Talking about Gaza: ‘If Hamas were a bunch of vegetarians…’

I have in the last few days had an exchange of thoughts, impressions and views on the Gaza crisis with a Jewish friend in the UK. We’ve not actually seen each other in the flesh for over five years, so have taken special pains to avoid misunderstanding of each other’s tone, and have steered well clear of the kinds of virtualised screaming matches that are flaming across the net at the moment. I have certainly learnt quite a lot from the exchange, and renewed my understanding of a more Israeli-sympathetic perspective. It’s been an interesting process, as I think our fundamental values are probably pretty similar.

We have both taken pains to be as honest with the facts so far as we’ve been able to determine them, but please make your own judgments on how authoritative we are.

I’m not going to copy-edit it into perfection, so please bear with any rawness of language.

Being a family man, Michael’s been too busy to respond so far to my final mail, which should not be considered the last word.

On 2009/1/11, David Le Page wrote:

Sales guy v. techie:

On 12 Jan 2009, at 1:21 AM, Michael wrote:

On the good side, this had me howling with laughter in between dealing with horrifying news from Gaza, and equally horrifying “analysis” from friends.

On the bad side, I tried to share it with my wife, who dismissed the whole thing, saying she didn’t understand enough of it for it to be funny…

On Sun, Jan 11, 2009 at 11:45 PM, David Le Page wrote:

Hmm, I hope my analysis doesn’t fall into the horrifying category. I try to start with the sanctity of life, and work backwards.

I’ve had a couple of semi-awkward, incomplete conversations with Jewish friends this last weekend, who waver between horror, despair and tribal solidarity.

The reading I’ve done as a result of what’s happening has certainly taught me a few new things, detail and scale of the Gaza blockade and W. Bank settlements, for example.

I’ve also gotten a better sense of what an enormous amount of misinformation is circulating. Somebody on Facebook was telling me that the Arab League is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

Chris McGreal seems to be doing a good job reporting for the Guardian.

What do you think of Naomi Klein’s renewing a call for boycott, sanctions and disinvestment?

Glad you enjoyed the vid!

On 12 Jan 2009, at 3:39 AM, Michael wrote:

Let’s just say that, while Israeli military actions are pretty horrific, no one seems to acknowledge the agency of the Arab States [including the Arab League] and the post-67 Palestinian leadership in creating the situation they have now.  Let’s leave aside the decision to use rockets and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a means to “dispute resolution”.

Perhaps the statement of the Arab League Secretary General in 1948, and the concerted attack on Israel by the six main Arab League members, combined with the “no recognition” clause in the 1967 statement contributes to the notion that the Arab League is sworn to Israel’s destruction.  Hamas certainly is, as is Hezbollah. See Wikipedia [for all its faults]

I’m finding lots of overblown rhetoric on both sides.  What’s telling is the repetition of key phrases; it’s obvious on the Israeli side [I saw one intelligence report calling the cease-fire “the lull in the fighting”….lol], but perhaps less noticed among others.  “Open-air prison”; “concentration camp”; “proportionality” comparisons with the Warsaw Ghetto, etc.

The Warsaw Ghetto one is the best.  As if the Jews of Poland had collaborated with sworn enemies of Germany; as if they’d rioted against Germans; as is they’d turned down a UN-mandated state and put their hopes in an invasion of Germany; and as if, when surrounding states were unable to deliver, had begun to blow things up and shoot rockets from out of the shtetls.  Sorry, it’s just one too far.

And none of this excuses the use of military force to solve a political problem, and none of it justifies the Occupation.

Boycotts and sanctions are fine.  One could make a plausible case that the economic destruction combined with de-mobilizing self-defence units in South Africa fuelled what would have been a nasty crime problem anyway, and I don’t really look forward to empowering Israeli black marketeers.

Who’s going to stop those rockets?



On Mon, Jan 12, 2009 at 12:17 PM, David Le Page wrote:

I’m inching through the fog here, so bear with me.

It’s my impression that the intentions of the Arab states have shifted a very long way from the days when they were all ready to invade. They certainly lend the Palestinians very little support — what support Hamas has seems to come from a non-Arab state, and from non-state parties. Egypt, right now, is making it impossible for civilians to leave Gaza through the southern border, not so?

