Context Matters

George Bisharat has penned an op-ed on Israel’s military actions in Gaza, which appears in — of all places — today’s Wall Street Journal:

Israel’s current assault on the Gaza Strip cannot be justified by self-defense. Rather, it involves serious violations of international law, including war crimes. Senior Israeli political and military leaders may bear personal liability for their offenses, and they could be prosecuted by an international tribunal, or by nations practicing universal jurisdiction over grave international crimes. Hamas fighters have also violated the laws of warfare, but their misdeeds do not justify Israel’s acts.

The United Nations charter preserved the customary right of a state to retaliate against an “armed attack” from another state. The right has evolved to cover nonstate actors operating beyond the borders of the state claiming self-defense, and arguably would apply to Hamas. However, an armed attack involves serious violations of the peace. Minor border skirmishes are common, and if all were considered armed attacks, states could easily exploit them — as surrounding facts are often murky and unverifiable — to launch wars of aggression. That is exactly what Israel seems to be currently attempting.

Bisharat makes several additional points that are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the U.S. mass media (or, needless to say, by right-wing supporters of Israel):

  • Despite Israel’s claim that Hamas is solely to blame for violating the six-month truce declared last June, the truth is that both sides committed violations. Moreover, despite holding Hamas responsible for sporadic rocket attacks on Israel that occurred during the truce period, Israel (and the West in general) ignored the extreme privation caused by the total economic blockade Israel imposed on Gaza a year and a half before the current military action.  This is such a crucial point — it’s part of the context of lethal violence that’s never mentioned when decrying Hamas’s breaches of the ceasefire.
  • Israel’s occupation of Gaza did not end when Israel dismantled the settlements and withdrew its troops: “Although Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, it continues to tightly regulate Gaza’s coast, airspace and borders. Thus, Israel remains an occupying power with a legal duty to protect Gaza’s civilian population.”
  • Israel’s air war and ground offensive in Gaza is aggressive, not defensive. That is why the  gross imbalance in Israeli death and injury caused by Hamas rockets and Palestinian death and injury caused by the Israeli military incursion matters: It belies Israel’s claim that it is acting in self-defense — and that goes directly to the legality of the war under international protocols: “An armed attack that is not justified by self-defense is a war of aggression. Under the Nuremberg Principles affirmed by U.N. Resolution 95, aggression is a crime against peace.”

BooMan provides a very useful history of the process that led to Hamas’s coming to power in Gaza:

1. In January 2006, President Bush ignored the concerns of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (under Fatah) and insisted on elections in the occupied territories.
2. In tandem with this policy, the Bush administration spent approximately $2 million dollars (administered through USAID) to bolster the Fatah Party in the elections.
3. When Hamas won the elections, Israel simply arrested members of the new government, while the US sponsored a guerrilla war against it.
4. When Hamas won the guerrilla war, Israel responded with a blockade of Gaza designed to provide the ‘minimum amount of goods required to avert a hunger or health crisis.’ The idea was to convince Gazans that Hamas was incapable of governance.

Now, these are all facts that help contextualize what is going on in Gaza today. The US and Israel have spent the last three years trying to figure out a way to recover from the elections of 2006, where the Palestinian people (in a relatively clean election) elected Hamas to represent them. Every step they’ve taken so far has been somewhere between ineffective and counterproductive. With time running out on the Bush administration, Israel has taken this little window during the transition to wage open war on the people of Gaza and to destroy all vestiges of government (including mosques, the education and justice ministries, a university, prisons, courts and police stations) in the Strip.

The United States imposed an unwanted election on the Palestinian government, attempted to dictate the outcome of that election (and failed), then supported a civil war against the new government (and lost), while the Israelis simply arrested members of that government, imposed a blockade on their people, and then sought to outright murder members of the ruling party. Finally, they invaded their territory and so far have killed nearly 800 civilians in an act of undisciplined and inexcusable violence.

At the same time, throughout all of this, the Israelis have continued to allow new settlements to be built in the West Bank. The response from Hamas has been to refuse to turn over a kidnapped soldier and to lob rockets at communities in Southern Israel.

Agree or not, this is the context that is conveniently ignored in conservative and mainstream coverage of Israel’s invasion of Gaza. It’s really not possible to even begin to extract any meaning or understanding of what Israel and Hamas are doing without it.

Cross-posted at Liberty Street.

2 Responses to “Context Matters”

  1. gcotharn says:

    FYI: WSJ sold to Newscorp; WSJ Editorial page featuring more writing from the left.

    What is your solution? The rocket attacks began before the sanctions. The rocket attacks resumed even during the brokered ceasefire which included an Israeli easing of sanctions. CNN:

    Under the Egytian-brokered truce, which began June 19, the Hamas government in Gaza agreed to end militant attacks from Gaza on Israel. The pledge applied to all militant groups in the coastal territory, including Islamic Jihad.

    In return, Israel agreed to halt raids inside Gaza and ease its blockade.

    The truce held well for the first four months but began to fall apart in October, when there was a marked increase in the number of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel…

    What would make the thousands of rocket attacks stop?

  2. Jack says:

    Israel’s air war and ground offensive in Gaza is aggressive, not defensive

    So what. They continuously attacked Israel with the general support of the populace. Sometimes you reap what you sow. You can talk all you want about democratically elected. Why not talk about how Hamas engaged in a civil war with Fatah in which they threw Fatah members off of buildings.

    Or why not talk about how last week Hamas went through Gaza executing Palestinians accused of being collaborators.

    Look no one is completely innoncent, but the attempt to paint this as some heroic David vs. Goliath struggle is wrong.

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