By Sébastien Ponsford
Israel has continuously justified its war on the Palestinians on the basis of the right to defend itself. As early as the 1930s, when anti-colonial voices in the West were gaining resonance, the Zionist narrative swiftly shifted from an openly colonial discourse to justify its claims to Palestine, to a diametrically opposed anti-colonial rhetoric. Zionism successfully adapted to the winds of change and started defining itself as a national force struggling to free itself from British imperialism and Palestinian presence in the ‘eternal homeland of the Jewish People’. Security and self-defence became the central rhetorical devices on which Israel consistently pursued its policies of home demolitions, expulsions, mass incarceration and continuous harassment of the Palestinians, while escaping widespread international condemnation.
The latest massacre of Palestinians in the open-air Gaza prison has made it increasingly difficult for the Likud right-wing coalition to uphold the credibility of the “security” card. Although absurdly claiming to be the most moral army in the world, the Israeli military has launched more than 6000 air and artillery strikes in the densely populated and walled-off Gaza strip, killing more than 2000 Palestinians of which 75 per cent were civilian “collateral damage”. The 2014 Operation Protective Edge was not a surgical, precise and neatly planned operation to uproot Hamas but rather an imprecise and disproportionate bombardment that, in the words of professor Efraim Inbar, Director of Bar-Ilan’s Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, was part of the Likud’s attrition strategy to “mow the lawn” in the strip. However, the Netanyahu government has successfully framed the war as one exclusively targeting Hamas, and on a broader spectrum, Islamism.
The emergence of the Islamic State and the obsession in Western media to present the movements as a manifestation of the potential barbaric “nature” of Islam and Muslims – has in fact been a blessing for Netanyahu and his increasingly right-wing coalition. In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2014, the prime minister stated that “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas.” Netanyahu’s conflation of these Islamic movements serves several purposes. It first works in undermining Hamas’ Palestinian nationalist component. By equating Hamas to ISIS, Netanyahu is attempting to sideline in the Western mass-media discourse the fact that Hamas emerged at the end of the 1980’s as a resistance movement to the prolonged Israeli occupation in the territories. Unlike ISIS that blossomed and operates in a stateless arena – and challenges the nation-state unit – Hamas’ military and political activities have continuously worked along the lines of Palestinian nationalism and lay their territorial claims to no more than Historical Palestine.
Describing ISIS and Hamas as “branches of the same poisonous tree” also legitimizes Israel’s attack on Gaza by framing the war as an effort to resist Islamism – both at home, in Europe and in the US. No longer fully able to present itself as an endless victim of Palestinian aggression, Israel’s prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu is benefiting from a new powerful source of legitimization to justify the occupation and violence against Palestinians. Adding to the “self-defence” discourse, Netanyahu and the Likud are surfing the growing wave of Islamophobia in Europe and the United States to gain support for its military action. Blowing on the embers of Western paranoia around ‘Islamic extremism’, Netanyahu is no longer limiting the justification for his attacks on Gaza to Israel’s security. Rather, Israel’s prime minister is reframing Israel’s military operations as part of a benevolent and necessary action to protect Europe and the United States from the looming “cancer” that in his view is about to reach the West.
In an interview he gave to journalist Greta Van Susteren following his talk at the UN, Netanyahu marketed Israel as an effective rampart to protect the West from the geographical “expansion” of modern Islamist movements in an effort to uphold Israel’s dwindling support after the worldwide waves of pro-Palestinian rallies in support to Gaza this summer. The Likud’s strategy to legitimize the silent cleansing of Palestinians is increasingly emphasizing Israel’s position in the Middle East as an outpost of Western Civilization ready to invest all its energy in the protection of Western values. According to this strand of Zionist discourse, Israel does not wage war against Palestinian civilians, nor does it merely bomb Gaza for the sake of its own safety. Its military action is framed as a part of global struggle to contain radical Islam and uphold the beacon of democracy and human rights. In Netanyahu’s own scaremongering words “Militant Islam is trying to […] take over the world. Its number one target is the United States. […] They want to destroy us so they can get to you.”
Similar to far right-wing movements in Europe that benefit from Islamic fundamentalism to alienate their Muslim communities from an exclusivist idea of national identity, the Netanyahu government is co-opting and galvanizing the anxiety towards Islamism in the United States in order to ensure the continuing support and commitment– both political and economic – of US public opinion. As Zionism is loosing the battle for legitimacy in Europe, Israel has never been as dependent on the 4 billion dollar aid package annually disbursed to the Israel for the funding of its military apparatus.
By linking Hamas to ISIS, and arguing that the war on Gaza is part of a pre-emptive strategy to limit the spread of Islamism to the core of the “free world” –Netanyahu is strategically taking advantage of recent events in the Islamic world and Europe to preserve the international support the Jewish State is so desperately craving. By branding Israel as a Western enclave in the Middle East, committed to the protection of its main Western allies – the Likud is creating a smokescreen meant to divert its continuous violation of International Law and its war crimes in the Gaza Strip.
The war on Gaza has been labelled a war against Hamas and Islamism in order to align Israeli military action with Western calls for intervention in the Middle East against ISIS. The violence committed this summer in Gaza is however part of the endless Israel’s effort to crush the Palestinians’ daily struggle and effort to resist an on-going occupation. A state possessing such precise military technology as Israel, does not simply demolish entire neighbourhoods, schools, universities and civilian families trapped within ghetto walls it has built to contain them. And even if Israel’s claim to exclusively target Hamas were true – the fact that it proceeded in the killing of 2191 civilian as part of the inevitable “collateral damage” raises serious questions on the value of Palestinian lives Israel so vehemently claims to respect.
Netanyahu’s strategy is to foment fear, uphold the dwindling legitimacy that his government enjoys in the West and conceal the obvious reality of Israel’s present objective: the collective punishment of Palestinians for their effort to resist occupation – whether through guerrilla warfare or through their strength in refusing to give up, continuing to live, work, study and rebuild the ruins of their desolated ghetto.
- Sébastien Ponsford is a student of Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.