In recent days, bombs have been dropping on Gaza while rockets have continued to rain on southern Israel, as they have been for months. As usual, there is a premium on accurate information and a discount on propaganda. As usual, people stick to instinctive positions.
So, instead of trying to argue the rights and wrongs of a centuries-old conflict, we might note one thing. The events which have dominated the last week’s news do not relate to a dispute between Israel and Palestine, because a large part Palestine is not involved – at least, not yet. Currently this is a conflict, specifically, between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza, a regime with which Labour has some prior history, to which we will later turn.
Hamas is not the Palestinian people, just as the Likud party is not Israel; in fact, it does not even govern most of the Palestinian people, at least in a de facto sense, only the small area of Gaza. And the self-determination of Palestine is a manifestly just cause which few on the left or right can reasonably disagree with. Unemployment is high in Gaza and living conditions can be grim, even when its citizens are not being subjected to bombing. Ordinary Gazans deserve to live in freedom, in prosperity and free from attack. They do not.
But we might, at this point, look at their elected representatives in Hamas, and the means by which those representatives choose to govern and to further their cause. Hamas is not part of the PLO and is therefore separate from Fatah, the PLO faction which runs the West Bank, although the two are getting over their differences. For those who have not followed the subject closely to date, here is a brief Hamas 101.
Hamas has a founding charter which is overtly anti-Semitic (try article 20 for starters) and its members are not averse to Holocaust denial. That is, its ethos is not merely anti-Israel, but specifically anti-Jewish. Hamas executes its own citizens unlawfully, according to the UN. It also oppresses women and homosexuals. It was democratically elected, but has not had an election since 2006 (one is vaguely planned for 2013, but no-one is holding their breath).
And one hopes that the population of Gaza remembers, when it finally comes, how the people they elected placed its rocket launchers in residential areas, as noted by “a source close to Hamas” in this NYT piece, so they could act as human shields, so little respect did they have for the lives of their own electorate.
Finally, there is an important elephant in the room: perhaps unbeknownst to many who might watch BBC News coverage of the conflict – because they usually omit to mention it – Hamas is classified as a terrorist organisation in the US, EU and Japan. The Foreign Office will not engage with it because it “remains committed to terrorism”. It is known for its suicide bombings (till 2008) and rocket attacks, which specifically target civilians; something which even the IRA, in its heyday, at least purported to avoid.
Incidentally, much was made of the Goldstone report of the last Gaza war of 2008-9, which made a similar accusation against Israel, that it was actively targeting Palestinian civilians. In 2011, Richard Goldstone published this article in the Washington Post, effectively retracting this key finding and admitting that it had been naïve to compare Israel and Gaza on an equal footing. So his report misled the world, despite the fact that for Israel to have targeted civilians would not only have been morally abhorrent but, given the processes of accountability in place in a democracy, legally dangerous and politically disastrous.
About the investigations carried out by both sides into possible war crimes, Goldstone notes that the Israelis investigated as they were instructed, whereas Hamas were not interested:
“Indeed, our main recommendation was for each party to investigate, transparently and in good faith, the [possible war crimes] referred to in our report. McGowan Davis has found that Israel has done this to a significant degree; Hamas has done nothing.”
On the other hand, Netanyahu seems to be the most disastrously unsuccessful leader for securing peace that Israel has had in recent years, and his unpleasant coalition partner and foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is known for his inflammatory, anti-Arab outbursts. Their encouragement of the building of settlements in occupied areas is bafflingly counter-productive. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, with abler statesmen in office, it might not have come to a virtual state of war.
But even this duo, full of bluster and rhetoric, can hardly be claimed to have been trigger-happy by last week: any Israeli leader, of any party, would eventually have done the same. And it seems doubtful that, if rockets had been raining down on Greater London (a comparable area, by the way, to that under attack in southern Israel), the British government would have counted to one thousand before retaliating. Or practically any government in a similar situation, for that matter. As Emeritus Professor in Politics at Manchester University, Norman Geras, blogged:
“the Israeli government not only has the right, it has an obligation, to defend its citizens from being under constant threat of rocket fire.”
Despite all the available information about Hamas, there are parts of the British left who have happily “engaged” with them for years. Who invited one of its fundraisers to the House of Commons to speak. The labour movement sponsors organisations which visit it in Gaza. Although there is no official “engagement” policy within Labour, we think nothing of having our Labour Members photographed with its leaders, wearing Hamas scarves and badges (I will spare you the photos, but they certainly exist).
As Labourites, internationalists and lovers of freedom, we don’t have to stop supporting the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, and neither should we. But we might just reflect on this: is the support, or “engagement”, or however we choose to euphemise it, of some of us towards a terrorist group which deliberately targets civilians, really helping things?
Or are we, perhaps, merely useful idiots legitimising a rather nasty regime?