Sunny Hundal: Gaza, Falsehoods, Moral Equivalence

By Jamie Palmer

At a time when the Middle East is convulsed by conflicts in which neither party has much to recommend them, the war in Gaza benefits from a rare moral clarity. A liberal democracy and the world’s only Jewish State came under attack by an openly eliminationist and genocidally anti-Semitic totalitarian terrorist organization. In a saner world, support for the former from democrats of all stripes would be a foregone conclusion. But, alas, we live in this one.

The Left’s deranged hesperophobic tendency has, of course, gone completely berserk. But images of broken Palestinian children being removed from the rubble of Gaza – often presented as if the conflict is about nothing else – have helped to give their hysterical views a veneer of reasonability, and their madness has begun to infect the opinions of otherwise clear-minded people.

One such person is Sunny Hundal. I have many differences with Hundal, but he is not someone who can be readily bracketed with anti-Western head-bangers like Mehdi Hasan and Owen Jones. Hundal supported military intervention in Syria and, domestically, he has been supportive of counter-extremism efforts by organisations such as Quilliam to combat homegrown radical Islam.

The Gaza war, however, has completely screwed up his critical perspective, and he has gone beyond simply condemning Israeli policies and actions, and has endorsed the Tricycle Theatre’s recent refusal to host London’s annual Jewish Film Festival as long as it accepts funding from the Israeli embassy.

His recent Guardian debate with Nick Cohen on the subject opens with a paragraph of anti-Israeli half-truths, canards and falsehoods, and since they form the moral basis of his call to boycott the Festival (to which I’ll return), they should be dealt with.

The issues are complex, and the first of them unfortunately necessitates a stat-heavy response, but I’ll be brief as I can:

“There is a very strong case Israel is systematically abusing human rights by keeping Palestinians under a goods and people blockade.”

The Israelis are not capable of unilaterally enforcing a blockade of Gaza since Egypt controls the Rafah border crossing. Furthermore, a post by Elder of Ziyon has just reminded us of the following:

  • Crossings closed due to their vulnerability to terrorism have no effect on imports because those remaining open are more than capable of meeting Gaza’s needs. Israel invested 80m shekels expanding the Kerem Shalom crossing for this purpose and it is never at maximum capacity.
  • Israel does not impose a limit on Gaza’s exports (although Israel no longer imports them).
  • Besides a small list of “dual use” materials, Israel imposes no restrictions on Gaza imports either, and allows dual-purpose goods to be imported under certain conditions. Israel’s anxiety about such materials has been vindicated by the discovery of the sheer scale of the tunnel network Hamas has been busily constructing.
  • Israel’s naval blockade, like the closure of crossings, is a response to Hamas terrorism not its cause. Incidents like the Karine-A affair have made Israel understandably nervous about arms arriving in Gaza by sea.

The Kerem Shalom crossing, incidentally, remained open throughout the conflict, despite continuous Hamas rocket fire from Gaza, until – in an act of Palestinian incompetence or perversity – it was itself subjected to rocket attack on Sunday August 10.

Before that, according to the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs:

On August 6, 236 trucks carrying 4,196 tons of goods and supplies entered Gaza via Kerem Shalom Crossing. Among the trucks that entered were:

131 trucks carrying 2,526 tons of food

5 trucks carrying 27 tons of medicine and medical supplies

43 trucks carrying 313 tons of humanitarian supplies

6 trucks with 110 tons of equipment to help repair infrastructure.

1 truck carrying 7 tons of agricultural supplies

A team of 22 doctors from the West Bank entered the Gaza Strip in order to assist current medical staff.

Further shipments are detailed on the same site, but overall between the start of Operation Protective Edge on 8 July and the ceasefire on 5 August, Israel transferred 40,550 tons of supplies into Gaza via Kerem Shalom.

Since Israel imposes no restrictions on food, fuel and medicine passing through the crossings, Hundal should be required to explain why he is blaming Israel for Gaza’s terrible hardship and exonerating Hamas and the PA of their own responsibilities to Palestinians.

