Whenever the “international community” starts talking about Israel’s right to self-defence, Palestinian civilians head to the bomb shelters.
Or they would, if they had any—the Israeli government prevents the Gaza Strip from importing the necessary construction materials. During Israeli bombardments, Gazans might try sheltering in UN-run schools, but Israel blows them up and kills the occupants.
Now, as Binyamin Netanyahu promises “mighty vengeance” against Gaza, his Western allies are lining up to make excuses for the war crimes that are undoubtedly just around the corner—or to finance them; the White House says a military aid announcement is just around the corner.
So here are five important facts to remember as the biggest and best-financed military in the Middle East “defends itself” against a blockaded refugee camp of 2.3 million people.
1. Israel isn’t defending itself
If you start a war, you can expect a counter-attack. And when the counter-attack comes, that doesn’t suddenly make your war “self-defence”.
The Ukrainian military has managed to get a couple of drones to explode in Moscow. Does this suddenly give Russia a right to “defend itself” by again bombarding Kyiv? During the US occupation of Vietnam, Vietnamese fighters attacked US bases. Did that make any subsequent US bombing of Vietnam a legitimate act of “self-defence”?
Of course not. And when Hamas, or any other Palestine-based organisation, lands a blow against Israel, it should be seen for what it is: a tiny response in the context of a decades-long war of Israeli aggression.
Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights were invaded by Israel in 1967. They were then pumped full of armed and dangerous Israeli settlers aiming to illegally annex the land. They were sliced up by military checkpoints and walls intended to make Palestinian life unliveable. They were blockaded to starvation and relentlessly attacked.
Israel should “defend itself” from Palestinians the same way Russia should “defend itself” against Ukrainians: leave them alone and recognise that they have the right to live without blockade, occupation and discrimination. Then Palestinians wouldn’t need to defend themselves against Israel. “Occupation is violence”, as Nasser Mashni of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network has said. “Israel hasn’t been defending itself, it’s been waging war on Palestinians, each and every day for decades.”
2. Palestinians can’t ‘fight fair’ because the West won’t let them
Sure, Hamas often targets Israeli soldiers, police and militarised settlers. But sometimes they target civilians, too—or fire unguided missiles into residential areas, hitting who-knows-what. That doesn’t feel like the right way to wage war.
For an oppressed nation fighting back against a powerful occupier, there’s one big problem with terrorism: it’s ineffectual. Israeli occupation won’t be ended by attacks like that. But if Western “humanitarians” oppose Hamas’ tactics, there’s an easy way to solve that problem.
Hamas would undoubtedly prefer to use laser-guided missiles, armoured personnel carriers, and tanks to wipe out the Israeli military infrastructure. So if Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak and Émmanuel Macron really can’t bear to see Israeli civilians caught in the middle of the conflict, they should consider supplying Palestinians with a few dozen F-16 fighter jets and battle tanks—along with air-defence systems, howitzers, and armoured personnel carriers—just as they have done for Ukraine. As Joe Biden said, announcing another shipment of military supplies: “If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure? I’d respectfully suggest the answer is no”. And if Ukrainians weren’t being given jets, helicopters and tanks, they’d still have the right to resist the invasion however they could.
Palestine has been “carved up” into ever-shrinking parcels of bombarded and besieged land for 75 years. Any Western politician who baulks at Hamas’ methods can fix the problem by giving them what they need to level the playing field. But that isn’t likely because Western powers don’t care about human rights or self-determination in Europe, the Middle East or anywhere else. If they did, they wouldn’t support Israel.
3. Israel is worse than Hamas
Credit where credit is due: Hamas’ militants are courageous. You’re taking your life in your hands to openly declare yourself an enemy of Israel while living encircled by the Israeli military. But they go further: they take up arms and confront one of the world’s most brutal and sophisticated imperialist militaries.
Apart from that, though, there isn’t much to recommend them. In their official worldview, they are religious sectarians. In Palestinian politics, they can be gangsterish intriguers—although nobody is likely to observe many democratic niceties when governing a militarised, starving concentration camp under near-constant external attack. Their strategy of terrorism isn’t just wrong; it’s ineffective.
