If there’s one thing Israel advocates agree on, it’s that Israel lost the PR war over May 14’s violent demonstrations in Gaza. Everybody from the U.N. Security Council to a New York public high school mourned the 62 Palestinians killed as innocent victims, even though 53 belonged to terrorist organizations. And with Hamas planning another demonstration on Tuesday, a battle has been raging over whether the PR war is inherently unwinnable or if Israel’s public diplomacy was simply incompetent.
The correct answer is both. And nothing better illustrates this than the story of the Palestinian baby allegedly killed by Israeli tear gas.
Israel’s critics immediately seized on the death of 8-month-old Layla Ghandour as proof of its malfeasance. As the New York Times wrote, “The story shot across the globe, providing an emotive focus for outrage at military tactics that Israel’s critics said were disproportionately violent.” The Times of Israel noted that “Her funeral was filmed and featured on global TV news broadcasts and newspaper front pages.”
Soon afterward, however, a Gazan doctor suggested that she most likely died of a congenital heart defect rather than anything Israel did (a theory later apparently accepted even by Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry, which last week removed Ghandour from its list of people killed by Israel).
What happened next was surreal: The doctor’s explanation was immediately seized on and disseminated worldwide by both official Israeli spokesmen and Israel supporters overseas as if it somehow mattered whether Ghandour was killed by tear gas or a congenital heart defect. In other words, Israel and its supporters implicitly accepted the view of the anti-Israel mob. Had the baby truly been killed by Israeli tear gas, presumably Israel could legitimately have been considered culpable.
What they should have pointed out instead is that Ghandour’s story proves just how dishonest all the critics accusing Israel of disproportionate force are. After all, ever since the weekly demonstrations along the Gaza border began in March, these critics have claimed that they don’t deny Israel’s right to protect its border. They merely demand that it restrict itself to nonlethal crowd-control measures rather than resorting to lethal force. As the New York Times put it in an April editorial, “Israel has a right to defend its border, but in the face of unarmed civilians it could do so with nonlethal tactics common to law enforcement.”
For now, leave aside that “unarmed civilians” lie. The more important point is that tear gas is exactly the type of nonlethal crowd control measure commonly used by law enforcement agencies. So if Israel’s critics meant what they said about its right to defend the border by nonlethal means, the death of a baby during a violent demonstration along the border might be a tragedy, but it wouldn’t be Israel’s fault. It would be the fault of the relatives who deliberately brought her into the heart of that violent demonstration, despite knowing Israel was using crowd-control measures to keep protesters from breaching its border.
Instead, Israel’s critics treated Ghandour’s death as proof of Israel’s evil. In other words, they effectively declared that Israel had no right to defend its border by any means whatsoever–even with non-lethal means like tear gas–unless it could somehow achieve the impossible feat of guaranteeing that no Palestinian would ever be killed under any circumstances. And if the only way Israel can win the PR war is leaving its border completely undefended, that war would indeed be inherently unwinnable; at least, among this portion of its critics.
But many people do understand that leaving a border undefended against angry mobs isn’t a tenable option. If Israeli public diplomacy had been even minimally competent, it would have made clear that this is the logical implication of blaming Israel for Ghandour’s death.
Critics might retort that even tear gas shouldn’t be used against completely peaceful demonstrators. But as the Times’ story makes clear, Ghandour wasn’t in a peaceful demonstration when she died. She had been deliberately taken from a peaceful one into a violent one.
On May 14, as in all the preceding weeks, there were actually two demonstrations taking place. One, which was largely peaceful, was hundreds of meters from the border fence. The other, which was right up against the fence, was anything but peaceful. Members of terrorist organizations threw bombs, Molotov cocktails, and slingshot-propelled rocks at soldiers. They flew incendiary kites across the border to set Israeli fields ablaze (to date, some 300 of these kites have ignited 100 fires, destroyed more than 3,000 acres of wheat and caused millions of shekels worth of damage). They vandalized the fence and tried to break through it. These are the “demonstrators” Israel targeted with measures ranging from tear gas to, when necessary, live fire, as evidenced by the fact that 53 of the 62 killed belonged to terrorist organizations.
Baby Layla was taken to the nonviolent protest by her 12-year-old uncle, who mistakenly thought her mother was there. Upon discovering his mistake, he responsibly kept her in the nonviolent section until late afternoon, when she began crying. Then, wanting to hand her off to an older relative, he “pushed forward into the protest in search of her grandmother, Heyam Omar, who was standing in a crowd under a pall of black smoke, shouting at Israeli soldiers across the fence,” the Times reported. Panicked by Layla’s crying, he deliberately brought her into the most violent part of the protest, where Israel was exercising its legitimate right of self-defense and where no baby should ever have been. And she died.
But even if it was Israeli tear gas that killed her, Israel cannot be held culpable for her death unless you start from the premise that it had no right whatsoever to defend its border against violent attacks of the type launched during this protest, even by the most nonlethal of means. That, of course, is precisely what many of Israel’s critics do think. And this is the point that Israel and its advocates should have been hammering home.
Originally published in Commentary on June 1, 2018
Note: After this article was published, Paraguay also moved its embassy to Jerusalem
After President Donald Trump announced in December that he was moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a friend lamented that the move would have less impact than it should because Trump was so widely disdained both in America and overseas. Yet since then, I’ve heard more foreign acknowledgments of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital than I can ever remember before.
So far, only one other country is definitely moving its embassy—Guatemala, whose Jerusalem embassy is slated to open two days after America’s does. But at least four other countries—two in Latin America and two in Europe—are actively discussing an embassy move. And even if none actually happens, the very fact that this issue is now openly being debated in regions of the globe where Israel has faced considerable hostility in recent years is a remarkable change.
In both the European Union and most of Latin America, official policy has long been that eastern Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine, while western Jerusalem should be . . . well, nothing. Few countries in either region have ever said that any part of Jerusalem should be Israel’s capital; in fact, some still explicitly declare the city a corpus separatum. In other words, they think Palestinians should get the eastern half while the western half should be an international city.