The medical shortage – according to the PA – is caused by Hamas theft. The fuel shortage is caused by Hamas’s refusal to pay market prices for fuel from Israel or to accept Egyptian fuel through Kerem Shalom. Hamas found it could enrich its officials at Gazans’ expense by imposing exorbitant taxes on fuel and other materials imported illegally through the smuggling tunnels. Which is why it is Hamas and not the Israelis who impose limits on what may enter Gaza legally through the crossings.

As Ynet recently reported, the upshot of all this is that while Gaza languishes in poverty, rampant theft and corruption has allowed Hamas to become “a movement of millionaires”.

As for people:

The IDF acceded to the request of hundreds of Palestinians who hold foreign citizenship to leave the Gaza Strip. The Erez Crossing in northern Gaza also remains open to Palestinian pedestrians for humanitarian cases.

Does Hundal realise that last year, the nation he accuses of being a systematic abuser of human rights treated 180,000 Palestinians in Israeli hospitals? Or that Israel opened a purpose-built field hospital on the Gaza border to treat Palestinians injured in the current conflict?

For good measure, Hundal goes on to claim that Israel “denies Palestinians clean water”. This is also false, not to mention inflammatory. Israel has met and even exceeded its obligations under Oslo with respect to the division and provision of water resources. Hamas, on the other hand, has been in repeated breach, and it is the excessive drilling of ‘pirate wells’ that has caused Gaza’s water supply to become contaminated by seawater.

For a full analysis of the various issues relating to water resources, see this fairly comprehensive article and supporting documentation posted at the Gatestone Institute.

“There is a very strong case Israel is systematically abusing human rights by continually building illegal settlements on their land despite international agreements”

Even if one puts the illegality of the settlements beyond dispute, this is a ridiculous assertion. While I share Hundal’s implied dislike of Israel’s ideologically irredentist strain, the actual construction of settlements beyond the Green Line does not necessarily prejudice a 2 State agreement, still less constitute a “systematic abuse of human rights”.

Many of the largest settlement blocks will be incorporated into Israel anyway under an agreement, and compensated with land swaps from Israeli territory bordering Palestine. Outposts will be dismantled and evacuated, just as they were when Israel withdrew from the Sinai and Gaza. It will be difficult and painful, and the Israeli government needs to do more to prepare public opinion for these concessions, but in the event of an agreement it will get done.

Meanwhile, Hundal may wish to ponder why it is that the settlement of Jews within what will one day be Palestine is such an egregious sin in the first place. Approximately 1.7m Arabs live safely and freely as members of Israeli society, afforded equal rights, protections, and equality before the law. Will Palestinian Jews be permitted to remain in their West Bank homes should they wish to do so? Will it be safe for them to do so? Or will a 2 State agreement necessarily require the removal of all Jews from the territory?

When people agonise about the construction of Jewish settlements, I can’t help noticing that there are very few Jews left in the rest of the Middle East. Ancient Jewish populations have long since fled or been driven out of neighbouring Arab countries, their remaining numbers reduced to triple, double or even single digits. It would seem there are those for whom it is an act of forbearance to hem Jews into the sliver of the Middle East constituting Israel proper.

Hamas, of course, with whom Israel is at war, refuse to grant even that. Israel is often accused of being a racist nation. But the stark contrast between Israel’s imperfect but genuinely pluralist society and those of its neighbours is one worth considering when assessing the moral balance in this conflict.

“There is a very strong case Israel is systematically abusing human rights by ignoring the peace process”

No there isn’t and this allegation reveals an astonishing ignorance both of what actually happened during the most recent round of negotiations, and of the reasons for their failure. Beginning with the second of these, the talks most certainly did not collapse due to Israeli indifference. On the contrary, as The New Republic’s report disclosed, Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni tried to persuade the Palestinians to return to the table.

Lest it be forgotten, Israel released 78 pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were serving time for the murder of Israeli citizens. Israel got nothing tangible in return. Only a commitment to temporarily suspend applications to international bodies, which, in any case, the Palestinians violated before the talks had even fully collapsed.

When it became clear that the Palestinians were unprepared to commit to continued negotiations, irrespective of whether the final prisoner release went ahead or not, Israel cancelled it. The announcement of a unity government with Hamas destroyed whatever remained of the process.

