Mohammed Saber / EPA

The propaganda war over the Gaza crisis

Palestinians struggle to get their version of events heard

July 21, 2014 12:00PM ET

In response to the Israeli military attack against Hamas, the dominant narrative formulated by the United States and the main Western European governments has combined two elements: first, unquestioning support for the core Israeli claim that it is legal and reasonable to attack Hamas in Gaza as a response to the launch from Gaza of rockets directed at Israel’s cities and towns and, second, that the violence unleashed is tragic, since it makes innocent civilians on both sides bear the burden of Hamas wrongdoing.

A New York Times lead editorial, as it does so well, summed up the conventional wisdom on this third large-scale Israeli attack on Gaza carried out in the last six years: “There is no way Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu was going to tolerate Hamas bombardments, which are indiscriminately lobbed. Nor should he. As President [Barack] Obama said on Friday, ‘No nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders or terrorists tunneling into its territory.’”

Against this portrayal stands an official frowning on the civilian price being paid daily. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon can do no better than to “urge Israel to do far more to stop civilian casualties.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry weighed in with a vapid plea to Israel to be “precise” in its military strikes.

These perspectives on recent events in Gaza not only are deeply misleading but also completely suppress the Palestinian narrative that looks at these events very differently. This counternarrative suggests that Israel used a crime — the murder of three settler children in an area of the West Bank under Israeli security control — as a pretext for mounting an all-out, unjustified campaign designed to destroy Hamas influence. Israel no doubt anticipated such provocations would lead the Hamas organization in Gaza to react in solidarity by shooting rockets in Israel’s direction. This was all that was needed for Netanyahu to start the major military operation, with hundreds of airstrikes and naval bombardment. 

A complete timeline

The Palestinian narrative starts by challenging the timeline that begins with the rockets launched from Gaza. It insists on the relevance of the prior anti-Hamas rampage in the West Bank that was decreed by the Netanyahu government as soon as it learned of the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers on June 12. It points to the immediate Israeli accusations of Hamas’ responsibility for the crime without providing to this day a shred of evidence to support such inflammatory charges, with no effort to refute a formal denial of involvement by Hamas. Beyond this, Max Blumenthal has reported convincingly that Israel suppressed information about the teens’ deaths, which it confirmed hours after the incident, allowing it to justify continuing a coercive and desperate search for them throughout the West Bank days after it was known that they were no longer alive. This unduly provocative reaction to the incident resulted in the deaths of six Palestinians, the detention of as many as 500 others — mainly people with links to Hamas — lockdowns of towns and cities, house demolitions of suspected perpetrators, night raids on homes and many other abuses of human rights. Not even mentioned in the context of this terrible crime is the constant friction associated with the unlawful presence of the settlements and the settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories, which produces resentment and bitterness fueled by daily humiliations of Palestinians.

It is too much to expect Hamas — or any political actor — to ignore such provocations without reacting in some way. And what way does Hamas have to react except by sending its mainly primitive rockets in Israel’s direction? This response is without a doubt contrary to international law, but what alternatives were open to Hamas other than sullen acquiescence? It was also the case that prior to the heavy flow of rockets, Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza, which appeared to be designed to induce a retaliation that could then provide Tel Aviv with justification to launch a massive military operation in line with the distasteful Israeli metaphor that “mowing the grass” — an indiscriminate punitive incursion — in Gaza is necessary to ensure that the region remains compliant.

Also relevant is a comprehensive unlawful blockade of Gaza that was established in mid-2007 and is widely viewed by international law experts as illegal because it amounts to the collective punishment of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million civilians. Collective punishment is unconditionally prohibited by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In this case, since Palestinian civilians are supposed to be protected by Israel as the occupying power, the violation of international humanitarian law is flagrant.

Through July 19, only two Israeli deaths resulted from rocket or mortar fire, while more than 336 Palestinians were killed, 75 to 80 percent of whom were civilians, according to United Nations reports. (The death toll now stands at at least 425 Palestinian and 20 Israeli deaths, according to the New York Times.) To be sure, the lopsided casualty disparity does not excuse firing indiscriminate rockets, some more recently, with sufficient range to hit the main Israeli cities. Yet this disparity does call for some recognition when diplomats talk piously about civilian suffering on both sides of the conflict.

Recent history

A bit of historical context seems appropriate. Israel in the past accompanied its massive military operations against Gaza with a self-serving narrative that is constructed on the basis of provocations. In November 2008 there was a truce in place that for months cut cross-border violence to almost zero. Israel launched an attack on what it claimed were Hamas militants near a tunnel, killing six, breaking the truce. In retaliation Hamas fired a salvo of rockets into Israel. As in the present crisis, Israeli hasbara (public relations) buried the truce and the Israeli raid, limiting discussion to Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks. There was a variety of secondary motives for Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and ’09 — an Israel Defense Forces ground invasion in Gaza to disarm Hamas militants — such as winning public favor for upcoming domestic elections in Israel, sending a message to Iran and making up for the poor IDF showing in the 2006 Lebanon war. For Gaza the carnage was terrible, with over 1,417 dead (compared with 13 Israelis).