But now, a decades-old taboo has been broken. Suddenly, several other countries are where America was 20 years ago, with different branches of government actively arguing over Jerusalem’s status.
On April 12, the Honduras National Congress voted to move its embassy to Jerusalem by a sizable majority (59-33), though the decision hasn’t yet been approved by the executive branch. Later that month, Paraguay’s president said he’d like to move his country’s embassy before leaving office in mid-August, though buy-in from the rest of the political system is uncertain.
On April 19, Israeli Independence Day, Romania broke an even more significant psychological barrier by becoming the first European country to announce plans to move its embassy. The president of Romania’s Chamber of Deputies told a Romanian television station that the decision had been made the previous evening. Whether it will actually happen remains unclear; the country’s president opposes the move, and the cabinet hasn’t yet approved it. But the prime minister has formally asked the cabinet to do so.
And in the Czech Republic—whose parliament passed a resolution urging its government to promote “respect” for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by a vote of 112-2 seven months before Trump’s announcement—the Foreign Ministry broke with E.U. policy by declaring, the day after Trump’s announcement, that it recognizes “West Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital. President Milos Zeman wants to move the embassy as well, but Prime Minister Andrej Babi refuses to defy E.U. policy to that extent.
There has also been a notable change in the conversation even in countries where an embassy move isn’t on the table.
In March, for instance, Belgian Secretary of State Philippe de Backer (whose position is equivalent to a deputy cabinet minister) told the local Jewish paper Joods Actueel: “There is no doubt that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. It’s clear; it’s reality. There’s no discussion on this issue.”
Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls—who, admittedly, was the most pro-Israel member of former President François Hollande’s otherwise hostile government—made similar statements that same month in an interview with the Times of Israel. “I am very clear on this subject: Jerusalem is the capital of the Jews and of Israel—historically, religiously, and politically,” he said. “It’s at the heart of the foundation of the State of Israel.”
Neither statement heralds an imminent change in official policy. As De Backer explained, action isn’t possible now because “we’re in a political context where Europe sees Jerusalem as subject to negotiations toward a two-state solution.” But the very fact that current and former senior European officials suddenly feel they can openly acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is new.
Another intriguing example is Russia, which actually preceded Trump in recognizing “West Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital. A statement issued by Russia’s Foreign Ministry in April 2017 said that while Moscow continues to believe that eastern Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, “we must state that in this context we view west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” Yet after Trump’s December announcement, Russia voted to condemn the U.S. decision in both the U.N. Security Council and the General Assembly, making it seem that the April decision had either been rescinded or was meaningless.
Then, in March 2018, Russia’s embassy in Israel issued a statement praising “the wise position of West Jerusalem” on a recent controversy (the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain, which Israel condemned, but without specifically mentioning Russia). Though it’s common to use a nation’s capital as a metonym for the country (“Washington” for the United States or “Moscow” for Russia), I can’t recall any use of “Jerusalem” to refer to Israel; that has always been taboo. So Russia is apparently sticking by its recognition; it just isn’t willing to give Trump any credit on the issue.
Obviously, Jerusalem isn’t going to be flooded with new embassies anytime soon, for reasons having little to do with Trump, as the Czech case makes clear.
But the more acceptable it becomes for people to admit that Jerusalem is and always will be Israel’s capital, the harder it becomes for others to maintain their decades-old denialism. And Trump has played an important role in moving this process forward.
In that sense, he’s like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” A young child obviously isn’t a respected role model for the adults around him, yet it was only after that little boy publicly declared the emperor naked that the adults could bring themselves to admit the same.
Andersen’s point was that telling the truth has a power of its own, regardless of the speaker. And Trump’s truth-telling on Jerusalem is already demonstrating a similar power, regardless of the speaker’s flaws.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on May 8, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
Last weekend’s demonstrations in Gaza produced smaller crowds and fewer casualties than the protests that occurred over the previous two weekends. What’s more, they were overshadowed by the Western airstrikes on Syria. But earlier and more chaotic demonstrations prompted all the usual suspects (Europe, the UN, and “human rights” organizations) to accuse Israel of using disproportionate, indiscriminate force, and shooting “unarmed civilian demonstrators,” all while dismissing Israel’s insistence that it only targeted terrorists, mainly Hamas members, who were using the demonstrators for cover. Yet it now turns out that one Palestinian organization agrees with Israel–Hamas itself.
In a column published in Haaretz last week, Gaza native Muhammad Shehada defended the demonstrations as a necessary response to Israel’s partial blockade, on which he blamed all of Gaza’s woes. His younger brother, he said, has participated in them almost daily. He himself is currently studying in Sweden but formerly worked for an anti-Israel “human rights” organization in Gaza. In short, he’s hardly an Israeli shill. Nevertheless, he noted that even Hamas believes Israel’s fire has been far from indiscriminate:
Despite the seemingly arbitrary live-fire and tear gas raining down on the protestors … Hamas believes the victims are carefully selected. “Israel knows who to wound, maim or kill,” a Hamas leader told me by phone. At least 10 young men, affiliated with Hamas and its Qassam brigades, have been shot while maintaining order at the protest.
Hamas believes Israel is deploying facial recognition technologies besides the numerous war-drones that obliterate the sky above. The movement warned its members to keep their faces covered, and leave their phones at home.
This is what Israel has said all along. A report published last week by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (an organization founded by former Israeli intelligence officials that maintain close ties with the intelligence agencies) concluded that 80 percent of the people killed during the Gaza demonstrations–26 out of 32–were members of terrorist organizations. This conclusion wasn’t based on any secret intelligence; in each case, a terrorist organization publicly claimed the deceased as a member and buried him in the organization’s flag or published pictures of him in military dress holding a gun. This finding also explains why all but two of the dead were men between the ages of 19 and 45: Unlike the terrorists, actual civilians have largely kept their distance from the border fence.
Of course, Shehada argued that the Hamas men were only present at the demonstrations to ensure that demonstrators didn’t engage in anti-Israel violence or try to cross the border into Israel – the implication being that Israel deliberately tried to provoke Palestinian violence by killing the people working to stop it. And what Shehada merely implied, the demonstrations’ organizers have openly charged: Israel, they say, is intentionally trying to provoke the demonstrators into violence.
