The Sanders Middle East mirage

The Sanders Middle East mirage

Colin Rubenstein 


Canberra Times – April 29, 2016


The candidacy of Bernie Sanders for the Democrat nomination for president of the United States has excited many pro-Palestinian activists. Even academic Amin Saikal (“Bernie Sanders dares to challenge Israel”, Times2, April 20, p5) has jumped on the bandwagon.

This Sanders euphoria is based on few facts and much posturing, vitriol and emotion. For instance, Sanders told the New York Post that he thought more than 10,000 “innocent civilians” had been killed in the 2014 Gaza war. Even Hamas and the United Nations put the number at more like 1500, and Israel says it was about 1000. Similarly, his claims about “disproportionality” reflect a basic ignorance of what the term “proportionality” means in international law.

Though it is of course true that residents of Gaza have been and continue to be the innocent victims of the conflict, and it is a tragedy that there is still not peace between Israelis and Palestinians, any fair analysis of the situation demonstrates that to hold Israel solely responsible, as Saikal does and implies Sanders also does (though this is far from clear), is untenable.

Start with Gaza. Israel evacuated it completely in 2005, removing 8000 settlers and all military bases. Rather than establishing a prosperous territory living in peace next to Israel, and paving the way for proposed Israeli withdrawals in the West Bank, terror groups started raining rockets down on Israel. This worsened after Hamas took control of the Strip in June 2007 in a bloody coup. Since 2005, more than 11,000 rockets have been fired indiscriminately from Gaza at Israeli civilians, each one a war crime.

Yet Saikal bizarrely claims that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing “everything possible to undermine any chance of a united Palestinian leadership by continuously treating Hamas as a “terrorist organisation”.

Hamas is regarded as terrorist by most of the Western world, including Australia and even some Arab countries. This is due not only to the rockets, but its long history of other terror attacks, including dozens of suicide bombings.

Sadly, since 2007, Hamas’ often massive rocket bombardments have forced three major Israeli campaigns in response.

In each, Israel has gone to great pains to avoid civilian casualties with steps unprecedented in war such as calling, texting and leafleting civilians to warn of impending attacks, and even dropping unarmed missiles on roofs as warnings. Unfortunately, Hamas’ illegal tactic of hiding weapons and other military infrastructure among civilian buildings, including even hospitals, makes civilian casualties and damage to civilian buildings inevitable.

However, a group of senior international military officers, including Australia’s own Major-General Jim Molan, reviewed the 2014 conflict and found that Israel’s conduct “not only met … but in many cases significantly exceeded” the standards set by the laws of war.

The past six months have seen a wave of violence in Israel, with individual Palestinians using mainly knives, but also guns and cars, to randomly attack Israelis. Thirty-three people have been killed in these attacks, which are often portrayed as a result of Palestinian frustration. In fact, they are prompted largely by incitement emanating from the Palestinian Authority, from President Mahmoud Abbas down. Having falsely accused Israel of intending to change the status quo on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and claimed the Jews were “defiling” Muslim holy sites with their “filthy feet”, Abbas stated in September, “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every shahid [martyr] will reach paradise.” The PA has since lauded many of the attackers.

About 200 Palestinians have been killed in this period, most while carrying out attacks. Saikal inaccurately and unfairly labels these death as Israeli “atrocities”. If a person armed with a knife, determined on both murder and martyrdom, charges at either soldiers or civilians, it is simply very hard for security forces anywhere to stop them without using deadly force. Certainly that was the case for the Australian police officer who shot dead Numan Haider as Haider stabbed another officer in Melbourne in September.

Saikal’s claim that Netanyahu is adamantly opposed to a Palestinian state is just untrue. Netanyahu has certainly expressed doubt that now is the time to create a Palestinian state, with the Middle East in turmoil, terror groups filling every power vacuum and the PA inciting violence and even refusing to negotiate.

However, Netanyahu has repeatedly stated he supports a two-state resolution and has a standing offer to meet with Abbas without preconditions. Further, US mediator Martin Indyk stated that during peace talks in 2013 and 2014, he saw Netanyahu “sweating bullets to find a way to reach an agreement” on two states with Abbas.

The PA, however, refused to show any interest in progressing those talks despite Israeli confidence-building measures such as a moratorium on construction in settlements and the release of Palestinian prisoners who have killed Israelis, after having walked away from generous offers of statehood in 2000, 2001 and 2008. Today, the PA is refusing to meet at all.

The settlements are an issue that must be resolved but they didn’t prevent the previous offers of statehood, or the withdrawal from Gaza, and won’t stop the creation of a Palestinian state now if a reasonable compromise appears achievable.

The real obstacles to peace are Palestinian intransigence, incitement and terrorism, lack of unity and the rejectionism of Hamas.

Misrepresenting these realities, as Saikal and Sanders do, is inimical to the cause of peace, encouraging further intransigence from the Palestinian leadership and deflecting attention away from the real causes of the impasse. These must be identified and resolved if the two-state peace that all people of goodwill hope for is to finally be achieved.

Dr Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. Previously, he taught Middle East politics at Monash University for many years.