A mistake too often made by those examining Israel's
behavior in the occupied territories or when analyzing its treatment
of Arabs in general, or interpreting its view of Iran is to assume that
Israel is acting in good faith. Even its most trenchant critics can fall into
Such a reluctance to attribute bad faith was demonstrated this week by Israel's
foremost human rights group, B'Tselem, when it published a report into the bombing
by the Israeli air force of Gaza's power plant in late June. The horrifying
consequences of this act of collective punishment a war crime, as B'Tselem
rightly notes are clearly laid out in the report.
The group warns that electricity is available to most of Gaza's 1.4 million
inhabitants for a few hours a day, and running water for a similar period. The
sewerage system has all but collapsed, with the resulting risk of the spread
of dangerous infectious disease.
In their daily lives, Gazans can no longer rely on the basic features of modern
existence. Their fridges are as good as useless, threatening outbreaks of food
poisoning. The elderly and infirm living in apartments can no longer leave their
homes because elevators don't work, or are unpredictable. Hospitals and doctors'
clinics struggle to offer essential medical services. Small businesses, most
of which rely on the power and water supplies, from food shops and laundry services
to factories and workshops, are being forced to close.
Rapidly approaching, says B'Tselem, is the moment when Gaza's economy
already under an internationally backed siege to penalize the Palestinians for
democratically electing a Hamas government will simply expire under the
Unfortunately, however, B'Tselem loses the plot when it comes to explaining
why Israel would choose to inflict such terrible punishment on the people of
Gaza. Apparently, it was out of a thirst for revenge: the group's report is
even entitled "Act of Vengeance." Israel, it seems, wanted revenge
for the capture a few days earlier of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, from
a border tank position used to fire artillery into Gaza.
The problem with the "revenge" theory is that, however much a rebuke
it is, it presupposes a degree of good faith on the part of the vengeance-seeker.
You steal my toy in the playground, and I lash out and hit you. I have acted
badly even disproportionately, to use a vogue word B'Tselem also adopts
but no one would deny that my emotions were honest. There was no subterfuge
or deception in my anger. I incur blame only because I failed to control my
impulses. There is even the implication that, though my action was unwarranted,
my fury was justified.
But why should we think Israel is acting in good faith, even if in bad temper,
in destroying Gaza's power station? Why should we assume it was a hot-headed
overreaction rather than a coldly calculated deed?
In other words, why believe Israel is simply lashing out when it commits a
war crime rather than committing it after careful advance planning? Is it not
possible that such war crimes, rather than being spontaneous and random, are
actually all pushing in the same direction?
More especially, why should we give Israel the benefit of the doubt when its
war crimes contribute, as the bombing of the power station in Gaza surely does,
to easily deciphered objectives? Why not think of the bombing instead as one
installment in a long-running and slowly unfolding plan?
The occupation of Gaza did not begin this year, after Hamas was elected, nor
did it end with the disengagement a year ago. The occupation is four decades
old and still going strong in both the West Bank and Gaza. In that time Israel
has followed a consistent policy of subjugating the Palestinian population,
imprisoning it inside ever-shrinking ghettos, sealing it off from contact with
the outside world, and destroying its chances of ever developing an independent
Since the outbreak six years ago of the second intifada the Palestinians'
uprising against the occupation Israel has tightened its system of controls.
It has sought to do so through two parallel, reinforcing approaches.
First, it has imposed forms of collective punishment to weaken Palestinian
resolve to resist the occupation, and encourage factionalism and civil war.
Second, it has "domesticated" suffering inside the ghettos, ensuring
each Palestinian finds himself isolated from his neighbors, his concerns reduced
to the domestic level: how to receive a house permit, or get past the wall to
school or university, or visit a relative illegally imprisoned in Israel, or
stop yet more family land being stolen, or reach his olive groves.
The goals of both sets of policies, however, are the same: the erosion of
Palestinian society's cohesiveness, the disruption of efforts at solidarity
and resistance, and ultimately the slow drift of Palestinians away from vulnerable
rural areas into the relative safety of urban centers and eventually,
as the pressure continues to mount, on into neighboring Arab states, such as
Jordan and Egypt.
Seen in this light, the bombing of the Gaza power station fits neatly into
Israel's long-standing plans for the Palestinians. Vengeance has nothing to
do with it.
Another recent, more predictable example was an email exchange published on
the Media Lens forum website involving the BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy
Bowen. Bowen was questioned about why the BBC had failed to report on an important
peace initiative begun this summer jointly by a small group of Israeli rabbis
and Hamas politicians. A public meeting where the two sides would have unveiled
their initiative was foiled when Israel's Shin Bet secret service, presumably
with the approval of the Israeli government, blocked the Hamas MPs from entering
Bowen, though implicitly critical of Israel's behavior, believes the initiative
was of only marginal significance. He doubts that the Shin Bet or the government
were overly worried by the meeting in his words, it was seen as no more
than a "minor irritant" because the Israeli peace camp has
shown a great reluctance to get involved with the Palestinians since the outbreak
of the intifada in 2000. The Israeli government would not want Hamas looking
"more respectable," he admits, but adds that that is because "they
believe that it is a terrorist organization out to kill Jews and to destroy
In short, the Israeli government cracked down on the initiative because they
believed Hamas was not a genuine partner for peace. Again, at least apparently
in Bowen's view, Israel was acting in good faith: when it warns that it cannot
talk with Hamas because it is a terrorist organization, it means what it says.
