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The Context of Hamas Apologists’ Call for Context


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Real Clear Politics

Peter Berkowitz - RCP Contributor
November 05, 2023

Strategists close to the front seek to understand the constellation of circumstances and ideas that give rise to war. So too must responsible commentators far from danger assess the adversaries’ rival claims. The need to grasp a war’s wider frame goes for Hamas’ 10/7 massacres and Israel’s exercise of its right of self-defense.

No shortage of Hamas apologists insist that the jihadists’ mass atrocities perpetrated against civilians in southern Israel and their indiscriminate rocket attacks extending to much of central Israel must be placed in context. But the apologists don’t provide a reliable account of Hamas’ motives, ideas, goals, and conduct; a reasonable summary of Israel’s response; or a scrupulous overview of the Israeli-Arab conflict, not least Islamist enmity toward the Jewish state. Instead, Hamas apologists suppress facts, invent narratives, and repackage outlandish neo-Marxist talking points.

On Oct. 9, two days after the Hamas massacres, Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, declared that the Israel-Hamas war must “be put within the context. And the context is not just occupation. The context is settler colonialism and apartheid.”

On Oct. 19, in an “Open letter from the art community to cultural organizations,” more than 500 “artists, writers, curators, filmmakers, publishers and workers who produce work, collaborate and communicate” opined about the Israel-Hamas war. The letter’s signatories prominently included photographer and activist Nan Goldin, who focuses on the LGBT world; UC Berkeley professor Judith Butler, who specializes in comparative literature and critical theory; and Columbia University professor Saidiya Hartman, whose research interests include African American and American literature and cultural history as well as gender, sexuality, queer theory, and feminism. The art community denizens – who did not claim knowledge of military operations or international law, first-hand acquaintance with unfolding events, regional expertise, or understanding of Islam – accused Israel of perpetrating “escalating genocide” and declared that the war’s “root cause” is “oppression” and “occupation.”

In another Oct. 19 letter, this one addressed to President Biden and again signed by Goldin and Butler, “a group of Jewish American writers, artists and academics” invoked their Judaism to pronounce authoritatively on the Israel-Hamas war. But they omitted any mention of their competence to discuss jihad, Middle East politics, or national security.

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Like the context-obscuring assertions by artists, professors, and students, the UN secretary-general’s statement rests on falsehoods, dogma, and ideology.

Consider just a few crucial components of context obscured, suppressed, or denied by the Hamas apologists.

First, Gaza Palestinians have not been subject to 56 years of occupation (since the 1967 war). In September 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, removing every Israeli soldier and civilian and offering the Palestinian Authority a comprehensive plan for joining forces to reconstruct Gaza. Four months later, in January 2006, Hamas won Gaza’s local legislative elections.

In June 2007, Hamas violently seized control of the entire strip, expelled the Palestinian Authority, and turned Gaza into an armed camp for launching war against the Jewish state. The source of Hamas’ hostility is not Israel’s security barrier. It’s Israel’s very existence. And it was Hamas’ plans to annihilate the Jewish state – funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which shares Hamas’ goal – that compelled Israel to fortify its Gaza border (Egypt maintains strict control over its Gaza border) and impose a blockade. If Gaza is, as the apologists like to declare, “an open-air prison,” Hamas, not Israel, is the prison warden. In the process, its jihadist rulers have impoverished Gaza by diverting massive resources from the people to produce rockets and missiles and to construct hundreds of miles of terror tunnels.

Second, Israel is not guilty of “colonialism.” As columnist Chaim Levinson observed in the Israeli daily Haaretz, whereas colonialism involves a great power imposing its institutions on, and transporting its people to live in, foreign lands, the Jews of pre-1948 Palestine rebelled against the internationally authorized British rule over the territory. Professor Khalidi’s appeal to the fashionable doctrine of “settler colonialism” – the intruder’s displacement of an indigenous population – to describe Israel only magnifies the absurdity. If indigenousness is the standard, it’s the jihadists who have committed settler colonialism: Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel preceded the arrival of Muslim Arab tribes by more than 1,500 years

Third, Israel is not an apartheid state. Apartheid was a legal system designed in the mid-20th century by South Africa’s white minority that established racial segregation and institutionalized political and economic discrimination against the majority black population. It is slanderous to apply the label “apartheid” to either the situation of Israel’s Arab citizens or that of Gaza or West Bank Palestinians.

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