During Israel’s last massacre in Gaza (Operation Protective Edge), Ali A. Rizvi wrote a piece for the Huffington Post titled “7 Things to Consider Before Choosing Sides in the Middle East Conflict“. It was his effort to bring a balanced view to the discussion. In that, he failed miserably — whether due to his own lack of knowledge or willful dishonesty I can’t say.
An acquaintance sent me the link to the piece and asked for my thoughts on it. I ended up dissecting it at some length. Following is an updated and revised version of my reply to Rizvi’s seven points. I encourage you to read his article first and then return here to read my response.
1. Parroting Israeli Talking Points
In his article, Rizvi is effectively reiteration a watered-down version of standard Israeli talking points. Anyone who criticizes Israel for war crimes in Gaza is a hypocrite because look! There are all these other atrocities taking place, with even larger death tolls. So to single out Israel, you must be an anti-Semite! His argument boils down to: Arabs criticize Israel not because of Israel’s actions but rather because they are simply anti-Semites. (Never minding that Arabs are Semites, too.)
This is an old argument. I wrote in my book The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination how the British investigated the causes of the 1929 riots and determined that the Arabs were becoming increasingly hostile to the Jewish community not because of any inherent prejudice towards Jews but because they (correctly) perceived that a goal of the Zionist project was to disenfranchise and displace them. After all, Jews and Arabs had generally lived peacefully together as neighbors in Palestine until the Zionist movement.
Rizvi asserts that one is either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli depending on whether one is born Arab or Jew. Actually, some of the strongest defenders of Palestinian rights and strongest critics of Israel are Jews. Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein come immediately to mind. There are numerous Jewish groups that support Palestinian rights and criticize Israeli policies, eg, Jews Against the Occupation, Peace Now, Gush Shalom, Gisha, B’Tselem, etc. He can’t very well dismiss their criticism of Israel on the grounds that they simply hate Jews. Seems there must be something more to criticism of Israel than “anti-Semitism”….
Here’s a clue into where his own sympathies lie: “if Israel … gave the Palestinians East Jerusalem…” So, in this guy’s view, East Jerusalem is Israel’s and for it to become part of Palestine would require Israel making a concession and giving it to them. This is, of course, the Israeli view. The truth is quite different: Israel can’t “give” E. Jerusalem to the Palestinians because it is already under international law “occupied Palestinian territory”, along with the rest of the West Bank and Gaza, and its attempts to annex the city have repeatedly been deemed illegal, null and void under international law by the UN Security Council. Israel can’t “give” to the Palestinians what is already legally theirs.
In terms of international law, the only concessions that have been made have been made by the Palestinians, who have already accepted to establish their state on only 22% of former Palestine. The only concessions on the table in negotiations under the so-called “peace process” are those demanded of the Palestinians. The Israelis make “concessions” only in terms of what they want. The framework of the US-led “peace process” rejects the applicability of international law as any part of the solution and places Israel’s wants that are contrary to international law on an equal standing as Palestinians’ rights.
The author asks whether we honestly think Hamas would accept peace with Israel if Israel withdrew to the 1967 lines. Well, Hamas has since 2005 been proposing a long-term truce with Israel if it withdraws from Palestine and repeatedly expressed its acceptance of a Palestinian state neighboring Israel along the 1967 lines. If that were to happen, would that be the end of Hamas’s struggle? To answer his question is no! Hamas would then turn its attention to the question of the right of return of Palestinian refugees ethnically cleansed from Palestine and push for implementation of UNGA resolution 194, in terms of refugees being allowed back to their former homeland and/or being compensated for the injustice committed against them.
We must recall that Hamas has sought to move away from violence towards engagement in the political process, but the US and Israel have opposed this evolution regardless of the well understood outcome that it meant Hamas would continue to resort to violence to achieve its aims. By asking this question about Hamas, he is echoing a standard Israeli talking point. “We withdrew from Gaza, but look! We got nothing in return but rocket fire into our towns.” Here’s a relevant excerpt from my forthcoming book, Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
In August, Israel implemented its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, demolishing its settlements rather than leaving the homes for Palestinian use. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) completed evacuation of the settlements and withdrew by mid-September.