Prior to 1994, the ANC official line was a socialist South Africa; so should we really assume that struggle manifestoes have to be the obstacle to final settlement that is constantly used as the reason to demonise Hamas? In other words, would sincere dialogue not open possibilities currently invisible and unimaginable? ‘The rainbow nation’ was utterly inconceivable 20 years ago.

I can’t help remembering my own upbringing in this country: the ANC and ‘the communists’ were in our minds utter demons, the personification of all evil. We were under siege, surrounded by enemies on all sides. We were in no doubt that given the chance, we would be overrun and experience no end of horrors. Really and truly, that is how it was. We could not possibly have imagined that one day not too far away we would be simply and happily united in the pursuit of SL500s and Hummers.

And so it is with Hamas. They are painted as being uniquely evil because of their tactics, but really, they just take the lottery out of killing their kids. Send your child to war and you’re just gambling they’ll return, you’re declaring your readiness ‘to make the sacrifice’ while hoping someone will pay. Hamas’ undisputed war crimes are no worse than Israel’s.

I wonder if the horror at suicide bombing is not just being appalled to discover that there is a weapon available to your opponent that you cannot yourself deploy. Or that at root, you do not have the moral courage to deploy. Those prepared to make the greater sacrifices are usually those with the more authentically outraged sense of justice. Or, self-evidently, they are just more desperate. A lot more desperate.

After all, that horror at suicide bombing cannot be concern for the youngsters involved, or there would be equal horror at the thought that they might inadvertently be killed in the current shelling.

I don’t think suicide bombing is so far from our own culture as we like to think. A pilot during WW2 was not so very different to a suicide bomber, given casualty rates. Nor is it somehow an intrinsically Islamic thing; the secular Tamil Tigers use suicide bombers. Sure, Hamas justify it in Islamic terms, but I think tactics may have preceded theology.

So the ANC and IRA started talks without forswearing violence and coming over all lovey-dovey; why should Hamas need to do so? Their leaders (well, those that are left, and those that will come) have their own increasingly bitter constituents to placate, no doubt.

Oh, have you seen this: analysed the statistics on Israeli and Hamas attacks

What seems to me to be missing in all this is a recognition that powerful states don’t need to use violence when they can deploy any amount of police, institutional and administrative violence against those they oppress. But the oppressed don’t have that option. The Palestinians don’t have an army they can just send in to forcibly remove settlements that are illegal even under Israeli law. But you know all this …

Being something of a dove myself (!), I used to wonder why the Palestinians did not use non-violent means of resistance. In fact, I think for a while I allowed myself to be suckered into a notion that they’re somehow intrinsically/culturally more given to violence. Then I read a bit more of the history, discovering that there were extensive attempts at non-violent resistance, particularly in the 1980s, marches, civil disobedience — all ruthlessly crushed by Israel. The same as with South Africa …

I don’t know about the intricacies of the Warsaw Ghetto metaphor. I tend to avoid dragging that kind of history into contemporary debates — it just muddies stuff more. But if the logic of trying to stop the missiles is the military one now being used, then an awful, awful lot of people who cannot leave a war zone are going to be killed before that last rocket is stopped. And because assault breeds more resistance, that last rocket is unlikely to be fired much before the last Palestinians are pulverised.

“Open-air prison” seems reasonable to me; after all, people cannot leave. If someone just built a wall around my home, and told me I could not leave, I’d consider it a prison. If they then started shelling it, I’d be especially miffed!

Wish we were talking face to face!

I don’t know the bit about turning down a UN-mandated state?

Following the Iraq debacle, I find it utterly impossible to accept that the publicly stated reasons for a war are what really drives it. I don’t know what is really driving this one, but I seriously doubt it’s just “stopping the rockets”. Probably it simply means that the current batch of politicians really want to be seen to be tough — but in their hearts, I think they know they cannot stop the rockets militarily. It’s the oldest one in the book; you as politician find yourself seated atop this writhing, unruly mass of human beings; being a politician you have a pathological need for approval, and the easiest way to escape their gaze and feel loved and trusted by them is to get them to hate somebody else.

This war, I suspect, must be as much of a driver of anti-semitism as the PEZ. Probably far more so.

