In the aftermath of Israel's latest attack on Gaza, we republish a major essay from our 2009 print issue by James Turner, in which he identifies the "Four Big Lies" that shape Media coverage – and even scholarly analysis – of the situation in Israel and Palestine
Jacques Ellul once argued that intellectuals are particularly vulnerable to propaganda, seeking big answers from few facts. Noam Chomsky has denounced the way that tame intellectuals become functionaries of the military-industrial complex. You might expect self-styled intellectuals to approach the discourse of politicians and the media with some scepticism – but they tend instead to provide a carbon copy of the same rhetoric: inadvertently being politically used. Israel, in a true Straussian disposition, has generated a number of Big Lies which it has promoted in the world media. Supported by the rhetoric of US leaders and pliant press, it has elevated its Big Lies to the status of ‘common sense’ in international affairs.
Big Lie #1 – Universities and civilians are ‘military infrastructure’
The first big lie of this account is the claim that Israel carried out the invasion of Gaza to destroy military infrastructure: often described as “an attack on Hamas.” If one reads Israeli generals, politicians, or sympathetic scholars discussing Israeli military doctrines, one will certainly see such phrases as “destroying terrorist infrastructure” often enough. If one observes what happens on the ground, one can see, over and over, innocent Palestinians being killed, basic civilian infrastructure destroyed, deliberate and premeditated attacks on schools, playgrounds, homes, ambulances, farms, the entire basis of civilian life in the Palestinian territories. Comparing what happens to what is asserted, one can only conclude that in Israeli military doctrine, civilians and civilian infrastructure are considered to be ‘terrorist infrastructure’. Back in 2002, Edward Saïd said, about the idea of ‘terrorist infrastructure’, that: “Phrases such as ‘plucking out the terrorist network,’ ‘destroying the terrorist infrastructure’ and ‘attacking terrorist nests’ (note the total dehumanization involved) are repeated so often and so unthinkingly that they have given Israel the right to destroy Palestinian civil life, with a shocking degree of sheer wanton destruction, killing, humiliation and vandalism… What antiterrorist purpose is served by destroying the building and then removing the records of the ministry of education; the Ramallah municipality; the Central Bureau of Statistics; various institutes specialising in civil rights, health, culture and economic development; hospitals, radio and TV stations? Isn’t it clear that Sharon is bent not only on breaking the Palestinians but on trying to eliminate them as a people with national institutions?”
This is consistent with the gratuitous violence against civilians during the Gaza  assault. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, of 1434 Palestinians killed during the Israeli assault on Gaza , 960 were civilians, including 288 children. Israeli soldiers returning from Gaza have provided chilling accounts of civilians being murdered in cold blood. Israel has admitted to targeting personal homes of Hamas leaders, civilian police stations and government buildings. On January 3, the IDF shelled the Ibrahim al-Maqadna mosque in Beit Lahiya while worshippers were still inside. The next day, the UN accused Israel of hitting a school run by the UNRWA. On January 15 they shelled al-Quds hospital and several high-rise flats. On January 17 they shelled the UNRWA headquarters, destroying food supplies.
Central to the occupation movement was the deliberate targeting by Israeli forces of the Islamic University of Gaza. This attack was officially admitted by the Israeli army, with the university variously being described as holding “arms caches” (which were never found), training “terrorists” (meaning that engineering and chemistry graduates might have skills useful to terrorists – like similar graduates everywhere), and as hosting meetings of Hamas’s political groups (similar to the affiliations of many British academics with the government’s policy apparatus). The global media was rather more to the point in describing the attack as targeting a “symbolic target” and source of Palestinian pride.
In Israeli military discourse, the Palestinians are a terrorist people. It is an old saying of Noam Chomsky’s that the only way to defeat a people’s war is to destroy the people – to reduce them to a condition of such abject poverty and desperation to survive that they can no longer think about fighting. This is, at heart, the core of Israeli military doctrine. Israel does not simply kill civilians by accident, or as excesses by individual soldiers; massive atrocities are an irreducible part of the Israeli strategy.
Big Lie #2 – Hamas started it
This argument runs as follows: Hamas is to blame for the attack on Gaza because they provoked Israel with rocket fire, leading to a ‘predictable’ response.