But whatever you don’t like about Hamas, you can bet that Israel can do it even worse. Religious sectarianism? Israel is governed by a far-right coalition including quasi-fascist religious maniacs fighting to convert Israel into a theocratic dictatorship, a kind of Jewish Iran. And unlike Hamas, the religious maniacs in the Israeli government can impose their mad vision with the full backing of their bloated, Western-financed military bureaucracy. Belazel Smotrich, one of the most crazed theocratic Jewish supremacists in Israeli politics, is in charge of Israel’s West Bank settlements—effectively a military program of slow-motion invasion and ethnic cleansing.
Terrorism and kidnapping? Smotrich says Israel should attack the Palestinians “in a way that conveys that the master of the house has gone crazy”. But that’s been the reality of Israeli military policy for decades. Collective punishment—whether it’s bulldozing the homes of innocent Palestinians or shelling Gaza City with white phosphorus—is standard Israeli military practice. Hide from the bombs in a UN-run refugee school? Israel will blow it up. Try to bring food and medicine to Gaza? The Israeli military will wipe you out, execution-style. Hamas capturing innocent civilians? In March of 2023, Israel had more than 1,000 Palestinians held in “administrative detention”—jailed without a conviction or even a charge. It’s a nice way to say “kidnapping”.
Remember this whenever Western politicians wax lyrical about Israel’s democratic values and condemn the supposedly outrageous conduct of Hamas. Anyone who claims to find Hamas’ politics distasteful should absolutely detest Israel: a far-right state halfway down the road to theocracy, where terrorism, kidnapping and mass murder are official policy.
4. This isn’t civilisation versus barbarism
Israel’s publicists present it as an island of European enlightenment in a sea of Arab and Muslim savagery, of which the Palestinians are the most crazed and monstrous. The facts don’t fit.
The people of Palestine—not their political parties or so-called leaders, but the Palestinian masses, who must live, survive and organise under the most terrible oppression—keep showing the world the most extraordinary examples of grace, courage, cooperation and the unquenchable drive to resist oppression.
You could spend your lifetime reading Israeli official PR about its thriving arts scene, tech startups, queer-and-vegan-friendly military, and amazing refreshments on offer at farmhouse B&Bs on stolen Palestinian land. But you won’t find anything that will show you the real potential of humanity like you can read in the stories of everyday Palestinian activists such as Ahmed Abu Artema, a resident of Rafah in Gaza, who wrote in 2019:
“The core of [Rafah] was razed by Israel and Egypt to create a buffer zone, separating families, including mine, with barbed wire. My mother’s family lived on the Egyptian side and Rafah’s division ended in the separation of my parents. Although my mother lived a stone’s throw away, it was 19 years before I saw her again … As I watched the birds fly over the border I could not cross, I found myself thinking how much smarter birds and animals are than people; they harmonize with nature instead of erecting walls. Later that day, I wondered on Facebook what would happen if a man acted like a bird and crossed that fence. ‘Why would Israeli soldiers shoot at him as if he is committing a crime?’ I wrote. My only thought was to reach the trees, sit there and then come back.”
Abu Artema’s ponderings became the movement of the “Great Return March”: weekly protests of unarmed Palestinians marching to the militarised Gaza border, knowing they were taking their lives in their hands by asserting their fundamental human rights in the face of the Israeli war machine. They showed the best of humanity with courage, decency, collective action and the implacable demand for justice. Israel responded in its own predictable fashion: opening fire into the crowds and killing hundreds of marchers.
Whatever stunts and escapades their leaders launch and whatever savagery Israel inflicts on them, Palestinians keep proving the basic logic of this so-called conflict. It’s not Jews versus Muslims, religion versus secularism, or Arabs versus the West: it’s oppressed against the oppressor. In conflicts like that, you have to stand with the oppressed.
5. If you hate terrorism, you should support Palestine
Terrorism is wrong. So we’re faced with one big challenge: how to stop Israel from terrorising the Palestinians.
Any “terror” cooked up by groups like Hamas pales in comparison to the terror Israel unleashes every time it must “defend itself”. Israel’s ruling terrorists can wreck Palestine’s medical infrastructure, starve its population, bulldoze and bomb homes, open fire on civil rights marches and fill dungeons with kidnapped hostages. What Palestinian “extremist” could ever equal that with a few unguided rockets?
Those who care about human rights must provide the Palestinians with the best weapon of all: solidarity. We must expose the self-justifying, victim-blaming lies of Israel and its apologists and support whatever actions can build solidarity with the people of Palestine. Let’s do what we can to replace the puny rockets of Hamas with a global version of the Great Return Marches: an international uprising against Israeli terror.
First published on Red Flag, 8 October 2023