If this is the kind of analysis that has dismayed you, please be frank in saying so.

best wishes,


On 13 Jan 2009, at 2:15 AM, Michael wrote:

Hi David,

We’re all inching through fog, but I find that increasingly we’re all using very different compasses, that is to say different versions of history and news.  I’ve just seen IDF videos, for example, showing large secondary explosions [weapons dumps] in some of the mosques which have been targeted; I also saw one showing a rather crudely booby-trapped school.  Some will believe that these represent the truth, and that videos showing wailing civilians are faked, and some will believe that these are faked and the wailing civilians are the only truth.

To take your points in order [and I’m working–as you are– to engage with the other point of view, rather than get into the slanging match so often seen on the internet]:

1. Intentions of Arab states.

I agree that the focus has shifted from an Arab-Israeli problem from 1880-1967 to an Israeli-Palestinian problem with connections and resonances to earlier conflicts.  Some of the intentions of some Arab states have shifted.  Egypt is an interesting example: they still have state-sponsored anti-semitism, and a democratic election there would put Jihadomanics in a very strong position, if not in power.  They made a principled move to make peace with Israel in 1977, got their land and oil back, and that’s that.  Mubarak also hates Hamas as much as the Israelis do, and as much as Abbas does.  In fact, just about the only people who don’t hate them are the Syrians who fund them and the Western opponents of Israel who often make excuses for them.

Iran [not Arab, I know] and Syria sponsor serious fighting forces committed to the destruction of Israel; Iraq shot missiles at Israel in response to a US attack in 1991, and it is not at all clear that all the surrounding States are resigned to Israel’s presence.

2. Hamas’ fascism [and I agree that there are fascist elements in Israel as well] is a facade which will melt away when they are treated seriously, just as the ANC’s socialism faded.

I can understand comparisons of Israeli behaviour [walls, passes, checkpoints, casual racism] with Apartheid.  I think some of these are overblown, but the main problem with them is this:  Israel may be acting a bit like South Africa, but Hamas cannot be compared to the ANC.

The ANC always had a multi-racial, inclusive, and democratic organization at the top, even if rogue elements violated that.  The ANC had a fierce debate about the ethics of soft targets, and I don’t think anyone is under any illusions about Hamas’ scruples on this matter.  The ANC grew out of legal challenges, whereas Hamas was spawned from the dubious soil of Syrian and Israeli covert operations.

Part of what was wrong with South Africa’s actions [not all] was that the ANC would have been a democratic participant in change, and never adopted the “one settler one bullet” approach of the PAC.  Hamas thinks one bullet is too few.

I take their anti-semitism seriously because it doesn’t spring from recent events; this strand in Arab and Palestinian politics has been evident since the 1920s, as has the regrettable similar strand in Jewish politics.  If we are to accept that it’s ok for a downtrodden people to use fascism, we’d be approving of the German turn to Nazism in the wake of military defeat, punitive reparations and economic collapse.  People have choices.

3. Suicide bombings

I don’t have a particularly negative opinion of suicide bombings as opposed to any other tactic in asymmetrical warfare.  The tactics I oppose are the same ones I oppose on the Israeli side: using fascist rhetoric and politics, cynically using and causing Palestinian civilian deaths, and trying to settle a political problem with weapons.

Asymmetrical warfare, however, is exactly that: asymmetrical.  That said, the most recent figures I saw from Gaza suggested nearly 1000 dead, but Palestinian medical sources [I’ll find this if you want–lost it now] suggesting about half were civilians.  Assuming that were true, that’s still 500 civilians too many in my view, and yet I can’t help thinking that if one had a serious modern war machine and really wanted to cause civilian deaths, 500 over two weeks is not the figure I’d come up with.  Compare the first few weeks of the US/British invasion of Iraq, or Russian actions in Chechnya.

4. ANC and IRA talks without forswearing violence

And yet it was very clear as the Soviet Union collapsed that neither of them was going to last very long as a military force.  the same cannot be said for Hamas’ sources of funds.

Equally, neither of them dropped anything like 3000 explosives on their targets in the entire years of struggle, and Hamas did that in 6 months in early 2008.

Neither of them were specifically genocidal in their calls, either; something about their socialist tutors kept them from employing the language of extinction or exile.  At least in the ANC case; I’m less familiar with internal IRA politics.