To be fair, Hamas does have a record of trying to stop violence in those rare cases where violence doesn’t suit its own agenda. But in this case, it’s hard to argue that efforts to breach the border don’t fit in with its plans, because the organization’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has repeatedly and explicitly declared that this is precisely what the demonstrations are intended to do.
At the March 30 demonstration, Sinwar asserted that the protest “will not stop until we remove this transient border [between Gaza and Israel] … The protests will continue until the Palestinians return to the lands they were expelled from 70 years ago” – i.e., pre-1967 Israel, the state established 70 years ago. And lest anyone think this was a fluke, he reiterated it at the following week’s demonstration, saying the world should “wait for our great move, when we breach the borders and pray at Al-Aqsa,” Jerusalem’s principal mosque.
Thus, believing that Hamas operatives are at the border to stop it from being breached requires believing that Hamas sent its men there specifically to undermine its own leader’s stated goal. By any ordinary standard of logic, it’s far more likely that they were there to do exactly what Sinwar said he wanted to do: use the demonstrations as cover for vandalizing the border fence and attacking the soldiers guarding it, with the ultimate goal of opening a breach through which thousands of Gazans could pour into Israel.
This is all the more plausible because Hamas used that exact same tactic to breach the Egyptian border 10 years ago. On January 22, 2008, a group of unarmed Hamas demonstrators–mostly women–rushed the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt and managed to break through. That night, Hamas operatives planted explosives along the border wall in several places, creating huge gaps in it. The next day, anywhere from 200,000 to 750,000 Gazans (estimates vary) poured through those breaches into Egypt.
Needless to say, this conclusion is also supported by the testimony of Israeli soldiers, who have reported numerous incidents of “demonstrators” trying to vandalize the fence or throw Molotov cocktails and improvised explosive devices at soldiers. The latest Palestinian tactic is flying kites with Molotov cocktails attached over the border; those “innocent” kites have so far started four fires in Israel. These are the terrorists, not “innocent civilians,” whom Israeli soldiers have targeted.
Israel and Hamas are in almost perfect agreement over what has been happening over the last few weeks. Both agree that the goal of the demonstrations is to breach the border with Israel, and both agree that Israeli gunfire during these demonstrations has been aimed almost exclusively at operatives for Hamas and other terrorist organizations.
The only people who don’t agree with this description are European, UN, and NGO officials sitting in their comfortable offices in Brussels and New York. At best, they’re guilty of monstrous arrogance in believing that they know what’s happening on another continent better than the parties actually on the ground. And at worst, they simply don’t care what really happened–because in those circles, the politically correct anti-Israel narrative almost always trumps the facts.
Originally published in Commentary on April 16, 2018
UNRWA, the United Nations agency tasked with caring for Palestinian refugees and their descendants in perpetuity, is facing what it terms its worst financial crisis ever. “Crisis” is an exaggeration, but the agency undoubtedly has less money than it wants. Given Gaza’s multiple woes (which UNRWA’s aid ostensibly alleviates) and Israeli fears that these woes could spark another Hamas-Israel war, this may sound like bad news. In fact, it’s good news for anyone who cares about either Palestinians or Israelis.
Obviously, no one wants a humanitarian crisis, but UNRWA’s budget shortfall won’t cause one. True, the agency is nearly $350 million short of its $1.2 billion budget, despite obtaining $100 million in new pledges at an emergency conference in mid-March, mainly because the Trump administration cut America’s contribution to just $60 million this year, down from $364 million last year.
Yet even if additional emergency appeals later this year fail to raise another dime (which is unlikely), UNRWA would still have some $850 million to help around 5 million Palestinians. By comparison, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has $7.7 billion to help around 60 million non-Palestinian refugees and displaced people worldwide. In other words, UNRWA can still spend a third more per capita than UNHCR spends—$170 versus $128. So if UNHCR’s budget can provide for its refugees’ basic needs, UNRWA’s far more generous one can surely do the same.
Nevertheless, it will face some financial constraints, and such constraints often spur reform. That’s good news because UNRWA’s current modus operandi harms both Israelis and Palestinians.
Two reforms are particularly essential. First, UNRWA should stop financing Jordan’s outrageous apartheid system, under which 2 million Palestinians registered with the agency receive no services from the Jordanian government, even though most (as UNRWA itself admits) are Jordanian citizens. Instead of using Jordan’s health and education systems, they attend special UNRWA schools and health clinics; many even live in 10 designated refugee camps.
Clearly, people with citizenship in another country shouldn’t be considered refugees at all. Under UNHCR’s definition, which applies to everyone except Palestinians, anyone who obtains citizenship in another country automatically loses his or her refugee status.
But the situation is also unfair to the Palestinians themselves because they are denied the possibility of integrating into the country where they hold citizenship. Nobody can integrate if forced to live in special camps, and attend special schools and clinics, instead of being treated like all other Jordanians. Therefore, beginning a gradual handover of these services to Jordan would save UNRWA money while also helping 2 million people.
Second, UNRWA should stop financing the outrageous apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza—not the nonexistent “Israeli apartheid,” but the very real one imposed on Palestinian refugees by the Palestinian Authority.
After all, the P.A. styles itself the State of Palestine, and has been recognized as such by the U.N. General Assembly and 135 member states. That recognition has enabled it to join U.N. agencies like UNESCO and non-U.N. agencies like the International Criminal Court.
But if you thought a Palestinian state would alleviate the suffering of Palestinian refugees, think again. Like Jordan, the P.A. refuses to provide services to either the 800,000 registered refugees in the West Bank or the 1.3 million in Gaza. In other words, based on the P.A.’s self-reported population of 4.9 million, it’s refusing to provide services to a whopping 43 percent of the residents of its putative state.
These 2.1 million “refugees” live in 27 designated camps. They attend special UNRWA schools and health clinics, instead of the regular Palestinian ones. And senior P.A. officials have said explicitly that they are not and never will be entitled to citizenship in the Palestinian state.