But, more to the point, belief in the idea that Israel has ignored the peace process requires a wilful failure to appreciate the commitment and flexibility Bibi Netanyahu and Livni showed on the core issues during negotiations themselves.

For a detailed analysis of the Kerry talks and the reasons for their failure, see this excellent post over at the anonymous mugwump blog (which also addresses the issue of settlements in more depth).

“Last week both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused [Israel] of war crimes, and it wasn’t the first time.”

It sure wasn’t! But an accusation made is not an accusation proven, and Hundal would do well to handle Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports relating to Israel with greater caution.

In 2010, the Gita Sahgal affair revealed the scale of Amnesty’s moral confusion concerning theo-fascist ‘resistance’ movements. A similar confusion can be detected in their credulous coverage of the latest Gaza war. Despite abundant evidence provided by the IDF that Hamas uses human shields to protect military targets, and uses hospitals and ambulances for military purposes, Amnesty reports it is agnostic on these matters, while entertaining no such doubts about allegations of Israel’s egregious wrongdoing.

Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have played fast and loose with the terms “indiscriminate” and “disproportionate” to describe Israeli military actions during this war, to the point where the seriousness of such language doesn’t appear to merit a second thought.

When the BBC published a report pointing out that a disproportionate number of Gazans killed by Israel during the war were fighting-age males, it appeared to dent HRW’s repeated charge that Israeli shelling of Gaza had been untargeted. Not to be deterred, HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth responded by carefully balancing the likelihood of Hamas disinformation with the possibility that Israel had simply been targeting young men, irrespective of whether or not they were combatants.

The fact that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty draw significant numbers of their staff pool from pro-Palestinian activist groups like the International Solidarity Movement and even pro-militant propaganda outlets like the Electronic Intifada, should give the fair-minded pause. As should the uncritical repeating of highly unreliable eyewitness testimony and uncorroborated statements by Hamas officials in their readiness – no, eagerness – to accuse Israel of war crimes before all the facts are in.

In October 2009, Robert Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch and its chairman for 20 years, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he expressed his dismay at the direction Human Rights Watch had taken since his departure, particularly in its approach to the Middle East. Earlier in the year, the organisation had accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. To which Bernstein objected:

In Gaza and elsewhere where there is no access to the battlefield or to the military and political leaders who make strategic decisions, it is extremely difficult to make definitive judgments about war crimes. Reporting often relies on witnesses whose stories cannot be verified and who may testify for political advantage or because they fear retaliation from their own rulers.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch reports on Israeli crimes and violations are not to be dismissed outright, by any means. But, regrettably, nor do they have the automatic moral authority in this context that Sunny Hundal appears to assume.

In the opening paragraphs of his article, Bernstein also made a point pertinent, not only to the Middle East conflict in general, but also to the side-show quarrel over the Tricycle boycott:

At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform.

That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. We wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West and to encourage liberalization by focussing on dissidents[.]

One of these self-critical mechanisms is culture. Advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are attacking Israeli culture and academia, in order to narrow the available platforms on which pro and dissenting Jewish and Israeli voices may meet their opponents. For them, the debate is over.

This leads Hundal to justify his position on the boycott of the Jewish Film Festival with precisely the kind of moral equivalence Robert Berstein cautioned against. Hundal to Nick Cohen:

Britons have very limited options to influence the Israeli government, and boycotting their money is one of their very few tools. You’ve advocated boycotting Press TV and raised concerns about Russia Today in the past, partly because they are state-funded and toe that line. What if people accused you of singling out Persians or Russians? I’m sure you would agree with me in applauding any group that rejected Syrian, Hamas or Russian state money too.

The Tricycle was guilty of this same moral failing when – absurdly – its director protested that she would not hesitate to ban a Hamas-funded film festival on the same grounds.

If Hundal and the Tricycle, in their hurry to be seen as scrupulously even-handed, cannot see an objective difference between the propaganda arm of a totalitarian theocracy and the free forum for ideas represented by the Jewish Film Festival, then I suppose it follows that they should see no particular reason to support a liberal democracy as it defends itself from a fascist foe.

