Framing the Gaza Narrative

Gaza_School_Bombed

by Mitchell Plitnick

With US bombs dropping on Iraq once again and Israeli troops having moved out of Gaza, the fighting between Hamas and Israel has faded a bit from the headlines. But the battle to dominate the narrative of the 2014 Gaza war is now intensifying, and, as usual, the truth seems to be losing.

To comprehend what has happened in Gaza and Israel over the past few months, one must understand not only the underlying causes, but also the immediate triggers. It is something of a victory that one of those underlying causes, the siege of the Gaza Strip, has remained at the center of the discourse, after spending much of the past seven years off the radar and outside of diplomatic and media discussions.

One overarching point, however, has become a virtual theme not only in Israel, but also in the United States and much of Europe: this latest conflagration started as a result of Hamas rockets being fired upon Israel. Yet only a willful misreading of the timeline can bring about this conclusion.

Triggers

Two events set the current escalation in violence in motion. One was precipitative: the unity government agreement between Fatah and Hamas. That move was welcomed, however conditionally, by the US and the international community, but was bitterly opposed by Israel’s far-right government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was concerned that a unified Palestinian government would be in a better position to restart the peace process to which he is so opposed, and possibly even wrangle international pressure toward some small concessions from Israel. He needed an opportunity to shatter that unity government without incurring the wrath such open defiance could bring, especially from Europe.

The second event was the spark that gave Netanyahu just what he wanted. The kidnapping and murder of three youths from an Israeli settlement presented him with a political opportunity and he seized it.

By the morning after the event, the Israeli government knew the youths were dead. Israelis are somewhat accustomed to people being killed, but when they are held captive, the country becomes incensed. So, Netanyahu maintained a charade about the young men being alive to whip the country into a frenzy.

As the anger in Israel built up, Netanyahu stoked the Palestinian fire with a massive operation in the West Bank, targeting Hamas operatives. The Israelis did this knowing that the kidnapping was not a Hamas operation, but one perpetrated by the Qawasmeh clan, which is affiliated with Hamas but is notorious for acting on its own. Recently, Israel has tried to cover up this aspect with claims about the perpetrators having received “funding” from Hamas. But that is a thin tale; this act didn’t require any funding.

So Israeli forces swept through the West Bank, sometimes encountering resistance that resulted in several Palestinian deaths, and brought the day-to-day lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians to a halt. They arrested hundreds without charge, including many who had been released in 2011 as part of the swap for the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. That was a breach of the exchange agreement and a very sore point for Palestinians across the board.

It was at this point that one of the quietest periods in rocket fire from Gaza began to crack, although Hamas was not yet the party firing. Matters escalated from there, with all the horrors, bloodshed and destruction that we’ve since witnessed.

Facts vs. Half-Truths

That picture obviously doesn’t paint Israel in a very favorable light. So it’s no surprise that it is being distorted by the constant repetition, from a great many quarters, that “no country would tolerate rockets being fired at it or tunnels being dug across its border.”

We’ve been hearing that line or support for it even from people critical of Israel’s swath of destruction across Gaza. It is often a justification for Israel’s actions, within a criticism of Israel is “going too far,” perhaps even way too far. But this war was a lot more than a justifiable response taken too far.

Israel’s “right of self-defense” was defended like a holy relic. But little is ever mentioned about the requirement under international law for an occupying power to ensure the safety of the people under its occupation. In other words, Israel is ultimately responsible for the safety of Palestinians not only in the West Bank, but also in Gaza. Israel controls Gaza’s coastline, airspace and most of its borders as well as holding a “buffer zone” inside it. So even under the kindest interpretation, Israel is at least responsible for protecting Gaza from outside attack.

Israel is also undoubtedly absolutely responsible for the safety of its citizens. It certainly does have every right to protect Israeli civilians from attacks, whether from within or without. That, however, is not the same as the right of self-defense.

The tunnels, which have become a terrifying specter for Israelis despite the fact that they’ve been there for years in some cases and had not been used until this conflict was in full swing, did not necessitate the massive destruction that Israel caused in Gaza. Egypt managed to find a way to destroy hundreds of tunnels without levelling Rafah, for example.

It is, of course, true that countries do not tolerate cross-border fire and infiltration. But in most cases, countries avoid the whole question by not occupying territory over their border. True, Israel is not the only country engaging in occupation, but the examples are few and far between these days — relics of a bygone age when colonialism was in style. That’s why Israel is dealing with these vexing issues. Indeed, while sovereign states have the right of self-defense and the responsibility to protect their citizens, occupied people also have the right to resist — but we don’t hear that very often.

