This time, Americans disgusted with Israeli’s treatment of the Palestinians are not an isolated few. Even among American Jews, the outrage is palpable, and the trickle of condemnation has become a deluge. Some polls indicate that almost as many American join in this condemnation as repudiate it. So there is an opportunity here; a chance that Americans will outgrow their infatuation with Zionism and Israeli ‘democracy’. That might possibly mean relief for Palestine.
Or not. The old attitudes and biases are still dominant, and something in all the indignant protest undermines its chances of capturing mainstream opinion. It seems that, when the rights and wrongs of a situation are unclear, sympathy doesn’t go very far. That, presumably, is why no one gives too much of a shit that three or four million innocent people have been killed in the Congo’s unspeakable but obscure conflicts. Why then are we so upset about the suffering of the Palestinians? Why are we so sure that Israel is monstrously so monstrously in the wrong? It may seem that these questions have been answered in abundance, but they haven’t. Instead, people who, often for legitimate but rather personal reasons, have focused on the Israel/Palestine conflict, rant at one another as if they were confronting the issues. But they aren’t, and this does not play well in the mainstream. To grasp the opportunity before us, we need to be a bit more frank about the events we deplore. What follows tries to indicate, first, what has been evaded, and second, how the evasions can be overcome.
Part I: The Evaders
It’s only human to shrink from hard choices. Current leftist writing on Gaza shrinks from an easy choice. A hard choice would be whether to fight for Hamas. An easy one would be whether, in safety and comfort, to speak honestly about what Hamas actually does. This isn’t happening.
It needs to happen, and not out of some puritanical concern for honesty. Current writing on Gaza is crippled by cop-outs when it comes to Palestinian resistance. Hamas fires rockets which it knows can harm only innocent civilians, including children, who certainly bear no responsibility for Palestinian woes. Even the adults often bear little if any responsibility – some are Israeli Arabs, others are opposed to Israel’s occupation, others are apolitical, which may be reprehensible but probably isn’t deserving of violent death.
Every fifth-rate mainstream commentator notices this. Some of them recoil at the anguish engulfing Gaza. However they also know that nations and populations have a right to defend themselves. When someone sets out to kill innocents, or to fire weapons which can only be expected to kill civilians, that right looms large. In response to this, the left has, with great sincerity and passion, changed the subject. This hurts the Palestinians. Their defenders come over as anything from merely blinkered to cowardly, manipulative or, most often, selectively and implausibly tender-hearted. This doesn’t capture hearts and minds; it just invites contempt.
Every kind of evasion surfaces.
Tariq Ali (“From the ashes of Gaza”, Guardian, 30 December) is among the most adept. We hear that the attack on Gaza is timed to influence Israel’s elections, that Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza has to be considered when the rockets are called a provocation, that the supposedly democratic West doesn’t accept democratic r?gimes it dislikes, that Hamas shows discipline in its cease-fires, that Palestinians are human beings. How does any of that justify the rocket attacks, which harm and try to harm people entirely innocent of Israeli crimes? (Let’s not join American military creeps and talk about unintended ‘collateral damage’ here.) Apparently none of it does: “All civilian deaths are to be condemned, but since Israel is their principal practitioner, Euro-American cant serves only to expose those who utter it.” Oh really? If Hamas’ attacks are to be condemned, something Tariq Ali seems to be doing at the length of a fifty-foot pole, why shouldn’t Israel try to stop them?
Richard Falk (“Understanding the Gaza Catastrophe”, The Huffington Post, 2 January 2009) suggests Israel attacked “not simply to stop the rockets or in retaliation, but also for a series of unacknowledged reasons” – not just election opportunism but also a desire to efface the defeat in Lebanon. But so what if Israel has unacknowledged, perhaps lousy reasons? Maybe it also has good reasons. Maybe defending its innocent civilians is one of them.
Joseph Massad goes beyond mere evasion by writing on the situation without even mentioning rockets or missiles. (“The Gaza Ghetto Uprising“, 4 January 2009) Oren Ben-Dor (The self-defense of Suicide”, Counterpunch, 1 January 2009) very plausibly argues that Israel’s strategy is self-defeating – which hardly explains why Hamas should attack civilians. Robert Fisk takes a similar tack: “Yes, Israel deserves security. But these bloodbaths will not bring it.” (“Leaders lie, civilians die, and lessons of history are ignored”, The Independent, 29 December 2008) Again, the attacks are not explained, nor is there anything beyond mere assertion to dismiss the possibility that Israel’s response will bring, if not security, at least an end to the rocket fire.
