By Aaron the Humanist
In this article, Aaron challenges the idea that the two sides in the Israel-Gaza War are as bad as each other and that all we need is a ceasefire and another round of talks. For him, terrorism demands an effective response.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the majority of people in the West appeared to take the view that Ukraine had the right to defend itself with all the military means at its disposal. But when Hamas launched a truly horrific terrorist attack against Israeli civilians on October 7th, and Israel responded to defend itself, many people in the West called for an immediate ceasefire. Is this a case of double-standards? Taking a neutral stance and avoiding conflict can be the most effective way to pursue a peaceful resolution. This can work in situations where there are border disputes, territorial claims, historic disagreements and so on. But when there is a very obvious aggressor, is this even possible?
Some world leaders and commentators appear to be excusing the attack by Hamas, for example by saying "We condemn the attack by Hamas, BUT..." or "It didn't happen in a vacuum" or "Hamas are freedom fighters". Others, such as the UK government, have been uncompromising in recognising 7th October as an act of terror and in backing Israel's right to defend itself.
I recognise, of course, that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank since 1967 constitutes a long-standing grievance, and the blockade of Gaza, imposed to weaken Hamas and limit its ability to launch attacks against Israel, causes hardship for ordinary people in Gaza. But none of this excuses what took place on 7th October which seemed calculated to grab the world's attention, provoke Israel into an aggressive response, and of course to grab hostages as a bargaining chip to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners. Some have even suggested that it was Hamas's birthday present to Vladimir Putin, whose birthday is 7th October, as it took the world's media spotlight off the Russia-Ukraine War.
Do Gazans support Hamas?
Do ordinary Palestinians support Hamas in the actions they took on 7th October? Ismail Haniyeh, chief of Hamas’s political bureau, has claimed that Hamas’s actions represented Gazans and “the entire Arab Muslim community”. Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and took office in early 2006. They secured a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, winning approximately 44% of the popular vote in that election. A Muslim guest at a recent interfaith meeting I attended, however, said that ordinary Gazans "hate" Hamas because they rule Gaza like a "mafia" organisation. Opinion polls conducted by The Washington Institute in July 2023 provide insights into Gazans' views on Hamas and related issues. The polls revealed that a majority of Gazans (62%) supported Hamas in maintaining a ceasefire with Israel, and half (50%) agreed that Hamas should stop calling for Israel's destruction and accept a permanent two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. Nevertheless, according to the Washington Institute, there is widespread popular appeal for competing armed Palestinian factions, including those involved in the attack. Organisations like Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Lion’s Den (another militant Palestinian armed group) receive widespread popular support in Gaza. About three quarters of Gazans express support for both groups. Of course, this does not mean that the Gazan people should be subjected to "collective punishment", which is how some critics describe Israel's military response.
Does Israel have the right to defend itself? Yes, of course it does. But the asymmetric death toll leads many critics of Israel to accuse it of committing genocide. At the time of writing, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry, over 14,500 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been killed – the majority of whom were women and children. This compares to around 1,200 Israelis killed on 7th October. Those who defend Israel, however, point out that a deliberate massacre of civilians is morally different from military action in which civilians die as an unintended by-product, especially given that Hamas is known to use civilians as "human shields". According to our interview with a resident in Tel Aviv this month, ordinary people in Israel have bomb shelters which are readily accessible. In contrast, Hamas has constructed hundreds of miles of military tunnels for various purposes, including smuggling, launching attacks against Israel, and moving fighters and supplies. But there is no substantial evidence or widely available information suggesting that Hamas has invested similarly in building bomb shelters for civilian protection in Gaza. The lack of civilian bomb shelters in Gaza, especially in comparison to the extensive network of bomb shelters available to civilians in Israel, implies that Hamas is at least partly to blame for the high rate of civilian casualties in the current conflict.
The alternative to Hamas?
Israel has come under mounting pressure from its own population to do all it can to get hostages released. At the time of writing, a temporary truce is under way in order to achieve this, at the same time as it releases Palestinian prisoners. But there are fears that every day of a truce will be to the advantage of Hamas who have vowed to repeat its terror attacks. Israel's legitimate aim is to defeat Hamas and there is every likelihood that military action will resume after this temporary truce. If Israel succeeds in defeating and removing Hamas, the most likely alternative would be the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by the Fatah party. The PA currently governs parts of the West Bank and has previously controlled Gaza before Hamas took over in 2007. The Palestinian Authority, under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, represents the Palestinian territories in international affairs and has been involved in peace negotiations with Israel.
Should UN peacekeepers be involved? UN peacekeeping missions typically require the consent of the involved parties. In the case of Gaza, this would mean agreement from both the Israeli government and Hamas. Securing such consent could be very difficult given the political complexities and the history of the conflict. And would such a mission lead to a meaningful peace process, or could it potentially escalate tensions?
Is religion to blame?
Will there ever be peace between Israel and Palestine or will the cycle of violence continue for another century? Part of the problem is jihadi ideology which does not seek a negotiated settlement based on sharing of territory. It seeks the complete "liberation" of Palestine from Israel and Jews as part of a holy Islamic struggle. On the other side, some Israelis, especially settlers in the West Bank, believe that they have a divine right to settle there. Such religious views are impossible to reconcile with each other.
We certainly do not want to import the conflict into the UK. Mass protests in favour of Palestinian liberation have caused a great deal of disquiet, not least in the Jewish community, as well as placing a huge operational burden on the police. Humanists will, of course, have different views on this issue but the way I see it, we can't remain neutral about terrorism. Terrorism crosses a line which demands an effective response. We cannot close our eyes, stand on the fence, look the other way or take some neutral ground pretending there are two equal partners at play here. Of course, it is legitimate to criticise the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and hold them to the high standards of international law. IDF operations in Gaza and the West Bank are often criticised for their impact on the Palestinian population, and critics argue that the IDF's use of force is disproportionate. Some people even accuse the Israeli state itself of being a terrorist state, but this is not a designation recognised by the international community, whereas Hamas is considered to be a terrorist organisation by the UK government and by the EU, among others. Israel and Hamas are not equally as bad as each other. Israel's actions may sometimes be heavy-handed and disproportionate, but it is defending itself against a deadly foe and an existential threat. I stand with Israel. We need a replacement for Hamas.
Fortune article on what Gazans think of Hamas
Washington Institute analysis
Casualties of the 2023 Israel–Hamas war Wikipedia