By Gregory Harms
Almost two-thirds of Americans feel Israel’s operations in Gaza were justified. When given sufficient information, and when thinking outside ideological parameters, Americans commonly draw reasonable conclusions and are in agreement by a two-thirds majority. In the case of the Gaza-Israel conflict, a knowledge deficit and ideology are to explain why the population misjudged what is morally unambiguous.
After World War II, novelist George Orwell stated in an essay, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” His point was that defending any of the war’s savagery required a vocabulary that softened the realities; one could not support a brutal policy or campaign and, at the same time, use precise language. Exact wording, which exposes the brutality, doesn’t tell the right story. The feeling of moral righteousness must remain intact.
Many ethical situations are clear and, as a result, we draw the appropriate moral conclusions. Be it child abuse, or murder, or rape, there is general agreement on these issues and therefore societies across the globe do not accept such acts within their value systems. There might be disagreements in deciding when to apply these labels; but one would be hard pressed to find a community that openly accepts, for example, mistreating infants or random killing. Human societies depend on such values and would disappear if they didn’t.
Shown one man, in the abstract, wantonly murdering another, most are likely to judge the act negatively. We see the situation for what it is and assess it accordingly. The reason is simple enough: we have all the facts (which are few: one guy murdering another) and we are thinking clearly (uninvested, clinical, impartial). Oftentimes, however, within the political realm a fog settles in. While we retain our core values, label application becomes more contentious.
A recent CNN/ORC poll revealed that 57 percent of Americans were in agreement with Israel’s operations in Gaza. This level of approval also existed during Israel’s previous two major campaigns there, in 2008-09 and 2012. Americans in general view Israel favorably, a statistic that is quite stable. And while not an issue in itself, approval of Israel’s military conduct, as the numbers indicate, is reflexive. This isn’t the product of mere fondness and suggests other forces are at work.
American public opinion
Most Americans are in agreement on most major political issues. And when asked direct, non-partisan questions about specific policies, the consensus is usually in the 55-75 percent range. America is a highly studied society and the numbers have been in for decades. Even concerning matters of foreign policy, Americans tend to concur.
Most, by a strong majority, desire that the United States lessen its international involvements and defer to the UN. Most, by a strong majority, are against Israel’s settlement construction in the Palestinian territories. Most, by a strong majority, desire better relations with Iran. These opinions and others held by the public are consistent with their views on domestic policy (healthcare, taxes, abortion, etc.); though a solid plurality self-describes as “conservative,” Americans tend to be operationally centrist-liberal. In sum, people want a civilized world in which to live. Not only is it vital to the tribe’s longevity, it’s simply more pleasant.
However, Americans know next to nothing about international affairs, or history for that matter. Moreover, they have viewed themselves—throughout their entire history—as a people apart, separate from those cultures south of the border and everything past the east and west horizons. The population is ill-informed and somewhat insular and is, as a consequence, very easily manipulated.
After 9/11, the public was stunned. Granted, it was an enormous spectacle of violence and destruction, but the people didn’t have the tools to see it in the larger context, to consider it with decades of brutal US Middle Eastern policy in the background. For that reason, invading Iraq was an easy sell. With the most ham-fisted propaganda techniques, 70 percent of Americans were brought on board. By 2008, however, Gallup reported 63 percent of Americans felt the war was a mistake. The number had basically flipped. The facts had come in.
When fear and nationalist fervor aren’t at work, the public holds rational positions, regardless of limited knowledge. Even on positions such as Iraq and defense spending, the population’s anxieties are a factor, though not irrationally. The fears are understandable given what the public is told. For example, talk of reducing defense spending evokes vulnerability and weakness and making the nation potential prey. Yet, even a brief look at the realities of international defense budgets reveals that there is little to discuss on this matter. So, the apprehensions themselves make sense—not wanting to be attacked—but are the product of not understanding the topic. The public lacks information. On the subject of Israel’s assault on Gaza, the same deficiency exists.
Gaza in brief
News coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict has been non-stop, with print and televised media producing a blizzard of reportage, commentary, and analysis. Similar to the broader Palestine-Israel conflict, it is always in the news, but few are familiar with the basic history.
As this essay seeks to examine circumstances outside the Israel-Gaza conflict, a condensed review will hopefully suffice. Three considerations worth mentioning:
1. Israel occupied the Palestinian territories in 1967 and illegally continues to do so. Since then, Israel has (also illegally) expanded its presence in those territories while avoiding diplomacy that could solve the Palestine-Israel conflict. (All of this relies on US support.) The occupation has encouraged the formation of resistance movements, some secular (like the PLO in the 1960s) and some Islamic (like Hamas in the 1980s). The PLO’s leadership became head of the Palestinian Authority, a governing body created during the Oslo Accords (1993). They have since been the party preferred by Israel and the United States, principally because they have shifted from resistance to cooperation.
2. In 2005, Israel “disengaged” from Gaza, and withdrew from the territory’s interior, merely reconfiguring its occupation externally. (Under article 42 of the Hague Convention, Israel’s control of Gaza meets the criteria.) In 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections, a result the United States and Israel rejected. In 2007, Hamas defeated an attempted coup by the Palestinian Authority (encouraged by the United States) and took over Gaza. Ever since, Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza and reduced the territory to a virtual penal colony. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is grave and is the direct result of US-Israeli design.
