No, not this time, Boris. The Prime Minister’s ‘both sides’ response to the terrorist attacks on Israel underscores how Western political elites — left, right and centre — lose all critical reasoning when it comes to one tiny strip of land in the Middle East. Israel is under assault from Hamas, the Islamist mafia that runs Gaza like 19th-century Sicily.
This follows tensions over the policing of holy sites during Ramadan; a spate of violent street incidents between Israelis and Palestinians; marching and incitement by the Israeli far-right; Palestinian rioting in Jerusalem; and Arab-Israeli rioting outside the capital. There has also been unrest ahead of a court ruling on property rights in the eastern Jerusalem community of Sheikh Jarrah, which was cut off during the 1948 Arab war on Israel and into which Transjordan transferred Arab families. Four Palestinian families could be evicted if the judgement goes against them.
The international media coverage has been what you might expect. The reporting of one incident in particular is illustrative. You will have seen rather a lot of headlines about Israel ‘storming’ Har Habayit, the compound above the Western Wall that once housed the first and second Jewish temples but is now home to the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and, despite being inside Israel’s capital, is administered by the Jordanian-funded Islamic Waqf. Buried in much coverage is that Israeli police raided the joint because Palestinians were rioting and using this sacred Islamic site to store concrete slabs, rocks and fireworks, which they turned on officers.
As ever with these things, there is plenty of blame to go around. Neither the Knesset nor the Israeli Supreme Court has found a satisfactory solution to land disputes in eastern Jerusalem or Judea and Samaria. The Israeli authorities should have been alert to the incendiary potential of a planned march through the Muslim Quarter by Jewish ultra-nationalists. The procession to mark the annual Jerusalem Day celebrations was re-routed in the end but too late to avoid spraying kerosene over the nascent flames. Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, the political and spiritual capital of the Jewish people, is just and its exercise not contingent on threats of violence, but sovereignty brings responsibility and a responsible government would have better managed the risk to public order. These days in Israel responsible government lingers far down the list of priorities for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is consumed by his own legal problems and busy cutting electoral deals with chauvinists and bigots.
Hamas surveyed the chaos and spied an opportunity, launching a barrage of rockets into Israel, fully aware of and indeed dearly wanting the response that would come. When it did, world leaders like Boris Johnson copied and pasted their standard response:
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) May 12, 2021
I am urging Israel and the Palestinians to step back from the brink and for both sides to show restraint. The UK is deeply concerned by the growing violence and civilian casualties and we want to see an urgent de-escalation of tensions.
‘Both sides’. Hamas does not seek the infidel’s praise. It just needs a score draw with the Zionist enemy, which is what the UK government and most governments across the West are happy to give it. The pretence of equivalence between the IDF and a kill-the-Jews terror gang would be offensive if it weren’t so risible. Not just because Israel wields far superior firepower (in physical, if not diplomatic, artillery) but because the values of Hamas and the values of Israel don’t exist in the same moral universe. Israel at its worst guarantees civil equality and religious freedom even to those who riot for its destruction, to the extent of arresting Jews who try to pray at Judaism’s holiest site while facilitating worship and pilgrimage by Muslims from the Palestinian Authority and elsewhere. If it’s Israeli apartheid you’re looking for, take a hike up Temple Mount.
Israeli politicians and diplomats are touring TV studios, pleading with their counterparts across the globe to imagine how they would respond if rockets were being shot at their citizens. Supporting Israel’s right to self-defence — even just empathising with Israeli suffering — places such a demand on the liberal mind that it must be recast with more palatable nationalities in place of the bloodthirsty Zionists. Those who prefer to speak Israel’s national language — bluntness — tell their critics that it’s easy to reproach from their very different neighbourhoods, but this is just another variation of the same petition for the stale crumbs of grudging acceptance. Everyone’s ‘lived experience’ must be deferred to these days except that of Israelis.
No, I much prefer the approach taken by Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s ambassador to the Court of St James's, who was interviewed by Adam Boulton on Sky News. Boulton, in that pained tone of concern in which the question is typically posed, asked Hotovely: ‘Is this a time for Israel to show restraint?’ She replied: ‘No, it’s a time for Israel to protect its citizens’.
The way we think and speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bizarre. Israel is urged to show ‘restraint’, as though more than a decade of rocket attacks without going into Gaza and toppling Hamas doesn’t show a level of restraint most nations firing off tut-tut statements wouldn’t dream of showing. Jerusalem is routinely accused of using ‘disproportionate’ force, as though there was a proportionate amount of force to use against terrorists who are trying to kill your children and doing so with the knowledge that it will bring a response that will kill children on their side. War is not tit-for-tat. If you insist Israel conduct it in that fashion, you will guarantee more rockets from Gaza and more bombs in return. Jerusalem’s military offensives are damned in every quarter and yet they seem to be the only measure capable of halting further violence for extended periods.
The conflict is termed ‘asymmetric’, as though it would somehow be fairer if more Israelis were killed to even up the death tolls. Of course any conflict between Israel and Gaza will be asymmetric. Israel’s twin objectives are protecting its citizens and pretending Gaza doesn’t exist, or is a minor nuisance that can be managed. Hamas’s twin objectives are killing Israelis and, much more importantly, getting footage of IDF planes pummelling Gaza onto CNN. The Jewish state and the statelet that would rather wage war on the Jewish state than be part of an independent state of its own are locked in this grim dance that no one with any sense wants to cut into.
The international community from the Bush administration on down piled pressure on Israel to withdraw from Gaza, promising international legitimacy and recognition of its right to self-defence in return. When it withdrew what it got in return was calumnied still as an occupier and arraigned for war crimes in the court of international public opinion every time it defended itself. It wasn’t that Israel got things wrong — gravely sometimes — or that its government and citizens were happy to scrub Gaza’s humanitarian plight from their minds. No, Israel was evil, warmongering, murderous, genocidal.
There are only two ways to end routine flare-ups between Gaza and Israel: either Gaza stops firing rockets at Israel or Israel retakes control of Gaza. The first isn’t going to happen as long as Hamas runs the show. The second would see Israel attain new heights of pariah status in the legislatures, newsrooms and faculty lounges of Europe and the United States. So the dance will go on, no matter how scratchy the old record gets. Those who shoot first will get paragraph 27 and those who return fire the headline. The hallowed ground where the Israʾ took Mohammed will continue to be defiled as an armoury and the building of houses in Karnei Shomron trotted out as a counterpoint whenever there’s a terrorist murder that must be censured.
In Washington, London, and Brussels, they will keep trying to locate the middle ground between a democratic Jewish polity and corrupt ideologues who would rather deny their people a polity of their own than rise to the kind of leadership needed to achieve one. And we’ll all shake our heads and lament that things could be different if only it weren’t for ‘both sides’.