OPINIONISTA

Ivo Vegter: Was Gareth Cliff right about Israel?

Independent radio host Gareth Cliff recently came under fire for comments he made disputing the popular narrative that Israel without provocation killed peaceful, unarmed Palestian protesters in Gaza. Instead, he said, it was justifiably defending its borders from incursion, and its citizens from violence. Let’s fact-check his story.

Radio personality Gareth Cliff has courted controversy again, this time by declaring that Israel is entitled to protect itself from Palestinians ‘clearly hell-bent on violence’,” reported Jenna Etheridge for News24.

And he has pointed a finger at South African media for ‘complete bias’ in the way it has interpreted what is happening.”

She wrote in the aftermath of 62 reported deaths at the hands of Isreali defence forces on 14 and 15 May 2018, after a violent protest action on the border between Gaza and Israel that coincided with the 70th commemoration of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the move of the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The protest formed part of a larger series of actions, described by Palestinian leadership as the “March of Return”.

Etheridge’s article goes on to quote Cliff at some length:

“‘This was an attempt to invade a sovereign nation and border communities to indiscriminately slaughter civilians.’ ...

Cliff claimed that a successful ‘border breach’ would have resulted in ‘real carnage on both sides’. He said thousands of people would have streamed through the fence ‘and there would have been fires set, communities would have engaged in war’.

“‘What must Israel do? Let it happen? Let their citizens be killed by a bunch of people who are clearly hell-bent on violence? Tell me how that’s an equal situation for both sides. It really isn’t.’”

What Etheridge failed to mention was Cliff’s evidence to this effect, in the form of a quote from a leader of Hamas, Yahya Sinwar. Hamas is the fundamentalist Islamist organisation which is the de facto government of the Gaza Strip, after having ousted Fatah, the secular group that runs the Palestinian Authority and which holds sway in much of the West Bank.

Hamas has been declared a terrorist organisation by the United States, Australia and New Zealand, the European Union, and in the Middle East region, not only by Israel, but also by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Cliff quoted Sinwar as saying:

My next sermon will be delivered in Nahal Oz [a kibbutz in Isreal, near the border with Gaza]. We will tear down the fence, and tear out the hearts of these Zionist’s bodies.”

The second sentence of this quotation, with “their border” sometimes substituted for “the fence”, has been widely reported. Since I do not speak Arabic, I cannot directly verify that this is what he said, but here’s a video that claims he did. The Israeli ambassador to the US also claims he did.

That this is certainly the gist of Hamas’ strategy is confirmed by other reports. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) routinely provides English translations of Arabic media. Only days before the fateful “protests”, it quoted another senior Hamas official, Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, who said that the term “peaceful resistance” is a rhetorical deception.

This is not peaceful resistance,” he said. “This is a clear terminological deception. When you are in possession of weapons ... is this really ‘peaceful resistance’? This is not peaceful resistance. Has the option [of armed struggle] diminished? No. On the contrary, it is growing and developing. That’s clear. So when we talk about ‘peaceful resistance’, we are deceiving the public. This is a peaceful resistance bolstered by a military force and by security agencies, and enjoying tremendous popular support. As for (Fatah’s) ‘peaceful resistance’, it consists of rallies, demonstrations, protests, pleas, and requests, in order to improve the terms of the negotiations, or to enable talks with the Israeli enemy. This deception does not fool the Palestinian public.”

The Times of Israel reports that yet another Hamas official, Salah Bardawil, told a Palestinian news outlet that of the 62 deaths, 50, or more than 80%, were Hamas members. Some of the others were affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another participant in the Gaza-Israel conflict.

Sinwar is also on record saying that the goal of the “March of Return” protests, and in particular the action of 14 and 15 May, was for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to break through the border fence. The border, he said, was not a “sacred cow”.

There is video evidence and photographic images of Palestinian “protesters” being organised to try to damage or breach the border fence, or launch improvised attacks across it. The Israeli defence forces issued widespread warnings that any attempts to approach or breach the border would be met with defensive fire. Yet breaching the fence was a direct instruction by Hamas, proclaimed over loudspeakers in the five selected areas of conflict (of which Nahal Oz was one).

