An oft-quoted adage, popularly, although apocryphally, attributed to Golda Meir, states that, “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.” At the start of the current conflict, I saw a Times of Israel blogger object to this, saying that it implies, in a racist way, that Arabs don’t love their children. Similarly, opponents of Israeli military action against Hamas, which is embedded amongst the population of Gaza, say that war will just increase hatred for Israel and ultimately be counterproductive. Ultimately, according to this viewpoint, peace can only come through negotiation.
While the love of Palestinian parents for their children is not measurable, we can look at Palestinian society and try to measure the extent of its hate for Israel and the way it expresses its love for its children by directing them to hate Israel. We can also look at what kind of “peace party” might exist in Gaza and the West Bank.
At the outset, it must be stated that the question of civilian complicity in terrorism does not influence the question of human rights. Civilians must never be deliberately targeted in war. Even when civilians act as human shields for a human rights-breaching organisation such as Hamas, they should not be targeted, partly to defend the edifice of international law, but mainly because the damage done to the spiritual and moral standing of the attacker would be so great. Obviously, this does not erase the legitimacy of targeting genuinely military targets that have been placed, illegally, near civilian buildings or protected with human shields. My point is not to suggest that Gazans should be targeted, God forbid, but simply to ask whether they are as much victims of Hamas as Israel is, as much of the world media suggests, or whether they are a willing or semi-willing part of Hamas’ machinery of terror.
The Western, Enlightenment vision of moral autonomy is based on rational individuals making choices based on impartially-presented empirical data. This is the model that informs Western politics (liberal democracy) and economics (free markets). Yet it breaks down when a population is denied true and complete information by its government and is instead brainwashed into aggression and hatred of the other from a young age.
Dr Martin Sherman has argued that the population of Gaza is not the victim of Hamas, but rather the crucible in which it is formed. Gazans elected Hamas to rule them in 2006, albeit with a plurality of the vote (44%), not a majority. This is still a large enough share of the vote to legitimise rule in a multi-party democracy like those in most of Europe. There are conflicting poll results regarding their popularity since then. Some suggest declining support for Hamas, but a poll run by a Palestinian think tank earlier this year (before 7 October) saw 55% of Gazans supporting “armed struggle” against Israel to create a Palestinian state. The same poll found that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would win a majority of votes in a Palestinian presidential election (56%) with Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas receiving only 33%. This was if those polled included Palestinians on the West Bank as well as Gaza. If polled among Gazans alone, Haniyeh’s share would rise to 65% and Abbas’ would fall to 30%.
A study of Palestinian textbooks from 2005, before the Hamas takeover of Gaza, showed them to be intended for radicalisation, not peace. They spoke of the importance of conquering Israel and the virtues of martyrdom. Zionism is presented as pure imperialism, while “Palestine” is shown as inherently Arab and Muslim, with no historical Jewish connection. Palestinian children are sent to terrorist training summer camps at six years old. Even before the Hamas takeover, UNWRA-run schools and educational institutions were staffed by Hamas.
Martyrdom and violence are pervasive themes in Gazan popular culture, especially towards children, even toddlers. A 2002 survey found that 72% of Gazan children wanted to be “martyrs”; one can only wonder how many Gazans think like that now, after a decade and a half of Hamas rule. Maryam Farahat, the mother of suicide bomber, said that she considered his death “a blessing, not a tragedy.” While Palestinian parents may love their children as much as Israeli or Western parents, in a culture that sees martyrdom while killing Jews as the highest good, leading to posthumous honour in this world and hedonistic bliss in the next world, that love necessarily expresses itself differently, as support for violence and death over peace.
Hamas has control over the political leadership, religious leadership, media and schools in Gaza. Can we doubt that most Gazans are indoctrinated against Israel and Jews even if they did not support the massacre of 7 October? In the West, we assume that even a small exposure to extremist views on social media can radicalise a person, yet when presented with a population exposed to nothing but extremist views, we somehow hold on to a belief that Western Enlightenment values can be found there.
