and well-funded militaries and is officially recognised as a legitimate player on the world stage with a responsibility and moral right to protect its citizens from terrorist rocket attacks.
On the other side, Hamas is shunned by the international community and demonised by Israel as Islamic terrorists bent on its destruction. The Hamas political leadership in Gaza has no regular army. Instead, there are various radical militias that act with considerable autonomy.
Additionally, Gaza is besieged by Israel on land, sea and air which means that despite Israel’s unilateral ‘withdrawal’ from the Strip in 2005, it is still, under international definitions, an occupied land. Resistance to any of this by the Palestinians is, of course, considered to be terrorism.
So last summer’s ‘conflict’ was not a showdown between great armies facing each other on the battlefield as military equals. The battle between Israel and Gaza is the ultimate in asymmetric (topsy-turvy) warfare.
The evidence is in the numbers
Hamas’s “possible war crimes” led to the death of 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians including one child.
Israel’s “possible war crimes” led to 2,251 Palestinian deaths including 1,462 civilians. Of these, more than 500 were children. According to the UN’s report, at least 2,955 children were injured and preliminary estimates indicate up to 1,000 will be permanently disabled. Meanwhile, whole neighbourhoods were destroyed.
As the UN report acknowledges, Israelis were certainly scared and felt terrorised and anxious about rockets and ‘terror tunnels’. But they were not dying in their hundreds every day and nor were their homes, streets, hospitals, factories, schools and synagogues being reduced to rubble.
Yet, every time a Hamas rocket is fired (and that’s been happening again this week), it is Israel that claims it is defending itself against a truly existential threat. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, is one of those politicians happy to peddle this line on their behalf.
But on our TV screens last summer the world saw something very different. We watched every night as an impoverished and trapped community were pulverised by a regional superpower. It’s fairly obvious to anyone bothered to acquaint themselves with the facts which side is existentially threatened. This was not a conflict. It was a murderous assault.
There’s more topsy-turvyness to observe in the UN account
The Commission authors accuse Israel of having accurate weapons which it then used inaccurately, leading to the high death toll of civilians. Quite rightly, the investigators were not impressed by Israel’s claims to have given fair warning to innocent parties by the use of phone calls and small munitions providing a warning ‘knock on the roof’.
“The fact that Israel did not revise its practice of air-strikes, even after their dire effects on civilians became apparent, raises the question of whether this was part of a broader policy which was at least tacitly approved at the highest level of government.”
It does indeed “raise the question”. But I’m not confident we will ever get a satisfactory answer. Not until Benjamin Netanyahu is being cross examined in a war crimes tribunal. But don’t expect that ever to happen.
Actually, even I could have told the politicians and generals what their military strategy would achieve.
Anyone who followed Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9 and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 could point out that how ever accurate you claim your weapons to be and how ever brilliant your on the ground intelligence, if you drop large bombs from the sky in urban areas or fire shells from tanks at apartment blocks then bad things will happen to good people. You don’t need to study at Sandhurst or West Point to work this out
In contrast, Hamas militants are criticised by the UN report for having inaccurate weapons which they then, inevitably, used indiscriminately.
“The use of rockets in the possession of Palestinian armed groups, indiscriminate in nature, and any targeted mortar attack against civilians constitute violations of international humanitarian law, in particular of the fundamental principle of distinction, which may amount to a war crime.”
So is it better if Hamas had more accurate weaponry? That seems to be the only way for Hamas to avoid the central accusation of war crimes made against it. What we seem to have is a weaker player criticised for being militarily weak. An odd state of affairs. Topsy-turvy.
Refusing to talk
Israel of course refuses to negotiate with Hamas. We will not talk to terrorists who deny our right to exist, goes the refrain. But you do exist and Hamas and all the residents of Gaza will know by now that Israel is not going to stop existing. Regardless of their ridiculous antisemitic charter, Hamas politicians talk about wanting to end the Israeli siege and recognise the 1967 borders. Their opening diplomatic gambit is not the destruction of Israel. They may be radicals but they are not fantasists.
I’m not saying that Hamas are angels. Angels don’t carry out summary executions of political dissidents and alleged informers. But neither are they Islamic State (IS). And if I’d lived my whole life on Gaza Strip I might well think they represent my interests.
But Israel isn’t keen to talk to anyone.
It wouldn’t talk to the Palestinian Authority last year, despite all John Kerry’s efforts to open meaningful peace talks, and then claims that the PA would not be capable of delivering a peace settlement. On the other hand, Israel also says it would not talk to a Fatah-Hamas unity government should one ever be formed. We don’t talk to terrorists. So it’s divide and rule. It’s classic Catch-22 territory – heads we win, tails you lose.
Assuming it is serious about protecting its own people, one day Israel is going to have to sit down and talk to Hamas. When it does it will need to adjust its topsy-turvy world view.
In the real world, Hamas is weak, not strong. Neither Hamas politicians nor Hamas militias have a stranglehold on Israel. The reverse would be more accurate. And there’s no point in demanding that they first renounce their racist charter, or recognise the essential Jewishness of the State of Israel, or embrace pacifism and lay down their arms before any conversation can start. If they do that they will have nothing left to negotiate with. The IRA declared its war against the British was over and decommissioned its arms at the end of the negotiations NOT at the beginning!
I’m not expecting anything like the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement to happen soon between Israel and Gaza. There is no political will in the centre or right, or even what passes for the left, in Israeli politics. It’s as if Israel would rather have eternal enemies to justify its actions than deal with its past or secure its future.
The topsy-turvy world of Israel and Gaza is going to continue for some time yet.