Bernstein’s article is an eloquent reply to this thinking:

Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is home to at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world — many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Meanwhile, the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.

Hamas is not a noble resistance movement and it has no interest in responsible or even competent governance. It is simply another head on the Salafi jihadi hydra currently tearing the Middle East to pieces. These groups are cults of death which will somehow have to be destroyed. When that finally happens it will be a deliverance for all those they terrify and control, including Gazans. If anyone’s skeptical on this point, I recommend spending some time listening to what Hamas actually say. And reading their foundational Charter.

Israel – tragically – is trapped in an occupation from which it has been unable to disentangle itself. Not because it is “ignoring the peace process” but because its government and its people understand the threats they face far better than Sunny Hundal and the deeply unsympathetic NGOs he cites.

As Israel responds to rockets fire and low-level incursions, Hundal prefers to offer tendentious claims about settlements and sanctions, and manages to excuse Hamas any responsibility for the dire state of the polity it governs. All to justify an attack on artistic expression; itself a spiteful proxy attack on the Middle East’s embattled democracy.

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The Battle of Hastings

by Tom Doran

A society of laws: the Supreme Court of Israel, Jerusalem.

People like me know the script when it comes to defending Israel against its outright haters, the people currently attacking synagogues all over Europe in the name of Palestine. They are unhinged, implacable, terrifying… But for this very reason, a known quantity. We’ve been here before, again and again. We have Seen This Movie.

But there is another category of anti-Semitic discourse that is much harder to pin down, in large part because it doesn’t know it’s anti-Semitic. This we might call the MISTIA tendency – “more in sorrow than in anger” – which seems appropriate, since it is an idea swathed in a pseudo-intellectual haze.

It goes roughly like this: “We love Jews, we really do. Christ, Spinoza, Einstein… Ten out of ten all round. But as your friends, we must sorrowfully – nay, ruefully – be brutally honest: you’re not living up to our expectations. The rest of us are counting on you to be nice and enlightened and harmless, but there you go, blowing up innocent Arabs just because you feel like it. It’s a tragedy, I tell you.”

I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself, in the past. I am an unabashed philo-Semite, and this has occasionally led me to moralise excessively, as if I were somehow owed Jewish virtue. But as I’ve spent more and more time learning and thinking and talking about the Middle East, and especially since visiting Israel, I have painstakingly sought to train myself out of it. I don’t always succeed.

But at least, as many a British journalist has sighed in relief, I’m not Max Hastings. Here I should say that I respect the man enormously. His works on military history have been commended to me by people who know, and his breadth of knowledge and intellect are evident in his writing.

But not for nothing did Private Eye dub him – unfairly, but still truthfully – “The World’s Worst Columnist”. When he’s on form, he can be quite astute, but when he gets it wrong, he really gets it wrong. His recent Daily Mail column is a textbook example, and is – if only by implication – one of the most anti-Semitic things I have ever read in a British newspaper, and I read the Guardian.

To be absolutely clear: there’s no doubt in my mind that Hastings is wholly innocent of any conscious anti-Jewish bias. Indeed, it’s apparent from the piece that he sincerely considers himself a friend and ally of the state of Israel, and to a large extent this is probably the case. But this only makes the implications of his argument all the more disturbing.

The central accusation – that Israel is employing wildly excessive force in Gaza to the end of punishing innocent Palestinians – can quickly be dispensed with. The disingenuous “proportionality” argument has already been demolished by better writers than me; I direct you in particular to this pointed rebuttal from Israeli parliamentarian Hilik Bar and this longer meditation by Shany Mor. Suffice it to say, those making the claim simply don’t take into account Israel’s real choices, nor do they care to.

The rest of the column makes an argument, or observation, that I happen to agree with in its broadest outlines. Israeli politics and society have indeed experienced a noticeable – but often exaggerated – extremist drift in the past couple of decades, and it is intensely worrying to many of us.

But you know who else worries about it? Israelis. Constantly. The coarsening, brutalising effects of endless war are, like everything else in the Jewish state, a hotly disputed topic. Even solidly right-wing Israelis will, as a rule, acknowledge the problems posed by the growing strength of the nationalist far-right and the ultra-Orthodox community. A senior aide to Benjamin Netanyahu did so to me in person.