Hamas is singing a tune that Gazans want to hear: as senior Hamas figure Ghazi Hamad said, “We are the victims… therefore nobody should blame us for the things we do.” It’s a tune of morally self-righteous victimhood combined with a blank cheque to do whatever they want in the “armed struggle” against Israel. It says, “We are perfectly good; they are totally evil; therefore, we can do what we like with them.” How many could resist this siren call even without constant societal brainwashing to hate Jews?
I used to think that peaceful personal contact between Jews and Palestinians would help reduce antisemitism and anti-Zionism and lead to peace, but now I question that premise. Perhaps such peaceful personal contact is necessary for peace, but it is not sufficient by itself. There are not enough Jews and Palestinian antisemitism is too strong, too ingrained, promoted too much at every level of society. Even in the West, many people who have personal contact with Jews still hate Israel. Here are just a few examples of the failure of peaceful personal contact in Israel to deradicalise.
Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, had a brain tumour while in an Israeli jail. Israeli doctors saved his life, but it did not temper his antisemitism and hatred of Israel, leading to the 7 October massacre.
A Times of Israel article reported on mothers of Gazan children being treated in Israeli hospitals during the war (not injured by the war, but already being treated when the war broke out). Perhaps we should make certain allowances for their fears for their sick children as well as their families and homes, but they accepted the Hamas narrative regarding the Al-Ahli Hospital, believing it to be bombed deliberately by Israel as war crime.
Israeli doctors and hospitals have for decades treated Arab patients from across the Middle East, in more peaceful times, but they know there will be no real “peace dividend,” as their patients are often unable say where they were treated on returning home for fear of violence.
So many of those murdered or abducted by Hamas on 7 October were peace activists dedicated to dialogue between Jews and Palestinians. Kibbutzniks who regularly gave Palestinian cancer patients lifts to Israeli hospitals for treatment were brutally repaid for their kindness.
Gazans who were given permits to work in Israel used the opportunity to spy on their employers and the surrounding areas for Hamas. As a result, on 7 October, Hamas had detailed intelligence about the area they were attacking, down to the number of people in each household and even their pets.
I used to think this type of contact and dialogue with kindness and bonding was necessary work for one day creating peace. Now, I worry it’s dangerously naive, that it might create bonds between individuals, but not between a whole society dedicated to destroying its neighbour. Individual Palestinians might support negotiated peace, such as human rights activist Bassam Eid or academic and peace activist Mohammed Dajani, but there is no “peace party” in Gaza or the supposedly more moderate West Bank, no Palestinian equivalent to the numerous Israeli groups like Peace Now, B’tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights. How can you negotiate when there is no one to negotiate with, no support for a negotiated peace?
It is a mistake (cultural imperialism, if you want to throw words like that around) to think that all cultures think the same, that all cultures are “really” like Western liberal democracies deep down, that they want peace more than anything else and will negotiate a compromise to get it. There are cultures that run on hate, where the government (in this case, Hamas) use that hatred to distract from their own failings and corruption and to keep the citizens in a constant state of war. Cultures where death while killing the enemy is seen as the greatest, most honourable and good action and where negotiation and compromise are seen as inherently shameful and no different to defeat on the battlefield.
I did not consider myself a hawk six weeks ago. I considered myself a realist, open to a negotiated, two-state solution, but aware that most Palestinians did not want that. I thought prolonged dialogue and friendly contact was needed to build trust and understanding. Six weeks on, I still consider myself a realist, but I realise that my previous assumptions were not realistic. Dialogue is only possible with people who consider you human. Unless that baseline is established, people will treat you like the cow on their farm: they will use you for milk and to plough their fields, but when you get too old and become a burden, they will slaughter you without a second thought.
It is notable that Arab Israelis have mostly sided with Israel in this conflict, engaging in the small and large acts of kindness towards soldiers and refugees that have characterised Israel as a whole in this conflict. The problem is not inherent in Arabs or Palestinians, but in the culture of Gaza that promotes violence and death.
I don’t know what the next government or administration of Gaza will, or should, or even could, look like. But I know that unless Israel and the international community have a plan to de-radicalise Gaza and promote a culture that is at least open to living with its Jewish neighbours and seeing them as human and with a right to live in the region, the events of the last six weeks will just repeat themselves over and over again.