Some think fiery rhetoric will do: “Let us get one thing perfectly straight. If the wholesale mutilation and degradation of the Gaza Strip is going to continue; if Israel’s will is at one with that of the United States; if the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and all the international legal agencies and organizations spread across the globe are going to continue to sit by like hollow mannequins doing nothing but making repeated “calls” for a “ceasefire” on “both sides”; if the cowardly, obsequious and supine Arab States are going to stand by watching their brethren get slaughtered by the hour while the world’s bullying Superpower eyes them threateningly from Washington lest they say something a little to their disliking; then let us at least tell the truth why this hell on earth is taking place.”
And what is this truth? We get one mention of the rockets: “Islamist policies and politics…. have nothing to do with primitive rockets being fired over the border.” But the Israeli assault? Does that have nothing to do with the rockets? Focus, focus.
This could go on for many pages. The articles are decent and humane yet, for all their deep sincerity, dishonest as well. The truth is we are all prepared to see children maimed and screaming to further the goals we approve. The first and most important thing we cannot face is our own morality.
Ever since World War II it has been crystal clear that, if defeating evil involves air power, we will bravely let the children scream. We know their fate but we’re stuck with endorsing contemporary military responses to genocide and even mere aggression. In this respect it is we, not Bush or the neocons, who seem out to give Israel carte blanche. If someone is rocketing our cities, however inefficiently, are we to wait until their technology improves, or our population displays an appropriate number of bloody stumps? And if the enemy is lodged in a densely populated area, must we hold off? It seems not – otherwise why can we bomb strategic targets even when we’re certain that civilians will die in the process?
It is beyond obvious that violence is sometimes justified. In some cases, we undoubtedly sanction the use of air power, a clumsy standoff weapon almost guaranteed to kill and mutilate civilians. Hamas uses exactly this sort of standoff weapon. What’s more, Hamas, for the sake of military convenience, has adopted a weapon even more certain to detonate among civilians than when brave anti-fascist pilots took off to fight a genocidal Nazi regime. Jennifer Lowenstein gets it precisely wrong: “Slave owners were also human beings, some of whom suffered unjustifiably violent attacks at the hands of their slaves. What do we do with this information? Sum it up by saying “therefore both sides were wrong”? or try to make people understand what led slaves to lash out in ways that were often so brutal? This changes the entire equation without sanctioning acts of murder or violence.” No, we do indeed sanction acts of murder and violence, in just such circumstances.
These evasions are just what make the defenders of the Palestinians look like sleaze next to the forthright pigs who revel in the brutality we merely try to sneak by our audience. It doesn’t work; it has never worked; it never will work. We all live in the same world and we all know what goes on in it, and how brutal we have become. We cannot and will not go back, not in this millennium. What is happening in Gaza is indeed a horror, and indeed terribly, incontrovertibly wrong. But to show this requires using the morality we have, not the morality we like to pretend we have.
Part II: Credible Condemnation
It is no good saying Israel provoked the rocket attacks; the attacks harm people who had nothing to do with the provocation. It is no good saying Israel’s tactics are atrocious, because neither we nor Hamas forswear atrocious tactics. We share this callousness with anyone who has ever endorsed any modern war or armed operation, or who ever would do so. Since these claims will invite a ‘who’s we?’, the point needs belabouring: if you aren’t against twiddling your thumbs through the Rwandas and Mauthausens and Nankings of history, you’re for atrocities on some occasions, or you’re in denial about what it means to participate in a real war. It is wishful thinking to suppose that we are in a moral position to complain about IDF tactics. The vilest of Israel’s defenders are absolutely right when they say that the IDF is less brutal than some militaries which have been feted as heroes: when Berlin fell in 1945, for instance, as many as 150,000 civilians lost their lives. Even the most humane armies can be counted on, under pressure, to turn inhumane.
For our purposes, then, the morality of war turns not on its conduct but on the reasons for fighting. Iraq and Afghanistan offer proof that good intentions don’t make for good reasons: when well-meaning idiots kill multitudes on the basis of faulty intelligence and twisted idealism, good intentions are no excuse at all. As for any alleged good consequences which might justify a war, we really have no idea what the ultimate consequences are in most cases, and certainly in this one. So the only way of assessing the rights and wrongs of this war, and most wars, is to fall back on the most universally accepted of all moral standards – a right of self-defense.
