Israel and Gaza: When attack is the worst form of defence

By Khaled Diab

As the fog of war in Gaza distort people's vision and compassion, can Israeli and Palestinian reject the strategy of violence offered by their leaderships?

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Just days before the current escalation in violence, I encountered a young Gazan art student living “illegally” in the West Bank because would not allow her to change her address.

With her precarious existence as a kind of fugitive in her own land, which had made her unable to visit her besieged hometown for over seven years, and in light of Israel's of Gaza and its 2008-9 invasion, I asked her how she felt about Israelis.

“I am a human and believe in humanity, regardless of religion, nationality or race. We are all humans. I will not let this affect me,” the art student said, surprising me with the simple intensity of her conviction, as her Jewish-American friend listened in, even though she did not understand a word of what we were saying.

As I watch with rising alarm the fog of imminent war distort people's vision and compassion, I cannot help but recall this conversation. I wonder whether this young woman is managing to cling on to her admirable compassion and humility, when those around her are losing theirs, or has it too fallen victim to this senseless confrontation?

The first victim of war, it is rightly said, is truth, but its second casualty is humanity. The demonisation, hatred, vitriol and jingoism that has been fired indiscriminately and disproportionately in recent days has been troubling. Personally, though I have felt fury at Israel's vicious “send Gaza back to the middle ages” military offensive against a captive civilian population – not to mention anger with Palestinian militants for also targeting civilians – I am determined not to allow this to darken my view of ordinary Israelis.

This latest conflagration confounded me but it did not surprise me.

It did not surprise me because we have been here before – in 2006 in Lebanon and 2008-9 in Gaza, to name just two examples, when the Cain of senselessness murdered the Abel of sensibility. The timing was also no big surprise. The smokescreen of military confrontation is a powerful political ploy because it can turn political villains into heroes and discontented citizens into loyal soldiers, silencing growing dissent in the ranks – although it can backfire or blow up in its user's hands, as discovered by Israeli prime ministers Shimon Peres in 1996 and Ehud Olmert in 2009.

Although this brewing war is ostensibly about the security of Israel, it is, in reality, more about the insecurity of the Israeli government at the ballot box, faced as it has been with growing social unrest, economic dissatisfaction, widening inequality and increasing public fury at the fiscal black hole opened up by settlement subsidies. How else can we explain Israel's infuriating decision to murder its “subcontractor” in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari, who was, reportedly, on the verge of sealing a permanent truce with Israel?

On the other side of the fence, has been facing growing popular discontent – with a recent poll suggesting that it would receive just 31% of the popular vote in Gaza, and considerably less in the West Bank, if suspended were held – particularly since the eruption of the ‘Arab Spring', and especially amongst young people. Although it was elected for its apparent lack of corruption and cronyism, now that Hamas is the uncontested master of Gaza, it has been guilty of severe abuses of power and human rights violations. Hamas is also far less tolerant of dissent than .

Though the current fighting does not surprise me, it does confound me. It confounds me because if Israeli and Gazan leaders are truly sincere in their claims that they seek to defend their people, then why have they not yet recognised that attack is the worst form of defence, at least in this ?

What have Israel's many long campaigns of violence against Hamas achieved? The previous Gaza war did not accomplish its intended objective of destroying Hamas, nor did it halt the flow of rockets into Israel. All it succeeded in doing was to increase the quotient of human misery in Gaza, and with it the measure of hostility and distrust towards Israel among and Arabs. This current campaign is about restoring “deterrence”, we're told, but the greatest deterrent effect it is likely to have is to deter even more of the world from viewing Israel with sympathy or compassion.

More broadly, Israel's other attempts to destroy Hamas by other means have backfired spectacularly, and though they may serve the interests of extremists, they do little to enhance the security and well-being of ordinary Israelis.

Take the blockade on Gaza. While it has been very effective at increasing the destitution and despair of the average Gazan, it has done very little to weaken Hamas's hold on power. In fact, tightening the screws on the Strip has led us from a situation in which Hamas had to share power with Fatah – and signal its willingness, now that it was actually in power, to act more pragmatically – to one in which the Islamist movement became the only show in town in Gaza and its position has re-hardened.

Hamas's violence has also paid precious few dividends to the people of Gaza and the Palestinian people in general. Though some see Hamas's behaviour as a heroic form of resistance against the humiliation and oppression of occupation, what good has this supposed heroism done Gazans or the Palestinian cause? Ever since Hamas tacitly joined forces with extremists Israelis to assassinate the (admittedly flawed) , Israel has seen to it that the situation of Gazans has deteriorated immensely.

That is not to say that resistance is futile. On the contrary, if Palestinians are to secure their human rights, resistance is necessary. But in a situation where they are by far the weaker party militarily, they will never be able to match Israeli firepower, so they need to unleash the most potent weapon in their arsenal: peaceful people power, which is more suited to the political nature of the conflict.

The relative potency of this weapon can be seen when you compare the peaceful first intifada with the violent second intifada: the first uprising effectively brought Israel to its knees, while the second brought the Palestinians to theirs. And since the second intifada died down Palestinian peace activists have been rediscovering and reasserting the power of non-violent resistance.

While non-violence has received a lot of attention in the Palestinian context, when it comes to Israelis, it has received precious little. This is reflected in the fact that while most Israelis agree, and urge, the Palestinians to abandon violence, they cling on to the right to use it themselves, as illustrated by the overwhelming support for the previous Gaza war among the Israel public.

But the rejection of violence is as important a creed for Israelis as it is for Palestinians, even if they are militarily the more powerful. In this asymmetric conflict, there can be no winners because the more Israel destroys, the more it bolsters Palestinian determination to resist and the more it isolates itself internationally. More importantly, since the is ultimately political, and not military, it cannot and will not be decided on the battlefield, no matter how long the hawks deny this basic law of nature.

Recognising this important truth, a  resident of a kibbutz near the border with Gaza urged the Israeli government, despite the rockets which have landed in her backyard: “If you want to defend me… try to negotiate until white smoke comes up through the chimney.”

In my view, the best way to defend the Palestinian and Israeli peoples is through a complete rejection by the public of violence, not only that committed by the other side, which is easy, but also, more significantly, that perpetrated by your own. Once the cycle of violence is broken for long enough, the two sides can gradually shift from resistance of the other to coexistence with one another.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 November 2012.



  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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17 thoughts on “Israel and Gaza: When attack is the worst form of defence

  • Netanyahu wasn’t in any danger of losing the next round of elections. The rumored permanent cease-fire is just a rumor.Hamas conveniently claims to not be in control of the rocket firers from Islamic Jihad, anyway. The simplest and most likely explanation, is that Hamas has been preparing for a rematch of 2008, since Cast Lead ended. Evidently, they felt ready.The precise date was chosen by throwing a dart at a calendar. Significant unasked questions: 1)What does it cost to own thousands of missiles and the infrastructure to use them? Don’t these expenditures detract from what can be spent on water and sewer projects? 2) If the costs are borne by Iran eg, how much ownership does Iran get for its money? Does Iran decide if Palestine is pro-peace or pro-war?

    Arabs walk the streets in Israel. Jews as such cannot walk the streets in any Arab country including Gaza. If asymmetry bothers you, work on that.

  • I just read your wonderful and very moving article in Haaretz; great to
    hear your voice in these crazy times. You reflect my politics very
    closely (and much more articulately).

  • I just read you article. It is wonderful; just wonderful!

    Thank you for your voice of reason in these entirely unreasonable times!

    I look forward to reading more of your writing …


  • Charlie

    Britain will set an example by getting rid of nuclear weapons and
    withdrawing troops from overseas. I know that bomber Blair has become a
    “peace envoy” to the Middle East, but David Cameron is back over there
    selling arms.

  • Nikolaj

    Thanks for these sobering thoughts, Khaled

  • Yes Mosh, the way IDF presents information is fair and balanced. Regarding your suspicions, all I can say is whut? for
    the record, both parties in this conflict have committed far too many
    atrocities already. Please stop defending the continuation of these

  • @ Thom- And, i just looked at the IDF on “goddamn Twitter”. They are
    listing Israeli casualties along with Palestinian casualties, so your rendition of this information as a kind of scorecard is pure mendacity
    and hardly equivalent to the Palestinian rejoicing
    at the killings of Israelis by distributing candies in the streets. I
    might remind you that they also danced on the rooftops on 9/11 (see
    YouTube clips of that), but, then again, I have a strong suspicion you
    probably did so yourself.

  • Hey Mosh, that’s some very interesting discourse you’ve got going there,
    accusing the people of the territory you have invaded of being the
    agressor. Also, people giving out sweets when a suicide bomber strikes
    bother you? What about the IDF keeping score of the number of
    Palestinian fatalities on goddamn Twitter?

