IN THE MEDIA
The folly of ‘even-handedness’ in the Hamas-Israel conflict
May 19, 2021 | Colin Rubenstein
Canberra Times, May 19 2021
It is easy when watching the latest bloodshed between Israel and Hamas to throw up our hands in despair, to blame both sides for the conflict, to call for both to pull back, with Israel as the stronger party expected to lead, and for the resumption of peace talks. But is it fair or helpful?
Understanding how to approach a conflict requires an understanding of what’s behind it. We read that this latest violence allegedly started because Israel is attempting to throw Palestinians out of their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, and then without cause attacked Palestinian worshippers on the Temple Mount.
However, the Sheikh Jarrah case is often being grossly oversimplified. It is about a complex private court case over a few properties, not Israeli government policy. Jews owned the land from 1875 until 1948, when Jordan expelled all Jews from East Jerusalem, and settled Palestinians on it. After Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967, it legislated that where Jordan had passed title to land to Palestinians, they would retain ownership, but where Jordan had not done so, as in these cases, the land reverted to the original Jewish owners.
Israel’s courts resolved the resultant dilemma by deeming the Palestinian residents protected tenants, and said they could stay indefinitely if they would pay minimal rent. However, the residents have for some time refused to pay the rent and have built further dwellings in contravention of their lease, while other people have also moved onto the land.
The owners therefore applied to evict the residents, and the case has, after many years in Israel’s court system, reached the Supreme Court. Sadly a private real estate dispute has been transformed into a nationalistic cause, seen as justifying violence.
Meanwhile, the Temple Mount violence was clearly premeditated. Some Palestinian worshippers stockpiled rocks, fireworks and petrol bombs, and used them to attack not only Israeli police, but also Jews praying at the Western Wall, at the base of the Mount.
The rioting was incited by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) citing Sheikh Jarrah, and Hamas then used it as justification to fire a barrage of rockets (now over 2000) indiscriminately into Israel on May 10, dramatically escalating and precipitating the current conflict.
Hamas, a terrorist, Islamist, genocidal organisation which rejects Israel’s very right to exist, had three distinct tactical motivations. With PA President Mahmoud Abbas postponing scheduled Palestinian elections, which were 12 years overdue, Hamas wanted to show that it is the protector of Jerusalem and assume Palestinian leadership.
Hamas was disquieted that Israeli Arabs were integrating and identifying more as Israelis, rather than as Palestinians, with an Israeli Arab political party for the first time negotiating to be part of an Israeli governing coalition, so Hamas also hoped to drive a wedge between Israel’s Arabs and Jews.
Also, Israel’s relations with the Arab world were improving, with Israel having signed the Abraham Accords – normalisation agreements – with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. More nations were also expected to join, so Hamas wanted to disrupt that historic process.
Some claim that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, having supposedly blocked peace talks for years, is exacerbating the conflict to help him cling to power. But there is support for Israel’s actions right across Israel’s political spectrum, with one of Netanyahu’s fiercest rivals, Defence Minister Benny Gantz, directing the Israeli campaign. Moreover, it is the PA that has actually blocked peace initiatives, having refused generous offers of a state in 2000, 2001 and 2008.
According to US envoy Martin Indyk, in negotiations in 2014, Abbas simply walked away when Netanyahu was “sweating bullets” to make a deal. It is Abbas who has refused to talk since then.
Many also say that even if Israel is exercising a legitimate right of self-defence to counter Hamas indiscriminately firing rockets at Israeli population centres – a war crime – its reaction has been disproportionate. However, this is to misunderstand the law and morality of war. It begs the question of what would be proportionate – for Israel to indiscriminately fire as many rockets at Gaza as Hamas fires at Israel? Of course not!
Israel is entitled to use sufficient force to achieve its legitimate military objective of degrading Hamas’ ability to fire rockets into Israel. Very tragically, despite Israel’s best efforts to avoid civilian casualties, this can result in civilian deaths – as Hamas, in a further war crime, hides its weapons, ammunition, headquarters and other military/terrorist assets among its civilian population, and uses every civilian Israel accidentally kills for propaganda. Israel almost always warns civilians to evacuate buildings it’s about to attack, even though this allows Hamas fighters to escape.
It’s also important to note that many of the civilians killed in Gaza have been hit by rockets fired by Hamas and other groups at Israel which have fallen short – at least one-fifth of all rockets fired at Israel have fallen inside Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas habitually claims that fighters killed by Israel were civilians.
This context makes it clear that simply accusing Israel of excessive force and calling on both parties to de-escalate, claiming that both parties are equally at fault, confuses the Hamas initiator of this conflict with the party responding to end it. It confuses the arsonist with the firefighter. It is also counterproductive, because it will lead to further violence at a time Hamas or its patron Iran so chooses. The world must instead stand with Israel and its right and duty of self defence – as countries would expect others to do if they were subject to this kind of terrorism – allow it to achieve its military aims, and make clear to Hamas it will no longer benefit from its cynical, terrorist behaviour.