It’s not complicated. The Palestinians in the occupied territories are in a state equivalent to slavery. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza are not sovereigns. Israel has supreme authority in both areas. That means it can do literally whatever it likes to their inhabitants. This population has no political input whatever into their sovereign’s decisions; the Palestinians in the occupied territories can’t vote in Israeli elections. So the Israeli government has absolute power over these people, and they have no say at all in how they are treated. This is slavery without the muss and fuss of ownership. Slave revolts frequently involved the murder of innocent civilians, but I haven’t seen much hand-wringing about the terrible morals of the rebels. Slaves and occupied peoples are accorded very generous rights of resistance. I doubt anyone today would condemn antebellum slaves on a plantation outside Charleston if they had used indiscriminate standoff weapons against that city. Allegedly freedom-loving Americans should therefore be particularly sympathetic to Palestinian resistance.
But what of Israel’s right of self-defense? It exists, but it doesn’t apply.
Israel, when it conquered the occupied territories in 1967, could have established a sovereign Palestinian state. This would have made the Palestinians, not a subject people at the mercy of their conqueror, but an independent people, responsible for their own acts and for keeping the peace with other sovereign states. Had the Palestinians then attacked Israel, Israel would have had the right to respond in self-defense.
But Israel didn’t do that. Instead, it kept the Palestinians at its mercy, and its mercy didn’t materialize. Israel embarked on a settlement policy that amounted to a declaration of war on a helpless population. The settlements were part of a project to take the Palestinians’ land, all of it, for the use and enjoyment of the Jewish people. Of course Israel did not explicitly say it was going to take from the Palestinians the very ground on which they stood. But the settlements kept spreading, mopping up an increasing share of vital resources, and behind them was a settler movement, hugely powerful not only in the occupied territories but in Israel itself. This bunch of coddled fanatics, many of them American, quite openly proclaimed their determination to secure the whole of Biblical Israel for exclusively Jewish use. The Israeli government backed these racial warriors with unlimited military protection and extensive financial support.
These trends continue to the present day. Sure, Israel got the settlers out of Gaza, and I’m convinced that even Ariel Sharon, not to mention his successors, truly desired to resolve the conflict by withdrawing from the occupied territories and allowing something like a Palestinian state. But my convictions have no weight against what any reasonable Palestinian, or any reasonable human being, has to conclude: that given the continued strength of the settler movement, the continued popularity of the Israeli right, the continued military protection of the West Bank settlements, their continued expansion, and the Israeli government’s all-too-obvious readiness to fight for whatever is politically popular to the last drop of Palestinian blood… given all this, the Palestinians are still faced with a mortal threat. They are still faced with a sovereign whose intentions, if not entirely clear, clearly countenance alternatives leading to an extreme humanitarian disaster for the Palestinians, and perhaps to the entire expropriation of most Palestinians’ necessities of life.
This means that Israel is the aggressor in this conflict, and the Palestinians fight in self-defense. Under these circumstances, Israel’s right of self-defense cannot justify Israeli violence. Israel is certainly entitled to protect its citizens by evacuation and other non-violent measures, but it is not entitled to harm a hair on the head of a Palestinian firing rockets into Israeli cities, whether or not these rockets kill innocent civilians.
Self-defense gives you the right to resist attacks by any means necessary, and therefore, certainly, by the only means available. The Palestinians don’t have the option of using violence which hits only military targets – apparently even the Israelis, with all their intelligence data and all their technological might, don’t have that option! But suppose a bunch of thugs install themselves, with their families, all around your farm. They have taken most of your land and resources; they’re out for more. If this keeps up, you will starve, perhaps die. They are armed to the teeth and abundantly willing to use those arms. The only way you can defend yourself is to make them pay as heavy a price as possible for their siege and their constant encroachment on your living space. You’re critically low on food and medical supplies, and the thugs cut off those supplies whenever they please. What’s more, the only weapons available to you are indiscriminate, and will harm their families as well as the thugs themselves. You can use those weapons, even knowing they will kill innocents. You don’t have to let the thugs destroy you, thereby sacrificing your innocents (including yourself) to spare theirs. Since innocents are under mortal threat in either case, you needn’t prefer the attackers’ to your own.
This may not be the most high-minded conclusion. However it’s a conclusion we are forced to accept – we who very clearly countenance the killing and maiming of civilians in situations not nearly so precarious as what it is to be a Palestinian in the conquered, shrinking occupied territories. The thugs should keep their families from harm by ceasing their onslaught and withdrawing from the scene. Israel’s obligation is similar. It must defend itself at the least cost to others. It should keep its families from harm by giving the Palestinians complete control of their external borders and allowing the creation of a Palestinian state. After this, if Israel is attacked, it can respond. Before, its response is not legitimate self-defense but continued aggression.
This is not about good and bad arguments for Palestinian resistance. It’s about whether the defenders of the Palestinians want to vent, or whether they want to at least try to make a difference. If the bad or evasive arguments are effective, fine. My feeling is, they’re not.
MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org