By: Musa al-Gharbi
In the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, the dominant discourse is that the Palestinian militants provoked the hostilities — while Israel, as President Barack Obama affirmed last week, is acting in legitimate self-defense. Many have attempted to problematize this narrative, for instance by arguing that Israel, as an occupying power, does not have a legitimate legal or moral claim to self-defense. Others have argued that rockets fired by Hamas do not constitute an existential crisis for Israel or its citizens and certainly did not warrant the killing of more than 500 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including women and children.
While these are all valid and important points, the broader narrative remains largely unchallenged: Hamas began firing rockets at Israel first, triggering Israel’s latest military incursion. This is not true. In fact, far from acting in self-defense, the crisis is the result of deliberate actions by Israel over the last few weeks — first to stir up anti-Arab sentiment among the Israeli population and then to provoke Hamas into open conflict.
The current escalation began with the abduction of three Israeli teenagers from settlements in the West Bank. The fact that the three were kidnapped from settlements is an important detail that is often passed over far too quickly or overlooked altogether. The settlements, what they represent and how the settlers interact with the Palestinian population form a critical part of the episode’s context.
After the kidnapping, for more than two weeks Israeli authorities put on a show of looking for the missing teens — the whole time whipping up anti-Arab sentiment, raising hopes of a recovery and marginalizing voices of dissent. When the abductees were found murdered, the Israeli public was outraged and demanded vengeance. Shortly after the funerals for the youths, another group of Israeli settlers beat and burned to death a 16-year-old Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir. This incident was followed by a brutal assault on Tariq Khdeir, a 15-year-old U.S. citizen and cousin of Mohammed’s by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Another fact that is less known — but perhaps more important — is that within hours of the three teens’ disappearance on June 12, Israeli officials knew that they were dead. Yet for the next two weeks authorities put on a phony rescue effort, instituted a gag order to prevent the public from knowing the truth and rallied the Jewish domestic and diaspora populations in anticipation of their move against Hamas.
Knowing that the teens were already dead, the Israeli government even sent the mothers of the abductees to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council to raise international awareness and plead for their boys’ safe return. Then the IDF launched Operation Brother’s Keeper, the most extensive military operation in the West Bank for more than a decade, under the auspices of saving the missing teens whom, again, they knew to be deceased.
The blame for their abduction immediately went to Hamas, which denied any involvement in the kidnapping. Israel has offered no concrete proof to implicate Hamas — instead identifying as its prime suspects a rogue faction with a history of defying Hamas’ leadership and sabotaging the group’s peace-building efforts. They were identified early on, meaning that Israel knew full well that neither Hamas nor its armed wing (al-Qassam Brigades) were behind the boys’ disappearance. Nonetheless, the IDF began a military campaign against them and de facto the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza.
On June 17, Israel rearrested 50 Palestinian prisoners set free in 2011 as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap with Hamas — a bold provocation that violates its armistice with Hamas. Without cause, the IDF also rounded up a number of clerics, intellectuals and politicians affiliated with or known to be sympathetic toward Hamas. It also raided hundreds of Palestinian sites, including homes, businesses, universities and clinics — in the process pillaging more than $3 million in cash and property, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Scores of Palestinian civilians were killed in these operations — again, before rockets were fired from Gaza. The misery of the civilian population was compounded by IDF checkpoints and curfews that severely restrict the movement of the Palestinian people, during Ramadan, no less.
In mid-June, in preparation for the reprisal attacks from Hamas that the IDF was attempting to provoke, it moved its Iron Dome batteries into southern Israeli cities. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to dissolve the unity government with Hamas — reiterating previous threats of punitive measures unless the union is suspended. Meanwhile, the IDF began calling up reserve troops in anticipation of the ground assault.
All these provocations came weeks before Hamas fired the first rockets into Israel. As such, contrary to Obama’s claims and the widely held narrative in Western media, it was in fact Hamas that was acting in self-defense. Israel doggedly sought out this war, and Hamas gave it to them.
All the illegal and immoral actions related to Operation Brother’s Keeper were justified under the premise of finding and saving the missing teens whom the Israeli government knew to be dead — cynically exploiting the tragedy to whip up public outcry in order to provoke and then confront Hamas. This pattern of deception continues under the ongoing military offensive in Gaza. For example, last week in collaboration with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Abbas, in its efforts to alienate Hamas, Israel announced a bad-faith cease-fire proposal, which Hamas was not consulted on and never agreed to but whose violation supposedly justified Israel’s expansion and intensification of the military campaign into Gaza.
In response to Israel’s faux peace offering, Hamas issued 10 conditions for a 10-year truce, including the release of Palestinian political prisoners, an easing of the blockade at seaports and airports, allowing Gazans to visit Jerusalem to pray at al-Aqsa Mosque and a commitment from Israel to refrain from meddling in Palestinian politics — particularly on matters related to the unity government. Not only are Hamas’ demands reasonable, but they are also aimed at making life in Gaza more bearable. But the Israeli government has not even considered the proposal to date. Hamas then put forward a smaller deal for a truce with Qatar and Turkey, which was given to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to mediate with Israel. There has been little action on this proposal either.
On July 17, Israel ostensibly accepted the U.N.-brokered humanitarian cease-fire, suspending the shelling of Gaza. During this time, the IDF repositioned its assets to launch its ground invasion, which has brought the Palestinian death toll to more than 500 — again, overwhelmingly civilians. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has condemned Israel’s blatant disregard for international rules and norms as counterproductive. However, given Washington’s “unwavering and iron-clad” commitment to Israel and the United States’ veto power at the Security Council, there is no enforcement mechanism to hold Israel accountable.
The Israeli incursion, which human rights groups have called a war crime, has destroyed hospitals, schools, places of worship, residential areas and critical infrastructure, which explains why most of the Palestinian casualties have been civilians. The same cannot be said of the Israeli fatalities. As of July 21, two Israeli civilians and 25 soldiers have been killed since the latest campaign began. One of those civilians was hit by a mortar while delivering provisions to soldiers at the border with the Gaza Strip. Hence the soldiers and at least one of the civilians were directly involved in a military campaign, making them legitimate targets.
Yet unfortunately for the Palestinians who are trapped in Gaza with no way out, the conflict’s dominant narratives continue to suggest the exact opposite of the realities on the ground.
Musa al-Gharbi is a research fellow at the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC). He has an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Arizona.