What is never even whispered in the corridors of power is some recognition that the people of Gaza should also have some right to be defended or protected if they are to be deprived of any meaningful right of resistance.

In 2012 the situation was not very different. There had been a period of relative calm, with no Israelis killed by rocket fire in the entire period between the end of the earlier military operation and November 2012. Some tension arose that included rocket fire, but truce negotiations were underway, and in fact, a Hamas military leader, Ahmed Jabari, was on his way to deliver a signed agreement to his Israeli interlocutor when his car was targeted and he was assassinated by a missile. Once more, Hamas responded with a flurry of rockets, including some with longer range, and Israel responded with a preplanned major military operation code-named Pillar of Defense, which again caused much death and destruction in Gaza, killing 133 Palestinians. Hostilities ended with an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire in which Israel promised to stop targeted assassinations, made some other concessions and agreed to hold negotiations designed to ease the Gaza blockade. The 2012 cease-fire agreement was never fully implemented by Israel.

From this review of military operations, a pattern emerges that should be distressing to objective observers concerned with peace and justice: a period of quiet, Israeli provocation, Hamas retaliation, then a major military Israeli offensive that is an extreme example of one-sided warfare, followed by international expressions of concern and initially ignored international calls for a cease-fire and finally a cease-fire. On each of these occasions the proclaimed Israeli goals of ending Hamas’ rocket firing capability were not realized, prompting questions rarely asked about whether Israel’s real goals were achieved but not disclosed: “mowing the grass,” testing weapons and tactics, warning the Palestinian Authority not to join forces with Hamas and reinforcing the Israeli image of being a ferocious adversary that should never be challenged. 

No military solution

Behind this complex political maneuvering is a propaganda war that Israel is winning at the intergovernmental and mainstream media levels (and steadily losing at grass-roots and social media levels). Gaza is on the receiving end of most of the violence, suffering nearly all the death and destruction, Nevertheless, it is Hamas that is charged with acts of terrorism while Israel’s reliance on state terrorism is removed from view by being described as lawful and reasonable defensive action that is normal for any sovereign state faced with such a threat.

In the foreground — again rarely acknowledged — is the inadequacy of legal and moral categories used to describe what is taking place. Political leaders take some care to avoid claiming Israel’s right of self-defense but more vaguely speak of its right to defend its people from rockets and mortars fired into its territory. What is never even whispered in the corridors of power is some recognition that the people of Gaza should also have some right to be defended or protected if they are to be deprived of any meaningful right of resistance.

If international law holds that indiscriminate rockets are inherently unlawful, then what is left for Hamas to do other than surrender? Many have wondered why Hamas continues to fire rockets at Israel when it endures such adverse consequences and yet does so little damage, rarely striking people or property. There is no convincing rational answer beyond noting that resistance to foreign occupation is a very fundamental political impulse. It also seems that Hamas has gradually acquired improved rocket technology and could at some future time threaten Israel with real physical harm and so is a kind of warning.

When Libyans in Benghazi were under dire threat in 2011, the U.N. authorized a no-fly zone as a protective initiative and then proceeded to initiate a regime-changing intervention to remove the threat from Muammar Gaddafi altogether. The U.N. acted in response to a showing of extreme civilian vulnerability. In the case of Gaza, the reality of extreme vulnerability has been in evidence over and over again, and yet all that is done is to show support for Israel’s recourse to war and piously urge restraint to limit civilian suffering.

As many observers have suggested, the conflict between Israel and Palestine has no military solution. It could remain unresolved indefinitely, with these periodic spikes in violence a reminder of the Palestinian ordeal. Repeatedly deferring a solution definitely favors Israel, for time has not been friendly to the Palestinians: In 1947, the U.N. offered the Palestinians 45 percent of historic Palestine. After the 1948 war, Palestinians were confined to 22 percent of the territory. Since the 1967 war, Israeli settlements, along with the separation wall and settler-only roads, have shrunk the Palestinian remnant to an even smaller fraction.

As if to confirm this view of the conflict, the Knesset recently elected Reuven Rivlin, an Israeli ardent one-stater, to be the next president of the country, signaling an increasing readiness to incorporate into Israel what Israelis call Judea and Samaria and the rest of the world knows as the West Bank. In other words, behind the iron and fire is a vision of how to complete the Zionist project without needing to offer the Palestinians anything more than minority rights. It is, perhaps, this triumphalist Zionist vision of the future that best explains why Israel launched this vicious attack on the long-beleaguered people of Gaza: to eliminate Hamas, the major obstruction to realizing that vision. 

Richard Falk is an Albert G. Milbank professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and a research fellow at the Orfalea Center of Global and International Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter