The opinion piece that ran in the November 26, 2012 issue of the Obiter Dicta titled “Hamas is the chief obstacle to peace” was filled with inaccurate statements and was severely oversimplified to support the idea that peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains elusive primarily due to Hamas. Anyone familiar with the conflict knows that this one-sided blame is wrong.
While Israeli society is described repeatedly in the piece as democratic, diverse, individualistic and forming a “healthy” society (much like “our” own), we are told that Gazans differ from Israel due to their lack of critical internal debate, a sign, of course, of an unhealthy society. Although we are told that Palestinians also deserve their own state, it is Israel and Israelis that are humanized and we are reminded how similar Israelis are to “us” Canadians. As for Palestinians, well, their society is not quite “healthy.”
These false dichotomies reinforce a number of stereotypes, including: peaceful Israelis vs. aggressive Arabs, humanitarian Israelis vs. destructive Arabs and democratic Israelis vs. undemocratic Arabs. It follows a dominant tendency in mainstream English-speaking Canadian media to vilify Palestinians and praise Israel with no or very little qualification.
It is in this context that I’d like to commend Rory McGovern (November 26, 2012 “The Social Media War”) on his timely reminder about our common humanity, and the importance of humanizing conflicts (and indeed, the perpetual “other”), regardless of the parties involved. What better way to remember our common humanity than by learning about the “other” side? While the opinion piece effectively simplified and “othered” Palestinians and simultaneously reinforced the idea that “we” Canadians are more like Israel, I hope that we can resist this kind of stereotyping and oversimplification and take some time to also consider Palestinian perspectives.
So let’s not be so quick to commend this government’s strong, one-sided support of Israel (as we are told we must do). In fact, the Harper government’s uncritical support of Israel in the context of this conflict is an embarrassment, marks a significant departure from a more balanced foreign policy with regards to the region, and has considerably undermined Canada’s credibility on the international stage.
While the piece mentions that Israel, like other democracies, is imperfect, it nevertheless states that Hamas is to shoulder the majority of the blame for the ongoing conflict. A cursory analysis of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians demonstrates that far from the humanitarian attitude the opinion piece both states and implies that Israel takes toward Palestinians, Israel has committed numerous acts of aggression and violence against Palestinians, and shoulders substantial blame for the ongoing conflict. The conflict is a lot bigger than Hamas and there is much more going on than the opinion piece mentions.
As for Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, here are a small number of facts (that only begin to skim the surface) for perspective:
- In November 1947 (in the aftermath of the Holocaust) members of the United Nations voted to divide Palestine into two states, one Arab (receiving 43% of the land) and the other Jewish (56% of the land) with Jerusalem as an internationally-governed region; at the time, the Jewish population in Israel comprised about 1/3 of the population.
- Although the Israeli government dismantled and removed by force Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005, Israel still occupies and maintains tight control over Gaza’s land borders (minus its border with Egypt), airspace, and maritime border.
- Israel effectively restricts passage into Gaza of consumer and commercial goods, fuel, medical supplies and construction materials (despite the desperate need for these essential infrastructure materials following Israel’s military assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008-9); under international law this amounts to collective punishment of the people of Gaza.
- Israel’s refusal to allow critical goods into Gaza has resulted in the population becoming increasingly dependent on Hamas, which plays an important role in distributing goods.
- This blockade also cripples the work of international aid agencies working in Gaza, as approximately 80% of the population relies on the UNRWA for their basic food requirements.
- While Israel has the right to defend itself, the claim that the blockade is in place to protect Israel from terrorist attacks is dubious at best; civilian imports and exports are tightly controlled, stunting Palestinian indigenous industry and independence.
- Infrastructure in Gaza is also in disarray; water and sewage systems do not function properly and compromise civilian health and hygiene as well as the environment (violating various international humanitarian law norms).
- Medical supplies and access to medical care is severely restricted for the people of Gaza as the blockade also restricts medical supplies and personnel from entering and leaving Gaza (the right of civilians to access medical care is also protected under international humanitarian law).
- While Israel eased the blockade slightly in June 2010, the major and essential elements of its Gaza blockade remain in place.
- Israeli aggression against the civilian population of Gaza has had a significant impact on the psychological health of a majority of children in Gaza who exhibit high levels of post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression; approximately 92% of children in Gaza suffer from PTSD.
- After Operation Cast Lead (2007-8), one study found that 99% of children in Gaza felt unsafe, even in their own homes, 96% felt they could not protect themselves or their family members and 94% felt that others outside their family would also be unable to protect them.
- Left untreated, PTSD can lead to drug and alcohol addiction, self-injury, and personality changes. In the context of proclaiming a desire for peace, there are obvious practical problems with traumatized children, particularly those who are left untreated. Children living in Gaza who are exposed to war may also be more likely to join militant groups as young adults. Violence against civilians can only perpetuate the cycle of violence and will not help to normalize relations between Israel and Palestinians.
- While violence affects both Israelis and Palestinians, the disproportionate effect of violence and occupation on Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip, is obvious.
On November 29, 2012 a majority of the United Nations General Assembly (138-9 with 41 abstentions) voted to upgrade Palestine’s status to non-nation observer status. Among the 9 nations that rejected the Palestinians’ bid were Canada, the United States, and Israel. This was far from a “unilateral” declaration, as our government has described it, and not an impediment to peace. Indeed, after decades of “negotiation” with Israel the Palestinians are no closer to realizing their state. Rather, Israel continues to occupy more Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (land that belongs to the future Palestinian state), effectively creating “facts on the ground” that will complicate (to put it lightly) the realization of a viable Palestinian state. The resulting Israeli colonies are funded by the state and protected by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Notably, a number of IDF soldiers have spoken out about illegal and immoral Israeli action in the Occupied Territories.
Israel’s decision to approve 3 000 additional colonies in the West Bank following the UN General Assembly decision in November was actually not surprising. Indeed, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ statements following Israel’s declaration of these new settlements demonstrate the frustration with the constant expansion onto Palestinian land and the ways in which such actions prevent effective governance. Even the US criticized Israel’s move as “a pattern of provocative action” which runs counter to its stated goals of peace with the Palestinians.
The impact of Israeli control and occupation of Palestinian land and resources (including Israel’s unlimited access to and use of water sources resulting from its occupation of the West Bank with the simultaneous severe restriction of water to Palestinians even during the hottest months) on the conflict between Israel and Palestine cannot be underestimated. The continued oppression of a people – who, like any other group of people, are inherently interested in building better lives for themselves, families and communities – only hinders peace.
Polls have showed that both Palestinians and Israelis want peace. Most people on both sides would like to go about their lives in security with the prospect of building better worlds for their children. Extremism on either side should be condemned. So please, let’s avoid quick and easy stereotypes and drop the us vs. them rhetoric which seeks to create outsiders of the Palestinians while remaining uncritical of Israel because it is supposedly more like “us.”
Sources: breakingthesilence.org.il, B’Tselem, Canadiens pour la justice et la paix au Moyen-Orient (CJPMO), CBC, The Guardian, Haaretz,