Palestinians just endured an exceptionally brutal weekend: In Gaza, the death toll crossed the appalling benchmark of 1,000, overwhelmingly civilians. In the West Bank, Israeli soldiers and settlers also killed at least nine Palestinians amid protests against the devastation of Gaza. I recently debunked Israel’s misleading “human shields” argument attempting to deflect responsibility for the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians; but more important to expose is the false narrative of how we found ourselves in this crisis and who is responsible for its perpetuation.
For most media outlets, the current crisis began with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank. This is, of course, an arbitrary starting point. Just one day before the kidnappings, a Palestinian man and a 10-year-old child were killed in Gaza by an Israeli airstrike. Why wasn’t that the starting point of the violence? Has the media internalized Israel’s narrative to such an extent that they only see Israel as “responding” to violence rather than initiating it?
Israel initially blamed Hamas for the teens’ kidnapping, and “responded” by going on a violent rampage in the West Bank, invading homes, killing demonstrators, and arresting hundreds of Palestinians, including 60 Hamas members who had been freed in an earlier prisoner swap. Imagine the opposite scenario for a moment: When Israeli troops were caught on tape killing unarmed Palestinian teens just a few weeks before the kidnapping of the Israeli teens, imagine if Hamas responded by invading Israeli homes, shooting Israeli demonstrators and kidnapping hundreds of Israeli troops. Would media outlets cover such actions with the same sympathy and understanding afforded to Israel’s actions?
Hamas, Rockets and Kidnappings
We hear a lot about how many rockets Hamas fired, but rarely in a proper timeline. Hamas had been strictly observing a cease-fire agreement since it was brokered in 2012, and was even arresting Palestinian militants from rival factions who fired rockets at Israel as recently as last month. Hamas ultimately did resume firing rockets into Israel, but only after the massive crackdown Israel initiated against Hamas in the West Bank (and by some accounts, even after an Israeli airstrike on Gaza).
And it turns out the initial crackdown against Hamas was also without basis. Israeli officials now acknowledge, in direct contradiction to statements by Israel’s prime minister, that Hamas was actually not responsible for the kidnappings of the three Israeli teens after all. And this is not just a realization Israel made over the weekend: Israeli intelligence officers reportedly noted as early as June 30 that there was no evidence implicating Hamas as an organization.
Since Hamas did not initiate this confrontation, the question remains: Why did Israel pick this fight with them now? The answer requires a bit of context: For more than two decades, Palestinians and Israelis have been engaged in a so-called peace process, which aims to establish a Palestinian state on the occupied territories, the small areas from which Israel is legally required to withdraw. But that peace process failed time and again because Israel was never serious about allowing a viable Palestinian state to exist, and insisted on swallowing up more and more Palestinian land through relentless settlement expansion, in direct violation of international law. More recently, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu candidly (though only in Hebrew) ruled out the possibility of allowing a sovereign Palestinian state to exist.
But because global perceptions are important, Israel is always looking for a way to deflect responsibility for the failure of the peace process onto the Palestinians. One of the talking points used to that end is the claim that there is “no partner for peace” on the Palestinian side because the leadership was divided. So when Hamas and the Palestinian Authority agreed to end their division in recent months, Netanyahu’s government freaked out and demanded Western governments boycott the new united Palestinian leadership. When, to Netanyahu’s bitter disappointment, the U.S. insisted on dealing with the new Palestinian government anyway, Israel seems to have opted for a direct confrontation with Hamas to break up the unity government. One can see the cynical exploitation of the teens’ kidnapping to this end simply by looking at the Jerusalem Post headline, which reads: “Netanyahu to Kerry: PA's Hamas-backed unity government to blame for missing teens.” Evidence for this sort of nonsense, of course, is nowhere to be seen.
Occupation and Self-Defense
Beyond the tit-for-tat of “who started it” many are busy debating, it is crucial to emphasize that Israel has illegally occupied the Palestinian territories for many decades, is actively engaging in land theft through illegal settlement expansion, and is imposing a system of apartheid. Under those circumstances, Israel’s very posture is offensive, and it cannot claim to be engaging in “self-defense” against the very people whose land it has illegally usurped.
To personalize this for a moment, imagine a bully sitting on a smaller child, and every time someone objects to the fact that the bully is beating the smaller child with an iron rod, the bully exclaims, “Well, he tried to slap me, so I was forced to defend myself.” No, you can’t claim that you’re beating the smaller child with an iron rod in self-defense, especially when you can end the entire confrontation simply by getting off him. Back to the political reality, Norman Finkelstein put it best: “The refrain that Israel has the right to self-defense is a red herring: the real question is, does Israel have the right to use force to maintain an illegal occupation? The answer is no.”
Israel’s Message to Palestinians
When you take into account everything I mentioned so far, you begin to realize that the ubiquitous talking point “Israel was forced to defend itself from Hamas rockets” is wrong on three counts: 1) This round of violence did not start with Hamas rockets; 2) Israel was not “forced” into this confrontation; and 3) Israel as the occupying power is certainly not “defending” itself.
Under these circumstances, the atrocious bombing of Gaza and the killing of hundreds of civilians makes clear that Israel’s message to Palestinians is this: You will live under our boot, occupied, besieged, dispossessed and humiliated without any semblance of freedom. On occasion, we may even go on a violent rampage against you, but you better not respond. Because if any of you ever dare respond to our violence with violence, we will be forced to "defend ourselves" by using our overwhelming military might to beat your entire society into submission.
Ending the Violence
By now, you’ve probably heard news outlets accuse both Israel and Hamas, on alternating occasions, of rejecting cease-fire proposals. The accusations against both are true, and this merely has to do with the terms of each proposal: Israel wants a cease-fire that effectively ends the fighting while allowing Israel to keep its boot on Gaza’s neck. Hamas, on the other hand, insists on some humanitarian conditions, including ending the siege and economic suffocation of Gaza, the introduction of international peacekeeping forces at Gaza’s borders, and the freeing of prisoners rounded up in recent weeks, many held without charge or trial.
Whatever cease-fire terms end up being accepted by both sides will only matter in the short term. In the long term, only true justice (an end to Israel’s occupation and apartheid) can end this conflict. Here, the responsibility of American citizens is paramount: If we can end our government’s unconditional military and diplomatic support for Israel’s most destructive policies, or condition such support on Israel abiding by its legal and moral obligations, we can begin to work toward that real justice all Israelis and Palestinians deserve.