It is hard to know where to start with this fallacy. First of all, Hamas did not carry out most of the attacks, which have been claimed by a range of Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and Fatah. Groups outside Hamas have claimed responsibility for many if not all of the rocket attacks since the 2007 ‘handover’ of Gaza. The attacks, on a provocatively sited border town with what amount to homemade fireworks, have claimed only a handful of lives over many years, whereas Israeli violence – even the periodic kind, aside from the various incursions – has killed far more.
Secondly, it would be militarily impossible for Hamas to stop attacks given its lack of military might, and politically impossible given its position. Let us look here at what a real Palestine specialist is saying – Camille Mansour in the Journal of Palestine Studies. According to Mansour, military action in Gaza has become decentred; “actions and reactions [are] most often the result of local, more or less spontaneous, initiatives”. In this context, whoever holds state power in Gaza – be it Hamas, Fatah or anyone else – faces three options. All-out war is seen as “suicidal”; but so is the option of “act[ing] as Israel’s gendarme”. This would guarantee massive unpopularity in a context where repeated Israeli attacks had prevented the Palestinian Authority from exercising military rule over its own people. This leaves the “overseer” approach in which ‘the PA would sometimes let things happen, sometimes be a spectator, and at other times arbitrate between rival groups, in most cases to avoid taking initiatives. It meant waiting for the Israelis to make mistakes, intervening when absolutely necessary and only with significant backing from the Palestinian population, giving in and letting the storm pass when the pressure of the other side became too strong, and so on.” (Mansour also hints at a fourth option, closer to the PLO strategy in the 1970s, which is rejected for political reasons, because it would dismantle the PA). The “overseer” approach is a result of self-preservation by the faction in power. If Hamas tried militarily to stop the rocket attacks, it would face the dual spectres of a precipitate loss of support and civil war with other factions.
The ‘status quo’ was that Israel was blockading Gaza, and Palestinian militants periodically fired rockets in return. Who escalated the situation beyond this status quo, turning it into an all-out war?
The argument often claims that Hamas is responsible because the Israeli response is ‘predictable’. As indeed it was, in the way that atrocities by those in power very often are – in the way, for example, that the Chinese crackdown in Tibet was “predictable”, and the beating of civil rights activists in the 1960s US South. It is also “predictable” that an Israeli blockade, constant verbal aggression and periodic military attacks will lead to Palestinians engaging in retaliation. One major reason for such attacks is the Israeli defence doctrine which maintains that constant violence, collective punishment and dehumanisation of Palestinians will break their will and end resistance. While this doctrine persists, it is inevitable that some Palestinians will set out to prove the doctrine wrong. (Sociologist Michael Mann argues that the motive for Palestinian suicide bombings is to disprove Israeli security theory.)
The situation is framed as a case of Palestinian free choice versus Israeli determinism: Hamas chose an ‘indulgent’ strategy when they could have done otherwise; Israel simply behaved predictably, like a machine, without will. The methodological inadequacy of such a position is obvious: Hamas, too, is acting “predictably”; Israel, too, has a choice in how to act.
If this argument is not rejected, if ‘predictable’ retaliation is to be excused from the status of ethically challengeable agency, why would it not similarly excuse every other act by a belligerent – from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait to the 911 attacks or the Sudanese offensives in Darfur? Either everyone is similarly permitted to act ‘predictably’, in which case no moral critique of war is possible; or Israel alone is accorded this privilege, which is systematic, unapologetic bias.
Big Lie #3 – Israel wants peace, the Palestinians want war
Because Hamas does not recognise Israel’s ‘right to exist’ and does not openly call for a two-state solution, it is therefore a constant provocation of Israel, which quite understandably (it is claimed) refuses to negotiate with it or to recognise it in return. Israel is ‘ready for peace’ – it is prepared to negotiate if ‘the violence stops’ (as if it is not itself a perpetrator of violence), and can be faulted only for failing to send this message loudly and clearly enough. Hamas on the other hand is an extremist organisation committed to wiping out Israel, fuelled by “ideology”.
