Jason Cowley: Does the left hate Israel?

It shouldn’t be a question of either you support Israel, no matter what it does, or you are on the side of the Islamists. 

Life in ruins: a man walks in the rubble of the Shejaiya residential district of Gaza City, July 28. Photo: Getty
Life in ruins: a man walks in the rubble of the Shejaiya residential district of Gaza City, July 28. Photo: Getty

Is the left biased against Israel? Are liberal-left commentators obsessing about the plight of the children of Gaza while ignoring the immense suffering of civilians in Iraq and Syria? Why express empathy for Gazans when they allow themselves to be ruled by, and are in allegiance with, the nefarious Islamists of Hamas, who would murder thousands of Jewish children given the opportunity? Why are acts of violence by Hamas absent from BBC news reports from Gaza?

These are just some of the questions being asked by Melanie Phillips, Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, and others. Phillips’s tweet was characteristic: “Astonishing how many journos refer to total Gaza casualty toll as ‘civilian’. Apparently not one Hamas fighter killed there! Lazy or worse?”

But really it shouldn’t be a question of either/or – either you support Israel, no matter what it does, or you are on the side of the Islamists. It shouldn’t be a question of expressing anguish about the death and maiming of innocent children in Gaza while ignoring what is happening in Syria or Iraq. We should care about all of the innocents caught up in each of these horrendous wars and report what is happening as accurately as possible.

In my view, the BBC has been admirably even-handed in its reporting of the Gaza war, as has the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont, whose eye-witness reports from Gaza are harrowing to read. If you want properly biased reporting read the American press; even the liberal New York Times reports events always from a pro-Israeli rather than sceptical position. 

Elsewhere, in a widely noticed blog for the Telegraph, Alan Johnson, editor of the journal Fathom (tagline “For a deeper understanding of Israel and the region”), suggests that liberal journalists such as Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow make the mistake of treating  “pathological movements [such as Hamas] … as if they are rational political movements with grievances that can be negotiated”. Snow has recently returned from Gaza where he was appalled by the suffering he witnessed. 

Johnson says that Hamas did not emerge as a popular movement in reaction to the Israeli blockade of Gaza: “Analysis of the current conflict in Gaza is based on the fallacy that the Israeli blockade of Gaza led to Hamas rockets from Gaza. In fact, the rockets led to the blockade. Israel got out of Gaza in 2005 hoping for co-existence.”

Well, useful to get that learnt, as Philip Larkin wrote. For the record, Hamas, which is both a political party and an Islamist resistance movement and took its inspiration from the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, was founded during the first intifada in 1987 and was democratically elected to power in Gaza in 2006. And, before this latest conflict, it was desperately and deservedly weak – and getting weaker.

Never once does Johnson mention the conditions inside Gaza – which Palestinians liken to an open prison – where 1.8 million people live in a strip of land 25 miles long and seven miles wide. Many of the young people in Gaza are descendants of those expelled from their ancestral villages in 1948. Nor does Johnson condemn the shelling of schools, hospitals and a home for the disabled in Gaza. Why not?

Jeremy Bowen, in his New Statesman Notebookreported that he saw no evidence that Hamas was using civilians as human shields in Gaza. Even if they were, as we wrote in last week’s NS leader, this would still offer no justification for the state-directed murder of innocents, who include children. It’s as if a terrible collective punishment is being visited upon all Gazans.

In his quest for “understanding”, the editor of Fathom neglects to remind readers that, with the exception of the border post with Egypt at Rafah, Israel controls all access to Gaza, its territorial waters and the skies above. Nor does he, by way of context of a kind he says is absent from Snow’s reporting, mention Israel’s long occupation of the Palestinian territories or dare even to imagine what it must be like to live as a Palestinian civilian in the squalid and militarised West Bank, where it can take many hours to travel just a few miles because of Israeli military road-blocks and checkpoints. The West Bank is being devoured by Israeli settlements even as I write – but of course Johnson has no wish to discuss the facts on the ground.

