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Opinion/Deconstructing Hasbara about the Israel/Palestine Conflict

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“This is *us* [(i.e. Israel, U.S., …)], and that is *them* [(i.e. Palestinians, Russians,…)]. This crucial principle, deeply embedded in Western culture, suffices to undermine even the most precise analogy and the most impeccable reasoning.” - Noam Chomsky 1 (p.97)

In deconstructing Israeli Hasbara, we will bend over backwards trying to side step this crucial principle, elucidated by Noam Chomsky, to highlight its effects and operation.

Before embarking on this experiment, we first need to look at the meaning of the term Hasbara:

Hasbara (hasbará, literally “explaining”) denotes the public relations effort instigated by the State of Israel to defend abroad its point of view and policies. In that sense, Hasbara is a hypernym of propaganda.

“[The Israeli Hasbara effort] consistently portrays people abused [by its enemies (e.g. Hamas)] as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government […] will be unworthy. The evidence of worth may be read from the extent and character of attention and indignation.” While the aim of this large scale differential treatment is to allow for the media, intellectuals, and public to remain “unconscious of the fact and maintain a high moral and self-righteous tone” 2 (p.37), its underlying method is indoctrination; a propaganda technique, describing the process of inculcating a person with a set of ideas and beliefs to be accepted uncritically.

Before the outbreak of the second world war, Hitler noted that indoctrination works because the “receptiveness of the masses is severely limited, their grasp minute, however, their capability of suffering from amnesia is overwhelming”. He then goes on to point out that “effective propaganda must therefore focus on a very narrow set of constantly repeated points.” Joseph Goebbles, Hitler’s propaganda minister, further concludes that “the people are much more primitive than most of us imagine. Hence, the core principles of propaganda are simplicity and repetition.” 3 These core principles have been followed to sell formulations such as “Israel has the right to use force to defend itself” to the public, despite its apparent contradictions.

In case the reference to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbles filled you with loathing, let me put forward the influential moralist and foreign affairs advisor Reinhold Niehbur instead. Niehbur who is described as the theologian of the establishment, much revered by George Kennan, the Kennedy intellectuals, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, and many others, wrote that “rationality belongs to the cool observer, but because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason, but faith”. Now the cool observers must recognise the stupidity of the average man and must provide “[…] necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplifications” that will keep the naive simpletons on course. 4 The necessary illusion in this case being that “Israel can defend itself [by force] and uphold its values”. 5

In that spirit, let’s review and deconstruct the main emotionally potent oversimplications of Israeli Hasbara repeated ad-nauseum, drawing principled analogies and thereby side stepping the deeply hypocritical “this is us, and that is them principle”.

Israel has the right to use force to defend itself

Aggression always has a pretext: in this case the unprecedented incursion of Hamas resistance on October 7th, 2023, subjecting a limited sample of the Israeli military and civilian population to a specimen of terror that the entire people of Gaza have been subjected to for decades.

“The mantra that is endlessly repeated is that Israel has the right to use force to defend itself. The thesis is partially defensible. [Hamas] rocketing is criminal, and it is true that a state has the right to defend itself against criminal attacks. But it does not follow that it has a right to defend itself by force. That goes far beyond any principle that we would or should accept. Putin had no right [to invade Ukraine despite NATOs aggressive encroachment or]6 to use force in response to the Chechen terror - and his resort to force is not justified by the fact that he achieved results so far beyond what the US achieved in Iraq […]. Nazi Germany had no right to use force to defend itself against the terrorism of the partisans. Kristallnacht was not justified by Hershel Grynszpan’s assassination of a German Embassy official in Paris. The British were not justified in using force [to] terrorize Irish Catholics in response to IRA terror. […] It is not a matter of “proportionality”, but of choice of action in the first place: Is there an alternative to violence? In all these cases, there plainly [is], so the resort to force [has] no justification whatsoever.” 1(p.116)

“One alternative [is] to accept a cease-fire. Sometimes Israel has formally done so, while quickly violating it. [A now infamous case of a cease-fire violation occurred in] June 2008. The cease-fire called for opening the border crossings “to allow the transfer of all goods that were banned and restricted to go into Gaza.” Israel formally agreed, but immediately announced that it would not abide by the agreement and open the borders until Hamas released Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in June 2006. […] Israel rejected Hamas proposals of a long-term truce, again citing the capture of Shalit. Partly on the same grounds, it refused to permit any reconstruction, even the import of macaroni, crayons, tomato paste, lentils, soap, toilet paper, and other such weapons of mass destruction. […] The steady drumbeat of accusations about the capture of Shalit [was], again, blatant hypocrisy, even putting aside Israel’s long history of kidnapping. In this case, the hypocrisy could not be more glaring. One day before Hamas captured Shalit, Israeli soldiers entered Gaza City and kidnapped two civilians, the Muamar brothers, bringing them to Israel to join the thousands of other prisoners held there, hundreds reportedly without charge.” 1(p.121)

