An edited version of this article appeared at LobeLog.
The moral high ground is always a tenuous piece of property. It is difficult to obtain and is easily lost. It is seen, however, as crucial because most people, all over the world, cannot accommodate the notion that life is composed of shades of grey; they desperately need to see black and white, good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, in every situation. Nowhere is this truer than in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
It has become even more important for Israel to fight this rhetorical battle because, while it can always count on mindless support from Washington and from the most radically nationalistic and zealous Zionists around the world, the current escalation and ugliness is going to be very difficult to defend to even mainstream pro-Israel liberals, let alone the rest of the world. The hasbara (propaganda) has been flowing at a rapid pace, even more so than usual, as Israel struggles to maintain the treasured hold on the “moral high ground” that its own actions have increasingly undermined.
Here is the very simple reality of what is happening now between Israel and Gaza: Israel willfully and intentionally seized upon a crime to try to demolish the unity government between Hamas and Gaza and, at the same time, try to significantly downgrade Hamas’ administrative, political, and military capabilities.
Israel, of course, could not have foreseen the kidnapping and murder of three young men on the West Bank, but once it happened, the government went into high gear to press its advantage. Recognizing that it needed to whip the Israeli public into a frenzy, the Netanyahu government put a gag order on the case so it would not have to reveal that it knew almost right away that the young men were dead. Under cover of what seemed to be a kidnapping, Netanyahu was able to attack Hamas in both the West Bank and Gaza, launching a massive military operation throughout the former and increasing its bombing raids in the latter.
Hamas, for its part, didn’t react wisely, but the politics of their situation left them little choice. They had advocated kidnappings too often in the past, and they delayed in stating that they were not behind this incident. They finally did, and when Israel named the two suspects, it gave weight to Hamas’ denial, as the alleged murderers were part of a Hebron family that, as JJ Goldberg put it, “…had a history of acting without the [Hamas] leaders’ knowledge, sometimes against their interests.”
But while it is rather clear at this point that Hamas had nothing to do with the three boys’ murders, it did support the act, which played well into Netanyahu’s hands. All over Israel and all over social media, calls for revenge popped up, along with cries of “Death to the Arabs,” and horrifying, indeed genocidal, statements by Israeli politicians. Ayelet Shaked, of the Jewish Home Party, compared Palestinian children to snakes, called for a war on the entire Palestinian people and said of the Palestinians, “They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads.” It’s difficult for even the most brazen apologist to see those words as anything other than a call to attack civilians without restraint.
Such words bore their fruit when a Palestinian youth of 16 years, Muhammed Abu Khdeir, was burned alive. And here, of course, is where the Israeli rhetoric ratcheted up another notch. Setting out to capture the criminals was an imperative for the Netanyahu government, because it made the case that “we prosecute such murderers, while our enemy celebrates them,” a refrain that was uttered constantly in various forms.
“…That’s the difference between us and our neighbors,” Netanyahu said. “They consider murderers to be heroes. They name public squares after them. We don’t. We condemn them and we put them on trial and we’ll put them in prison.”
Not only is that rhetoric dehumanizing, it is also false. For example, the town of Kochav Yair in central Israel is named after the leader of the notorious LEHI, or “Stern Gang,” Avraham Stern, a terrorist who was summarily executed by the British. LEHI, along with the Irgun Z’Vai Leumi (or Irgun for short) was responsible for the massacre at Deir Yassin, although this was after Stern’s death. The same group also boasted future Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir among its members, while the Irgun was led by Menachem Begin, the first Israeli Prime Minister from an opposition party. Many streets are named after them.
If that’s not enough, in the settlement of Kiryat Arba one can find the Meir Kahane Memorial Park, dedicated to the late “rabbi” who called for violence against Arabs in Israel (and whose Jewish Defense League often organized violence against African-Americans in the U.S.). And, of course, right across from that park is the tomb of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinians in 1994. That grave has been turned into a pilgrimage site for radical Jews.
So, Israelis are quite capable of celebrating murderers as well. But it’s important for Netanyahu not to let this be seen right now. During the staged operation to find the “kidnapped” youths, Israel arrested hundreds of Palestinians, many, but not all associated with Hamas. They virtually closed down Hebron and the surrounding area, and entered many Palestinian cities throughout the West Bank, provoking frequent clashes with residents there. Several Palestinians were killed and many injured.
