THE LOW attendance at last Sunday’s rally for Israel in part reflects the unease and dilemmas of many British Jews. While the security of Israel’s citizens is paramount, it co-exists with a concern for the sanctity of human life in general. Such nagging doubts underline the unspoken question whether this conflict was avoidable.
Its genesis was the execution of the three boys on June 14. Their murderers were categorised as if they were taking direct orders from Hamas in Gaza. Hamas had certainly initiated a general campaign to kidnap Israelis in order to conduct a Gilad Shalit-type deal for a prisoner exchange, but why then kill the youngsters?
The noted Israeli journalist, Shlomi Eldar, wrote that Palestinian security forces believed that the abduction was the work of the Qawasmeh clan, troublemakers who had a long history of brutality towards Jews. The motivation, he argued, may well have been to wreck the Fatah-Hamas agreement to form a coalition government. Did the killers believe that Hamas had come to terms with the reality of Israel’s existence? Netanyahu, on the other hand, believed that Hamas’s entry in government was no more than a Trojan horse designed to bring missiles into the West Bank. The emotional frenzy surrounding the killings provided an opportunity to send in the IDF to dismantle the Hamas infrastructure on the West Bank.
Unfortunately, there are precedents. In 1982, following the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador at the Dorchester Hotel by the anti-PLO Abu Nidal group, Ariel Sharon instead blamed the PLO and invaded Lebanon in order to strike at Israel’s central enemy. British Jews eventually understood that they had been misled — as did the then Israeli premier, Menachem Begin.
In 1989, in an attempt to thwart a US-PLO dialogue, Netanyahu conducted a campaign to convince the White House that Arafat’s Fatah had violated a pledge to cease crossborder raids from Lebanon, whereas it had been the rejectionist Popular Front and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine which was responsible. American Jews were enlisted for that campaign. Since then, more British Jews have asked questions when two and two do not make four.
It is the missile threat to Israelis that is uppermost in the minds of British Jews. The constant disruption to daily life make it a necessity to silence the missiles. Netanyahu believes that Hamas’s history of rejection
The missile threat to Israelis most concerns British Jews
leaves only the military option. Tarring the Palestinian Authority with the Hamas brush allows him to propagate the belief that there is no one to talk to, and to practise the politics of political stagnation. There is no need to place on the table an Israeli peace plan — and especially when he is under constant scrutiny from cabinet colleagues further to the right.
The blurring of different Islamist organisations in the public mind has been encouraged, especially since Hamas has been unwilling or has found it difficult to control more radical groups in Gaza. It may well have been these groups that provoked Israel by firing missiles to draw in a reticent Hamas into the maelstrom. Yet by weakening Hamas, does Israel not empower Islamic Jihad and the Popular Revolutionary Committees?
Hamas is engaged in a game of smoke and mirrors. Sunday’s attack on the Shejaiya district brought heavy Palestinian casualties. Yet Hamas does not publish figures for the deaths of its combatants or allow their bodies to be shown on television. The human interest story of civilian casualties attracts media attention far more than Israel’s complex reasons for being there.
On the moral level, the wholesale killing of civilians is terrible but it is also a political weapon that Hamas deploys. This is Israel’s Achilles heel, that will eventually bring about a ceasefire with a Hamas degraded in capability, but organisationally still intact, ready for the next time. Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London.