Whenever you have a large, riotous mob attacking a line of armed soldiers, the soldiers will have a problem. They are better armed, better trained, and they are defending a border with live fire, so the conflict will inevitably be disproportionate, and casualties on the side of the mob can be exploited for public relations purposes. When you mix in a death cult in which “martyrdom” is celebrated, you have a recipe for a Hamas PR victory.

Orchestrating casualties and then exploiting these for public relations gains is exactly what Hamas does. It is well-known for using human shields in its conflict with Israel. In a European Parliament resolution on the situation in the Gaza Strip, which passed with a large majority, it rightly criticised Israel, enjoining it to refrain from using lethal force against unarmed civilians and end the blockade of Gaza.

However, recognising Israel’s need to protect its territory and borders, it also had strong words for Hamas, saying it “condemns the terror attacks by Hamas and other militant groups against Israel from the Gaza Strip, including the firing of rockets, infiltration into Israeli territory and the building of tunnels; expresses its concern that Hamas seems to be aiming at escalating tensions; strongly condemns the persistent tactic of Hamas of using civilians for the purpose of shielding terrorist activities”.

Hamas wants these casualties, because militarily, their fight is unwinnable. In an asymmetric war, propaganda and public relations is everything. And the media gobbles up pictures of dead civilians. This strategy by Hamas also makes it considerably more difficult to evaluate claims about Israeli heavy-handedness.

An infamous example is the exploitation of the death of baby Layla Ghandour. Supported by Hamas, her father paraded her through the streets draped in a Palestinian flag after she allegedly died of tear gas inhalation. This raises the question of what a baby was doing in an area where tear gas exposure was a possibility. As it turned out, she suffered from a congenital heart defect, which at least one of her doctors said was the more likely cause of death. The same spokesperson for the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry who at first attributed her death to gas inhalation later said that he did not know the real cause of death. She has since been removed from the casualty list, although the propaganda horse, mounted by the sensationalist media, had long since bolted.

Taken together, this clearly shows that Gareth Cliff was right. The “protest” was in fact an orchestrated attack on the Israeli border. Given the violent history of Hamas, which includes rocket attacks against Israeli towns and civilians, it comes as no surprise that the Israeli defence forces took the threat of incursion seriously, and responded with force.

Given the use of human shields, it comes as no surprise that the Israelis won the battle, but lost the war of public perception.

This doesn’t, of course, exclude the possibility that the Israelis acted with excessive force, or that some soldiers fired indiscriminately at civilians. In a war situation, neither side comes out smelling of roses. But portraying the Palestinians exclusively as innocent victims and the Israelis exclusively as brutal attackers is not supported by the evidence, as Cliff rightly points out.

The media correctly interrogates the deaths of apparently innocent protesters at the hands of soldiers defending the border. This is absolutely necessary. But rarely does it question the strategy that led to these deaths, or the clear hand of Hamas in the violence. Journalists don’t like to admit that they’re being manipulated.

Cliff also argued that the South African media is totally biased, and I fear he is quite correct. It routinely takes the Palestinian side in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and freely parrots the propaganda issued by its hard-line, militant Palestinian leaders, while depicting the Israelis as cold-blooded butchers.

To cite just one example, consider this “explainer” for eNCA. Throughout, it calls the creation of the state of Isreal the “Nakba”, which is a word Palestinians use, and means “catastrophe”. They don’t even disguise their partisan bias.

Other media routinely call Israel an “apartheid state”, which is a Palestinian propaganda term that, frankly, is false. Unlike under apartheid, Palestinians live within Israel as full citizens, with full voting rights and civil liberties. Israel is an open democracy with equal rights for all citizens, unlike any of the Arab states that surround it. It just doesn’t particularly feel like being overrun by millions of hostile foreigners.