Again, this view is perversely one-sided. It is common in intractable conflicts for neither side to recognize the other. Israel also does not, in principle, accept the existence or the right to exist of a Palestinian state. Many states have and continue to carry on negotiations without formal recognition – for instance, East and West Germany in the 1970s, North and South Korea, Taiwan and China, Serbia and Kosova, Britain and the IRA. If Israel refuses on principle to negotiate with an adversary until the adversary accepts a priori the crux of Israel’s claims, it is in effect refusing the possibility of dialogue, placing a block in the way of any possibility of peace, taking a stance of ‘no peace without victory’. Hamas does not have the capacity to eradicate Israel. It is no more a threat to Israel than is, for example, the Taiwanese claim to the whole of mainland China. This abstract goal of Hamas is held up by Israel as a shibboleth, a pretext. Whatever one thinks of Hamas’s politics, the movement has been successful because of the political situation, not because of “ideology” in the abstract. Its support is not fuelled by irrational hatred of Israel. It is fuelled by the anger and desperation born of occupation and war, as well as by Hamas offering a political alternative to what was viewed as a corrupt local administration unable to meet basic needs, and to a strategy of placating Israel which seemed to have failed (not to mention Hamas’s success in creating a limited social services and welfare infrastructure).
Of course, most Palestinians are not enthusiastic to give up so blatantly. Since Israel was founded through the forced expulsion of millions of Palestinians from what had previously been their own land, that these refugees have neither been rehomed nor compensated, and that they have a claim under international law to a right to live inside the boundaries of what is now Israel, and that Israel has never specified exactly where the boundaries of its “right to exist” end, it is not surprising that Palestinians are rather reluctant to concede it as having such a “right to exist”.
Other cases are never seen in the same way. The Bosnian war, for example, is not seen as the Bosnians’ fault because they refuse to recognise the Republica Srpska’s right to exist; the Darfur conflict is not labelled the Darfur rebels’ fault because they don’t recognise the Sudanese government’s right to the integrity of its borders. In these cases, the populations bearing the brunt of atrocities are not expected to be enthusiastic to recognise their oppressors.
Hamas’s intransigence, its opposition to Israel’s existence and its ostensibly extreme ideology, is thus concluded according this narrative to be a source (rather than a symptom) of the conflict. Certain questions have to be avoided. Why would so many Palestinians vote for, and join, and fight for a group so bitterly opposed to Israel? Would things have been much better under Fatah? Israel has staged similar incursions of similar length repeatedly over the last ten years – the siege of the Fatah leadership in Bethlehem in 2002, the invasion of Jenin in the same year, the invasion of Rafah in 2004, and the invasion of Lebanon in 2006. Some of these were targeted at the more pliant Fatah leadership. This puts the lie to the claim that it is Hamas’s intransigence which has extended the conflict. Rather, the failure of Fatah’s strategy of appeasing Israel in return to peace was a major reason for Hamas’s election victory in Gaza.
Let us stop for a moment to consider another narrative, again from Edward Saïd. According to Saïd, “[w]ere it not for the fact of the Palestinians’ stubborn refusal to accept that they are ‘a defeated people’… there would be no peace plan”. This is the crucial point about such initiatives. “If we miss that truth about the power of Palestinian resistance… we miss everything”.
If the Palestinians had not resisted, they would not exist as a people in the face of the Israeli onslaught. There would be no talk of peace. There are reasons why Israel has been forced to the peace table by ongoing proof that the Palestinians are resilient and persistent enough to prevent a military ‘solution’.
The comprehensive occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was ended (or rather, toned down) due to the persistence of Palestinian resistance. Israel found occupation costly for several reasons, including the growth of refusal of military service, the growth of the peace movement and the continual military cost. Israeli generals find it more practical to stage intense violent invasions which last briefly enough to avoid a concerted outcry, rather than to carry on a quagmire-like occupation. In the case of Gaza, withdrawal of troops and settlers (while continuing to occupy Gaza’s airspace, coastlines and borders) has a military purpose: leaving the Palestinian population vulnerable to long-range aerial and artillery bombardment which could not be carried out if Israel had its own people on the ground.
A two-state solution, were it to be feasible, would require recognition between the two sides – but as a part of the solution, not something asserted in advance. Israel has also refused arbitrarily to negotiate with Hamas; in contrast to Hamas, it has refused to recognise its adversary as a potential interlocutor. Blaming this lack of dialogue on non-recognition by one side, when both sides refuse to recognise one another, is patently unfair. It is a logical fallacy, treating the absence of a peace settlement as the reason for the absence of a peace settlement.
This narrative often reads the partial and conditional withdrawals of Israeli forces from the Palestinian territories as a move towards a two-state solution. This is naïve. Firstly, the withdrawal has been partial and conditional. Israel still occupies large parts of the West Bank, including settlements and areas adjacent to them, and most of the major road networks. Israel is also carving additional land out of the West Bank as part of its “separation fence” project. Israel also insists on controlling checkpoints to and from the Palestinian territories. It is clear that Israel never viewed Oslo as the first step to a viable Palestinian state.
