On chutzpah and war

What is Israel’s greatest chutzpah?

'Rarely is chutzpah more pronounced as when Israel provokes attacks and cries self-defence,' writes Bishara [AFP/Getty Images]

Israel has had a problem since its inception. It’s a terribly serious, existential problem; one that existed since its realisation as a European implantation in sea of Arabs, and it continues to haunt it today. Israel is a tiny state built on the ruins of another nation.

What began as a Zionist dream to transform the Jews of Europe into a modern nation soon turned into an Arab and Jewish nightmare upon its collision with reality: The homeland chosen to build their state, Palestine, belonged to its Palestinian inhabitants. But Israel went on to expel or dispossess most Palestinians from their homes and take control of their entire homeland.

To maintain and enforce its gains, Israel had to keep the Palestinians down or out, the Arabs away, and draw the West in. For this, it needed to employ pre-emptive and overwhelming force, while at the same time embrace, even embody victimhood, to elicit western as well as Jewish sympathy and support. After decades even centuries, of being victims of repression, the Jews couldn’t afford to have the image of aggressors.

From the 1950s through the last decade, the likes of Ariel Sharon, “the Bulldozer”, mastered violence just as the likes of Shimon Peres, the great communicator, mastered the art of public relations.

This was best captured by the Hebrew phrase, yorim ve bochim, literally “shooting and crying”.

While it used to be “Labour Zionism” or the Israeli mainstream left that regretted the killing of Palestinians and lamented the death of children, now it’s the specialty of the Israeli right to bomb and whine. But if the “left” did it with “eloquent prose, stirring poetry, and award-winning movies“, the right does it with cheap cliches and crude lies.  

Style and sophistication notwithstanding, both the mainstream Israeli left and the right want to “have their cake and eat it too”. That’s chutzpah.

Arrogance meets presumption

Chutzpah, pronounced “khoots-pah”, is audacity plus deception; it’s where arrogance meets presumption. The word itself is derived from old Yiddish – a combination of Russian and German. However, its meaning is best explained in anecdotes. For example, killing one’s own parents and then begging the court to have mercy on an orphan! Or, as the Arab proverb goes, “He hit me and cried, went ahead of me and whined.”

The street-smartness of chutzpah has popularised the term in recent years as nervy, bold and daring. It encompassed everything from Israel’s advanced military to its bigmouth advocates through its leading brewery: “Maccabi beer, an Israeli chutzpah”.

The mother of all chutzpahs came from the late Israeli premier Golda Meir about half a century ago: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our sons , but we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” The new version blames the Palestinians for civilian deaths in Gaza, and praises Israel for sparing lives, even after the Israel offensive kills over a thousand Palestinians.

It’s the ultimate chutzpah when Israel government expresses empathy with the ill-fated civilian victims, as it gives the orders to the Israeli military to bomb entire Palestinian communities.

And more of it when Prime Minister Netanyahu makes the unsubstantiated claim that Hamas built tunnels to attack Israeli kindergartens, when in the last few days, Israeli jet fighters killed more than two hundred Palestinian children and hundreds more injured, according to UNICEF.

Perhaps the greatest chutzpah is the term itself, moving from scurrilous origins to something admirable. The popularisation of chutzpah as an accepted term of admiration, used across the West, runs alongside the acceptance and legitimisation of Israel’s narrative of victimhood and retaliation.

Provocation or retaliation

Rarely is chutzpah more pronounced as when Israel provokes attacks and cries self-defence. This time around, the situation is precisely the same.

Israel began an aggressive campaign against Hamas first in the West Bank and later in Gaza, even when its leaders suspected that Hamas was not behind the killing of three young Israelis in the occupied territories and that Hamas had no interest in military escalation after it joined the national unity government. In fact, Israeli politicians have now admitted that they know Hamas was not behind the deaths of the three young Israelis and that the kidnappings were the results of lone actors. 

That didn’t stop Israeli security forces from deploying to the West Bank and arresting hundreds, including the prisoners released under past prisoner-exchange agreements. And yet, Israel’s top leaders did not hesitate to argue that their provocation was in retaliation to Hamas violations.

This contradiction between claims and reality is hardly new. Indeed there’s a pattern of Israeli violations meant to provoke Hamas and other Palestinians to react. To paraphrase professor Steve Niva, who documented Israeli provocations: The only thing more threatening for Israeli leaders than Hamas “terrorism” is a Hamas ceasefire. Because when there’s ceasefire, Israel must talk peace, which entails giving up land. 

Here are a few examples:

Israel’s offensive against Gaza in 2006 came after the killing of 85 Palestinians, including many children, in attacks aimed at carrying out illegal extrajudicial assassinations. At the time, the Hamas government maintained a one-sided ceasefire for 15 months, but continued Israeli attacks made Palestinian retaliation only a question of time.

On June 10, 2003, Israel’s attempted assassination of the senior Hamas political leader in Gaza, Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, which wounded him and killed four Palestinian civilians, leading to the bus bombing in Jerusalem on June 11 that killed 16 Israelis.

On July 23, 2002, an Israeli air attack on a crowded apartment block in Gaza City killed a senior Hamas leader, Salah Shehada, and 15 civilians, 11 of them children, hours before a widely reported unilateral ceasefire declaration. A suicide bombing followed on August 4, 2002.

On July 31, 2001, Israel’s assassination of the two leading Hamas fighters in Nablus ended a nearly two-month Hamas ceasefire, leading to the terrible August 9 Hamas suicide bombing in a Jerusalem pizzeria.

Although Israel’s provocations don’t justify suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, they demonstrate why the main source of violence lies first and foremost in Israel’s pre-emptive strategy.

The same can be traced to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the 1956 and 1967 wars, etc. But I shall leave that discussion to a future reflection: “On history and war”.

Common sense

One must ask if Israel has a right to retaliate for the capture of one of its soldiers by bombing an entire people and destroying life. Don’t the Palestinians also have right to manifold retaliation after the capturing of hundreds of their leaders and holding them indefinitely or without trial? If it was a simple numbers game, the numbers simply don’t stack up.

If Israel complains about terrorism but looks at the death of Palestinian civilians, including women and children as “collateral damage”, would it be an exaggeration that the Palestinians themselves are victims of state terrorism?

If Israel has a right (without even adhering to the responsibility of proof) to unleash the dogs of war, deploy fighter planes and tanks against Gaza, kill over a thousand Palestinians in response to the killing of three of its citizens, can we say the Palestinians have an equal right to retaliate a thousand times more? In this game, the numbers don’t stack up, but the bodies do.

If Israelis have a right to security, independence and freedom, wouldn’t you say the Palestinians have the same rights and perhaps more of a right after decades of Israeli terror, military occupation, and dispossession?

So when you hear those responsible for more than 40 years of occupation ranting about the violation of a four-hour ceasefire, think chutzpah.

And when the occupiers continue to whine about security in order to deny the indigenous people of the land the same rights for security and peace in their own land, think chutzpah.

Indeed, it’s a double chutzpah to attack those who aren’t even doing what’s obviously within their right. Call it provocation or whatever you may, but legitimate resistance to military occupation is a right enshrined not only in every law of the land, but also in the law of nature.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.