3. Though more or less politically divided since 2006, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas signed a unity agreement in spring 2014, and on June 2 announced a new, transitional government that does not include members of Hamas. At this point, Hamas was quite diminished politically. Israel prefers the Palestinians be divided—with Hamas in power in Gaza—and therefore can more easily reject diplomacy, claiming that a chunk of Palestine is ruled by terrorists. (The same used to be said of the PLO.) Following the announcement of the new government, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank near the settlement where they lived. Though aware that the teens were already dead, Israel conducted raids throughout the West Bank and arrested hundreds of Palestinians, including many Hamas members. Moreover, Israel conducted airstrikes against tunnels in Gaza, killing a number of Hamas militants and wounding civilians. Hamas, which had adhered to a ceasefire since late 2012—one which Israel had violated—began firing rockets out of Gaza. Israel now had its pretext to conduct “maintenance” in Gaza, deplete Hamas’s rocket and mortar arsenal, and hopefully stress the unity government.
Israel’s massive assault on Gaza, one that has claimed the lives of almost 2,000 Palestinians, has essentially been about avoiding peaceful resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict, a constant since 1967.
While Hamas’s indiscriminate use of rockets is illegal, immoral, and politically unwise, the context in which they are used is logically prior. Because Israel is the “occupying power” according to international law, it has no legitimate claim to self-defense: not morally, not legally, not logically. Once Israel withdraws from Palestine and allows it to function as a nation-state the same way Belgium allows the Netherlands to do so, then if fired upon, Israel would have the world community and the force of law at its side. Such is not the case in the role of aggressor.
That said, knowledge of the facts isn’t enough. Part of why Gaza isn’t viewed clearly by the public is the strength of its beliefs and the received doctrine that helps shape them.
The power of ideology
Nations, like people, edit and revise their histories. The actual historical record is usually unflattering and uncomfortable, and therefore a more palatable version is sought. The improved rendering tells a better story and exemplifies the values to which the nation claims to be devoted. Warfare, ethnic cleansing, and slavery are skeletons best understated; independence, liberty, and progress have a more suitable ring to them.
All nation-states employ narratives that reinforce a sense of nationalism. In the United States, the westward march of progress, the pioneer, the cowboy are emblematic of what it means to be American. Our sense of nationalism binds the population with a common faith. It also conflates the citizen and the nation-state. In other words, the individual is encouraged to attach himself or herself mentally and emotionally to the state. This requires a leap in logic. There is no actual correlation between a geopolitical entity and the population that lives in it; one’s love of country pertains to the people, the land, the food, and so on, not the machinery of state. Yet, the power of ideology facilitates just such a correlation. As a result, one becomes protective of the country and takes personally descriptions that conflict with patriotic dogma.
In the United States, the public has been uniquely encouraged to link Israel’s founding myths with its own: Just as the early Americans tamed the wild and brought progress to a primitive land—”to make room for the cultivators of the earth” (Benjamin Franklin)—so too did Israel. In the words of former president Lyndon Johnson:
“[The United States and Israel] each draw strength and purpose for today from our heroes of yesterday. We both know the thrill of bringing life from a hard but rewarding land. … For we are equally nations in search of a dream. We share a vision and purpose far brighter than our abilities to make deserts bloom.”
Though Israel assumed US client-state status in the Middle East based on purely unsentimental calculations, the “special relationship” was very easy to market. Commonly the descendants of white, European stock, Israelis and their country’s founding myths were favored when compared to the “rough neighborhood” of Arab countries surrounding the Jewish state. Western views of Arabs have long been suspicious. And with resourceful use of the Holocaust—which has little to do with Israel’s history and was never much of a concern to the country’s founders—a useful contrast was established: white Jewish victims and brown Arab assailants. This has been the template for almost fifty years.
When Americans see rockets streaming out of Gaza into southern Israel, the images pass through the filter of ideology. Just as when one insults the United States resentment might be felt, by extension, Hamas’s rockets are, in a sense, being fired into the United States. The identification is with those in southern Israel—which is morally correct, but for the wrong reason.
Identifying with the fear and danger Israeli civilians are in is appropriate. Despite their inaccuracy, the rockets launched by Hamas and other groups are intended to hit buildings with people in them. However, this identification is born of doctrinal thinking, and therefore, the story starts and stops with Hamas, the Arab assailants. The Jewish victims are merely “defending themselves” and no thought is given to the historical record. Or the context. Or international law. Or basic ethics. Or logic.
The interplay of racist appraisal and nationalist creed obstructs the ability to arrive at the proper and obvious moral judgments, the way one ordinarily would when in possession of all the facts and when thinking clearly. The consequence has been the inversion of reality.
Last year Israel spent 5.6 percent of GDP on defense, an extremely high figure. The Global Firepower website ranks Israel the eleventh strongest military power in the world, just behind Japan, South Korea, and Turkey. Unlike those states, Israel possesses nuclear weapons.
The people in Gaza, on the other hand, have been described by the Christian Science Monitor as “the most foreign-aid dependent society on earth.” They are also under military occupation. Ninety percent of Gaza’s water is unfit for drinking. One of the biggest employers there is a UN refugee relief organization. Psychological trauma among children in Gaza has been described as epidemic. Due to fuel and electricity shortages, Gazans regularly spend the night in the dark.
The current violence is also bad for Israel. Among the reasons, it encourages racism and militance among the population, provokes antisemitism in the world, and generally isolates Israel from the international community. Moreover, US support of the violence places the United States at risk of terrorist reprisal. Therefore, to reflexively defend Israel’s operations is to adopt precisely an anti-Israeli position, and one that endangers Americans as well. There is much at stake, and gathering the facts and drawing the right conclusions is the crucial first step.
Gregory Harms, an independent scholar specializing in US foreign policy and the Middle East, is author of The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction, 3rd ed. (Pluto Press, 2012). He lectures, keeps a blog on Facebook, and publishes articles on CounterPunch, Truthout, and Mondoweiss. Harms has traveled throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and has been interviewed on BBC Radio.
Related video added by Juan Cole