Given that most of the world recognizes the existence of a State of Palestine, it’s ridiculous that 2.1 million Palestinians living in it should still be considered refugees. But it’s also unfair to the “refugees” themselves, who are denied the right to integrate into what’s ostensibly their own country.
And indeed, they abhor this situation. “The P.A. refuses to invest here because they claim it is the responsibility of UNRWA and the U.N.,” one refugee camp resident told the Times of Israel in 2014. “So we get screwed. We have been abandoned. The P.A. supports the residents of the cities and villages. But it ignores us.”
Thus, by beginning a gradual handover of services to the P.A., UNRWA could save money while also helping 2.1 million Palestinians.
The status quo is also bad for Israel—and not just because of the anti-Israel incitement taught in UNRWA schools and Palestinians’ use of UNRWA facilities as weapons depots. By denying Palestinians the ability to assimilate into Jordan and the P.A., UNRWA effectively tells them that “returning” to Israel is their only hope of escaping refugee status. Nurturing such fantasies of mass relocation merely perpetuates the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; peace is obviously impossible if Palestinians condition it on turning Israel into a Palestinian-majority state.
Yet the status quo is even worse for millions of Palestinian “refugees,” who are forced into dead-end lives with no hope of ever integrating into the places they should be able to call home.
Admittedly, there’s no guarantee that UNRWA will implement constructive reforms; it might instead slash essential services to blackmail the world into coughing up more money. But even in this worst-case scenario, at least America will no longer be propping up UNRWA’s shameful apartheid system and its perpetuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If European or Arab countries want this abomination to continue, let their taxpayers fund it.
There’s also a risk that even constructive reforms could produce enough short-term pain to provoke violence. But Israelis understand that sometimes, you have to do what’s right, even if it comes with a price. That’s why, in a poll published just last week, 69 percent of Jewish Israelis said the U.S. Embassy should move to Jerusalem in May as planned, despite the fact that most believed the move would spark violence.
UNRWA reform is no less critical. And after 70 years of stasis, it’s clear nothing short of a financial crisis has any chance of bringing it about.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on March 28, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
After issuing a rare rebuke of Iran’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov added that Moscow also opposes “attempts to view any regional problem through the prism of fighting Iran.” Unfortunately for him, that’s precisely the way most of the Middle East does view many regional problems, as revealed by a stunning informal poll which an Al Jazeera talk show host conducted among his tens of thousands of Arabic-language Twitter followers on February 10. Asked which side they supported in a recent Israeli-Iranian clash in Syria, fully 56 percent–12,800 people–said they backed Israel.
Needless to say, this is not because the respondents love Israel. But it’s a stunning measure of just how much they hate Iran and its Syrian protégé, the Assad regime. As one Syrian wrote, “no Syrian in his right mind” would support Israel in most situations, “but you will find millions of Syrians queuing up with the blue devils”–his charming term for Israel–“against the fascist sectarian regime that has surpassed all the monsters on earth in killing Syrians.”
What makes the results even more noteworthy is that the poll was conducted by the host of a show on Al Jazeera, a Qatari-owned station that still views Israel as public enemy number one. Unlike Saudi Arabia, whose government openly loathes Iran and whose media outlets routinely echo this view, Qatar maintains close relations with Iran. Indeed, these close relations are one of the main reasons why Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states severed ties with Qatar last year. In other words, this wasn’t a case of respondents telling a pollster what they thought he wanted to hear; Al Jazeera’s coverage would have encouraged them to label Israel a greater evil than Iran. Yet a decisive majority nevertheless backed Jerusalem against Tehran.
That most Arab governments now consider Iran a greater enemy than Israel isn’t news; their behind-the-scenes cooperation with Israel against Tehran has become an open secret. Indeed, if you read Reuters’ interview from the Munich Security Conference on Sunday with the names blacked out, you could easily think the interviewee was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. The four steps Al-Jubeir deemed crucial–reining in Iran’s ballistic missile program, reining in its support for terror, canceling the sunset provision in its 2015 nuclear deal, and altering the deal to allow inspections of undeclared and military sites–are the same steps Netanyahu advocates at every opportunity.
But since Arab governments are far from democratic, anyone unwilling to abandon his faith that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the root of all Mideast evils had an out. Arab regimes might view Iran as the number-one problem, they argued, but for ordinary Arabs, the Palestinian issue still has pride of place.
What Al Jazeera’s informal poll shows is that this argument is simply false. It’s not just in Arab capitals that Iran is now more widely loathed and feared than Israel, but also on the Arab street, to the point that Arabs are even willing to openly back Israel in a clash with Iran. If Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians were still their top concern, they would instead be rooting for Iran against Israel–just as most of the Arab world did back in 2006 when Israel fought a month-long war with Iran’s wholly-owned Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah.
This sea change in Arab attitudes has serious foreign policy implications for anyone who calls himself a realist. As John Podhoretz correctly argued in COMMENTARY’s March issue, the realist view that Israel was the source of most Mideast problems could always more properly have been termed “fantasist”; most of the Arab world’s ills have nothing to do with Israel. But realists did have one unassailable fact on their side: When you stack Israel up against the Arab world, the latter has both the numbers and the oil. Consequently, it was at least tenable to argue–as long as you ignore all the other considerations Podhoretz cites–that America’s interests were better served by siding with the Arabs against Israel.
Today, the Arab world still has the numbers and the oil, but it’s siding with Israel against Iran. So for any realist who holds that America should align itself with Arab concerns because numbers and oil are crucial considerations, the top priority now shouldn’t be another fruitless Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but reining in Iran’s malignant behavior. To its credit, that is something the Trump Administration is trying to do by threatening to scrap the nuclear deal unless the four Israeli-Saudi-American concerns cited above are addressed.
As for all the self-proclaimed realists who remain fixated on Israel despite the change in Arab attitudes that has destroyed their main argument, perhaps it’s time to drop the “realist” label. The more accurate term for people who see Jews as the root of all evil under any and all circumstances is “anti-Semite.”