In international law, the right to resist is closely related to the principle of self-determination. It is widely recognized that a right to self-determination arises in situations of colonial domination, foreign occupation, and racist regimes that deny a segment of the population political participation. “According to international law, states may not use force against the lawful exercise of self-determination, while those seeking self-determination may use military force if there is no other way to achieve their goals.” 7 Fayez Sayegh derives a right to resist from the Charter of the United Nations' recognition of an inherent right of national self-defense in the face of aggression. 8

In short, “Israel has no legal right to use any kind of force in Gaza — under any circumstances.” 9

Hamas’s barbaric attack on October 7th, 2023

“The actions of people resisting brutal occupation can be condemned as criminal[, barbaric,] and politically foolish, but those who offer no alternative have no moral standing to issue such judgements. The conclusion holds with particular force to Americans who choose to be directly implicated in Israel’s ongoing crimes”, 1(p.118) but includes all countries that enmesh themselves by their words, their actions, or their silence.

Gaza is under siege since 2005. Let’s recall that a siege is an act of war, “justifying massive violence in response. Interference with Israel’s passage through the Straits of Tiran was a large part of the justification offered for Israel’s invasion of Egypt (with France and England) in 1956, and for its launching of the June 1967 war. The siege of Gaza is total, not partial, apart from occasional willingness of the occupiers to relax it slightly. And it is vastly more harmful to Gazans than closing the Straits of Tiran was to Israel. Supporters of Israeli doctrines and actions should therefore have no problem justifying rocket attacks [and incursions] on Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip.” 1(p.122)

Over the last two decades, Israel has conducted a so-called disengagement plan against Gaza. This has involved severe sanctions and a brutal siege against the people of Gaza, putting them on “a diet” that is directly responsible for children having stunted growth, a measure of malnutrition.

In 2004, Arnon Soffer, one of the founders of the University of Haifa, known for his research into demographic, water, environmental, political, and strategy issues of the state of Israel; the architect of the disengagement plan, described it thus:

“When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.” 10

Israel has pursued this barbaric plan, resulting in innumerable atrocities against Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. “Some new term is needed for the sadistic and cowardly torture of people caged with no possibility of escape, while they are being pounded to dust by the most sophisticated products of US military technology – used in violation of international and even US law” 1 Noam Chomsky wrote in 2009 in his article “Exterminate all the Brutes”, about Israel’s 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza. Sadly, the Israeli military strategists found a new awfully cynical term to refer to these “operations”, namely as “mowing the lawn”. 1112

Now if Operation Cast Lead, where Israel killed 1,400 Palestinians, the same number that Hamas allegedly killed during its incursion on October 7th, 2023, can simply be dismissed as “mowing the lawn” in Gaza, advocates of Israeli doctrines ought to have no problem justifying Hamas decision to “mow its lawn” on Israeli territory.

High civilian casualties are simply a “tragic consequence”

Four weeks into Israel’s relentless and brutal attack on Gaza, indiscriminately bombing the most densley populated parcel on earth, the civilian death toll already exceeded the number of civilians killed in two years of the Russo-Ukraine war. 13 As if this metric isn’t horrible enough, the number of children slaughtered by Israel in three weeks surpasses the annual number of children killed in conflict zones since 2019. 14 The silence around the killing of so many children is suffocating. If at all, it is mentioned on the side as an unfortunate and tragic consequence of a war forced upon Israel and its ‘most moral army in the world’ 15 by the “barbaric” terrorist organisation Hamas.

Nevertheless, it is quite instructive to look at a recent case of mass child abduction - not murder - in the Russo-Ukrainian War, to notice a rather different reaction of the international community. According to a report from the Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale School of Public Health, since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, over 6,000 Ukrainian children aged between four months and 17 years old have been detained at various camps and similar facilities in Russia. 16 “The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued arrest warrants for President of Russia Vladimir Putin (who has explicitly supported the forced adoptions, including by enacting legislation to facilitate them) and Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova for their alleged involvement. According to international law, including the 1948 Genocide Convention, such acts constitute genocide if done with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a nation or ethnic group.” 17