Palestinians celebrated in the streets, and for nearly a week, no rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza. The ceasefire seemed to be holding. But on September 23, Israel launched a raid into a West Bank village, killing three members of the group Islamic Jihad for allegedly planning to fire Qassam rockets or mortars at Israeli settlements. President Abbas called the raid a “dangerous and unjustified action. We are exerting efforts to maintain the cease-fire and they are doing this action without any reason.”
Members of the al-Quds Brigades, Islamic Jihad’s military wing, retaliated by firing rockets into Israel from Gaza, the first such attack since the withdrawal. Issuing a statement accepting responsibility for the rocket fire, Islamic Jihad also reported an IDF Apache helicopter hovering over Gaza City. In nearby Jabaliya, Hamas was holding a rally celebrating the Israeli withdrawal when a truck exploded, killing 19 people and injuring more than 120. Claiming that an IDF helicopter had fired into the rally, Hamas proceeded to launch rockets into Israel, which denied responsibility. President Abbas and the Fatah Central Committee publicly blamed the deaths on Hamas, saying the blast was an accidental explosion of rockets on display in the back of the truck. Hamas insisted that the rockets were dummies containing no explosives, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (Fatah’s military wing), joined Hamas in blaming the incident on Israel, going so far as to accuse the PA of treason. Israel responded to Hamas’s rocket attacks by launching airstrikes into Gaza, killing four Hamas members. It also arrested over 200 Palestinians in the West Bank, mostly members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. After two days of attacks, on September 25, Hamas announced that it would return to the ceasefire.
When Israel withdrew, it placed Gaza under a blockade. Then Hamas won the elections, to which Israel responded by escalating the illegal siege of Gaza to punish the civilian population while the US and Israel pressured Abbas to overthrow the elected Hamas government. There have been numerous ceasefires with Hamas that were violated by Israel, including the ceasefires that preceded its two previous military operations in Gaza (Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense).
I could go on, but I think this suffices to illustrate the fallacies of Rizvi’s argument. In short: no, it doesn’t boil down to a matter of Arab hatred of Jews; yes, it truly is actually about Israel’s behavior and its crimes against the Palestinians.
2. Zionism = Judaism?
Rizvi asserts that Zionism is a “revival” of Judaism, which is absurd. Zionism has always been a political not a religious movement. There are certainly settlers who will (erroneously) justify living on stolen land by citing the Bible. But it doesn’t follow that Zionism is a religious movement. Just because a religious person may subscribe to a political movement doesn’t render the movement itself a religious one. There are actually ultra-orthodox Jews who are anti-Zionist because they recognize Zionism as an attempt by men to establish Israel on their own, without God, without waiting for God to fulfill his promise to restore the descendants of Judah to the land. They rightly see Zionism as a secular movement that is contrary to the Torah.
Christian Zionism, on the other hand is fundamentally a religious movement. But that’s an entirely different matter.
3. Israel’s Supposed Benevolent Intent
Rizvi next attempts to deny that Israel deliberately kills civilians by suggesting it has no reason to do so. But it is simply a non sequitur to argue that since doing X would make Israel look bad, therefore Israel wouldn’t do it. This proposition is absurd on its face.
We could likewise ask, “Why would Israel deliberately want to collectively punish the civilian population of Gaza?” And we could run through the same rationalizations for why it wouldn’t want to do so: it makes Israel look like a monster, draws criticism from the international community, gives Israel bad PR, etc., etc. Yet here is senior advisor to Ariel Sharon Dov Weisglass explaining the decision to escalate the blockade of Gaza following Hamas’s election victory: “It’s like an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but won’t die.”
So much for the idea that if a policy might make Israel look bad, Israel won’t do it. We can repeat that exercise with the question of causing deliberate harm to civilians. Another relevant excerpt from Obstacle to Peace:
In October, the IDF warned Hezbollah that it would apply its “Dahiya Doctrine”—a reference to the destruction in Beirut during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, in which an entire district was flattened—if any rockets were fired at Israel during the planned Gaza operation. “What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on,” the head of the IDF’s northern division, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases…. This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.”
A report of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies bluntly titled “Disproportionate Force” stated that the “Dahiya Doctrine” would also apply to Gaza. The “challenges” faced by “the IDF’s response to a large scale conflict both in the north and in the Gaza Strip” could be “overcome by adopting the principle of a disproportionate strike against the enemy’s weak points as a primary war effort…. With an outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses…. This approach is applicable to the Gaza Strip as well.” The goal of deliberately using “disproportionate force” was “instilling proper expectations of the IDF response among the civilian population”.
