There is much to learn from Owen Jones’ much retweeted Guardian post last week about the alleged “imbalance” in Israel’s favor at the BBC and, by implication, the rest of Western media and politics, but not necessarily what Jones intends. Jones extrapolates from one solitary headline on the BBC’s website two discernible arguments. Neither argument stands up to the barest of scrutiny, but let’s start with the headline.
“Israel under renewed Hamas attack” was the “perverse” headline that the BBC ran from which Jones deduces the “macabre truth that Israeli life is deemed by the western media to be worth more than a Palestinian life.” If this were the only headline the BBC ran on the violent escalation over the past week, Jones might have a point. But it wasn’t even the only headline that day. All week, there have been from five to ten stories on the fighting. Some stories are filed from Israel and focus on the Gazan rocket attacks; some are filed from Gaza and focus on Israeli air and naval attacks; others are diplomatic stories or personal stories or focus on one particular incident which the BBC editors seem to think is interesting or noteworthy.
The story Jones references was filed from Ashqelon, a city in southern Israel that absorbed a large number of rocket attacks from nearby Gaza. The day before the report, Hamas in Gaza had gone from a policy of tolerating and encouraging other militant groups in the Strip to fire rockets at Israeli civilian centers, as it had for the previous two weeks, to actively participating in these attacks itself with its much larger, more numerous, and more sophisticated rockets. Hamas had, literally, renewed its attacks on Israel after twenty months of cease-fire. This was a significant development because it meant a large Israeli military operation would inevitably follow. This is lost on Jones who picks one headline to make a sweeping and falsifiable generalization. Two arguments can be picked out of Jones’ short post in the Guardian. The first regards what he calls the “hierarchy of death.” As far as I can tell, Jones’ postulated hierarchy is measured as a quotient of newsworthy deaths divided by the amount press coverage generated. It’s an odd claim to throw around in what poses as a pro-Palestinian piece, because by any measure the Palestinians are the beneficiaries of this hierarchy of death.
Let’s stipulate that we accept Jones’ claim that there is more coverage per Israeli death than per Palestinian death (though most of this is probably accountable to the much lower death toll on the Israeli side throughout the decades of conflict, something which tells us next to nothing about the moral or normative standing of either side; see below). Coverage of violence involving Palestinians far exceeds that of Iraqis, Syrians, Somalis, Congolese. Not just in the media, but throughout the western “human rights community,” the self-appointed protectors of western rectitude for whom Israeli actions that wouldn’t even count as a rounding error in the Syrian or Iraqi civil wars — or for that matter in NATO operations in Afghanistan — regularly generate hysterical cries of “war crimes” and even “slow-motion genocide.”
A particularly gruesome insight into the callous indifference of this hierarchy of death to any Arab victim of political violence which is not connected to Jews is in the unceasing appearance of photos of violence in Syria or Iraq or Egypt as supposedly being in Gaza. If Jones took seriously this hierarchy of death, he would marvel at the excesses of attention to the Palestinian problem as compared to the rank disregard to the veritable humanitarian catastrophes which surround the Israeli-Palestinian theatre in every direction that is not water. But Jones, alas, is not actually interested in confronting or challenging the prejudices of his comfortable milieu.
Underlying this argument about the hierarchy in media coverage is a second implicit argument — namely, that we can assign a moral ranking to belligerents in conflict based on the comparative death tolls. It’s an odd assertion to make. In the long confrontation between Israel and Hamas, the comparative death toll has not been balanced, to be sure. Comparative death tolls were even more lopsided, however, in UK military actions in both Kosovo and Libya (zero British casualties and hundreds of enemy deaths with a much higher ratio of noncombatant deaths than in any Israeli military operation in Gaza) and nearly as lopsided in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Needless to say, this was also true of British engagements with Argentina in the Falklands and in the recent British intervention in Sierra Leone; it was also true of both military and especially civilian losses in British-German combat in the Second World War. When a Hamas operative blew himself in a café a few meters from me a few years back, what outraged me wasn’t the lopsided kill ratio (11 innocent Israelis murdered to one Hamas terrorist hailed by his people as a martyr).
There are several reasons for the lopsided death toll, and none of them serve to make Hamas’ cause any more moral or Israel’s any less. Israeli houses are built with bomb shelters and sirens warn of incoming rocket fire. In the Gaza Strip there is a huge network of underground tunnels which are largely impervious to Israel Air Force fire, but these alas are not used to protect people, but rather Hamas’ rockets. Far from being “ineffective,” they are actually more sophisticated than the German V-2 rockets launched at London, and I don’t recall the British response to that being just a stiff letter to the editor against “collective punishment.”
What prevents these rockets which have been fired indiscriminately at Israeli cities such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv from killing hundreds of civilians as they are intended to do is the Israeli technological marvel called Iron Dome, an astonishingly effective anti-missile system developed in Israel with American financial backing. Each time an Iron Dome system smashes into a Hamas rocket destined for the center of an Israeli city we are watching an encounter between a culture that values life so much it is willing to invest a large portion of its own resources and enlightenment to protect it with one that cares so little about life that it is willing to deny its people the fruits of enlightenment in the vain attempt to kill other people.
The Israeli counterattacks are an even louder expression of that gap. At this point in the campaign, the Air Force has already flown over 1000 bombing missions over Gaza resulting in about 150 deaths on the ground. Israel’s efforts to avoid noncombatant casualties don’t just exceed those of Hamas (that would be easy), they exceed that of any other belligerent army in any similar theatre of combat. Air Force pilots target weapons caches ensconced in civilian housing and next to a school; a strike is dramatically called off when civilians are spotted. The IDF warns targets of impending strikes by phone and SMS and a warning shot, a practice implemented by no other air force I know of. Hilariously, Israel is actually criticized for this!