Originally published in Commentary on February 21, 2018
Mainstream media outlets like to complain about “fake news” emanating from sources other than themselves, but the mainstream media itself has taken fake news to new heights in its recent coverage of Jerusalem. Leading media outlets have asserted, inter alia, that Jews never cared about Jerusalem until a few decades ago, that Jews didn’t live in East Jerusalem before 1967, and that Jordan protected freedom of worship in the city.
Exhibit A is the New York Times’ mind-boggling backgrounder on Jerusalem, which “informs” readers that Jews didn’t really care about the city until “hard-line religious nationalism” came into vogue a few decades ago. To produce this flat-out lie, the reporters omit crucial facts, downplay those they can’t omit and rely heavily on Arabs–who have made a fetish of denying Jewish links to Jerusalem for decades–to tell their readers what Jews think (though, naturally, they also found some Jews to echo these claims). Thus, for instance, they paraphrase historian Issam Nasser as saying, “The early Israeli state was hesitant to focus too much on Jerusalem,” while Prof. Rashid Khalidi asserts that post-1967, “Jerusalem became the center of a cultlike devotion that had not really existed previously.”
To support this idea, the reporters omit almost any fact that might contradict it. Readers are never told, for instance, that Israel’s founding fathers–the ones who ostensibly had little interest in Jerusalem–fought some of the bloodiest battles of the War of Independence in an effort to save the city from its Arab besiegers.They even took the extraordinary step, after repeated failures to open the road to Jerusalem militarily, of building an entirely new road through very difficult terrain to relieve the siege.
Readers also aren’t told that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, repeatedly stressed Jerusalem’s importance, declaring it “the heart of the State of Israel,” which “Israelis will give their lives” to keep, because for Israel, “there has always been and always will be one capital only.” And they’re certainly never told that the devotion to Jerusalem Khalidi deems of such recent vintage actually dates back 3,000 years, to the First Temple, and that throughout two millennia of exile, Jews prayed facing Jerusalem and begged God to restore them to their holy city.
But on the rare occasions when the reporters can’t omit an inconvenient fact, they shout, like the Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Thus, the Times’ reporters do concede the pesky fact that Israel’s founding fathers–those same people who ostensibly didn’t care about Jerusalem–relocated Israel’s capital to the city the moment it was safe to do so, a few months after the war ended, and even codified this decision in legislation. But the information is hidden in a parenthetical aside: Jerusalem’s “western half became part of the new state of Israel (and its capital, under an Israeli law passed in 1950).”
Unfortunately, this backgrounder was no aberration. Just a few days later, a Times editorial asserted that “East Jerusalem was exclusively Arab in 1967, but Israel has steadily built settlements there, placing some 200,000 of its citizens among the Arab population and complicating any possible peace agreement.” You’d never know from reading this that east Jerusalem was “exclusively Arab” in 1967 only because Jordan had ethnically cleansed every last Jew from the area 19 years earlier. Prior to this ethnic cleansing, Jews had not only lived there almost continuously for 3,000 years but constituted an absolute majority of the city’s residents for the past century. Still, one can understand the paper’s dilemma. It might be difficult to explain to readers why the Times, which normally condemns ethnic cleansing, suddenly condones it when the victims are Jews; much better to simply conceal the fact that it ever happened.
Nor is the Times unique. The Israeli paper most quoted by mainstream media outlets overseas–Haaretz–had a true gem in the fake news department in the form of an op-ed, printed without editorial comment, by Jordan’s Prince Hassan Bin Talal. He blithely asserted that “His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan, like his late father King Hussein, has been relentless in defending the rights of all believers to be able to worship freely in Jerusalem at their respective holy places, as has been the case for centuries.”
Of course, during the 19 years when King Hussein ruled east Jerusalem, not one Jew was even allowed to visit, much less pray at, the Western Wall, not to mention the Temple Mount. The Jordanians razed synagogues in east Jerusalem, vandalized Jewish cemeteries, and used the gravestones as construction material. Religious rights weren’t exactly sacrosanct during the previous 1,300 years of Muslim rule either. Some rulers were more tolerant of Jewish worship than others. But the intolerance reached its pinnacle under Hussein, and would most likely have continued under Abdullah had Israel not liberated the area from Jordan before he took the throne.
Finally, there are all the European leaders whom mainstream media outlets laud as paragons of “fact-based” governance in comparison to Donald Trump. As the Elder of Ziyon blog pointed out, leaders who have repeatedly voted for resolutions declaring east Jerusalem “occupied Palestinian territory” suddenly lined up at last Friday’s Security Council meeting on Jerusalem to declare that actually, the city is a corpus separatum, and therefore even western Jerusalem isn’t Israeli.
Clearly, these two positions are mutually contradictory: If the city is legally an international corpus separatum, as per the 1947 Partition Resolution, then it can’t be occupied Palestinian territory. Yet many European leaders evidently have no problem advancing both contradictory positions simultaneously, depending on which is more useful at any given moment for denying Jewish rights to Jerusalem and privileging Palestinian claims.
All of the above examples reflect a belief that any lie is permissible in the service of the sacred goal of denying Israeli rights in Jerusalem. But Jerusalem isn’t unique in this regard; mainstream media outlets have also deemed the truth dispensable in the service of other ideological goals. And then they have the gall to wonder why so many people, confronted with such obvious lies from the people they trusted to tell them the truth, now put more faith in “alternative facts” than they do in mainstream media and politicians.
Originally published in Commentary on December 13, 2017
Observing developments since Hamas and Fatah signed their latest reconciliation deal in October is an object lesson in just how much of the Palestinians’ misery is self-inflicted–or to be more precise, inflicted by their two rival governments.
The first thing that happened after implementation of the deal in early November was that prices of merchandise imported to Gaza plummeted by up to 25 percent. Having your money go 25 percent further is an obvious boon to anyone, but especially for impoverished Gazans. Prices fell because, for the first time in a decade, Gazans weren’t paying taxes to two different governments–the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza–but only to one. As part of the reconciliation deal, Hamas handed control of Gaza’s borders to the PA and dismantled the tax collection checkpoints it had set up at the border crossings.
