The political division that makes a middle approach to the Israel-Gaza conflict tenuous.
The article below is written as a commentary and not an official position by the UNAA, the Peace and Security Group or its affiliate organisations. All views and opinions presented are those of the author. For UNAA’s official position on the conflict in Gaza, see https://www.unaa.org.au/statements-on-international-events/
Written by John Fowler
The current conflict in Gaza, catalysed by the horrible attacks on Israeli citizens by Hamas, is nothing short of calamity. As a distant onlooker, I can’t help but despair at a horror story come to life, exhibiting some of the worst aspects of humanity. At the time of writing, Israel forces are continuing their assault on Gaza, with at least 90 estimated casualties incurred in the Jabalia camp, housing Palestinian refugees[i]. The UN and aid agencies are significantly hampered by the conflict and the plight of refugees is becoming increasingly desperate. The nature of the conflict, including the politics and history that have led to these events, is of huge interest and concern. It is complicated, long and in many ways tragic. However, for a student of politics, the ripple effects of the conflict are also of interest and have led to mass protests throughout the world, both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. This article will try to unpack some of the drivers of social and political division that are being seen, particularly in democratic nations as a result of the current Israel-Gaza conflict. This division threatens to usurp any attempt to find a middle road that alienates portions of their respective voter base. If there is going to be any resolution to this conflict that doesn’t involve mass genocide and a continuation of the cycle of violence, there will have to be a middle road where the pain brought about by each side is acknowledged. Sadly, this seems currently unattainable, but what the conflict does highlight is the need to reconcile within ourselves the competing truths that epitomise the Israel-Gaza conflict that make a middle road so hard to find. While the debate continues, the people that suffer the most are those caught in the middle, which includes hostages within Hamas custody and the approximate 1.8 million displaced Palestinian civilians[ii], deprived of aid and in the cross hairs.
Dueling visions of Justice and Prejudice
Within the conflict itself are the seeds for division in the form of competing truths. Whichever truth resonates with an individual will be dependent on their conception of justice and many cannot or will not accept that these truths can exist side by side. Two coexisting truths link to the history of prejudice. Antisemitism and the history of mistrust, fear and atrocity directed toward the Jewish Israelis is real. The horrendous attacks by Hamas which resulted in an estimated 1200 deaths and the taking of 200 hostage[iii] can be seen as yet another event fuelled by this hate. Simultaneously, Islamophobia that became particularly evident after the September 11 attacks is also real. At the time of writing, Israel’s military invasions of Gaza has resulted in a reported 19 000 Palestinians dead, according to the Ministry of Health in Hamas-run Gaza [iv], along with increasing reports of violent incidents in the West Bank toward Islamic Palestinian residents[v]. Israel’s military campaign to eradicate Hamas relies on a level of hate, mistrust or apathy by the international community toward Islamic people.
On top of these coexisting realities of prejudice are the dual roles of victim and perpetrator by Hamas and Israel. Since Israel’s current President Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow in 2009 to destroy Hamas, the Netanyahu’s government has existed in a symbiotic relationship with Hamas as dualling opposites, effectively eradicating any middle ground that may erode each country’s claims of legitimacy[vi]. In response to the threat of Hamas, Netanyahu has been able to cling to power and effectively sideline any reason to resolve the ‘Palestinian Question’. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Hamas has been able to dominate Gaza, marginalising or undermining any effort to create a moderate voice that could make progress in a negotiation process. In broad terms then, Israeli politics created the conditions in which Hamas could conduct its attack, leading to thousands of Palestinian deaths in the military retaliation.
This leads to questions of justice. Both sides of the conflict have the same central claim- the right of life, liberty and the security of person[vii]. The unfortunate caveat is that current Israeli and Hamas leaders have integrated that right of survival with the destruction of each other. In this most recent war, while it can be agreed that the Hamas perpetrators deserve punishment, what level of retaliation is ethically justified in pursuit of that justice? How many civilian casualties are acceptable in pursuit of that justice before it becomes unjust? Based on the current course, it seems that all Palestinians are considered collateral damage in Israel’s pursuit of justice. The same scrutiny can be levelled at Hamas both in the attack and the continued holding of hostages. They are complicit in the retaliation and the resulting Palestinian deaths- continuing to hold hostages after the prisoner exchange is demonstrative of a long-term strategy that include thousands of Palestinian deaths. While they hold hostages, they continue to view them as bargaining chips which prioritises the strategic value of keeping hostages over the cost of human life in an ongoing conflict.
The problem faced by the international community then is how to approach this historical, strategically and morally complex conflict in a way that is consistent with a coherent concept of justice. Considering the concurrent truths and questions of justice, this is inherently difficult. This is exacerbated further within democratic states, particularly when the state in question has an indirect role within the conflict.