In other words, mass child abduction of worthy victims is a heinous crime justifying contempt, arrest warrants by the ICC, and allegations of genocide if perpetrated by official enemies. Mass child murder of unworthy victims on the other hand attracted little if any notice if committed by official allies. Such cruelty scarcely merits more than a footnote, as “the claim that “our side” never targets civilians is familiar doctrine in violent states. And there is some truth to it. Powerful states, like the United States [and Israel], do not generally try to kill particular civilians. Rather, they carry out murderous actions that they and their educated classes know will slaughter many civilians, but without specific intent to kill particular ones, [for example when] Israel carries out actions that it knows will kill the “grasshoppers” and “drugged roaches” who happen to infest the lands it “liberates”. There is no good term for this moral depravity.” 1(p.108)

Meanwhile we are observing the exacerbation of a rare event in history, what the late Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling called “politicide”, the murder, or rather “indiscriminate slaughter” of a nation - at our hands. 18

In the words of former member of the Knesset Uri Avnery, “What will be seared into the consciousness of the world will be the image of Israel as a blood-stained monster, ready at any moment to commit war crimes and not prepared to abide by any moral restraints. This will have severe consequences for our long-term future, our standing in the world, our chance of achieving peace and quiet. In the end, this war is a crime against ourselves too, a crime against the State of Israel.” 19

How do we stop this carnage? Will it ever be possible to find a permanent solution for this abhorrent crisis?

The answer to the former question is straight forward: First and foremost Israel’s slaughter has to stop. For this to happen the U.S. must abstain from vetoing ceasefire resolutions at the United Nations Security Council. To save face it wouldn’t even need to vote for a ceasefire, simply abstaining from the vote is sufficient. This can only work if there is significant uprising and resistance to current U.S. policy by its citizens (why not start an Intifada in the U.S.?). That is a challenge, but it is not impossible. Citizens of E.U. nations that have voted against a ceasefire in the UN general assembly (i.e. Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Czech Republic) have to mobilise as well to move their political leadership to stop vetoing ceasefire resolutions.

The latter problem might seem insurmountable today, however, one only needs to remind oneself how desperate the situation in South Africa was during the worst period of apartheid. In those days hardly anyone could imagine an end to the brutality, let alone a future for the oppressed.

  1. Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappe: Gaza in Crisis, reflections on the U.S.-Israeli war on the palestinians, Haymarket Books 2013. ↩︎

  2. Edward S. Herman, Noam Chomsky: Manufacturing Consent - The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Vintage 1994, p.1. ↩︎

  3. Daniele Ganser, “Illegale Kriege: Wie die NATO-Länder die UNO sabotieren”, p.177. ↩︎

  4. Reinhold Niehbur Quote: “rationality belongs to the cool observer…” ↩︎

  5. Israel Can Defend Itself and Uphold Its Values ↩︎

  6. Benjamin Schwarz, Christopher Layne: Why Are We in Ukraine? On the dangers of American hubris, Harper’s Magazine, JUN 2023. ↩︎

  7. Mark Muller: “Terrorism, Proscription and the Right to Resist in the Age of Conflict”. Denning Law Journal. 20: 111–131. doi:10.5750/dlj.v20i1.327, 2008. ↩︎

  8. Fayez A. Sayegh: Zionist Colonialism in Palestine. Research Center-Palestine Liberation Organization, 1965. ↩︎

  9. Norman G. Finkelstein, Jamie Stern-Weiner: Israel Has No Right of Self-Defense Against Gaza, Jacobin, 07.27.2018. ↩︎

  10. I didn’t suggest we kill Palestinians; I only said Israel would ‘have to kill them.' ↩︎

  11. Adam Taylor: With strikes targeting rockets and tunnels, the Israeli tactic of ‘mowing the grass’ returns to Gaza, The Washington Post, MAY 14th, 2021. ↩︎

  12. David M. Weinberg: Israel must prove it has freedom to defend istelf, May 13th, 2021. ↩︎

  13. Number of civilian casualties in Ukraine during Russia’s invasion verified by OHCHR from February 24, 2022 to September 10, 2023 ↩︎

  14. Gaza: 3,195 children killed in three weeks surpasses annual number of children killed in conflict zones since 2019 ↩︎

  15. James Eastwood: Ethics as a Weapon of War: Militarism and Morality in Israel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108231671, 2017. ↩︎

  16. Ukraine’s stolen generation ↩︎

  17. Child abductions in the Russian invasion of Ukraine ↩︎

  18. Baruch Kimmerling:Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War Against the Palestinians, Verso Books, 2003. ↩︎

  19. Uri Avnery:Why the gaza war is a crime against the state of israel, New Internationalist, JAN 12th, 2009. ↩︎

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