There certainly was a victor in the 6-21 May Gaza flare-up. It wasn’t the cause of peace, national reconciliation, or socialism. Israelis are no safer. The Palestinians who were exiled in 1948 are no closer to self-determination. Arab Israelis have not advanced towards equality.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been sidelined and marginalised. The Israeli Defence Forces, for all their technical wizardry, failed to prevail in a contest of asymmetrical warfare. There were, in short, many losers.
But there is a victor, and that victor is clearly Hamas. It had made a mockery of the Israeli embargo, having amassed a mountain of missiles and missile making materials, blueprints and technical expertise. Hamas was not looking for full-scale war. They undoubtedly knew that their patron, Iran, had not given Hezbollah the green light to open a second front on Israel’s Lebanese border. And Israel could not risk a ground invasion for fear of upsetting that calculation.
But Hamas could not resist the power-seizing opportunity that the dispute about evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem presented. The assault on Israel was a gamble, a gamble that the international community of Third Worldists and leftists would have their back and, more important, that its brazen acts would inspire the dispirited Palestinian community.
The heart of the immediate Sheikh Jarrah dispute is not a complicated legal issue, but a straightforward political one. Jews have the right under a 1968 law to reclaim pre-state property in Jerusalem for which they had deeds prior to the 1948 war, but which they were forced to abandon. And Arabs do not. Without this law, this case would not exist.
The exercise of this law is a post-traumatic flashback for the indignities that Arabs had experienced in the first decade of Israel’s existence, when abandoned Arab homes were commandeered to house the influx of Jewish refugees. The law created a right of (property) return — for Jews.
Arab residents had been given this once Jewish-owned property to live in rent-free by Jordan and the tenants had been living under that arrangement after the deed reverted back to their original owners. The deed had subsequently changed hands and the current pro-settler landlords demanded rent on pain of eviction.
For the Palestinians, given their inequality before this law and past victimisation through a network of legalised land robberies in the 1950s, acquiescence before this provocation was one humiliation too far. And, were there any doubts, the Jewish supremacist Lehava movement made quite sure to drive that point home, marching triumphantly through Arab neighborhoods in the spirit of Polish nationalists parading through the Warsaw ghetto in the interwar years. Long simmering Arab nationalist passions were provoked throughout the mixed cities and towns. The match was lit.
Any sensible Israeli government could have extinguished the flame by simply buying the land, converting it to state property, while reassuring Arab tenants that past arrangements would be honored. That is, any Israeli government that sought reconciliation with its Arab citizens and residents and sought to parlay such acts as olive-branches to the surrounding Arab world; any government, that is, that sought to defang Jewish rabble rousing and embrace Arab rights; any Israeli government that sought to promote a multinational Israeli democracy; any Israeli government that sought to redeem and rebuild its international standing.
But a non-chauvinist government is a government Israel is sadly lacking. What it has is Netanyahu and bankrupt political elites that feed on chauvinism, wink at supremacy, and thrive on national division.
Israel’s abject failure opened the door. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas took the door off the hinges. The Palestinian Authority cancelled the first Palestinian election in 15 years, an election Abbas’s triply divided party was almost certain to lose to Hamas. The pretext for this cancellation was the (unstated) refusal of Israel to allow the election to take place in Jerusalem itself. Of course, Palestinian residents could have cast their ballots in the West Bank or by mail. So this excuse was as flimsy as tissue paper.
Having been deprived of an electoral road to power, the theocratic fascists of Hamas needed a way to demonstrate that they, and not the PA, are the most resolute champion of Jerusalem, of Islam, and of Palestinian dignity. Jerusalem aflame was the very cause they needed. And as an ally and semi-proxy of Iran, Hamas launched thousands of rockets, unsettling Israeli lives and threatening to disrupt the tenuous path of compromise and normalisation that Israel and parts of the Sunni Arab world have been of late experimenting with, an experiment that imperiled Iran’s drive to regional hegemony.
For socialists and radicals, the fact that Hamas was not seeking full-scale war does not excuse their actions, which led to an inevitable military escalation. Even on its own terms, one might ask how the indiscriminate bombing of Jerusalem defends Jerusalem?
And what right, moral or legal, does Hamas have to aim missiles deliberately at Israeli civilian sites from launchers embedded in its own population centres? Every missile was a war crime; every Palestinian a Hamas hostage-shield.
At the same time, the legitimate right of Israel to survive — which in any case was not a factor in this conflict — is not a carte blanche excuse to rationalise any aggressive response it choses. Mass bombing of entire housing blocks, water treatment infrastructure and medical facilities to kill individual Hamas commanders and destroy launchpads exacts a human toll disproportionate to the meagre military gains. Civilian destruction, even if unintended collateral damage, is no less a crime when the choice to exercise that option for trivial military advantages demonstrates a chauvinist indifference to innocent Arab life.
It is of little consolation to Palestinian victims that Israeli warfare has one of the lowest civilian kill ratios of any similar asymmetric conflict. One only has to recall the conduct of American and British forces in Fallujah, Serbian militias in Bosnia and Kosovo, Russian troops in Chechnya, Saudi and Iranian massacres in Yemen, Turkish outrages in Kurdistan, Syrian reprisals domestically. The list is endless.