Democratic states are inherently vulnerable to partisan politics. Particularly in a two-party system, victory in an election becomes the coveted prize, even at the expense of governing a nation or creating good policy[viii]. In terms of partisanship, the Israel-Gaza conflict provides easy ammunition for political criticism. A pro-Palestinian stance, even one that condemns Hamas and the attacks, is open to accusations of antisemitism and Israel’s right to defend itself. A pro-Israel position invites political attack fuelled by civilian casualties, the unfolding humanitarian crisis, and accusations of Islamophobia. This is exacerbated further in countries like America and Australia due to the strategic importance of Israel as it provides a foothold in the Middle East and a staging point for military operations in the region. This is how it is playing out in Australia. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, in her statement to the Senate acknowledges the pain of Israelis at the hands of Hamas while also acknowledged the plight of Palestinian civilians[ix]. To script, opposition leader Peter Dutton has taken aim at any statement by government that is not in support of Israel[x]. At the time of writing, Australia has shifted its stance and voted for a ceasefire in the non-binding motion passed by the UN General Assembly, with a similar motion having already been vetoed by the U.S[xi]. The Australian opposition response has been predictable, with opposition’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Simon Birmingham, stating that “If Israel just adopts the ceasefire that Anthony Albanese has now voted for, it will just give Hamas opportunity to rearm, regroup and repeat the terrorist atrocities all over again.”[xii] Ostensibly, this position is based on support of Israel, with the additional benefit of maintaining U.S and consequently Australia’s, strategic interests in the Middle East. Equally salient however is the domestic political benefits of appealing to future voters and lobby groups who are sympathetic to a vision of justice that supports Israel’s position. This is demonstrative of the primacy of domestic politics in determining foreign policy, regardless of how dire the international crisis.
The Role of the Media
The role of the media during these unfolding events is an important one. Media outlets have become notoriously affiliated with political agendas and it surprises no one that these agendas play out in what is reported and how it is reported. The combination of 24/7 access to their audience and people’s tendency to curate what we see and hear to a news outlet consistent with our values creates individualised echo chambers in which people live. Not many people deliberately seek out news and views that differ from our own because that makes us uncomfortable and less certain about how we understand the world and to a certain extent, ourselves. To be confronted with contradictions, hypocrisy or gaps in our understanding creates uncertainty. People want to be certain. This has been monetised and commercialised by media outlets who, instead of alleviating bias in their reporting, can lean into it and successfully tap into a receptive audience who then vindicate the outlet’s bias. Such tendencies lend themselves toward tailored storytelling that speaks, in this case, to conceptions of justice that privilege one group over another. Any engagement with opposing views, if done at all, will be done after first establishing the view of the ‘right’ side of the issue.
As the Israel-Gaza conflict is embroiled with ideas of justice, people need heroes and villains. This makes the process of picking a side much easier for everyone. While Hamas has clearly earned universal condemnation as the catalysts for the war, where it gets difficult and incompatible with media practices is the perpetrator-victim duality that can describe other involved factions. Israel is a victim of Hamas, yet Israeli politics has helped Hamas thrive in Gaza and the military operation of Gaza that has killed thousands of civilians, making them villains. Palestinian civilians stuck in the middle are victims, yet Hamas has not gained ascendancy in a vacuum and would only be able to exist without some level of community support which may be galvanised under Israel’s assault. If Israel’s claims that Hamas are using hospitals and other vulnerable targets as cover for military operations are true[xiii], then this is occurring with a level of support or at least acquiescence by the Palestinian community. The nature of this support is tied to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, creating a circle of victimhood and culpability that isn’t compatible with storytelling about justice. Our own sense of justice is informed by the media we consume, which requires heroes and villains that adhere to the audience’s world view. The complicated, nuanced and balanced view that includes the duel nature of these factions is not compatible with this need.
I have tried in this essay to avoid commenting directly on the ‘rightness’ of any particular interpretation of the Israel-Gaza conflict, though I can predict that readers committed to one side or the other might take issue with how I have framed my arguments. Nuanced and subtle interpretations that acknowledge the competing truths around justice and the dual nature of victim and perpetrator are, in the current political and media environment, difficult to maintain. In addition to the complex nature of events themselves, this is due to the partisan nature of democracies, particularly in two-party systems, that make criticism mandatory in the pursuit of votes in the next election. Our media environment, which consists of audiences that curate news that echo our preferences, encourages bias. In addition, this story is integrated with our conceptions of justice that requires villains and heroes. In a conflict with so much history and so much grey, black and white is hard to find. The middle path that is on the side of life that acknowledges pain, suffering and shared humanity of all factions is the path most likely to lead to the compromise needed to avoid mass casualties. Such a path will be attacked and criticised at every turn by people and groups that have made a judgement in favour of one understanding of justice over the other. Both sides of the argument can be compelling. A nuanced, complicated, painstaking middle path is needed which is founded on compromise and the prevention of human suffering- the alternative is destruction. Perhaps just as importantly however, is the conviction and belief in that middle path that seems to come so naturally to those convinced of the rightness of one position or the other. We need to find, and commit, to that middle path rather than languish in indecisiveness marked with caveats. We need to find it now.
About the Author
John Fowler is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland, researching the relationship between military culture and disaster relief. He has a Masters Degree in International Relations from Griffith University and has a key interest in security studies in international relations.