Photo: Khalil Hamra/AP Photo
You can trace the current fighting to wherever you like: apologists for each side will find a “provocation” to which their latest assault is a response, argues Matt Hill.Partisans of the Israel-Palestine conflict – and it often seems everyone’s a partisan of one side or the other – know exactly who to blame for the fighting now in its sixth day. The other guy, of course.
But the bombs dropping on Gaza and southern Israel haven’t fallen out of a clear blue sky. So what happens if we trace events backwards and try to answer, as objectively as possible, the obvious question: who started it?
The latest phase of fighting started on 14 November when Israel assassinated the Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari. A day earlier, Hamas was touting a truce offer, but only after two days of fighting which saw over a hundred missiles launched into Israel and Gaza coming under attack by warplanes, drones and artillery.
These exchanges were preceded on 10 November by the injury of two IDF soldiers, hit by an anti-tank missile as they patrolled outside the Strip, and the deaths of at least five Palestinians and the injury of dozens more when Israel responded with shelling and air strikes.
And these incidents, in turn, were sparked by the killing of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who was caught in the crossfire of a gun battle between the IDF and Palestinian militants on 8 November.
We could go back further: to 5 November, when Israeli soldiers shot dead an unarmed, “mentally unfit” Palestinian man who got too close to a border fence; or to 24 October, when Gaza militants fired over 50 rockets into Israel in 24 hours, injuring three.
Those attacks came in the wake of … but you get the picture. In this part of the world, each violent act can be, and is, justified as a “response” to some previous “provocation” by the other side.
Whatever political or strategic calculations prompted each move – whether Hamas ramped up its operations for fear of being outflanked by rival Salafist groups in Gaza, or Benjamin Netanyahu is flexing his muscles ahead of Israeli elections in January – they played into a tit-for-tat logic on the ground where escalation was virtually unavoidable.
And of course none of this can be divorced from the larger context of the conflict. Apologists for the
Palestinians point to the huge disparity in casualties between the two sides: 320 Palestinians killed as against 25 Israelis since the last flare-up in 2008-9.
Israel’s supporters counter that if few Palestinian rockets have hit their target, that isn’t for want of trying, with around 800 fired in 2012 before last week’s fighting (up from 375 last year).
We like to imagine we start off with the facts and then form conclusions by interpreting them. But, as any good historian can tell you, in practice it often works the other way round: we tend to bring interpretations to the facts and arrange them accordingly. Whether you regard Israel or the Palestinians as the main aggressors in this round of violence probably depends as much on your view of events in 1948 ( the first Arab-Israeli war ) or 1917 ( the Balfour Declaration ) as those of last week.
Medieval theologians thought you could trace any event in the universe back through an unbroken causal chain to arrive at a First Cause, ie God. In much the same way, apologists on either side in the Israel-Palestine conflict are adept at tracing any given act of violence back to a first cause called Zionism or, depending on your point of view, Arab terror.
This isn’t merely grossly simplistic: it also contributes to the mutual incomprehension that makes solving this conflict so difficult.
Unless we want to see more of the bloodshed of recent days, at some point the two sides will have to come out of their cloisters and find a way to start talking.
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