If you’re going to pursue an outlandish narrative, you might as well go all the way with it. This must be the operational assumption among Israeli leaders who, in trying to justify a grotesque attack on Gaza that has resulted in, at latest count, more than 800 Palestinian deaths – the majority of those innocent civilians – are now asserting that Hamas is like the Islamic State group, formerly known as ISIL, and al-Qaeda.
Speaking at a joint news conference with UN chief Ban Ki-moon on July 22, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Hamas represented another type of “Islamist extremism, violent extremism that has no resolvable grievance” adding: “Hamas is like ISIL, Hamas is like al-Qaeda, Hamas is like Hezbollah, Hamas is like Boko Haram.”
Later the same day, Israel’s ambassador, David Yitshak Roet, reiterated the point at the UN Security Council’s open meeting, as he talked of a global struggle between nations like Israel and the “radical Islamic terrorism” of groups such as ISIL, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hezbollah – and Hamas.
Such statements, seemingly intended for international consumption, are not the first instances of Israeli officials hitching a ride on the “war on terror” bandwagon. In the years after 9/11, Israeli leaders tried to tether Palestinians living under occupation to a global terrorism network.
This dovetailed with the Israeli line of being an enlightened nation stranded in an uncivilised neighbourhood, best surmised by former prime minister Ehud Barak’s appraisal of Israel as a “villa in the jungle”.
Still, these new assertions factoring in freshly minted regional groups represent an added twist.
Gaza’s nightmarish reality
Apart from anything else, comparing Hamas to the group that insists on calling itself the Islamic State seems a bit insulting to the Syrians and Iraqis suffering the spread of this violent cross-border group that claims to have set up a caliphate.
Unlike Hamas, the Islamic State wasn’t democratically elected. And, unlike Hamas, it isn’t viewed as an indigenous resistance group so much as an imposed source of deadly terrorism. Trying to equate Hamas with Islamic State is like trying to climb into another nation’s nightmarish reality. And, unlike land, fear can’t really be appropriated.
Meanwhile, as Alon Liel, the former director of Israel’s foreign ministry, points out, this binding together of causes isn’t a particularly helpful line for Israel to take. “It is a mistake for us to describe the situation as if we are fighting in Gaza the international movement of Islamic radicalism,” he said, during a phone conversation. “We turn it into a religious war or a cultural war – and we carry on our shoulders something far beyond Israel’s responsibility, or ability.”
But, as Liel suggests, there is an obvious reason why Israel’s current government would pursue this contortion: “Netanyahu prefers not to describe the Hamas militants as Palestinian nationalists,” he says. “He prefers to describe them as not belonging to this region, as not tied to the land in Gaza but tied to a world movement of radical and fundamentalist Islam.”
So there’s the obvious source of all those awkward semantic twists: the inability to countenance the idea of Palestinian nationalism. You might not like Hamas; you may have criticisms – indeed, Palestinians living in Gaza have plenty, ranging from the group’s imposition of religious edicts to corruption and failure to tackle crime in the strip. But in the midst of a horrifyingly destructive Israeli assault on Gaza, Palestinians back Hamas – even if they didn’t before the assault – because that’s what support for a national resistance movement looks like.
Netanyahu, who surreally accused Hamas of “piling up” the civilian dead, as though Palestinians somehow choose to be killed by brutally disproportionate Israeli force, knows about resistance. He must know that newly conscripted Israeli soldiers are often bused to Masada, the desert mountain fortress where ancient Jews committed mass suicide to avoid subjugation by the Romans, to pledge that the fortress must never fall again.
He knows, just as the Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf outlined recently, that the impulse to resist is hardly unique to Palestinians. “Nations will make inconceivable sacrifices in these kinds of struggles,” wrote Sheizaf, adding that the Jewish population fighting the 1948 war that dispossessed Palestinians and created Israel saw loss of life as an inevitable part of the struggle.
Gabe Mate, a Holocaust survivor now living in Canada, pointed out that, in different circumstances and in the face of its own annihilation, the Jewish resistance of the Warsaw ghetto used tunnels, like Hamas, to coordinate attacks against their assailants.
‘Return to a living death’
Even a former Israeli security chief, Yuval Diskin, urged the nation to understand “the growing tension and enormous frustration of the Palestinians in the West Bank who feel that their land is being stolen from them, who gather that the state they yearn for is slipping away”.
Those words were written before Israel launched its military assault on Gaza, the third in six years; before entire families were killed and thousands injured and more than 100,000 displaced. But they speak to the logical consequences of inflicting suffering: People fight against it, if they can.
How bad must blockaded Gaza be, if Palestinians support Hamas’ insistence on lifting of the siege as a condition of ceasefire – even if that insistence may prolong Israel’s deadly pummelling of the tiny, sealed strip? Days ago, a long list of Palestinian doctors, academics and public figures issued a letter explaining that a ceasefire without conditions, a return to the status quo of the seven-year blockade on the free movement of people and materials would be a “return to a living death”.
Palestinians beyond the strip clearly back this, too – Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, stands with Hamas in its demand for an end to the siege, along with other ceasefire conditions. And, since such a blockade amounts to collective punishment, international and human rights groups have been calling for the same thing, for some time.
Words matter more in starkly asymmetric wars. While we’re defining terms, let’s not get thrown by curious assertions coming from Netanyahu and other Israeli officials; wanting to lift a suffocating siege is definitely not the same thing as wanting to create an Islamic State-inspired regional caliphate.
And when Palestinians demand an end to a 47-year-long occupation – a demand seconded by the international community for just as long – this cannot sensibly be defined as an “unresolvable grievance”.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.
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