And one could only imagine what would be left of Cuba, were they to rise up in resistance to the American embargo, and similarly lob a barrage of rockets at Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West; or how the American anti-war movement might react. Presumably with a tad bit less of the bravura “unconditional support” for Cuban “resistance” crap that it has exhibited in this conflict. That is, if it wished to have a future with the American public.
But a lesser crime is still an affront to human decency. And no amount of Israeli rationalisation or contextualising can mitigate that. Decent world opinion will no longer tolerate the “We’re-not-the–worst-offender,” “far-worse–actors-than-us-have-been-given-a-pass,” “we’re- being-held-to-a-higher-standard” and “Hamas-also-needs-to-be-held-to-account” special pleading, even when all these alibis retain an indisputable kernel of truth. Hamas popularity is an artifice of occupation and the enduring crime of national repression is its lifeblood. It will only wither when its lifeblood is cut off. It cannot lose militarily, because, as long as the occupation exists, it will always be able to replenish its ranks.
For these reasons, the world has grown wary of the same shopworn Israeli apologias, where supposed dedication to peace with justice is swamped by indefatigable willingness to defend the status quo.
Tragically, abhorrence at Israel’s callous overreaction is not confined to “decent,” that is, consistently democratic opinion. And by decent, I more concretely mean those who seek a future of equal rights, civic and national, for Palestinians both in Israel and in their own independent state. Socialists have every right and obligation to defend the Palestinian cause. But we are also obliged to pursue that defence based on our values, our politics, and intercommunal working-class interests. Not by parroting Palestinian and Arab chauvinist arguments that deny the legitimacy of another national community.
Building from below
When Hal Draper posed the problem of “How to Defend Israel?” in 1948, he meant defending Israel with socialist, not Zionist, arguments and means. He meant class-struggle politics that unified Jews and Arabs against their common oppressors.
We face a parallel challenge today. We have our own methods, the methods of political warfare; of building movements from below that unify national communities of struggle against all ruling classes and would-be ruling classes. And we have the arsenal of democracy to draw from, not the contrived and invidious propaganda of racial grievance.
Contrary to much of the Western far Left’s narcissistic psychodrama, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a clash of chauvinisms, not of races, not of white supremacists and black subalterns. The Black faces you are most likely to regionally encounter are those of African Jews, not Palestinians.
Is Israel an “apartheid” state? Israel is an occupation state. Its citizens, Jews and Arabs, are subject to a different legal framework than the subject people, who have been granted, under the Oslo agreements, self-rule within zones of occupation.
Japan was occupied by the US until the early 1950s; its outer islands for another 20 years. The Japanese were subject to Japanese laws; the occupying forces to American laws. Disputes between Japanese nationals and American occupiers were usually settled in the framework of American judicial arrangements. Socialists objected to the occupation regime as a violation of Japan’s right to self-determination. We deferred to generally recognised democratic precepts, not to the wounded martial and national pride of Japanese chauvinism.
No reputable historian, socialist or mainstream, sympathetic or triumphalist, has ever retroactively labeled this occupation arrangement “apartheid.” And neither should we here.
Is Israel within the Green Line an apartheid state? Discrimination against Palestinian Arabs in Israel abounds. No-one would describe the US today or France as apartheid states, though people of colour can hardly claim equality in either state. Also, in Israel, it’s discrimination based on nationality rather than race.
Arab-Israelis, in contrast to Black South Africans under apartheid, are citizens of the country; they can participate in its political life by forming parties and voting, by protesting and by petitioning for redress; they can bring cases against Jews to court, serve on juries, in legal proceedings and as jurists; they have the right to immigrate and emigrate, they have (on paper) the right to chose where to live, their job and place of work; they can acquire an education and property; they can own businesses, engage in professions; they can socialise, have sexual relations with and marry Jews. They can worship freely. None of these individual rights are prohibited by embedded structures of Israeli legality.
There are regulations and practices that distinguish between Jew and non-Jew, but not at the level of systemic, comprehensive, non-remedial discrimination as practiced by apartheid South Africa.
It is possible to conceive of an Israel — largely within the existing legal framework — that accords comprehensive equal individual rights to Israeli Arabs, translating paper equality into active equality. That does not prevail today, but it is not even precluded in advance from coming into existence through existing channels of legal reform.
Licensing the racialising narrative of equating Israel with “apartheid” has been a victory of sorts for the Palestinians and a disaster for Jews everywhere. It allows Hamas to be laundered from an Islamic chauvinist terrorist organisation into a social justice movement struggling against “white supremacy” and “genocide”. It has raised novel strains of “virtuous” Jew-hatred and compounded the marginalised hatred from the right with a hatred of far greater appeal and respectability from the left.
If Zionism is judged a variant of white supremacy, and Jews who support the Zionist “project” are deemed collaborators with racism and Islamophobia or are at least racist-adjacent, then it is open season against Jews as it would be against the KKK. The onus is then upon Jews to demonstrate that they are innocent of the “crime of Zionism”.
This moral blackmail too is an insidious form of political warfare.
It is the trap the left fell into when it abandoned its political independence, checked its “white privilege” and became the cheering squad for Palestinian irredentism.