5. Hamas’ violence as the recourse of the [relatively] weak

You know as well as I do that it’s a stupid recourse, and the fact that we can *understand* how someone might be angry doesn’t validate the choices they make about how to express and work with that anger.  Israel *pulled all the settlers out of Gaza*.  The first thing the new rulers did was blow up lots of infrastructure, and then promptly elect leaders committed to rewarding this concession with more rockets, more bombs, and more inflammatory rhetoric.

The blockade has been incredibly destructive, and I dislike it as much as most people–in fact most Israelis I know don’t like it.  Interestingly, one wonders what Gaza would be like, and what Hamas’ reputation would be like if they had spent all that effort smuggling in food, fuel and medicine instead of the thousands of rockets and mortar shells they keep dumping on Israel.  That’s what I mean about choices.

6. Palestinian attempts at non-violence

I was not aware of these, but a quick look at the one website I found when Googling it [] begins its history of Palestinian non-violence in the 1930s.  1936-9 were the years of a serious armed revolt amongst the Arab population, including riots and the formation of militias against the British [and immigrant Jews].  They then categorise remaining in the Occupied Territories after 1967 as intrinsically non-violent protest, without citing any actions or campaigns, and the next big thing they raise is the First Intifada, which no one would claim as non-violent resistance.

If you have better sources, I’d appreciate them, but this is a sympathetic website to Palestinians and non-violence, and I can’t find any here.  I don’t doubt, by the way, that they’d be pretty ruthlessly crushed, but then all of those movements are at first.

7. UN-mandated State

The official partition plan in 1947 would have created two states, a Jewish one and an Arab one.  A quick look at the borders [] shows them to be uniformly un-defendable, and when the coalition of Arab states attacked [is this disputed anywhere?] the Haganah put into action plans to shift people [“ethnic cleansing”] to make the defence of Jewish areas feasible.  Anyone who has spent 20 minutes thinking about invasion would look at the 1947 partition plan and see that the Jewish areas would need more depth if attacked, as they were.  This gave us the 1949 Armistice line, ‘The Green Line’, retreat to which is now the apparent Palestinian demand.

The Nakba, as it is known in Palestinian history did indeed happen.  It might have happened had the entire coalition of neighbouring states not attacked Israel, and had the Palestinian population and leadership not put its trust in those states to eradicate the Jewish state.  But I would like someone to explain how, with the warmaking technology of 1948, the Jewish state as constituted by the UN could have been defended without “driving out” those Palestinian villages. It’s a terrible thing, war; no one really wins.

On that score, please note that Tel Aviv is 11 miles from the Westernmost point of the Occupied Territories.  That’s artillery range.  Given the history of attacks in 1948, 1956, the attempted attack in 1967 [yes, I buy that], the attack in 1973, and the steady rocket and guerilla attacks since then, would you situate a sworn enemy with military capability within artillery range of a major population centre?

So the Palestinian people are indeed victims.  Victims of often cruel Israeli policies.  For example I disapprove of the dual-law and dual-level citizenship, but recognize that Israel’s raison d’etre is to serve as a haven of last resort for Jews.  I’m unsure that would be preserved in a state where Jews were a minority.  It’s a difficult balance, and no one’s got it right, yet.

But they are also victims of their own leadership and misguided politics.  They ought to have accepted the 1947 partition; they ought to have got Jordan and Egypt to declare the West Bank and Gaza states anytime from 1948-1967; they ought to have listened more to their Soviet tutors than to their Arab patrons; they ought to have looked inward in Gaza and built a vibrant, democratic and peaceful state; and they ought to now come to the table not with a ten-year cease-fire “to build up for the final conflict” as they say, but to wage peace, and to return the word Jihad to its rightful meaning, an inner struggle against the ego.  I have lots of suggestions for Israel and the Israelis, as well, but we’re discussing the Palestinians now.

So while we disagree, I’m happy to have this conversation with you, because I believe that it will be truly two-way.  I’m not trying to get you to think differently, only to see that there might be sound reasons for me to do so.



On 13 January 2009, at 6:49:01 AM, David wrote:

Hey, Michael

Responding broadly to some of your points, my feeling is that much of Israel’s past actions indeed made sense at the time, were justifiable at the time. But their current actions are so utterly cynical: for example, the involvement of senior IDF officers in collaborating with illegal settlement:, and the persistence of those settlements in the first place.

And their equally cynical efforts to eternally put off a political settlement while slowly making a just settlement ever less likely.

