War or no war, and now conflagration

Andrew Donaldson writes on Hamas' barbarous attack on Israel, and question of how to respond to it


I visited Israel in the noughties as part of a press tour put together by that country’s culture and sports department. It was a whirlwind few days in which our hosts overwhelmed us with full-scale immersion into Israeli artistic expression; from a performance of the classic Yiddish drama, The Dybbuk, to a concert by a folk singer who had translated Bob Dylan’s songs into Hebrew; from an academic discussion on Hannah Arendt to a visit to a kibbutz run by dancers. The whole kit and caboodle of a nation’s identity, as it were.

At one reception, however, we were introduced to a senior, decidedly “non-artsy” government official and, inevitably, our conversation turned to the West Bank and the prospect of peace in the Middle East. Given that this was an informal, off-the-record affair, he was fairly forthcoming in his response. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

“There is no prospect of peace,” he said. “There never will be peace. We have taken the land. The Palestinians want it back. We will not give it back. They will fight for it and so there cannot be peace. There can only be times of war and sometimes no war, a lull in the fighting. If you quote me on that, I will deny it. But that is the situation. War and no war.”

There is now war. What has unfolded in Israel at the weekend has been likened to the pogroms of the 19th and early 20th centuries in eastern Europe. We have seen unspeakable acts of violence in which Jews were murdered in their homes and in their cars as they attempted to flee Hamas insurgents. They gunned down the elderly and young children. A music festival has been turned into a bloodbath, hostages have been taken, women have been repeatedly raped, their bodies taken into Gaza were they have been paraded and desecrated.

It is difficult to imagine how the Palestinian cause will be served by such barbarism. But then perhaps it was never meant to. There is now some agreement among commentators that Hamas intended to plunge the entire region into bloody chaos and total anarchy. 

William Hague, who served as the foreign secretary in David Cameron’s government, has warned that Hamas has set a trap here that must be avoided at all costs. Writing in The Times on Tuesday, Hague notes that questions will of course be asked about how the attack happened. Israel’s intelligence services will be subject to much scrutiny in the years ahead. But, he adds, it is also vital to understand why this has happened:

“Why launch an indiscriminate assault on a vastly superior military power? Why expose the two million Palestinians in the crowded space of Gaza to Israel inevitably trying to crush Hamas and restore order? Why, as well as murdering hundreds of defenceless young people at a rave, parade dead bodies as evidence of the atrocities?

“The answer is that their objective is uncontrolled rage. It is to make Israel lash out in a way that starts a conflagration. To start a war so intense that it spreads, igniting an explosion of violence in the West Bank and bringing in Hezbollah from Lebanon in the north, with Israel fighting on multiple fronts. To see so many Palestinians killed that the Israelis lose the moral high ground of defending themselves against mass murder. To use the fate of hostages, with maximum cruelty, to intensify a frenzy of hatred whenever that seems to be abating. To halt the creeping collaboration between Israel and Arab states. Essentially, to bring down the ceiling on the whole region, including themselves and the people for whom they claim they are fighting.”

Hague states that this not a strategy that will improve the lives of Palestinians or result in a Palestinian state. It is, instead, “a howl of rage, an act of desperation by Hamas cheered on by an Iranian leadership who can see that the Middle East is moving quickly in a direction they do not like and are struggling to prevent”.

While Western nations all agree that Israel has a right to defend itself, there are fears that its actions, and an escalation of violence, will be catastrophic. As it is, the far-right coalition government of Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that Israel’s response will exceptionally brutal. 

Speaking to local mayors on Israel’s southern border, he was quoted by his office as saying, “What Hamas will experience will be difficult and terrible; we are already in the campaign and we are just getting started … The state will leave no stone unturned to help all of you. I ask that you stand steadfast because we are going to change the Middle East.”

That change appears to involve the total eradication of Gaza, which is under siege and intense bombardment by Israeli forces. While Israel’s retaliation continues, fears of anti-semitic incidents elsewhere in the world increase. At the same time, an ideological rift has widened between conservative and left-leaning Jews. 

In London, The Times columnist Melanie Phillips, very much a member of the former camp, has taken issue with Western media coverage of the invasion and Western governments’ response to the atrocities committed by Hamas militants. Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, she states:

“Every one of these attacks on Israeli civilians was a war crime. It is a moral imperative to destroy the forces who committed them and who — as they tell us — are intent upon eradicating Israel and the Jewish people. And yet the US State Department said after the pogrom: ‘We urged all sides to refrain from violence and retaliatory attacks. Terror and violence solve nothing.’

All sides? That means the US is telling Israel to ‘refrain’ from defending its people. Should the Americans have refrained from waging war against Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban after 9/11 as a ‘retaliatory attack’? Of course not. Such moral equivalence, it seems, applies only to Israel. It is also the default position of the western left.” [Her comments came before President Joe Biden’s comments on Tuesday evening.]