Is it Hamas which is preventing the realisation of a two-state solution? The Oslo Accords were greeted by many as the beginning of such a solution. Fatah has effectively recognised Israel’s “right to exist” provided it be as part of a two-state arrangement. Yet the West Bank is no closer to being a second “state” than at the time Oslo was signed. Israeli violence has continued in the West Bank. Fatah was formerly in power in both territories, but lost power in Gaza in democratic elections. Were it not for Israel’s actions after Oslo, some kind of two-state arrangement might well have come into being – but Israel persisted in waging war against the infrastructure of everyday life in the Palestinian territories, and eventually, as happens in democracies, the governing party was replaced by the opposition. Fatah was unable to deliver on the hopes raised by the Oslo accords because of Israeli intransigence.
So, we are left with a situation where Israel refuses on principle to negotiate with Hamas except on terms which Hamas finds both repugnant and politically suicidal. Israel acts on its intransigence by sabotaging whatever ceasefires and peace settlements arise. Israel offers negotiations if Palestinians stop their side of the violence (a demand made previously against Fatah before it was extended to Hamas), but without making any move to curb the daily violence of its own policies – the blockade, the settlements, the harassment at checkpoints, the periodic raids and incursions. It is thus clear that Israel is stalling, preventing peacemaking efforts indefinitely by demanding that peace be established before the negotiations, or worse, that the other side gives up its violence while Israel continues its own.
Big Lie #4 – The international community can’t stop the war
This goes like this: firstly, the situation is too politically sensitive for others to get involved; secondly, the Gaza atrocities are not that big a deal, because there are worse things going on (e.g. in Congo and Darfur); thirdly, the international community lacks funds for conflict resolution; fourthly, the international community lacks leverage over Hamas (previously asserted to be the main cause of the conflict). The image is thus of an international community (more accurately, of big foreign states and agencies) which is not choosing to condone or turn a blind eye to Israel, but which is simply unable to act – too busy, too poor, too powerless. America, Britain, the EU, the UN, NATO and other large states, are too busy, too poor, and too powerless to act. Yet these are the same agents who act in costly, disproportionate, powerful ways in a great many other contexts.
The counter-argument, that maybe they could act but do not want to act, often does not enter into the typical narrative enough even to warrant an attempt at rebuttal. Ironically, it is usually concluded that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot be solved without American engagement, and that Bush has engaged too little in the ‘Middle East’. So this powerless, poor, busy giant – which could not possibly stop the invasion of Gaza – is nevertheless capable of bringing about peace!
Let us take these issues one at a time. Firstly, there is the implication that the invasion of Gaza is somehow more ‘sensitive’ than, for instance, the Darfur or Kosova conflicts. But why? All humanitarian and human rights situations raise geopolitical situations where the criticised countries and their allies try to deny or minimise the atrocities. In the case of Darfur, the west’s pressure on Sudan is complicated by perceptions that the concern is linked to western Islamophobia, by manoeuvrings between Sudan and Chad, and by angry memories of the American bombing of a Sudanese medicine factory in 1998, which may have killed more people indirectly than the Darfur crisis. In Kosova, the issue was complicated by Russian support for the Serbs. In both cases, the situation is complicated by accusations and counter-accusations about who did what, governments claiming that alleged rights abuses were/are justified responses to armed opposition groups active in the area, and claiming a separation between government forces and local paramilitaries responsible for abuses. If the Gaza incursion is entirely justified from an Israeli point of view, then so equally is Darfur from a Sudanese point of view, or Kosova from a Serbian point of view. In none of the other cases does complexity prevent America, the UN, etc, from acting. So, it is not logical to conclude that complexity is the cause of inaction in the Gaza case. Rather, the only thing that prevents the international community taking the same stance on Palestine as on these other cases is American support for Israel. This is not a ‘complication’. It is outright support for war crimes.
Secondly, there is the argument that the international community is preoccupied with conflicts elsewhere, which are as described as worse than the Gaza crisis in humanitarian terms. This raises a clear danger : that of reducing human rights issues to matters of numbers. Numbers do not define when something becomes a genocide or a crime against humanity in international law. And if we are comparing by numbers, why not start by comparing the deaths on the Israeli and Palestinian sides?