Hamas, in facts, shows off about its use of human shields in such circumstances. If Israel were targeting the innocent in a way that is similar to Hamas (something Jones alleged in a tweet after his article was posted), there would not be 150 dead in 1000 bombing missions. In fact, there wouldn’t be such a low number of casualties even if Israel weren’t seeking to kill civilians but was merely less than meticulously careful. And we’d be hard pressed to explain why even at this hour of Hamas rocket attacks on every reachable Israeli population center, Israel continues to provide Gaza’s electricity and to funnel food and medicine into the Hamas-run territory, a practice that is entirely without parallel in the history of warfare, and has certainly never been the case with any enemy of the UK in battle.
One wonders what Jones wants Israel to do to make the death toll more “balanced.” Would he order the operators of Iron Dome batteries to let a few rockets slide through and kill an apartment building’s inhabitants? When Hamas frogmen swam onshore outside Kibbutz Zikim, would Jones have ordered the IDF fighters to wait a bit, maybe let them kill a farmer or child or two on the kibbutz first? That encounter had five Palestinians killed to zero Israelis. Lopsided? Yes. What does Jones recommend doing? The names of the five terrorists taken out (by male and female soldiers, by the way, something else to be proud of) are no doubt posted somewhere on the list of “victims” of Israel’s attacks with no comment, along with the Hamas fighters killed in targeted attacks, the men operating rocket launchers when a site can be quickly targeted from the air after firing, as well as the civilians used as human shields and those unlucky enough to be tragically caught in the crossfire — something which happens in war, and happens in this needless one instigated by Hamas.
Others on the list, we can safely surmise, weren’t killed by Israeli fire at all, but rather by Hamas rockets that fell short of their targets across the border and landed in Gaza itself. The number of rockets Hamas claims to have launched is consistently higher than those the IDF reports having landed in Israel. Some of that could be just propaganda, but past experience shows that Hamas rockets often fall short, and when there is no Iron Dome and the underground shelters are only available for use of terrorists and missile storage, they kill. Little attention is paid to this phenomenon, but I am sure that if there is one British commentator who is keenly aware that Hamas rockets sometimes kill Palestinian children in Gaza, it is Owen Jones.
Rather than coming to terms with Hamas’ motives, Jones impugns Israel’s, citing a report by Human Rights Watch which he bizarrely calls “not an organisation that can be accused of being a den of lefties.” What Human Rights Watch can be accused of is being a den of pathological anti-Israel obsessives, not just by me, but by the man who founded the organization. Whatever their credentials on the “left” are, it is revealing that for Owen Jones being on the left and being anti-Israel are synonymous. Is there even one thing that Hamas stands for that could be remotely consonant with the value system that Jones, one of Britain’s most promising and articulate rising stars of the left, claims to hold?
Even more revealing is the metaphor with which we he opens his piece. The Israel-Gaza fighting is likened to Mike Tyson punching a toddler after being spit on by the toddler. This metaphor does more than capture the huge imbalance in firepower and technological and diplomatic resources between Israel and Hamas — for which Israel has nothing to apologize for. The image of the toddler spitting is exactly how Jones wants to see more than a decade of rocket attacks on Israeli civilians by an organization dedicated to mass murder. If a toddler spit on Mike Tyson, we wouldn’t just demand that Tyson’s response be proportionate or restrained or effective, we would rightly expect him to ignore it.
We also wouldn’t impute any actual agency or will — and definitely no responsibility — to the toddler doing the spitting. It would be just a natural, possibly annoying, thing that a baby does, and however much of a nuisance it is, we clean up the mess and move on. I don’t want to over-analyze a clumsy (dare I say, offensive) metaphor, but it is evident that Jones and his ideological comrades view Hamas’ rocket attacks in a very similar way.
The notion that Hamas or the Palestinians as a polity are at all in any way responsible for the consequences of their actions is anathema to a certain camp of intellectual discourse. This is not the place to recount the eleven wasted years of Palestinian misrule in Gaza after Israel withdrew from 80% of the Strip in 1994, or the even more criminally self-destructive adventurism of the nine years since Israel withdrew every last soldier and settler from the remaining 20% in 2005. It is a good place to point out that not only are missile attacks on crowded cities immoral war crimes, they have achieved absolutely nothing for Gazans or the Palestinian cause.
I have long held that on this issue we can easily distinguish those who are genuinely pro-Palestinian from those that are simply anti-Israeli. If Palestine were your chief concern, you wouldn’t want your cause tainted by such revolting methods. And you would plead with the Palestinians to end rocket attacks on Israeli cities if only for their own self-interest — they are ineffective, they invite much more damaging retaliation, and they make an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank that much less likely.
I have written before about the lack of self-criticism in the Arab world, but on this one issue there is actually a real debate in some Palestinian circles. But is depressingly limited to actual Palestinians and not their self-styled champions in the West. This is their crucial hour. The rockets have brought so much misery and havoc to Gaza in the last decade and in the last week. Israel sent out feelers through every possible intermediary before last week in the hopes of avoiding a confrontation and reinstating the old cease fire. Hamas’ response was to renew its direct attacks on Israel, as captured in the BBC headline which so angered Owen Jones.
It is clear that now such a cease fire won’t do, and Israel is determined to root out the threat of rocket fire on its cities, as any sane civilized country would. A genuinely pro-Palestinian voice would be calling now for a permanent end to rocket fire on Israel and an enforceable disarmament of missiles. Otherwise, what is facing Gaza is the utter devastation of a losing and pointless battle.