Jerusalem Issue Brief
Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
Vol. 8, No. 17
11 January 2009
What's Behind Western Condemnation of Israel 's War Against Hamas?
By Efraim Karsh
With a unanimity that has become all too familiar, politicians, the media, NGOs, and church leaders across the globe took their cue to denounce Israel 's legitimate act of self-defense against one of the world's most extreme terror organizations. This chorus of disapproval is in stark contrast to the utter indifference to far bloodier conflicts that have been going on around the world.
Why do citizens in democracies enthusiastically embrace a radical Islamist group that not only seeks the destruction of a fellow democracy but is overtly committed to the substitution of a world-wide Islamic caliphate for the existing international order?
Decades of mistreatment of the Palestinians by the Arab states have gone virtually unnoticed. Only when they interact with Israel do the Palestinians win the world's attention.
The fact that international coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict has invariably reflected a degree of intensity and emotional involvement well beyond the normal level to be expected of impartial observers would seem to suggest that it is a manifestation of longstanding prejudice that has been brought out into the open by the conflict.
The Palestinians are but the latest lightning rod unleashed against the Jews, their supposed victimization reaffirming the millenarian demonization of the Jews in general, and the medieval blood libel - that Jews delight in the blood of others.
A Tidal Wave of International Indignation
No sooner had Israel opted to stop Hamas' attacks on its civilian population, after years of self-imposed restraint, than it was confronted with a tidal wave of international indignation. With a unanimity that has become all too familiar when it comes to the world's pronouncements on Israel, politicians, the media, NGOs, and church leaders across the globe took their cue to denounce this legitimate act of self-defense by a sovereign democracy against one of the world's most extreme terror organizations, overtly committed to its destruction, which for years had been raining down thousands of rockets and mortar shells on civilian communities (not to mention the long string of suicide bombings).
Echoed by the international media's blanket coverage of Israel's response in Gaza, but not Hamas' murderous ideology and actions, this chorus of disapproval over the Jewish state's "disproportionate" use of force is in stark contrast to the utter indifference to far bloodier conflicts that have been going on around the world, from the long-running genocide in Darfur, with its estimated 400,000 dead and at least 2.5 million refugees, to war in the Congo, with over 4 million dead or driven from their homes, to Chechnya, where an estimated 150,000-200,000 have died and up to a third of the population has been displaced at the hands of the Russian military. None of these tragedies saw protesters flock into the streets of London, Paris, Berlin, Milan, Oslo, Dublin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Washington, and Fort Lauderdale (to give a brief list), as has been the case during the Gaza crisis.
Arab Mistreatment of the Palestinians Went Unnoticed
How can this be? Why do citizens in democracies enthusiastically embrace a radical Islamist group that not only seeks the destruction of a fellow democracy but is overtly committed to the substitution of a world-wide Islamic caliphate (or umma) for the existing international order based on territorial nation states? Not because of compassion for the Palestinians, whose plight has never attracted genuine international interest, especially by the Arab states (and for that matter, the Palestinian leadership), whose decades of mistreatment of the Palestinians have gone virtually unnoticed.
Between 1949 and 1967, Egypt and Jordan ruled the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively. Not only did they fail to put these populations on the road to statehood, but they showed little interest in protecting their human rights or even in improving the quality of their life - which is one of the reasons that 120,000 West Bankers moved across to the East Bank of the Jordan and about 300,000 others emigrated abroad between 1949 and 1967.
Nobody in the international community paid any more attention to this than they have more recently to the ongoing abuse of Palestinians across the Arab world from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon, a country which was condemned in a June 2006 Amnesty International report for its "long-standing discrimination and abuses of fundamental economic and social rights of Palestinian refugees."
Nor has there been any international outcry when Arab countries have massacred Palestinians on a grand scale. In 1970 King Hussein of Jordan ordered the indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian refugee camps in the course of putting down the Palestinian uprising during "Black September." This left between 3,000 and 5,000 Palestinian refugees dead. But the fact that Hussein killed more Palestinians in the course of a single month than Israel managed to do in decades was never held against him or dented the widely held perception of him as a man of peace. As the supposedly pro-Palestinian journalist Robert Fisk put it in his recent memoirs, King Hussein was "often difficult to fault."
