Israel’s moral power ebbing away in a human rights catastrophe

Nov 7, 2023
Jerusalem and flag of Israel.

Israel’s strategic choices, as Israelis see it, are rather like those sometimes argued for Australia. It wants powerful friends but cannot take them for granted. Ultimately it must depend on itself, if needs be alone. Surrounded by deadly enemies, it must make the cost of conquest so high, and so uncertain, that invaders are deterred. All the better when one has nuclear weapons, because its enemies must consider whether, if the survival of the state is in question, Israel would use them, whether on the battlefield or in the cities of the enemy.

When faced with invasion, it must always win a complete victory over its enemies, because otherwise annihilation is a real possibility. Alternatively, it must be in such a superior position when international calls for a ceasefire can no longer be resisted, lest any enemy is able to consolidate any strategic advantage gained. Nuclear weapons aside, it cannot threaten annihilation to enemy nations, because attempting to do so would only widen the conflicts in which it is engaged, and, possibly, bring hostile international intervention beyond its capacity to resist.

It will find its allies where it must, but has learnt that it can never rely upon them. They, like Israel itself will determine their actions by their own national interest and cold calculation, not by sentiment, old treaties or sense of a common cause. Its most likely ally, the United States, was once much affected by its need to maintain access to Arab oil, and had to balance its loyalties to Israel against its need to maintain relations with at least some of its suppliers. But now American dependence on Middle Eastern energy is much reduced, but other nations with continuing needs, such as China, or Europe, may see the balance of interests in different terms.

The sense of Israel having to stand alone against its enemies is deeply influenced by the horror of the Holocaust, when the world did little about Nazi extermination programs, even though it was aware of them. It was reinforced by the desperate struggles between Jewish settlers in Israel, whether against the native Palestinians and British colonials trying to keep the peace and ultimately throwing up their arms in despair. And by the terrorism, massacre, murder and intimidation by which many Palestinians were pushed permanently out of Palestine in the lead-up to the proclamation of Israel, supposed to be shared with the Palestinians. Israel will never be free, or at peace with itself or its neighbours until its faces up to the injustices of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, never allowed to return.

If Israel has felt continuously under threat from neighbouring Arab nations for its whole 75 years, its sense of permanent siege has been accentuated by the spectre of war and resistance from the Palestinian population. The tit for tat has assumed the character of a foreign occupation on the part of the Israelis, with Palestinians facing restrictions on their movement, and continuous police and military controls, designed to stop or punish guerilla attacks on the Israeli population, including by children. Each side blames the other for the conflicts, and the barbarity these have involved, but they take place against a steady encroachment on Palestinian lands for Israeli settlements.

The Hamas massacre cannot be excused. But the Israeli response is illegal and inhumane.

The horror and the wickedness of the October 7 massacres on civilians, including women and children, cannot be excused or seen as a proportionate response to just complaints by Palestinians. But the nature of the Israeli response, after it declared war on Hamas, has more than incidentally exacted a larger toll on innocent Palestinian civilians including women and children. It has involved the demolition of much of the city, ostensibly in the name of being closely targeted missile attacks on known Hamas members. Urban Gaza has been deprived of power, food and water.

After world, particularly American opinion, forced some external aid, the number of convoys allowed through has been only a fraction of the minimum necessary to sustain life. Israeli co-operation has been grudging and has heavily restricted the flow of supplies including petrol to sustain power in hospitals, claiming it fears it will be diverted to Hamas. Israeli spokesmen have seemed to suggest that attacks on any area believed to contain Hamas members are justified, with the “incidental” deaths of many civilians almost their own fault for living in the area. Residents are, apparently, equally responsible for living over secret tunnels.

There is no doubt that Hamas is a fierce and violent paramilitary organisation, a de facto government able to exact taxes and manufacture crude missiles. But it is hardly the executive form of a nation against whom some usages of war, including the risk of “collateral” civilian casualties might be understood. In an all-urban environment, Hamas is blamed for locating their centres in city areas, hidden among houses, shops and, apparently, even hospitals. These are, it is suggested, legitimate targets if Israeli intelligence believes Hamas is in the area. Israel has claimed that a massive intelligence failure allowed the October 7 massacre to occur without warning. But the very same apparatus is now said to be able to pinpoint Hamas operatives.

The impression that Israel is using its war against Hamas as a war against the population is almost irresistible, if only from the rubble into which Gaza is turning. Hamas is not representative of the Gaza population, even if it now encapsulates some of the frustration and anger of the residents towards Israel. The suggestion that Israel is using the occasion as a form of 1948-style ethnic cleansing is accentuated by the fears that much of the population will end up being forced, unwillingly into Egypt, and, in the same manner as those displaced by the Nakba in 1948, never allowed to return.

For many Israelis, and not a few of their uncritical supporters, the October 7 massacre and hostage taking has consecrated the Israeli struggle to survive as a nation. It screamed for justice and vengeance against the perpetrators, and those who assisted them. Taking a step backward might be seen to profane the occasion.