This is because, for all this, Israel is still a modern, self-critical democracy. If you’ve ever spoken to an Israeli soldier or politician – again, an effort very few critics of Israel bother to make – you know that each and every military action they take is agonisingly weighed against its potential consequences to an extent most Western powers barely aspire to. Hastings himself is conscientious enough to quote some of these figures in his column, thus dynamiting a central pillar of his own case.

I should also note, in passing, that the piece abounds in the most basic of factual errors. Barack Obama, to cite a representative example, is called “the only recent US president to try to persuade Jerusalem to moderate its policies”. This would be news to most Israelis, since pleas for Israeli moderation have been made, in public and private, by every American president since Eisenhower.

But all this falls within the bounds of reasonable disagreement and basic incompetence. What does not, and what gives this article an unmistakably sinister dimension, is the sentiment expressed in the following sentence, third paragraph from the top:

[T]he Jewish people have been historic standard-bearers for civilisation.

Hastings, somewhat evasively, puts this in the mouth of “much of the world”, but it’s clear from the rest of the article that this reflects his personal feelings. In a rhetorical tic characteristic of the new anti-Semitism, he keeps citing Jewish people who agree with him as if this somehow bolstered his argument. “A historian friend, himself a Jew”, “a team of Israeli documentary-makers” and “many other Jews” are all conscripted to form a kind of Hebrew phalanx around Hastings’ own words.

For those of us steeped in the Israel/Palestine debate, this itself is an enormous, honking klaxon warning. If your criticism of Israel is legitimate, then why do you feel the need to prove it by stressing the Jewishness of your citations? When criticising the government of, say, Venezuela, does anyone feel the need to keep inserting variations on “…as many Venezuelans will concede”? Of course not, because Venezuelans, unlike Jews, are seen as individuals.

Here we get to the heart of the matter. Look again, and closely, at the sentence extracted above. On its face, it’s a sentiment I share to a large extent: Jews have indeed laid more than their share of asphalt on the road to modernity. But in this context, the implication is unmistakable: Jews, more than any other people, are expected to uphold “civilisation” on behalf of the rest of humanity.

Think about that for a moment. “[S]tandard-bearers for civilisation”; this is a much different claim than “many great historical figures have been Jewish”. Who exactly asked to bear this standard, and in what sense could they have spoken for the Jewish people as a whole? When did they – all 14 or so million of them – apply for this job?

In this way, in the guise of friendship and solidarity, the Jews are collectively made to bear the moral burdens of all humanity. This is not a new demand, to put it mildly. That Jews are uniquely obliged to be paragons is merely a sick inversion of the ancient Christ-killing slander, even if meant benignly.

My country, the United Kingdom, spent 30 years fighting a violent insurgency based in its sovereign territory. Thousands of civilians, in Northern Ireland and the mainland, lost their lives to terrorism. This was a profound test of the British state, and this test was not passed with flying colours. We locked hundreds of people up without charge or trial, shot innocent civil rights protesters and too often allowed brutality to run unchecked among our fighting men.

We should be ashamed of all of this. But when most British people consider our record in Northern Ireland, they do so in cognisance of the full historical context. They acknowledge the toll random attacks on civilians take on a society, the impossible choices asymmetric warfare forces on governments, and that the behaviour of many, even most British officials was exemplary.

When it comes to Israel, this considered approach is jettisoned. If Palestinian children are dying, it must be because Israelis want them dead, or simply don’t care. Defenders of Israel are so bored with saying this we could cry, but one more time: no nation on Earth would tolerate the deliberate targeting of its civilians – however ineffective – with equanimity, and without resorting to decisive force.

To Max Hastings and others who would be critical allies of the Jewish state, I say this: the Jews are not an example, or a lesson, or a tragedy. They do not exist for your moral edification, nor to uphold an abstract thing called “civilisation” on your behalf. They are, in fact, human beings, with all that implies.

This post originally appeared on Tom Doran’s blog at the Independent.