So for me, it’s irrelevant, to some degree, to dig back through history, and say, x, y, and z land grabs were justified. They probably were at the time. But the time has changed. Israel has exhausted its moral capital.

2. Nature of Hamas (by facism, do you mean would-be genocidal racism?)

You’re right that Hamas is a nastier entity than was the ANC. I don’t know whether that’s a function of far more brutal repression (just think of the sheer numbers of Palestinians detained) or of the toxic brew of Israeli and Syrian collaboration, or just bad diet. I’m interested to see you confirm Israeli sponsorship of Hamas as an opponent to Fatah — I’d read about that, but not been able to find many confirmatory resources that I trusted.

But since Israel sponsored the creation of Hamas, it makes de facto collective punishment of the Palestinians all the more unjust. “We’ve created a terror movement in your midst; now you get rid of them.”

You wonder what Hamas’ reputation would be if they spent more on welfare — but all accounts I have read suggest they do spend enormous amounts on welfare, which is why they have the levels of popular support they do. Which suggests that there may be many faces to Hamas besides the anti-semitic propagandists — but we don’t know, really, do we?


The bottom line is that Israel has to be forced to talk to Hamas, no matter how much everyone may loath them. Your points with respect to the happier politics of the ANC stand, but I think my points with respect to the psychology of accepting the need to speak to an enemy are important: understanding that however repulsed you may find the notion of doing so, the possibility of settlement exists. In other words, Israel is not refusing to talk to Hamas because of who Hamas are; they’re refusing because of the position Hamas occupies. If Hamas were a bunch of vegetarians in sandals with Toqueville on their night tables carefully targeting their missiles at the middle of empty fields, Israel would still not be talking.

The problem of course, is that where white South Africa was under the pressure of being a minority, and a global pariah (apart from its relations with Israel), at present Israel is neither (widely disliked but carefully sheltered).

I don’t think the IDF is out to kill civilians deliberately, and I don’t think I implied that. I just don’t think they really – as an institution – care much when they do. No army ever does. Armies are not designed for working around civilians.

All the accounts of how Palestinians are treated at checkpoints, for example; accounts I have heard from South Africans who have visited Israel, point to widespread racism and dehumanisation of the Palestinians, confirmed by Israelis themselves, to give just one example, in Chris McGreal’s article yesterday:

— quote —

“With the harshness of the criticism, they’re slowly but surely turning off more Israelis to elements of humanity, consideration, so eventually they say: who the hell cares? We don’t see the human face. In that situation we can do anything we want. There’s a lack of identity of who the enemy is. He’s not human any more.”

— end quote —

6. Palestinian attempts at non-violence

I found the reference I had in mind with respect to non-violent resistance – happily I’d saved it on Furl – and my recollection of it was not complete, because it did outline certain victories through non-violence – which have subsequently been undone, though. It confirms my recollection of repression:

7. UN-mandated state

Thanks for this detailed account of that history. I have been looking at maps today, trying to untangle the border shifts in the 1940s, and the legalities thereof, and have not yet straightened it all out in my head. I did read one article today saying that it was by international law illegal for Israel to hold onto territory ‘gained by war’ in 1947. At which point I thought, well hang on, fine to say it’s illegal if you’re the aggressor, but if you’re attacked? Fair dibs, surely, to take territory in defending yourself.

But again, that was then. And there is a huge difference between what is justified when facing a conventional army, and when facing irregular forces which so often (as here in South Africa during the Boer War) inspires particularly brutal repression.

While many of your suggestions for how the Palestinians should have conducted themselves make perfect sense, in practice these things can be enormous difficult for a population which at times has been caught up in simply trying to survive, which is increasingly geographically fragmented, which has far fewer resources for political organisation than have the Israelis, and which are the object of constant efforts at destabilisation by the Israelis — such as the creation of Hamas to beat out Fatah — and the US, whose very recent support of Fatah against Hamas had precisely the opposite effect to that intended. I think you use the word “they” rather too loosely.

I’m not actually sure that there’s a huge gulf between us. (Nor did I started this exchange with that assumption.) But I fear that between Palestinians and Israelis is growing deeper by the minute.


Note: The conversation is not over, and will probably be updated here in the course of the next few days.

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
This entry was posted in 'The news', History, Human rights, Industrial killing. Bookmark the permalink.

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