Of course, the right to resist does not mean Hamas or any other Palestinian group is justified in targeting civilians or putting civilians at undue risk with indiscriminate weapons. Any legitimate inquiry into the events of recent weeks must look at those crimes as well.

Still, the narrative needs to be kept in perspective. First, any balanced judgment of what has happened needs to recognize the capacity of each side not only for destruction, but also for avoiding undue destruction. It must also examine the scope and scale of damage suffered by each side.

A reasonable narrative must also consider the entire situation. The escalation to this conflict was caused by Israel’s attempt to shatter the Palestinian unity government. The war probably went further than Netanyahu — who is not adventurous by nature and tends to be more reluctant about engaging in large-scale military actions than most of his predecessors — really wanted. But this war did not start because Hamas increased its rocket fire. Nor did it begin with the goal of eradicating infiltration tunnels.

If people believe Israel was justified in its actions, then they should be defending the actions Israel actually took. Instead, the narrative is being shaped by an opening sentence: no country would tolerate rockets and tunnels. One hopes the entire truth will seep in, but when even many critical thinkers begin their argument that way, it’s hard to stay hopeful.

Photo: A Palestinian student inspects the damage at a UN school at the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip after the area was hit by Israeli shelling on July 30, 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He is the former director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and was previously the director of education and policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. He is a widely published and respected policy analyst. Born in New York City, raised an Orthodox Jew and educated in Yeshiva, Mitchell grew up in an extremist environment that passionately supported the radical Israeli settler movement. His writing has appeared in the Jordan Times, Israel Insider, UN Observer, Middle East Report, Global Dialogue, San Francisco Chronicle, Die Blaetter Fuer Deutsche Und Internationale Politik, Outlook, and in a regular column for a time in Tikkun Magazine. He has been interviewed by various outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor and CNBC Asia. Plitnick graduated with honors from UC Berkeley in Middle Eastern Studies and wrote his thesis on Israeli and Jewish historiography and earned his Masters Degree from the University of Maryland, College Park's School of Public Policy.

5 Comments

  1. While breakdowns like this are the province of the analyst industry, it only adds fuel to the fire of the larger blame game that Israel and its enemies engage in trying to recruit favorable media coverage. The event spirals into a process of blame and counter blame and each perceived gain in the public eye by one side spurs reaction from the other. It’s when you get into these process debates they end up becoming self-fulfilling and the violence goes on automatic pilot. The key to breaking this is to simply not try to score media points on the backs of killing people. The media itself isn’t helpful when it puts its coverage up for grabs to the highest bidder in terms of gore, blood and death. It’s why the recent trend of beheadings on TV has become almost common place as extremist groups try to out gore each other (see recent video of children holding up severed heads in the Syrian conflict). It’s a bad trend and one that will only get worse.

  2. Excellent summation of facts. This is the type of honest analysis that’s painfully missing from our mainstream media, and the biggest reason our population is so woefully unaware of the truth about the tragedy of the Arab-Israeli conflict, really a war of cousins.

    I know the theme of the article is how the Gaza narrative is being framed and a discussion of the failures of the true objectives of Israel’s policy makers are outside of its scope. Nevertheless, I hope to see a discussion of the winners and losers of this latest round of conflict by Mr. Plitnick. My suspicion is that on the ground, the losers by a wide margin were the Gaza civilians. In addition, despite the lopsided military victory (as is the case when someone shoot into a barrel of fish), this was a major defeat for Israel. Not only was it unable to crack the unity movement of PA and Hamas as was Bibi’s objective, in the process Israel has dealt a huge blow to its own image in the West. The immense cruelty exercised in this newest “mowing of the grass” was beyond what many could take and might be a harbinger of things to come: the slide of Israel’s image into the same realm that the apartheid era South Africa slid into. Lastly, it was a major victory for Hamas who does not really care about the number of Palestinian lives lost. They traded many civilian lives for one victory off the battlefield. I can understand the argument of how when someone is a huge underdog they may resort to any unconventional means to gain an edge. But it sickens me to see it in action. It’s a nightmarish thing to behold.

  3. Bravo, Mitchell. Israel wanted Hamas to retaliate, in order to enable the mowing of the grass, and possibly the destruction of the unity government.

  4. I have a question: if both the Israelis and the Palestinians are to use the term, Semitic, then isn’t it true that when Israel engages in this type of call it what you may, acting anti-Semitic? Or is the term only the domain of the Israelis for use against those who don’t agree with them?

    It’s really hard to accept that the actions of Netanyahoo deserves letting him off from being a war criminal as the truth comes out about his deception[s]. Blame it on the extreme right wing politicians in his party? One has to be nave to buy into that excuse, IMHO.

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