It is no better in the media, Phillips argues. “Horrific” casualty figures have been reported “on both sides”. This “bankrupt moral equivalence”, she claims, is “progressive” orthodoxy, enabling “approved” criminals to avoid responsibility for their crimes by representing them as victims alongside those they have attacked. “The inevitable consequence,” she adds, “is that their victims are represented as attackers.”

Phillips has also levelled criticism at the British Labour Party. Despite efforts by leader Keir Starmer, she insists that anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish attitudes remain entrenched on the left and centred on the Palestinian cause. “Its apologists have responded to the Hamas atrocities by saying that Israel ‘had this coming’ as a result of its ‘colonial’ oppression of the Palestinians.”

This narrative ignores “totally” the Palestinians’ genocidal antisemitism and has “sanitised, emboldened and incentivised” incitement against Israel and the Jewish people for decades, she says. “Jews on the left, including those now wringing their hands over the massacre in Israel, are complicit in this malignant echo chamber.”

One such Jew is Ofer Cassif, a member of the Knesset and the leftist Hadash coalition. He told Al Jazeera that he had warned of the consequences of the Netanyahu government’s policies towards Palestinians.

“We condemn and oppose any assault on innocent civilians,” he said. “But in contrast to the Israeli government that means that we oppose any assault on Palestinian civilians as well. We must analyse those terrible incidents [the attacks] in the right context — and that is the ongoing occupation.

“We have been warning time and time again… everything is going to erupt and everybody is going to pay a price — mainly innocent civilians on both sides. And unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. The Israeli government, which is a fascist government, supports, encourages, and leads pogroms against the Palestinians. There is an ethnic cleansing going on. It was obvious the writing was on the wall, written in the blood of the Palestinians — and unfortunately now Israelis as well.”

Some commentators have remarked that the Hamas invasion has served as a reminder of the calls for a two-state solution — Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in sovereign entities. It is wholly probable that this will never happen in our lifetime. When he became the US secretary of state in 2013, John Kerry threw himself into negotiating such an outcome, but to no avail; Israel was not prepared to abandon its policy of settling on the West Bank, and the Palestinian leadership was intensely divided on a peace plan.

Now the war is escalating and, as the man said, there is no prospect of peace…


A disquieting rustle in the undergrowth: Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s gnome-like national chairman, is getting something off his (slipped) chest. The ruling party, he feels, has made a big mistake in allowing South Africans to become a bit, well, ovine. 

“One of the mistakes we have committed over the years,” the minister of hazenile has said, “is creating a passive society, people who cannot do anything for themselves. People who sit and wait for service delivery. ‘Government should be doing this and that’ [and] that’s why we are in trouble now.”

Mantashe was addressing a review of its 2019 manifesto in Buffalo City at the weekend. Seeing as the Eastern Cape is a province basket-cased by corruption, failing infrastructure, poverty and high unemployment, it is probably not all that difficult to imagine its citizens pausing to question why their government is failing them. 

Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) there is some conviction that, far from being a regrettable development, a “passive society” is one of the great accomplishments of liberation: a sheeple that will meekly accept the debasement of their democracy through the criminality of the ruling elite, and has done so for the past three decades.

For all that, Mantashe insists there should be a “fresh approach” to service delivery as the party gears up for next year’s elections. What he has in mind, though, is actually no service delivery. 

There is perhaps fundamentally nothing new in this; the government’s record here is practically non-existent. What is novel and exciting, however, is the directive, on the record, that citizens should not expect much, if anything, from the ANC. 

This of course should not be seen as an admission of defeat. How could there be failure if one hasn’t attempted anything? An athlete doesn’t lose a race, for example, by dint of the fact that he or she simply hasn’t turned up at the track. Same thing here.

What is needed, Mantashe believes, are “innovative methods” to empower the people. “If you are going to build houses,” he has said, “visit Cuba to study their model, the state provides the technical support to the team. People build their own houses. We'll be changing the society when we do that. We will be making the people their own liberators.”

There is of course the uncomfortable reality that many South Africans have for a while now been building their own homes. Usually out of old corrugated iron and other waste material in unserviced squatter camps. On top of which, the leadership has visited Cuba on numerous occasions, returning each time without much evidence of having studied anything, let alone a state housing model. 

But aside from all that, this really is an excellent idea: do it yourself, and we take all the credit.

Aspirant house-builders should be made aware that, at the time of writing, the cheapest return flight this week to Havana from Johannesburg, on Air France, is a mere R32 000 a pop. Even so, I don’t expect much of a stampede in the departures lounge at OR Tambo.