Hamas eventually took responsibility for some rockets that had been fired at Israel, and the situation continued to ratchet up. Eventually, Israel launched the current operation, which was dubbed “Solid Cliff” in Hebrew; their marketing people felt that “Protective Edge” sounded better in English.
Since then, over 100 Palestinians have been killed, many of them civilians and minors. Houses have been targeted and destroyed, hundreds of people injured. United Nations human rights officials have warned that Israel may be committing war crimes by targeting private homes, while the United States performs its usual task of ensuring that the Security Council cannot issue any statement critical of Israeli action.
While the U.S. works that task, both its President and its Ambassador to Israel are assuring Israel of its total backing. In a stunning example of double talk, President Obama offered to broker a cease-fire, but Netanyahu bluntly stated that he doesn’t want one. So, naturally, US Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro responded by saying that the U.S. would back a ground invasion of Gaza.
War of Choice
Israel’s military leaders, whose role in deciding defense strategy has become increasingly, if quietly, marginalized under Netanyahu, are not enthusiastic about the current Israeli onslaught. They understand that Hamas is not going to be defeated militarily and that this action is further degrading Israel’s standing in the world. They also understand that the impetus for this action was not security, but politics.
Netanyahu is not striking a blow for security, or even revenge; the purpose behind all of this, from the deception of the Israeli people and the world about the fate of the three kidnapped and murdered youths, the mass arrests and provocative behavior during the staged “search” for them, and the attacks on Gaza which followed were directed not at Palestinian terrorists, but at Palestinian political leaders. While it is true Netanyahu envisions no exit strategy (he never does) for this operation, he does have objectives; three of them, in fact.
One is obvious: to deliver a blow to Hamas. He is well aware that the group is already struggling financially, even more than usual, and these attacks are diverting resources toward fighting Israel and creating greater needs among the people.
The second is to humiliate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu is absolutely furious that Abbas acted without Israel’s permission by joining international treaties and forming a unity government—two things which, actually, are not only Palestine’s right, but Abbas’ duty to carry out. Netanyahu is showing Palestinians how ineffective Abbas is as the PA President can do nothing but sit on the sidelines. It is a stupid thing for Netanyahu to do, of course, but when has that ever stopped him?
Finally, and most importantly, the goal that probably spurred all of this was Netanyahu’s desperation to dismember the Palestinian unity government. Bibi knows that, while a unity government might not make progress in securing Palestinians their rights, the split between Gaza and the West Bank makes it utterly impossible for there to be any progress toward ending Israel’s 47-year old occupation. From the day the unity agreement was signed, Netanyahu has been enraged about it and obsessed with undoing it. He hopes that the current violence will either increase international pressure on Abbas to dissolve the partnership with Hamas or that Hamas will grow so angry at Abbas that they will walk away.
Given that the West Bank has remained largely quiet, thanks entirely to Abbas’ security forces clamping down on any protests, let alone any action against Israel, it is entirely possible that Hamas will indeed bolt the unity arrangement. It is rather remarkable because Netanyahu continues to demonize Abbas publicly and no one wants to compliment Abbas on maintaining order because he is doing so at the expense of enraging his own people. Most Palestinians in the West Bank see their relatives being slaughtered in Gaza while their own president not only sits by helpless but prevents his people from even protesting.
That is Netanyahu’s agenda, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with keeping Israelis safe and secure. Indeed, as has always been the case, far more Israelis are threatened and injured when Israel attacks than at other times.
To even maintain this thin façade, Israel must continue to make the false case that it has the moral high ground. While Hamas could be easily assailed because they target only Israeli civilians, Netanyahu has still managed to find a way to be even more of a criminal, more Machiavellian and ruthless and ultimately the most culpable villain here by far.
Make no mistake about what the United States is backing here. This is as pure a war of choice as any. Netanyahu has set up this fight, and has waged it. And, as always, it is the people of Gaza who pay the heaviest price. But Israelis too will bear the cost of this ruthless escapade in the long run. And the United States can only look at itself in shame as it supports this murderous and reckless endeavor.