There is an oft quoted principle stated before discussing events in the Middle East: ‘It’s complicated’. Yet the quality of coverage in mainstream media and comments from many of our political class reflect extraordinarily poor understanding at best and, in some cases, antisemitism seems the probable explanation. With the ABC in mind particularly, there does seem to be an urgent need to unpack some of the causative factors.
The previous major conflict between Israel and Hamas was in 2014. An obvious question is what happened to stir up violence after years of relative calm and why now? Make no mistake, this outbreak of violence has been deliberately provoked.
The major official political power representing Arab Palestinians is the Palestinian Liberation Organisation also known as the Palestinian Authority (PA). Australia has a representative office in Ramallah where the PA administration is based. The PA is controlled by the Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas, now serving his seventeenth year of a four-year term.
At the urging of the Biden administration, a long overdue election was promised. However, when it became obvious Abbas’ Fatah would be soundly defeated by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the election was cancelled. The rivals immediately planned provoking violence. What we have underway is in part a battle for relevance, influence and power between Arab Palestinian factions.
Messages went out to Hamas and PIJ supporters to prepare. Rocks, fireworks and Molotov cocktails were stockpiled on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, in the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. When riots broke out with attacks on Jewish worshipers, including projectiles thrown at Jews gathered at the Western Wall twenty metres below, Israeli police responded to break up the riots and remove the ringleaders. The Palestinian and world media portrayed this as an Israeli attack on Muslim worshippers during Ramadan, a period often associated with a spike in violence. Riots broke out elsewhere in Jerusalem as gangs of Arab youths moved in the streets to find and attack orthodox Jews. Although not openly labelled an intifada, uprising in Arabic, there were many features of previous organised campaigns.
This outbreak of orchestrated violence was used as an excuse by Hamas and PIJ to mobilise their locally manufactured and Iranian rockets and start launching them towards Israeli towns and cities including the major cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Up to 70 per cent of the Israeli population was affected with many periodically seeking protection in bomb shelters.
Simultaneously, Arab-Israeli gangs formed in some other parts of Israel, particularly in Lod and Bat Yam near Tel Aviv, attacking Jews, burning cars and synagogues. Perhaps the most worrying development is to see Arab Israelis turning on their Jewish neighbours in campaigns of violence resembling pogroms. There have been isolated cases of Jewish youth bashing Arabs, but these are few in comparison.
A property dispute involving some Arab squatters facing eviction for refusing to pay rent in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah area (also called Shimon Hatzadik) and currently going through Israeli courts, was also used as a timely excuse to provoke violence.
The conflict is broadly indirectly enabled by a dramatic change of US policy. The administration of President Trump provided outstanding support of its ally Israel and those who contemplated aggression and terrorism against Israel knew they would also be confronting a strong, active US-Israel relationship. Trump cut funding to the Arab Palestinians pending reform, such as the cessation of payment to terrorists via the PA’s notorious Pay for Slay programme. US support also motivated four Arab and Muslim states to enter normalisation agreements with Israel, the Abraham Accords, the most substantial progress towards Middle East peace in a generation. But all that changed when President Biden took office. US funding to the PA and related UN agencies has been restored. Further, the Biden administration seems desperate to return to a nuclear agreement with Iran and lift sanctions. Iran is the principal sponsor of Hamas.
Civilian casualties are tragic in any conflict but there is absolutely no moral equivalence as alleged in ill-informed media reports. Hamas and PIJ are clearly committing a double war crime. Firstly, by firing missiles deliberately into Israeli residential areas to maximise civilian death and injury. Secondly, using their own civilians as human shields by placing rocket launchers in residential areas and military facilities in residences, office buildings, even hospitals. By contrast, Israel goes to extraordinary lengths to minimise civilian harm, providing warnings by text, phone calls and leaflets to evacuate targets. Hamas targets civilians, Israel targets terrorists.
A further important causative factor is the incitement of young Muslim Arabs to violence, to sacrifice their blood and become shahids or martyrs. Schools and public spaces are named after terrorists, schoolbooks contain glorification of terrorism, anti-Israel and antisemitic themes and music videos on PA and Hamas media often have violent jihadi content. Political leaders will call for violence and there are even videos of imams brandishing knives or guns as they preach. Hamas runs youth paramilitary training and recruitment during school holidays. Senior Hamas official Fathi Hammad advised Arabs in Israel to buy cheap knives to cut the necks of Jews. There are numerous examples of using Nazi symbols and sentiments such as ‘Dear Hitler we miss you’ in Arab Palestinian social media.
It is extraordinary to see the moral inversion by some journalists and politicians blaming Israel for defending its citizens and overlooking the war crimes and incitement by Hamas. To those who say Israel’s reaction is disproportionate, they should advise exactly what they regard as proportionate in dealing with a major terrorist organisation using thousands of rockets to murder your people. If anything, Israel has been too restrained in the past in attacking Hamas’ terrorists and infrastructure. This restraint has been characterised as ‘mowing the weeds’ rather than elimination.
This latest attack on Israel also illustrates how misguided is the decision by the Australian Labor Party taken at its 2021 conference to elevate into its policy platform without preconditions and as a priority, the recognition of a State of Palestine.
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Dr David Adler is President of the Australian Jewish Association
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