Again, more than two decades ago Abu Iyad, the number two man in the PLO, publicly stated that the crimes of the Syrian government against the Palestinian people "surpassed those of the Israeli enemy." While in the wake of the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, Kuwaitis not only set about punishing the PLO for support of Saddam Hussein's brutal occupation by cutting off their financial support for Yasir Arafat's overblown and corrupt organization, but there was also a widespread slaughter of Palestinians living in Kuwait .
This revenge against innocent Palestinian workers in the emirate was so severe that Arafat himself acknowledged: "What Kuwait did to the Palestinian people is worse than what has been done by Israel to Palestinians in the occupied territories." Yet there was no media coverage or specially convened UN meetings because it is only when they interact with Israel that the Palestinians win the world's attention.
Only Palestinian Interaction with Israel Wins World Attention
In other words, the extraordinary international preoccupation with the Palestinians is a corollary of their interaction with Israel , the only Jewish state to exist since biblical times, a reflected glow of the millenarian obsession with the Jews in the Christian and the Muslim worlds. Had their dispute been with an Arab, Muslim, or any other adversary, it would have attracted a fraction of the interest that it presently does.
On occasion, notably among devout and/or born again Evangelical Christians, this obsession has manifested itself in admiration and support for the national Jewish resurrection in the Holy Land. In most instances, however, anti-Jewish prejudice and animosity, or anti-Semitism as it is commonly known, has served rather to exacerbate distrust and hatred of Israel. Indeed, the fact that the international coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the libels against Zionism and Israel, such as the despicable comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, have invariably reflected a degree of intensity and emotional involvement well beyond the normal level to be expected of impartial observers would seem to suggest that, rather than being a response to concrete Israeli activities, it is a manifestation of longstanding prejudice that has been brought out into the open by the vicissitudes of the conflict.
There is another side to the ledger. For millennia Jewish blood has been cheap, if not costless, throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds, where the Jew became the epitome of powerlessness, a perpetual punching bag and a scapegoat for whatever ills befell society. There is no reason, therefore, why Israel shouldn't follow in the footsteps of these past generations, avoid antagonizing its Arab neighbors and exercise restraint whenever attacked. But no, instead of knowing its place, the insolent Jewish state has forfeited this historic role by exacting a price for Jewish blood and beating the bullies who had hitherto been able to torment the Jews with impunity. This dramatic reversal of history cannot but be immoral and unacceptable. Hence the global community outrage and hence the world's media provision of unlimited resources to cover every minute of Israel's "disproportionate" response, but none of the devastation and dislocation caused to Israeli cities and their residents.
Put differently, the Palestinians are but the latest lightning rod unleashed against the Jews, their supposed victimization reaffirming the millenarian demonization of the Jews in general, and the medieval blood libel - that Jews delight in the blood of others - in particular. In the words of David Mamet, "The world was told Jews used this blood in the performance of religious ceremonies. Now, it seems, Jews do not require the blood for baking purposes, they merely delight to spill it on the ground."
Zionism Failed to Solve the "Jewish Problem"
To make such an argument will no doubt be dismissed as "Zionist propaganda" by many opponents of Israel. But in fact this not only runs counter to the prevailing wisdom among Israeli academics and intellectuals, for whom such arguments are anathema, but it also challenges one of the most fundamental tenets of Zionism - that the creation of a Jewish state, where the Jewish diasporas would congregate and become normalized, would solve the "Jewish problem" and ameliorate, if not eliminate altogether, the phenomenon of anti-Semitism.
What this line of thinking by the founding fathers of Zionism failed to consider, however, is that the prejudice and obsession that had hitherto been reserved for Jewish individuals and communities would be transferred to the Jewish state. As the poet Heinrich Heine, himself a convert from Judaism, once wrote, Judaism is "the family curse that lasts a thousand years" and no matter how much it has tried, Israel has never been able to escape this disturbing reality.
A saddening thought indeed. But is there any other explanation as to why, sixty years after its establishment by an internationally recognized act of self-determination, Israel remains the only state in the world that is subjected to a constant outpouring of the most outlandish conspiracy theories and blood libels; whose policies and actions are obsessively condemned by the international community; and whose right to exist is constantly debated and challenged not only by its Arab enemies but by segments of advanced opinion in the West?
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Professor Efraim Karsh is Head of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Studies at King's College, University of London , and a member of the Board of International Experts of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. His recent books include Islamic Imperialism: A History (Yale University Press, 2007).
This Jerusalem Issue Brief is available online at: http://www.jcpa.org