This long-overdue relief didn’t last long. Earlier this month, I pointed out that, since Hamas would remain the dominant military power in Gaza even after the deal was implemented, it wasn’t clear how anyone could stop it from extorting taxes again once it had gotten what it wanted from the deal. I overestimated Hamas’s patience. Though the PA has yet to fulfill most of its promises to Hamas, the latter has already resumed collecting taxes.
True, the checkpoints are gone, but Hamas found another method to seek the rents on which it survives. It simply summoned several hundred businessmen to appear in its offices and demanded payment of tax on everything they have imported to Gaza since the reconciliation was signed. After all, Hamas needs that money; it has rockets and tunnels to build. So who cares that Gazans will once again be paying inflated prices they can ill afford?
The reconciliation was also supposed to bring another benefit: the reopening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, which has been closed almost continuously for the last four years. Since Israel allows only limited traffic from Gaza through its territory, Rafah’s closure has meant that leaving Gaza is virtually impossible for most Palestinians.
Israel and Egypt have restricted traffic from Gaza for the same reason: Hamas’s incessant efforts to undermine both countries’ security. In Egypt’s case, Hamas has cooperated enthusiastically with Islamic State’s affiliate in Sinai, providing money, weapons, training, medical care and refuge in Gaza for terrorists fleeing Egyptian security forces. An open border would simply have made it easier for Hamas to supply all these services, as Israel can attest. Israel allows thousands of Palestinians to enter its territory from Gaza every month for business, medical care or transit to another country, and Hamas has exploited that traffic to smuggle everything from cash to explosives.
Once Hamas handed control of Rafah over to the PA in early November, as mandated by the reconciliation deal, Rafah was supposed to reopen. And in fact, it did open for three days two weeks ago, and was supposed to open for another three days this past weekend. But after Islamic State’s horrific attack on a Sinai mosque last Friday, Egypt abruptly announced that Rafah would once again be shut for “security reasons.” As the daily Israel Hayom explained, citing a senior PA official, “Egypt’s security forces suspect that some of the terrorists involved in the attack, as well as other wanted individuals, fled Sinai and entered Gaza via underground smuggling tunnels belonging to Hamas, with the knowledge of senior Hamas officials.” Given Hamas’s track record, that would hardly be surprising.
Incidentally, this track record conclusively disproves the widespread fallacy that Hamas is primarily concerned with the Palestinian cause rather than the cause of global jihad. An organization concerned with Palestinian well-being would strive to preserve good relations with Egypt in order to ensure that Gaza’s main gateway to the outside world remained open. Only an organization that prioritized global jihad way above Palestinian wellbeing would offer extensive aid to Islamic State, even at the price of having Rafah almost permanently closed.
Finally, there’s the minor detail of Gaza’s electricity crisis–a topic I’ve covered extensively in the past. Gaza has been down to four to six hours of power per day for months now, ever since the PA stopped paying for Gaza’s electricity last spring on the not unreasonable grounds that since Hamas was ruling the territory de facto, it should also cover the territory’s expenses. The reconciliation deal requires the PA to resume paying for Gaza’s power. But the PA and Hamas are embroiled in a dispute over which of two steps called for by the deal comes first: the PA’s resumption of the payments, or Hamas’s handover of control of civilian affairs in Gaza. Meanwhile, Gaza remains without power.
Granted, one benefit of the reconciliation does seem to have survived the first month: Gazans with permits to enter Israel are thrilled that, since Hamas dismantled its checkpoint at the border, they’re no longer subjected to lengthy Hamas interrogations every time they leave and every time they return. But we’ll see how long that lasts. After all, Hamas knows who the permit holders are, so there’s nothing to stop it from simply summoning them to its offices for interrogation, just as it summoned the businessmen to pay taxes.
Meanwhile, much of the world will doubtless continue to blame Israel for Gaza’s woes. That will make many self-described humanitarians feel good about themselves, but it will do absolutely nothing to ease Gaza’s misery.
Originally published in Commentary on November 29, 2017
Until a few months ago, Hamas effectively enjoyed control over Gaza’s revenues with no attendant responsibility for the needs of its residents, since the PA largely funded those needs (medicine, electricity, etc.). This arrangement assured Hamas of plenty of money to spend on its military wing, with much of that money coming from the taxes it collected in Gaza. As Avi Issacharoff reported in the Times of Israel in April, everything imported into Gaza is taxed twice, once by the PA and once by Hamas. Nor does Hamas make do with taxing imports; it taxes almost everything. For instance, as Issacharoff reported two years ago, companies in Gaza must pay 500 shekels “to have a Hamas representative participate in a company conference. Hamas charges another few hundred shekels to have the conference registered, and if it is postponed, the postponement is taxed as well.”
This convenient arrangement ended abruptly this past spring, when the PA finally tired of serving as Hamas’s ATM and stopped paying for most of Gaza’s civilian needs. The result, as I wrote last month, was that Hamas for the first time had to spend some of its own money on those needs, causing its military budget to plummet from an estimated $200 million in 2014 to just $50 million this year (not counting the extra money it gets from Iran, which is solely for military spending).
Thus for Israel, the worst of all worlds would be a return to the status quo ante, in which the PA resumed responsibility for Gaza’s civilian needs but Hamas remained free to tax anything that moves and pour the money into its military wing. In contrast, this would clearly be Hamas’s preferred outcome. The main reason it agreed to the reconciliation deal was its desire to shed responsibility for Gaza’s civilian needs so it could resume focusing on its military wing.
Viewed through this prism, implementation of the reconciliation deal got off on the right foot on Wednesday when Hamas formally handed over Gaza’s border crossings to the PA. This isn’t because of the handover itself, which was largely meaningless, but because Hamas also agreed to dismantle the tax collection checkpoints it erected near the crossings with Israel.
