At the time I write this, ninety Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, and no Israelis killed by Gazan rockets. There is plenty of moral indignation about this unpleasant fact. As Chomsky put it:
Israel uses sophisticated attack jets and naval vessels to bomb densely-crowded refugee camps, schools, apartment blocks, mosques, and slums to attack a population that has no air force, no air defense, no navy, no heavy weapons, no artillery units, no mechanized armor, no command in control, no army… and calls it a war. It is not a war, it is murder.
The narrative of defenceless Palestinians being massacred by the vastly richer, vastly more powerful Israelis is a compelling one for all those who care about human life. And yet even this narrative, used in a certain way, can be read as a subtle example of the subtle pro-Israeli bias that predominates in much western media. Why so?
The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ tendencies that characterise much of political discourse not only in his own country, the United States, but increasingly throughout the rest of the developed world, are understandable in terms of the way that they seek to activate different fundamental ‘bases’ of human morality. Liberals, Haidt believes, are concerned primarily with care, fairness and liberation. Conservatives want these things too – but usually only for a particular in-group, which they define in terms of a different moral vocabulary, rooted in culturally constructed, but ultimately primal notions of purity, authority and loyalty.
When ‘liberals’ read about one side killing 90 people with advanced weaponry, and the other side killing no people with primitive weaponry, they naturally root for the underdog. In doing so, however, they play right into the hands of those with ‘conservative’ political sensibilities. After all, ‘all’s fair in love and war’. And if leftists (it’s a bit daft to call a radical anarchist like Chomsky a ‘liberal’, but he is for the purposes of the argument here) say it isn’t war, then hardline conservatives beg to differ. Read the words, for example, of ultra-hardline Knesset member Ayelet Shaked:
The Palestinian people has declared war on us, and we must respond with war. Not an operation, not a slow-moving one, not low-intensity, not controlled escalation, no destruction of terror infrastructure, no targeted killings. Enough with the oblique references. This is a war. Words have meanings. This is a war. It is not a war against terror, and not a war against extremists, and not even a war against the Palestinian Authority. These too are forms of avoiding reality. This is a war between two peoples. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people. Why? Ask them, they started it.
The logic here is grotesque, but there is a logic, somewhere. If you have two groups, each one perceiving itself to be in an existential struggle with the other, then the idea that you would voluntarily restrain yourself arguably makes not that much sense. Why should Israel restrain its firepower just because Hamas doesn’t have access to the same firepower? War isn’t pistols at dawn. It isn’t cricket.
Of course, this is an example of foaming at the mouth fundamentalism that few will sympathise with. But a more insidious version of basically the same logic comes up in the ‘security dilemma’ claims that deeply permeate the way that our media presents Palestine and Israel. According to this narrative, Israel is stuck in an unfortunate catch-22 situation. It knows that its occupation is breeding misery and extremism. It wants to withdraw. But it can’t, because the very extremism which occupation produces means that if it loosens its grip, it will expose itself to devastating attacks by an unrelenting opponent.
Of course, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is simply illegal. Technically, refusing to withdraw on these grounds is a bit like saying that you won’t give back the plasma tv you stole because you’ve tried watching cheaper models, but it hasn’t really worked out for you. Being realistic, however, the security dilemma argument looks compelling. It looks compelling because security dilemmas are good stories. They are plausible – we’ve all experienced something similar in microcosm. They offer a realistic a priori account of human motivation. They explain why good people might have to do bad things. And they don’t force us to demonise one side or the other.
So, the security dilemma argument, placed side by side with the asymmetric killing argument sets up the Palestine-Israel issue in terms of the consumer market in political opinions that we are all familiar with. If your politics are shaped by the ‘care’ instinct, then you will probably empathise (all things being equal) with dead Palestinian children. You don’t need, then, to worry too much with the wrongs and rights that got things to that point. If you think of yourself as still compassionate, but a bit tougher minded, then you will go with the ‘tragedy’ narrative, and perhaps lament the lack of ‘leadership’ on ‘both sides’. If, finally, you are a hard core political partisan on one side or the other, then you will simply pick your team and stick to it through thick and thin.
Either way, each market sector can be comfortable with its choice, knowing the dispositions that have accounted for its own choice, and the contrasting dispositions that have accounted for others’ choices. And there is, of course, another winner from all this: the incumbent power, (Israel, in this instance) which gets to keep the status quo.
What is obscured in all this, is that the central issue is not really a security dilemma at all. We do not have a conflict, but rather a colonisation. Israel is not occupying the West Bank to protect Israel (were that so, Israelis would have given up tolerating the expense long ago). It is occupying the West Bank to protect the infrastructure of Israeli settlements that crisscross and cut up the West Bank. It is laying siege to Gaza, choking it just short of death, not to prevent Hamas from getting the wherewithal to build rockets, but to collectively punish its citizens for refusing to recognise Israel’s ‘right to exist’ or, nowadays its ‘right to exist as a Jewish state’. (There is also the small matter of the gas fields in Gaza’s territorial waters which Israel is presently selling off permits to develop).
It is bombing Gaza not because of rockets, but as part of a broader campaign to undo the remarkable achievement of the Palestinian authority in reconciling Hamas to a project of moderation and Palestinian national unity.
And when I say ‘Israel’, that conceals the fact that this is really being done by a narrow elite made up of politicians, the military, and the hi-tech arms industry who grow ever richer in a country which is one of the most unequal in the developed world.
If you care about human life you should be appalled by what is happening in Gaza right now. But you should also be appalled if you are a hardheaded political realist. Or even if you simply love Israel.