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the League of Nations mandated Britain to administer Palestine, as France did with Syria and Lebanon, and other Allied powers did with other conquered territories. A partition plan of some sort had long been on the cards, but Britain had failed to make a peaceful solution stick. After World War II, the UN proposed a partition resolution, which envisaged independent Israeli and Palestinian states, with Jerusalem remaining under international trusteeship as the centre of three major religions. Resolution 181 was adopted with a large majority of the vote in the UN General Assembly. Israel was proclaimed on 14 May 1948, pursuant to this resolution, and after the withdrawal of the British.

This partition plan was not accepted by the Arabs, Palestinian or otherwise, and a day later, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq all invaded Israel, in a war which Israel ultimately won, with Gaza being annexed by Egypt, and the West Bank being annexed by Jordan.

The Israeli victory led to the departure of about 700,000 Palestinians from the state of Israel. This displacement should, however, be seen in the light of the expulsion of some 850,000 Jews from Arab and Muslim countries during the years following the creation of Israel, about half of which immigrated to the safe haven of Israel. Arab-Israeli animosity certainly cuts both ways.

More generally, no attempt at drawing borders and partitioning a territory that was not previously a coherent state can reasonably expect to avoid migration, in both directions, nor can it prevent hard feelings about it, on both sides.

Gaza and the West Bank would not come under control of Israel until 1967, when it won the Six-Day War against the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. It has never annexed them back, although Egypt and Jordan have proven unwilling to reclaim the occupied territories, or host the refugees who have lived there for over 50 years.

Ironically, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed in 1964, three years before the Israeli occupation of these Palestinian territories even began.

In 1988, the Palestinian Declaration of Independence by PLO leader Yasser Arafat implicitly recognised the state of Israel, by appealing to the UN partition plan of 1947 to legitimise the state of Palestine. Various attempts at brokering a lasting peace based on the idea of two independent states have failed, however.

One of the reasons for this failure is infighting between Palestinians, which led to the violent conflict between the Islamist Hamas and the secular Fatah. Hamas seized control of Gaza, while the secular Fatah controls the official Palestinian Authority. Even in the West Bank, however, it only has pockets of power. This makes it difficult to find a legitimate negotiating partner with which to broker a peace.

The European Parliament resolution also recognised that intra-Palestinian conflict contributes to the human rights crisis in Gaza, and that Hamas is an authoritarian regime that strictly limits basic freedoms, and under which terrorist organisations flourish.

Another key reason is an inability on both sides to agree on borders. Palestinians have variously sworn the total destruction of the state of Israel, or demanded a return to the armistice demarcation lines in effect between 1949 and 1967 (although they did not accept these lines as borders at the time). The Israelis, on the other hand, are also divided, but after the wars of 1967 and 1973 have been unwilling to accept borders that, in their view, are not militarily defensible. The majority of Israelis, therefore, are unwilling to return to pre-1967 borders.

Further complicating factors are the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, which the UN holds to be provocative and illegal, as well as frequent attacks across the borders into Israel by militants from both Gaza and the West Bank, often in the form of short- and medium-range rockets, or suicide bombers, both frequently targeting civilians.

But this is not the place to re-litigate the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is much too complex to do it justice fully in 2,500 words.

Suffice to say that Israel, by virtue of its existence and international recognition, has a right to defend itself against foreign aggression, of which it has suffered a great deal since its formation. Conversely, Palestinians have a right to demand their own independent state, although not by means of violent attacks against and incursions into Israel. And neither side has emerged from this conflict without blood on its hands, or having offended the other.

The conflict has proven intractable for generations of local and domestic leaders, and I don’t pretend to have a solution. However, it cannot possibly be resolved by taking a simplistic, one-sided view of a long and complex history.

Short of denying Israel’s right to exist and driving the Jews into the sea, the best hope for peace in the region remains a two-state solution. However, that cannot happen if one side is sworn to destroy the other, and the other side is permanently on the defensive while better armed.

Gareth Cliff’s comments might have been reported as “controversial”, but that is only true among those who buy the Palestinian propaganda. They are not at all controversial to Israel or its supporters.

As a neutral observer, which journalists are supposed to be, I also cannot find much fault with his claims. Hamas certainly is an aggressor, and did intend to attack the Israeli border, which provoked the Israeli response, however heavy-handed it was.

My verdict? Gareth Cliff was mostly right. DM

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