FRANS CRONJE: The war in Gaza and the stark test it demands of liberal democrats
There are a number of misleading accounts about the origins of Israel and conflict with Hamas
In the weeks since the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, opinion in Western-style liberal democracies has drifted to drawing moral equivalences between the actions of Israel and Hamas. Life in such democracies has become so comfortable and safe that their entire cultures are evolving to evade or even deny the unpleasant choices necessary for some free societies to endure. But positions of equivalence are intellectually feeble and rest on misrepresentations that, once refuted, expose a stark choice.
A first misrepresentation is that the Palestinians are fighting for land taken from them by Jews in 1948. As the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, Judaism dates to the covenant Abraham made with God 3,500 years ago and Jews have lived in the territory that is today Israel ever since. After crushing a Jewish revolt in 135CE, the territory of Judea (part of the Roman province of Judaea, which drew its name from the sixth-century BCE Jewish kingdom of Judah) was renamed Syria Palaestina by the Romans.
Over the subsequent almost 2,000 years, Roman occupation gave way to Byzantine Christian, Arab Muslim, Christian Crusader, Mameluke, Ottoman, and British wars and occupations. Throughout that history, there has never been a nation-state called Palestine established on the territory constituting the pre-Roman Jewish state and the modern-day Jewish State of Israel.
A second misrepresentation is that the current conflict was caused by Jews refusing to share land. In 1917, as World War 1 raged, the Jews were promised modern-day Israel and Jordan as a future Jewish state. Violent Arab opposition saw that offer whittled away until in 1947 Zionist revolutionaries finally pressed a weakened British administration to ask the UN for a settlement.
The UN proposed a vastly reduced state with Arabs controlling much of what is today the West Bank and Gaza and Jews the balance of what is today Israel. In November 1947, the UN voted by a two-thirds majority in favour of such a partition. After the British departed in 1948, the Jewish People’s Council (a representative body) declared the State of Israel in that reduced territory — land which amounted to 0.4% of all that in the Middle East.
A third misrepresentation is that Israel launched a war of aggression against the Arab world in 1967 and stole land it never returned. Violent Arab opposition to the Jewish state continued unabated after 1948. In 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan to stop an attack aimed at finally eliminating Israel. The Arab armies suffered great losses and Israel came to hold territory in the West Bank (previously occupied by Jordan), Gaza (previously occupied by Egypt), the Golan Heights (previously occupied by Syria), and Sinai (also occupied previously by Egypt).
Israel handed Sinai back to Egypt in 1982, Jordan relinquished its claim to the West Bank in 1988, and Gaza was handed to the Palestinians in 2005. Contemporary Israeli strategists hold that surrendering the West Bank at this time would deliver a near immediate terrorist takeover, as happened after the Gazan handover in 2005, transforming the West Bank into a staging ground for a future invasion of Israel. They further hold that a handover of the Golan Heights would enable a future ground invasion by Iranian proxies out of Syria and Iraq.
The fourth misrepresentation is that the October 7 attack was in response to an Israeli occupation of Gaza. There has, however, been no occupation in Gaza for almost 20 years. The related, and fifth misrepresentation, is that the Hamas attack was in response to an Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Soon after Israel handed Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005, Hamas defeated Fatah (a political rival) in Palestinian elections, after which a war erupted between the two groups. Hamas won that fight in Gaza and set about arming itself in pursuit of the self-declared objective to destroy Israel. In response, Israel introduced strict security protocols on goods entering Gaza, while the Egyptians, who share a border with Gaza, and who feared the destabilising sectarian influence Hamas might have on Egypt, did the same.
A sixth misrepresentation is that if Israel would only negotiate with Palestinian leaders and release Palestinian prisoners there would be no more violence. Several “two-state”-style settlement deals have been proposed from that in 1947 to Camp David in 1978, to the more contemporary examples of Oslo in 1993 and 1995, Wye River in 1998, Camp David in 2000, the Roadmap of Peace in 2003, Annapolis in 2007, and Deal of the Century in 2020.
The bulk were rejected by Arab or Palestinian leaders. Prisoner releases have occurred at regular intervals. The man who planned much of the October 7 attack was himself a beneficiary of such a release, having previously been in Israeli custody for killing Jews.
A seventh misrepresentation is that Israel’s response to Hamas is disproportionate. Hamas is one of about 10 Iranian surrogate terror groups scattered across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt as part of an Iranian “ring of fire strategy” to slowly encircle and then invade and eliminate Israel. Deterrence sufficient to prevent an invasion, and possible annihilation, depends on Israel demonstrating that any group attempting such an attack will itself be eliminated — and the question of proportionality must be judged accordingly.
An eighth misrepresentation is that Israel is collectively punishing Gazans. A first point is that many Gazans initially elected Hamas to lead them, knowing that it sought war with Israel. A second is that polls show Hamas to be a popular Palestinian group and that various pluralities and majorities of Gazans have supported waging war against Israel. A third is that large crowds of Palestinians celebrated Hamas’s October 7 attack. A fourth is that, by contrast, there has been no popular protest against Hamas in any Middle Eastern capital. A fifth is that in pursuit of its military objectives, Israel will offer safe passage for Gazan civilians to any Arab or Western society willing to offer sanctuary — of which none have.
Qualified only by the security measures necessitated by the perilous environment in which it exists, Israel is a Western-style liberal democracy and offers its citizens a degree of political, religious, economic, sexual, and social liberty unmatched in the Middle East and equivalent to that of most Western societies. Remove the misrepresentations obscuring this and a stark choice emerges. Are Israel’s actions in Gaza an acceptable price for preserving its democracy? Or are they unacceptable and should Israel instead be surrendered to its adversaries?
For people living in Western liberal democracies — societies not dissimilar to Israel — decency and intellectual rigour demand that they state plainly where they stand on this choice in a manner that does not expose them to an impossible intellectual contradiction between the value of the freedom they enjoy in their own societies and that which they are willing to countenance for Israel.
• Dr Cronje is an independent political and economic adviser. He writes as chair of the Europe-based BRE-DE-RE initiative, which aims to identify and counter threats to liberty in democratic societies.