The announcement of the “Dahiya Doctrine”, in other words, was an open declaration of Israel’s intent to commit war crimes in order to inflict punishment on the Palestinian civilian population during its planned attack on Gaza.
This goes directly to the author’s remark, “If Israel wanted to kill civilians, it is terrible at it.” I haven’t heard anyone suggest that Israel’s goal in its latest military assault against Gaza was to kill as many civilians as possible. But one can just as well state the converse, and it is equally valid. To wit: If Israel wanted to spare civilians, it is really incredibly terrible at it.
It is quite clear that Israel’s policy in this latest massacre was the same as it was during Operation Cast Lead (December 27, 2008 – January 18, 2009). We witnessed once again the Dahiya Doctrine in effect.
4. The “Human Shields” Trope
Of course, Rizvi repeats the obligatory claim that civilians only die in Israeli attacks in Gaza because Hamas uses them as human shields. He cites a video of a Hamas spokesman saying “that the human shield strategy has proven ‘very effective.’” During the massacre, I saw the same video cited countless times defenders of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing. If you actually watch it, the person in question is referring to how a crowd Gazans go to the roof of a house to protect the family home from being bombed. He doesn’t say anything about these civilians trying to protect some kind of military target, much less being forced by Hamas to go to the roof to shield its own military activities. Which is to say it provides not the slightest bit of evidence that Hamas used human shields as defined under international law.
Rizvi notes that UNRWA condemned Palestinian militants after finding rockets hidden in two of its schools (actually, three, I believe). But what he doesn’t inform his readers is that those schools were vacant. The UN schools Israel bombed that where sheltering women and children, on the other hand, most certainly weren’t being used to hide rockets inside. These attacks were unambiguously war crimes.
Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket attacks are also war crimes, and it certainly does put civilians at risk by launching them from populated areas. But, then, the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. And this doesn’t relieve Israel of the responsibility to use proportionate force. It has high precision weaponry and is capable of pinpoint attacks on militants firing rockets. We’re told that Hamas deliberately targets civilians while Israel does its best to avoid harm to civilians. Yet the numbers told us differently. As of August 21, with Israel’s operation ongoing, 96% of Israelis killed were soldiers while at least 74% of Palestinians killed were civilians, including 222 women and 418 children.
The claim that Hamas uses human shields was also continuously used during Operation Cast Lead to justify Israel’s killing of civilians. Yet no evidence to support this claim was ever produced.
Human Rights Watch investigated numerous instances of Israel targeting civilian persons or objects and found “no evidence of Hamas using human shields in the vicinity at the time of the attacks.” It investigated several cases where Palestinians carrying white flags were shot at and in some cases killed and found “no evidence that the civilian victims were used by Palestinian fighters as human shields or were shot in the crossfire between opposing forces.”
Amnesty International in its own investigations likewise “found no evidence that Hamas or other Palestinian fighters directed the movement of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks.”
The UN Fact-Finding Mission (Goldstone Report) similarly found “no evidence” of Hamas using human shields in the large number of incidents it investigated of attacks on civilians.
On the other hand, Israel has been documented repeatedly using Palestinians as human shields.
Amnesty International, while finding no evidence that Hamas had done so, it found that “In several cases Israeli soldiers also used civilians, including children, as ‘human shields’, endangering their lives by forcing them to remain in or near houses which they took over and used as military positions. Some were forced to carry out dangerous tasks such as inspecting properties or objects suspected of being booby-trapped. Soldiers also took position and launched attacks from and around inhabited houses, exposing local residents to the danger of attacks or of being caught in the crossfire.”
Israeli soldiers gave testimony to the group Breaking the Silence about how Palestinians were used as human shields. The IDF troops had a word to describe Palestinians used as human shields: “Johnnies”. This, according to one of the soldiers’ testimonies, was the term for “using Palestinian civilians as human shields during house searches”.