It is hard to establish how many exactly have been killed in Gaza. Above, I cited a figure of 1,434 directly killed. But this number would be dwarfed by the numbers killed indirectly, through the ongoing siege and due to the destruction of humanitarian infrastructure and means of subsistence during the incursion. Numbers dying due to unsanitary conditions, lack of healthcare, malnutrition, sewage poisoning and the like are hard to establish but may number tens or hundreds of thousands. Even before the current crisis, life expectancy in the Gaza Strip was seven years less than in Israel. Without seeking to minimise suffering in Darfur, it should be added that there are currently 7 million Palestinian refugees around the world, compared to maybe 2 million refugees from Darfur. In the case of Kosova, the number killed comes to between 2,500 and 12,000. The crisis was probably on a smaller scale than Gaza became, at the time NATO intervened. What is more, these cases have not exactly been ignored. There have been a peacekeeping initiative, high-profile absentee trials of alleged human rights violators, and international sanctions against Sudan. As for the DR Congo, there are already United Nations peacekeepers in many of the most vulnerable sites, totalling 25,000 people, in addition to the global indictment and arrest of leaders deemed responsible for abuses. Serbia was internationally isolated, and several of its former leaders are in jail.
In contrast, there have been no such sanctions against Israel. There are no peacekeepers along the borders of Gaza, or even protecting the UNRWA sites. There have been no ICC indictments of Israeli leaders. Israeli officials and generals travel the world freely.
Thirdly, there is the question of ‘public finances’. Indeed, these are in dire straits everywhere right now. But they are hardly grounds for inaction in a case such as this. America is subsidising Israel to the tune of $3.5 billion annually (not counting the huge bribe to Egypt to maintain peace with Israel). America could take immediate action to force Israel into a settlement by suspending aid. America could force Israel into peace overnight if it had the political will. This would actually save money for America. This brings us to the fourth claim: lack of leverage over Hamas. In fact, western countries and global agencies have considerable positive leverage over Hamas: they could easily offer to decriminalise the group for example, or to recognise the Palestinian Authority in Gaza as a state. Their refusal to countenance such measures is a sign of pro-Israeli bias.
Let us conclude, briefly, with the issue of American engagement to solve the conflict. While this cannot be ruled out, we should bear in mind that America could end the conflict overnight if it wanted, by suspending aid to Israel. America has, rather, chosen to fuel the conflict by backing Israel unconditionally. It is also doubtful whether American intervention would be welcomed, given that its persistent warmongering has left it deeply unpopular in the Arab world.
The oft-repeated statement that Bush ‘did not engage heavily with the Middle East’ is so ridiculous that it hardly merits response. Even assuming this means ‘Bush has not engaged heavily with Palestine’ (ignoring the rest of the Middle East), all this really means is that he gave a free hand to the Israeli regime to attack the Palestinians under the veil of the American ‘war on terror’ (Yasser Arafat “is our bin Laden” declared Sharon on one occasion). Many Bush regime leaders were members of extreme pro-Israel think tanks such as PNAC and AIPAC. The Bush regime has criminalised Palestinian advocates in America, from charities such as the Holy Land Foundation to academics such as Sami al-Arian. America has not been busy with peacemaking in the Middle East because it has been too busy with warmaking! And these wars cannot be separated neatly from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Iraq and Iran are linked to Israel as possible regional counter-powers; Iraq was a major supporter of the Palestinians before the invasion, while Iran is allegedly seeking to break Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region. Notice also the timing of the Gaza incursion: set up to end (without Palestinian concessions) the moment Bush handed over to Obama. This invasion was Bush’s last gift to the Israelis.
Perhaps an American change of heart could bring about peace, but I for one am not holding my breath. Meanwhile, there are several other ways peace could come about. Firstly, Israel could be deterred by another state or power with the capacity to hit it hard, creating a balance of power. Secondly, Israel could be forced into peace by growing discontent among its own population, especially if it ends up in a costly quagmire conflict. Thirdly, other states and social forces around the world could unite against both Israel and America and impose sanctions leading to peace. Fourthly, with American global power in decline after the Iraq fiasco, it is possible that others will become more important in peacemaking. The most viable approach is to continue initiatives such as the International Solidarity Movement protests and the Gaza humanitarian boats, while also seeking to cut off Israel’s military and corporate supporters elsewhere and undermine its interconnections with the economies of the rest of the world. Targeting companies such as Caterpillar, forcing them to break their links to Israel, would leave it increasingly isolated and force it to sue for peace.
James Turner is a writer and activist based in the UK.