The handover technically didn’t affect those crossings at all: Both have been manned by PA personnel for years already because Hamas refuses to deal with Israel directly. That is also why it needed to have special tax collection checkpoints instead of just collecting tax at the border. But those checkpoints were major revenue sources for Hamas, since almost all imports to Gaza passed through them. The crossing with Egypt–the only one that actually changed hands on Wednesday–is for people only. Cross-border smuggling, which used to be a major source of imports, declined drastically after Egypt began cracking down on the smuggling tunnels in 2013. Thus the removal of these checkpoints will severely dent Hamas’s revenue stream.
Of course, it will still have the money it gets from Iran, estimated at $60 million to $70 million this year, and that money will continue going straight to its military wing. But that’s still far below what it was spending on its military in 2014 when it was getting less money from a cash-strapped Tehran but had a steady stream of Gazan tax revenue to play with.
Hamas agreed to dismantle the checkpoints because both PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt refused to accept a return to the status quo ante, demanding instead that the PA be given full control of Gaza. And they backed this demand with heavy financial pressure—the PA by ceasing its funding for Gaza, and Egypt by shuttering its border crossing for months on end.
The question is whether they have a plan for continuing to enforce this demand over the long term. After all, once Hamas is no longer responsible for Gaza’s civilian needs, it will no longer be vulnerable to that kind of financial pressure. And since the reconciliation didn’t require Hamas to disarm, it will continue to be the strongest military power in Gaza even after PA forces return to the borders. Thus, it’s not clear how anyone could stop it from using its guns to resume extorting taxes once it has gotten what it wants out of the deal, which is to stop being responsible for civilian affairs.
This matters because Hamas has shown no signs of losing its desire to fight Israel. Just last month, its new leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, declared, “The discussion is no longer about recognizing Israel but about wiping Israel out.” What has stopped it for the last three years hasn’t been lack of desire, but lack of capacity: Its arsenal of rockets and cross-border attack tunnels was depleted in the last war, in 2014, and another war won’t be practical until that arsenal is rebuilt. Thus, the more money Hamas has to spend on its military build-up, the sooner it will reach the point where it feels it can afford to start another war.
Hence if the PA, Egypt, and the international community want to avoid such a war, they must start thinking now about how to keep Hamas away from Gazan revenues if and when the reconciliation deal is fully implemented. For if Hamas is allowed to resume milking Gaza for cash to pour into its military wing, the next Gaza war will certainly be just a matter of time.
Originally published in Commentary on November 2, 2017
Admittedly, that isn’t obvious at first glance. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 3,000 people were killed in Raqqa, including about 1,130 civilians, during the course of a four-month battle. In Gaza, according to UN figures, 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, were killed in the course of just 50 days. And while there’s good reason to think the UN’s civilian casualty count is wildly inflated (the actual ratio of civilian-to-military casualties is probably around 1:1 or even lower), even Israel puts the total death toll at 2,125 people, comprising 936 combatants, 761 civilians, and 428 unidentified. That isn’t nearly as far below Raqqa’s figures as the conflicts’ relative durations might lead one to expect.
But that simplistic conclusion ignores two crucial factors. The first is that a comparison of raw numbers is meaningless; the relevant comparison is casualties as a proportion of the population. And by that measure, Raqqa’s casualty rate exceeded Gaza’s by as much as 100 to one. Here’s the math:
According to a New York Times report published last week, Raqqa had a population of 300,000 when ISIS took it over. But after the organization began imposing a brutal reign of terror in 2014, “tens of thousands” of people fled, so the population was much lower when the battle to oust ISIS began. More people fled once the battle started. Consequently, “By the dwindling days of the group’s rule, only about 25,000 residents remained.” In comparison, Gaza’s population in 2014 was around 1.79 million, according to official Palestinian statistics.
In other words, those 3,000 casualties in Raqqa represented one percent of the city’s pre-ISIS population and a whopping 12 percent of its population as of early September. The casualties in Gaza, by contrast, represented about 0.12 percent of that territory’s population. Thus, as a proportion of the population, casualties in Raqqa were somewhere between 10 and 100 times higher than those in Gaza, and almost certainly much closer to the higher figure. That is an astronomical difference.
Moreover, the real difference is probably even greater, due to the second critical factor: the effect of Raqqa’s more extensive property damage.
In an article last year comparing property damage in the Gaza war to property damage in the battle to oust ISIS from the Iraqi city of Ramadi, I found that roughly six percent of buildings in Gaza were destroyed or badly damaged, compared to about 50 percent in Ramadi (the detailed calculation is here). The damage in Raqqa is still being surveyed but is likely to prove similar to that in Ramadi. As New York Times reporter Ivor Prickett wrote last week, “when I visited eastern Raqqa, it was hard to find a street or building that had not been damaged by the fighting.”
The result, as Prickett noted, is that on top of the 3,000 people known to have been killed in Raqqa, “many others are missing.” And many of the missing probably died and were buried under the rubble. They will be found only months later, if ever, judging by the experience of the Iraqi city of Mosul. There, as the New York Times reported earlier this month, bodies are still being dug up from the rubble more than two months after the city’s liberation from ISIS; it will take many more months to find them all, and some may never be found.
The fact that, as the Times put it, many of the thousands who “may have died in the fighting” in Mosul are “lying uncounted beneath the rubble” means the city’s true death toll may never be known. The same is likely true in Raqqa. But in both cities, the large number of bodies buried under destroyed buildings means the actual death toll is certainly much higher than the initial reports.
In Gaza, however, precisely because the property damage was much less extensive, all the dead were located quickly and a total could be announced almost immediately. Final casualty totals in Gaza are being compared to very partial and preliminary counts in places like Raqqa and Mosul, making the Gaza conflict look bloodier by comparison than it really was.
ISIS and Hamas employ virtually identical tactics, which is why comparing Gaza to Raqqa or Mosul makes sense. Both dig extensive tunnel networks under civilian buildings, wire civilian buildings with explosives, stockpile arms in civilian buildings and fight from the midst of a civilian population. These tactics greatly increase both property damage and civilian casualties, whether in Gaza, Syria, or Iraq.