In its way, this contribution by the editor of Fathom is as deluded as those he seeks to condemn. I agree with Stephen Pollard that the conflict in Gaza has encouraged the evil of anti-Semitism, which is spreading throughout Europe. But rare, too, is the commentator who writes on the Israel-Palestine conflict with nuanced, dispassionate intelligence. One such commentator is the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, and his New York Review of Books blog post on the anguish of liberal Zionists is essential reading.

 

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One recent morning, on a visit to Israel, we drove north from Jerusalem travelling alongside the Sea of Galilee and then on to the occupied Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war. Leaving the car, I made my way up to where a small group of Fijian soldiers, part of a UN peacekeeping mission, peered through telescopes into the Syrian villages below.

Of the two nearest villages, Syrian government forces controlled one; anti-Assad rebels held the other. You could hear artillery fire and explosions. The war felt very close.

A few weeks after my visit, an Israeli youth was killed in the Golan Heights after a truck in which he was travelling with his father was hit by a missile fired from inside Syria, the first such death since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. The Israelis responded with the inevitable air strikes on “strategic targets”. 

Since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Syrian border has been Israel’s quietest. That’s no longer so. The Syrian civil war has been raging now for three years and has created the conditions in which atrocity-minded jihadists and rebel militias have flourished.

Israel is a highly militarised country in a state of perpetual preparedness for war. Everyone has served in the army or knows someone who has. However, until quite recently, the mood inside the country was one of relative calm. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had emboldened the Likud-led government and considerably weakened Hamas – Mohammed Morsi brokered the last ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in November 2012. Israel has been largely unaffected by the civil war in Syria (though some of the wounded have been treated in its hospitals). Iran’s client Shia militia Hezbollah, against which Israel expects to fight another war before too long, is otherwise engaged in Syria.

Above all else, it is widely accepted in Israel that the “Palestinian problem” is manageable and containable. The construction of the so-called security wall that separates Israel from the West Bank – a tragic symbol of the conflict between two peoples destined to claim ownership of the same land – ended the Hamas-directed suicide attacks that traumatised Israelis during the second intifada. The US-funded Iron Dome missile defence shield means that incoming rocket fire from Gaza, though terrifying for Israelis, pose few mortal dangers. I was in Israel during the Gaza conflict of November 2012 and watched as long-range missiles fired from the Strip were intercepted in the skies above Tel Aviv.

After my most recent trip to Israel in May, I left feeling hugely despondent. It seemed obvious to me after many briefings that the two-state solution is becoming impossible. The hard right is ascendant. Israel has been coarsened and desensitised by decades of existential wars and the hatred of its Arab neighbours. The belligerent right-wingers in the coalition government, such as Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home, are territorial maximalists who do not recognise the Palestinian claim to statehood. A majority of Israelis reportedly support a two-state solution but the settlers are winning, indulged by the unworthy Benjamin Netanyahu.

I met Bennett’s deputy, Ayelet Shaked, in her small office at the Knesset. She was charming, courteous, secular, very pretty  – and alarmingly extreme. “I don’t see any reason to stop the settlement building [in the West Bank],” she said. John Kerry and others should concentrate on solving the larger problems in the world, such as the perpetual civil war in Syria, she said. “Israel is the most stable territory in the Middle East.” She did not accept that there was a demographic threat to Israel.

The US secretary of state is the latest in a long line of powerful politicians who have failed in Israel. At least the settlers and their supporters such as Shaked have been honest about the consequences of their actions: they know that expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has led, inevitably, to the demise of the ideal of two separate nations. Shaked, too, beguiles her disparagers by calling for the security wall to be pulled down and for the Palestinians to have their own airport in the West Bank. They should not have a state but they should be helped to live better and more dignified lives – so long as they accept the status quo and stop throwing stones. If they don’t like it, they could always relocate to Jordan.

But the larger anxiety for liberal Zionists is this – a putative single, bi-national state would, in time, surely cease to be a Jewish-majority state and thus could evolve into something more unwelcome altogether – a de facto apartheid state. Meanwhile, the killing on both sides goes on.