But the manner of exacting revenge has almost completely deprived the victim state of any moral advantage it had. The ferocity of the response of Palestinian civilians, and the indifference to their situation on a battlefield, has been in every sense equally a crime against humanity. That some might say that “the Palestinians started it and must reap the whirlwind” overlooks the fact that the overwhelming majority, particularly the children, are entirely third parties to the wicked events. One might justify a murderous Israeli rage, but not about its being exercised against people without any responsibility for events.

Israel might point out that Hamas is the de facto ruling authority in Gaza and has provided services to people within the population. But it is in no way the democratic expression of the popular will and operates rather more as a mafia on behalf of third parties, including Iran. And critics of Israel might remark that Hamas became as powerful as it is because Israel built it up as a counterweight to the rival political group Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian authority. By playing one against the other, Israel was able to pretend that there was no body with whom it could negotiate any form of two-party state.

Hamas is neither a state nor the instrument of the people of Gaza.

It is not hard to understand Israeli intransigence and defiance. But neither the Israeli government, under its prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, nor the Israeli Defence Force have been able to emulate the discipline, firmness of purpose and flexibility which attracted admiration during Israel’s foreign wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Initially, certainly, the population, and the world, were united in horror at the nature and scale of the Hamas atrocities. It was not so clear that everyone united behind a policy of war and revenge, particularly under the leadership of Netanyahu.

American president Joe Biden, first of many world leaders, including Australia’s, to affirm Israel’s right of self-defence, was soon emphasising his continuing commitment to a two-state solution, and the need to respect international law in what was done. That cry has spread, and, in many cases, sympathy for Israel has been evaporating with the feeling of a massive over-reaction against people who are innocent.

There were some abroad whose first instinct was to celebrate the Hamas massacre. But the more recent demonstrations have disavowed antisemitism, or joy at the way Hamas struck, purportedly on behalf of Palestinians. Rather they have deplored the incident which ignited the Israeli reaction but focused on concerns about group punishment, and the welfare of the population. The evidence, including interventions by moderate politicians worried about the tone of Israeli rhetoric, and by the images of the reduction of the city, runs the risk of turning the Israeli over-reaction into a propaganda coup for Hamas.

It was always clear that Hamas planned for, and expected, a massive over-reaction which would strip Israel of moral authority and make their continuing rule over the Palestinians an international embarrassment. Whatever dealing with Hamas “once and for all” means – it seems doubtful that its “victory” will stop the erosion of world confidence in a compromised sovereignty or make ongoing relationships easier.

Britain (and France) promised a homeland for Jews during World War I, in the hope of getting greater support from Jewish groups. The Balfour declaration was seen as a betrayal by Arabs who had been encouraged to revolt against Turkish rule and made promises about decolonisation and self-rule. Instead, France assumed colonial control over Syria and Lebanon, and Britain took control of Palestine, Trans-Jordan and Iraq, albeit under Hashemite kings. The initial resistance of the Arabs was not antisemitism of itself, but indignation that the British were treating Palestine as if it were terra nullius, open to the transplantation of an entirely new population. There was, of course, a small long-standing Jewish and Christian population along with the Arabs, but it was clear to the Arabs, particularly as Jewish settlers flooded in, that it was they who were to be displaced. It was not with their consent, but by decisions in London, and, later, in the United Nations.

Can the very idea of an Israel endure?

The continuing hostilities of Arab neighbours, as well as the continuing plight of Palestinian refugees in countries surrounding the new Israel turned Israel into a local super-power, not least from its usual ready access to American and French weaponry, including the means of developing a nuclear bomb. Despite the relative ease with which the state repulsed invaders, and occupied land it had “conquered”, many wondered whether the state could long survive in the face of the hostility of neighbours who denied its legitimacy and vowed to dismantle it. That Israel was a relatively open and western-oriented democracy stood in sharp contrast to the despotism elsewhere, but even its “otherness” was a rallying cry for despots keen for external enemies.

Israel may have survived this phase. It is doubtful whether any Arab state would any longer attack it, although Iran, and some of the Gulf states, continue to fund Palestinian causes. The longer-term threat – one that will persist until Israel makes some peace and accommodation with the Palestinians — is of increasing international disdain from the wider international community, including from nations that supported its establishment in 1948. Despised for the obvious ill-treatment of Palestinians and accused of establishing apartheid. Not hated for being Jewish but for being a continuing threat to the peace from its encouragement of illegal settlements.

No longer a decent and liberal society, forgetting for a moment its treatment of the Palestinians, but threatening to become an intolerant ultra-nationalist theocracy, as backward as its equivalents in Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan. A nation run by a crook who is in the process of subverting the judiciary.

That’s not what the idea of a Jewish homeland promised. If the state imploded, the risk is not of a new Holocaust or program of extermination, but of a new diaspora, going elsewhere for the educational and intellectual and economic opportunities no longer available there. It’s hardly the first time, whether in this millennium, the one before, and the ones before that nations formed around Jerusalem have foundered, leaving a rich archaeology but not much moral example.

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