Yet despite the enemy’s similar tactics, Israel produced vastly lower casualties as a proportion of Gaza’s population and much less property damage as a proportion of Gaza’s property than the Western coalition against ISIS did in Syria and Iraq. In other words, the very Western countries that accused Israel of “disproportionate” and “excessive” harm in Gaza were guilty of far greater harm in Syria and Iraq.
So if they really believe the accusations they hurled at Israel, Western leaders—starting with former U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry—ought to turn themselves in as war criminals. And if they don’t like that option, it’s past time for them to finally admit that what they acknowledge in Syria and Iraq is equally true in Gaza. It’s simply not possible to fight terrorist organizations that employ the tactics used by ISIS and Hamas without harming civilians.
And it’s also time for them to admit what a group of high-ranking Western military experts concluded in a comprehensive report on the Gaza war: faced with these difficulties, Israel’s success in minimizing civilian harm equaled or exceeded that of any other Western country. If more proof were needed, that 100-to-one difference in casualty ratios between Raqqa and Gaza certainly provides it.
Originally published in Commentary on October 27, 2017
Both could easily be dismissed as unrepresentative of Israel’s Arab community. After all, that very same week, Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi asserted in a speech in Dallas that Jews have no right to self-determination, because “the Jews are not a nationality.” And Zoabi, who is only slightly more inflammatory than her party colleagues, was elected on a joint ticket that receives the overwhelming majority of Israeli Arab votes.
But as a recent poll of Israeli Arabs proves, the community is changing—and not in Zoabi’s favor.
Perhaps most striking was the fact that a decisive majority of respondents identified primarily as Israeli rather than Palestinian, which is something that wasn’t true even a few years ago. In 2012, for instance, just 32.5 percent of Israeli Arabs defined themselves as “Israeli” rather than Palestinian. But the figure has risen fairly steadily, and this year, asked “which term best describes you,” 54 percent of respondents chose some variant of “Israeli” (the most popular choice was “Israeli Arab,” followed by “Arab citizen of Israel,” “Israeli,” and “Israeli Muslim”). That’s more than double the 24 percent who chose some variant of “Palestinian” (15 percent chose simply “Palestinian.” The others chose “Palestinian in Israel,” “Palestinian citizen in Israel,” or “Israeli Palestinian”).
Moreover, 63 percent deemed Israel a “positive” place to live, compared to 34 percent who said the opposite. 60 percent had a favorable view of Israel, compared to 37 percent whose view was unfavorable. These are smaller majorities than either question would receive among Israeli Jews, but they are still decisive. Even among Muslims, the most ambivalent group, the favorable-to-unfavorable ratio was a statistical tie (49:48). Among Christians, it was 61:33, and among Druze, 94:6.
One of Zoabi’s colleagues, MK Yousef Jabareen, hastened to assure the Jerusalem Post that Israeli Arabs must view Israel more negatively than the poll indicates, because “when I meet with people from my community, I always hear concerns about increasing discrimination and racism,” as well as “socioeconomic status, an absence of jobs and housing.” Nor is he wrong about his community’s concerns: Fully 47 percent of respondents felt that, as Arabs, they are “generally treated unequally.” Many were also worried about economic issues and their community’s high crime rate.
But what Jabareen evidently hasn’t grasped is that having an overall favorable view of one’s country in no way contradicts having a long list of complaints about it. After all, Israeli Jews complain constantly about their country’s shortcomings while still believing that its merits outweigh its demerits. Why shouldn’t Israeli Arabs do the same?
The comparison with Israel’s neighbors has obviously grown starker following the implosion of several Arab countries since 2011, and it’s undoubtedly a major factor in Israeli Arabs’ growing appreciation for Israel. But government efforts to improve their socioeconomic situation have also contributed.
For instance, a joint initiative between the government and the country’s biggest private-sector employers produced a sharp increase in the number of Israeli Arabs working at these companies, which typically offer better pay, benefits and promotion opportunities than smaller firms. At several participating companies, Arabs now comprise 14 percent of payroll—less than their share of the population, but roughly equivalent to their share of the workforce.
The government has also invested more money in Arab schools, which—together with a new emphasis on education within the Arab community—has helped boost students’ performance. The proportion of students taking the matriculation exams is now roughly the same for Arabs and Jews, and while more Jews still pass, the gap has narrowed. Indeed, two Arab high schools now rank first and second in the country for academic achievement.
Finally, in sharp contrast to the nongovernmental organizations that spend their time and energy smearing Israel as racist overseas, others have correctly concluded that inequality can more profitably be fought by investing in Arab education and employment. The Israeli NGO Tsofen, for instance, focuses on boosting tech education and employment. Partly thanks to its efforts, the number of Israeli Arabs employed in high-tech has grown more than tenfold in the past decade, the number studying for STEM degrees at Israeli universities has risen 62 percent, and the Arab city of Nazareth, once devoid of high-tech industry, now boasts 50 local startups alongside branches of leading national and international firms.
Even some Arabs from abroad are starting to grasp this. Just last month, a group of Palestinian-American businessmen in Chicago held its first fundraising dinner for a scholarship fund to help Palestinians and Israeli Arabs attend Israel’s Haifa University. Though the dinner is new, the fund has been active since 2015 and has so far supported more than 60 students. Needless to say, that does far more to help actual human beings than, say, advocating anti-Israel boycotts that result in Palestinians losing their jobs.
Changes of the sort the Israeli Arab community is now undergoing take decades to come to fruition. As one example, see Druze residents of the Golan Heights, where despite a steady increase in recent years, fewer than a quarter have so far opted for Israeli citizenship. But as several Druze told Haaretz last month, the divide is generational: The older generation still feels Syrian; the younger feels Israeli. Consequently, even among the younger generation, many say they don’t want to acquire Israeli citizenship yet, because “it’s disrespectful to the older generation.”
Many years must also pass before change percolates through the Israeli Arab community to the point where the Baklys are more representative than Zoabi. But the trend is clearly moving in that direction. And despite their best efforts, the community’s vocal anti-Israel contingent seems powerless to stop it.
Originally published in Commentary on October 17, 2017