It may seem an odd, almost insensitive thing to say but the most searing aspect of the current appalling violence between Israelis and Palestinians is not the death, destruction and suffering from new storms of rockets and bombs and bullets. It is the awful, depressing predictability of it all. The only difference this time is the ugly spectre of violence between Israelis themselves.
The line-up of suspects in this new chapter of violence is varied: self-absorbed figures—Palestinian and Israeli—who pretend to be political leaders but who are all politics and no leadership and who play an appalling game of “they started it” which now stretches back well over a century; an authoritarian and violent organisation, Hamas, keen to show, despite its brutal rule in Gaza, that it and not the sclerotic Palestinian Authority is the true champion of Palestinian rights; the turmoil that is Israeli politics under a long-failing leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who will turn over any rock in an attempt to cling to power; the toxic mix of mutual contempt and miscalculation and the hard, cold fact that dealings between Israelis and Palestinians often involve intimidation and violence; lacklustre international involvement which has done little to improve the mentality or the reality on the ground.
President Obama’s eight years in office made little real difference to the Israeli occupation. President Trump rewarded that occupation by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and producing in early 2020 the Trump peace “vision”. That bloated and self-aggrandizing document might as well have been written in Netanyahu central. It will remain as fundamentally useless a pathway to peace as most of us are likely to witness in our lifetimes.
Who knows if President Biden will be much better. In the words of his press secretary Biden’s approach in one of “quiet, intensive diplomacy”. It’s certainly been quiet. Defending Israel’s right to defend itself is fine in theory but it’s a trail of very dirty laundry and identifying who shot first makes covid contact tracing look a breeze. The risk for Biden is that—balancing domestic and foreign policy pressures—he will carve a middle way which will be just as useless, though in a less spectacularly offensive manner, as the approach of his immediate predecessor.
Eventually, international appeals for calm and exhaustion, especially Palestinian, will produce a fire-blanket to smother the current violence. Nothing will be settled. That cannot happen as long as there is so much despair and hatred on the ground. It cannot happen unless and until Israelis and Palestinians stop living in worlds mentally sealed from each other, consumed by their own story and dressing only their own wounds.
Hamas and its even more egregious cousin, Islamic Jihad, hold no mortgage on hate and the urge to destroy. Competing in the 2019 Israeli prime ministerial election (one of four in the last two years), the former head of the Israeli Defence Force and current defence minister, Benny Gantz, produced a campaign video showing drone footage of a Gaza neighbourhood devastated during Israel’s seven-week assault on the territory in August 2014. The video’s title boasted that, “Parts of Gaza were returned to the stone age”.
The stone age is certainly where some of Israel’s ardent supporters want Gaza to be. Greg Roman, Director of the Middle East Forum, whose self-proclaimed goal is “to protect Western civilization from the threat of Islamism,” wrote recently that Israel should “massively bombard Gaza” and even enter and occupy it. Such a “significant victory” would bring “peace closer” by convincing “the average Palestinian that Israel is here to stay and should be accepted in full” Really? That’s been tried before—why would it work any better this time?
Those who subscribe to the teach-them-a-lesson-they’ll-never-forget school would be well advised to read a recent telling analysis by Daniel Byman from the Brookings Institute. He noted that, despite its dismal record, Hamas remains firmly ensconced in Gaza, with Israel and the Palestinian Authority fearing that Hamas will gain power in the West Bank either through elections or a forceful takeover (as happened in Gaza). That “would be a nightmare for Israel”. Byman added that even if Israel battered Hamas leaders in Gaza into submission, the current violence “threatens to further weaken peaceful Palestinian voices, help Hamas overcome its many weaknesses, and create new rifts within Israel”.
Those rifts—between Israeli Jew and Israeli Arab, the latter making up some 20 per cent of the country’s population—are now dramatically on display. The Israeli journalist, David Horovitz, last week wrote of an “an orgy” of ethnic violence born “of a boiling mix of factors both historical and fresh tearing the country apart from within”. He attributed the explosion to decades of Israeli government neglect and a pervading sense of discrimination. “And that’s without factoring in identification with the Palestinian cause.” A descent into civil war, Horovitz said, was potentially more threatening than any enemy across the border.
Can Australia do more than mouth the usual platitudes about halting violence, urging restraint and restoring calm? For the moment, maybe not. But when that “calm” has returned, Australia could take a good, hard look at what passes for its policy towards the conflict. Through word and deed, or sometimes lack of both, Australia appears to have joined the Israel-right-or-wrong cheer squad.
Foreign Minister, Marise Payne said on 12 May that the “focus of all parties to the conflict must be on a return to direct and genuine peace negotiations as soon as possible, with a view to defining a just, durable, and resilient peace agreement”. Just what will Australia and those who proclaim friendship for both Israeli and Palestinian actually do to help bring that about?
The government should be guided by the findings of a recent public opinion survey, covered in Pearls and Irritations, that the sympathies of 62% of the 3,459 respondents lay “equally with both sides”. Australia can and should be a friend and a critic of both Israeli and Palestinian. Its policies should be guided primarily by events in the region, not perceptions of what works best in Australia’s voting booths.