The UN documented the following case: “On 15 January, in Tal al-Hawa, south-west of Gaza City, an 11-year-old boy was made to accompany IDF for a number of hours during a period of intense operations. As the soldiers entered the Palestinian Red Crescent Society building, the boy was made to enter first, in front of the soldiers. While moving through the town the boy was made to walk in front of the group, even when the IDF soldiers met with resistance and were fired upon. On arrival at Al-Quds Hospital, the boy remained in front of the soldiers, but then was subsequently released. This appears to be in direct contravention of a 2005 Israeli High Court ruling on the illegality of the use of human shields.”
With regard to the reference, when the Israeli Supreme Court made that ruling, that the IDF’s use of Palestinians as human shields was illegal, defense officials protested it on the grounds that the IDF “made use of the ‘human shield’ procedure on 1,200 occasions over the last five years, and only on one occasion did a Palestinian civilian get hurt”, Ynetnews reported, noting that an 18-year-old was killed in 2002 while being used by Israeli forces as a human shield.
Rizvi himself acknowledges Israel’s use of Palestinians as human shields, but has removed this acknowledgment further down the page into a different section.
5. Defending Occupation
Rizvi’s own bias is again on full display when he openly defends Israel’s ongoing occupation, charging that people who demand Israel withdraw must have “short memories”. He then parrots the Israeli propaganda narrative of what happened following its withdraw from Gaza in 2005, which I’ve already addressed sufficiently above.
6. Drawing Equivalence Where There Is None
His arguments further descend into the ludicrous. He attributes the far greater number of Israelis killed than Palestinians solely to the Israeli government’s efforts to protect its population with shelters, sirens, and the Iron Dome missile defense system while Hamas uses civilians as human shields. This latter claim aside, this argument necessarily draws an equivalency between Hamas’s rockets the full might of the Israeli military. It necessarily assumes that the former have the same destructive capability as the latter; that Qassams are just as capable of causing destruction as Israeli bulldozers, tanks, Apache helicopters, F-16s, etc; that there is an equivalence between the two sides when one of the world’s mightiest militaries engaging in a full-scale military operation against a completely defenseless population. It is an entirely mindless argument.
No further comment necessary.
7. Racist Zionism
Just two observations on Rizvi’s seventh point.
One, he espouses the inherently racist — yet standard (indeed, virtually obligatory) — view that it is important for Israel to maintain its identity as a “Jewish state”. Which is to say Palestinian refugees must be denied their right of return on account of having been born into the wrong ethnicity.
Two, he asserts that “Virtually every US administration — from Nixon to Bush to Obama — has unequivocally opposed” Israel’s settlement expansion. This claim requires taking US government officials’ statements as evidence of its policy while ignoring the government’s actual deeds. If we disregard the meaningless rhetoric and focus on actual policy, however, it becomes perfectly evident that the US supports Israel’s settlement policy. In fact, this is so obvious, it must take a great effort not to see it.
Obama has “unequivocally opposed” Israel’s settlement policy? This is not in evidence. The US could end the settlement regime tomorrow if it wanted. The US refuses to say settlements are “illegal”, for starters. It provides Israel with $3 billion plus in annual military aid that helps Israel offset funds to finance its settlement activities. It helps to directly finance the occupation regime through programs like USAID and funding for settler roads, etc. The entire US-led “peace process” is structured on a framework of accepting Israel’s invalid unilateral interpretation of UN Security Council 242, demanding that the Palestinians must negotiate with the occupying power while under military occupation rather than demanding Israeli withdrawal as 242 actually required. The entire “peace process” is structured to maintain the status quo, permitting Israel to continue to prejudice the outcome of negotiations with its colonization even while talks are underway. The US position, though couched in different rhetoric, is indistinguishable from Israel’s, that Israel will not withdraw but will annex major settlement blocs. Obama himself declared to an Israeli audience in Sderot that if elected president, he would support Israel’s illegal annexation of Jerusalem. The Obama administration’s position has always been that the Palestinians must negotiate “without preconditions”, which is a euphemism meaning that Israel has a green light from Washington to continue its settlement activity while talks are underway. The Obama administration even went so far as to veto an uncontroversial UN Security Council resolution that criticized Israel for its illegal settlement activity.
As for his conclusion, I certainly agree one needn’t choose between being “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian”. One must wonder, though, why Rizvi himself then puts forth such demonstrably “pro-Israel” arguments.