Israel and Hamas: no moral equivalence

May 27, 2024
Palestine and Israel conflict. Flags on chess pawns on a chess board. 3D illustration.

When asked to compare life in apartheid South Africa with conditions in occupied Palestine, Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s judgement ran counter to prevailing orthodoxy. People make the comparison, said Tutu, but life in Palestine is far more brutal and repressive than in apartheid South Africa.

A moral equivalency argument, that one side is no different from another, or that one side is morally far worse than the other, has reappeared in arguments surrounding the International Criminal Court’s charges against leaders of Israel and Hamas.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity including the starving of civilians as a method of warfare and wilfully causing great suffering.

Hamas leaders including Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, taking hostages, rape and other acts of sexual violence.

That Israel and Hamas are listed in the same charge sheets is outrageous says President Biden. ‘There is no equivalence.’ Netanyahu says these charges are totally absurd and anti-Semitic, ‘a travesty of justice.’

The comparison made by Archbishop Tutu in relation to Palestine and apartheid South Africa, reappears in these moral equivalence judgments about Israel and Hamas, though history shows the opposite of what western media and politicians want their publics to believe.

In terms of civilians killed and maimed and the duration of massacres, Israel’s inhumanities far outstrip even the Hamas atrocities of October 2023.

To an uncritical, ahistorical, Israel compliant media, that claim may be unpalatable, but historical sources from 1948 to 2024, including chronicles of massacres from Ahram online supplemented by the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA) are difficult to dispute. From their data I’ll list the names, dates and numbers of Palestinians killed and then see what Hamas equivalence there might be.

Starting with the mass killings and displacement of Palestinians in 1948, history shows 33 massacres. A list of at least 18 can begin with Deir Yassin in April 1948 when 107 villagers were murdered by the Irgun and Stern gangs led by subsequent Prime Ministers Begin and Shamir. May 1948 saw massacres Abu Shasha, 60 killed, and in Tantura, 200 young men shot. July 1948 sees the Lydda massacre when 400 lost their lives. October 1948, Saliha sees 94 casualties blown up in a mosque and at Al-Dawayima, a village near Hebron, 455 individuals were killed having sought refuge in a mosque and cave.

Beyond the atrocities of 1948: Qibya massacre of October 1953, 69 villagers are killed. October 1956, in Kafr Qasim, 49 shot dead. November 1956, Israeli forces attack Khan Younis and Rafah, Palestinian deaths number up to 400. September 1982, Sabra & Shatila, an estimated 3000 Palestinians & Lebanese are murdered. Kazan Commission determines Israeli authorities indirectly responsible for the massacres. October 1990, Al-Alfa 17 killed. February 1994, Ibrahimi Mosque, Baruch Goldstein murders 29. April 2002, Jenin Refugee camp, 54 killed. 2008, Op. Cast Lead, 1417 Gazans killed. 2012, Gaza incursion, 165 killed. 2012, Protective Edge, over 50 days, 2,205 killed. 2018/19 Great March of Return, 223 Palestinians killed, 13,000 sustain severe injuries. May 2021, entry of Al Aqsa mosque, provocation by supporters of Hamas, Israeli air strike retaliation sees 265 killed.

Casualties relating to Israeli retaliation against Hamas start with Palestinian uprisings, the first intifada from 1987 when 1,087 Palestinians were killed, the second Intifada when Palestinian deaths numbered 3000.

Morality cannot be assessed in terms of body counts, but before October 7 2023, Israeli deaths caused by Hamas are not large. Between 2004 and 2024, Wikipedia records 27 Israeli or foreign national deaths caused by Hamas rocket fire. In the first intifada, 100 Israeli civilians and 60 soldiers were killed. In the second intifada, 1000 Israelis lost their lives.

In the October 7 2023, Hamas incursions into Israel, 1,139 people are killed, 695 civilians, 38 children, 71 foreign nationals, 373 members of defence forces, 252 people reported taken hostage. Aljazeera estimates that 50 casualties came from friendly fire.

Compare those fatalities with the Aljazeera reports that since October 2023, 35,800 Palestinians have been killed, 80,011 injured and on the West Bank, 512 Palestinians have been killed. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) records the deaths of 105 journalists, of 196 humanitarian aid workers, including 1 in every 100 of UNRWA staff.

Records are not infinite but in counts of barbarities, western politicians could only treat Hamas as the main instigator if they ignore an easily available record of history.

Even if atrocities since 1948 are ignored, and it would be highly immoral to do so, estimates of equivalence since October 2024, show Israeli atrocities vastly outnumbering deaths caused by Hamas; and that takes no account of one million people displaced, famine prevalent, all universities, water, sewage plants destroyed, most hospitals, churches, mosques, homes and agricultural land badly damaged or destroyed.

In these circumstances it would be surprising if Hamas spokespersons did not express themselves outraged to be included in the same ICC indictment as Israel.

Of more importance is western media’s obscene repeats that Israel can’t surely be guilty of atrocities, that the ICC ‘s charges against Israeli leaders are anti-Semitic. Wilfully blind to history, some commentators go further. According to The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, politicians who do not reject the ICC are engaging in ‘a day of shame’ which according to his Pavlovian mate Peta Credlin, shows the Labor Party ‘backing Hamas over Israel.’

Moral equivalence arguments can’t proceed by obscene determination never to hold Israel accountable, never to delve into the record of history, always to repeat the assumptions that have led to decades of massive injustice.

A skewed version of history can be rectified not by the bully boys’ rejection of the ICC but by considering the merits of the court’s investigation. But that consideration requires the Israel right or wrong supporters to think about the courageous lead given by Senator Fatima Payman, and perhaps, at last, begin to speak truth to power.

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