But what if, for a second, we abandon the assumption of good faith?
Hamas comprises a militant wing, a political wing and a network of welfare
charities. Israel chooses to characterize all these activities as terrorist
in nature, refusing to discriminate between the group's different wings. It
denies that Hamas could have multiple identities in the same way the Irish Republican
Army, which included a political wing called Sinn Fein, clearly did.
Some of Israel's recent actions might fit with such a simplistic view of Hamas.
Israel tried to prevent Hamas from standing in the Palestinian elections, only
backing down after the Americans insisted on the group's participation. Israel
now appears to be destroying the Palestinians' governing institutions, claiming
that once in Hamas' hands they will be used to promote terror.
The Israeli government, it could be argued, acts in these ways because it
is genuinely persuaded that even the political wing of Hamas is cover for terrorist
But most other measures suggest that in reality Israel has a different agenda.
Since the Palestinian elections six months ago, Israel's policies towards Hamas
have succeeded in achieving one end: the weakening of the group's moderates,
especially the newly elected politicians, and the strengthening of the militants.
In the debate inside Hamas about whether to move towards politics, diplomacy
and dialogue, or concentrate on military resistance, we can guess which side
is currently winning.
The moderates, not the militants, have been damaged by the isolation of the
elected Hamas government, imposed by the international community at Israel's
instigation. The moderates, not the militants, have been weakened by Israel
rounding up and imprisoning the group's MPs. The moderates, not the militants,
have been harmed by the failure, encouraged by Israel, of Fatah and Hamas politicians
to create a national unity government. And the approach of the moderates, not
the militants, has been discredited by Israel's success in blocking the summer
peace initiative between Hamas MPs and the rabbis.
In other words, Israeli policies are encouraging the extremist and militant
elements inside Hamas rather the political and moderate ones. So why not assume
that is their aim?
Why not assume that rather than wanting a dialogue, a real peace process and
an eventual agreement with the Palestinians that might lead to Palestinian statehood,
Israel wants an excuse to carry on with its four-decade occupation even
if it has to reinvent it through sleights of hand like the disengagement and
Why not assume that Israel blocked the meeting between the rabbis and the
Hamas MPs because it fears that such a dialogue might suggest to Israeli voters
and the world that there are strong voices in Hamas prepared to consider an
agreement with Israel, and that given a chance their strength and influence
Why not assume that the Israeli government wanted to disrupt the contacts
between Hamas and the rabbis for exactly the same reasons that it has repeatedly
used violence to break up joint demonstrations in Palestinian villages like
Bilin staged by Israeli and Palestinian peace activists opposed to the wall
that is annexing Palestinian farm land to Israel?
And why, unlike Bowen, not take seriously opinion polls like the one published
this week that show 67 per cent of Israelis support negotiations with a Palestinian
national unity government (that is, one including Hamas), and that 56 per cent
favor talks with a Palestinian government whoever is leading it? Could
it be that faced with these kinds of statistics Israel's leaders are terrified
that, if Hamas were given the chance to engage in a peace process, Israeli voters
might start putting more pressure on their own government to make meaningful
In other words, why not consider for a moment that Israel's stated view of
Hamas may be a self-serving charade, that the Israeli government has invested
its energies in discrediting Hamas, and before it secular Palestinian leaders,
because it has no interest in peace and never has? Its goal is the maintenance
of the occupation on the best terms it can find for itself.
On much the same grounds, we should treat equally skeptically another recent
Israeli policy: the refusal by the Israeli Interior Ministry to renew the tourist
visas of Palestinians with foreign passports, thereby forcing them to leave
their homes and families inside the occupied territories. Many of these Palestinians,
who were originally stripped by Israel of their residency rights in violation
of international law, often when they left to work or study abroad, have been
living on renewable three-month visas for years, even decades.
Amazingly, this compounding of the original violation of these Palestinian
families' rights has received almost no media coverage and so far provoked not
a peep of outrage from the big international human rights organizations, such
as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
I can hazard a guess why. Unusually Israel has made no serious attempt to
justify this measure. Furthermore, unlike the two examples cited above, it is
difficult to put forward even a superficially plausible reason why Israel needs
to pursue this policy, except for the obvious motive: that Israel believes it
has found another bureaucratic wheeze to deny a few more thousand Palestinians
their birthright. It is another small measure designed to ethnically cleanse
these Palestinians from what might have been their state, were Israel interested
Unlike the other two examples, it is impossible to assume any good faith on
Israel's part in this story: the measure has no security value, not even of
the improbable variety, nor can it be sold as an overreaction, vengeance, to
a provocation by the group affected.
Palestinians with foreign passports are among the richest, best educated and
possibly among the most willing to engage in dialogue with Israel. Many have
large business investments in the occupied territories they wish to protect
from further military confrontation, and most speak fluently the language of
the international community English. In other words, they might have
been a bridgehead to a peace process were Israel genuinely interested in one.
But as we have seen, Israel isn't. If only our media and human rights organizations
could bring themselves to admit as much. But because they can't, the transparently
bad faith underpinning Israel's administrative attempt at ethnic cleansing may
be allowed to pass without any censure at all.