  • Monopoly on violence? Do you think Israel would have begun this operation
    without 800 rockets falling on southern Israel in the course of 2012?
    Isn’t that allowing Hamas to have the monopoly? What you are constantly
    ignoring, and I can understand why you have to, is that Hamas is built
    upon an ideological foundation of violence aimed at the annihilation of
    Israel. You further ignore, because you have to, the cultural difference
    of a people who pass out sweets when a suicide bomber succeeds in
    killing innocent Jews, or to mothers who rejoice when their sons blow
    themselves up for the sake of martyrdom. You have been Israel long
    enough to know that that does not exist on the Israeli side. And this is
    the core problem: Hamas cannot ever renounce violence, because that is
    precisely what defines them. (I won’t bore you with the charter, because
    I am sure you have read it as many times as I have.) I agree with you
    that this creates an unfortunate spiral of violence, but do you suggest
    that the alternative is for Israel to accept in principle its own
    annihilation, or to do nothing while 1,000,000 of its citizens endure
    barrages of missiles on a daily basis? Is that your conception of
    justice and sustainability? What, in your view, would you suggest Israel
    do to persuade Hamas to accept its existence? Or do you think, like so
    many others these days, the world would be a better place without a
    Jewish state, in which case, there is not really room for discussion, is

  • Fair point, Anne.

    Moshe, with all due respect, I detect so many flaws in your argument that if it were a building it would be considered unsafe for human habitation! Basically, reading between the lines, what you’re saying is that Israel should enjoy a monopoly on violence and the right to decide when it should use it – and to hell with the consequences and the world. And if that’s you idea of justice and sustainability, then you have truly lost your humanity. Besides that, even employing your own logic, what you call “temporary deterrence” falls over on its own contradictions. Like antibiotics, using force to attack the symptoms rather than the cause of the disease, may, like you say work temporarily, but through repeated use you create the conflict equivalent
    of a “super bug”. Israel hated the PLO and sought to destroy it – it
    got the more virile Hamas – it now refuses to deal with Hamas and tries to destroy it, it may get the far more virulent Islamic Jihad.

    Steve, very true, but the timing of those three dust-up, it would seem, was entirely accidental and coincidental.

  • I am still reading. LOL

  • Dam………..he does make a guy work, Ahmed.

  • with all due respect Moshe, you talk too much

  • This is the third election in Israel I can recall that was preceded by a
    nasty dust-up. There’s probably a real, super secret hidden message in
    there somewhere.

  • With all due respect, Khaled, I detect some flaws in this article. First, I
    agree 100% that all wars are tragic, particularly when innocent
    civilians are the casualties; and I also agree 100% that the actions of
    the IDF will not exactly endear Israelis in the eyes of most Gazans.
    Where I disagree is your assessment of the goals of the IDF in this
    operation and of the Israeli public’s support for these goals. First,
    you offer a very facile analysis that this operation is about
    Netanyahu’s quest for re-election rather than a genuine concern for
    1,000,000 residents of southern Israel whose lives are continually
    disrupted by the indiscriminate firing of missiles at their homes,
    schools and workplaces. Oddly enough, prior to the start of Pillar of
    Defence, when the response to daily barrage of Gazan missiles was merely
    a tit-for-tat surgical bombing of a few smuggling tunnels and arms
    depots, both Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post featured political analyses
    that Netanyahu had his hands tied until election time. Even now, I have
    seen an article stressing the political risks that both Netanyahu and
    Barak (the latter, more than the former) have taken by opting for a
    military strike at this point. Second, the only source confirming
    Jabari’s secret negotiations to bring about a truce is Gershon Baskin,
    who seems to engage in considerable self-promotion. Certainly, if there
    was any shred of legitimacy to Baskin’ insinuations, there are enough
    well-known figures in the Shin Beit, Mossad and IDF who are on the
    public record to have favoured such negotiations. Why have we heard
    nothing except from Baskin? So I would take that assertion with a rather
    large grain of salt as opposed to an accepted truth. Jabari, who
    masterminded most terror operations from Gaza, was known even in Hamas
    for his uncompromising views. Finally, despite your protestations of
    demonization and hysteria, when I hear the spokesmen of the Israeli
    government or examine the IDF website, I see none of this. There is no
    glee in this operation; there are no Israelis dancing in the streets
    distributing lollies as the Palestinians do when a suicide bombing kills
    Israeli men, women and children. Rather it is depicted as a necessary
    step that Israel has taken as a last resort to stop the rocket attacks
    against its cities in the south. You mention Palestinian anger? How do
    you think Israelis feel when their attempts to withdraw from “occupied
    territories”—whether the West Bank, Lebanon and Gaza—evoke suicide
    bombings and rocket attacks rather than peace? With their bare hands the
    Palestinians have killed the notion of a two-state solution in the eyes
    of an Israeli public that once supported that notion overwhelmingly. So
    the military issue here is a very practical one: destruction of the
    Hamas/ IJ/al-Qaida infrastructure until deterrence is re-established. Of
    course, that deterrence will be temporary, just a bit of breathing
    space. I doubt very much Israel will get the 15 years of quiet it is
    asking for. But that is all Israel will get from a people guided by a
    charter that does not camouflage its hatred for Jews and its clarion
    call for their annihilation. Until that charter or the political
    leadership that espouses it changes, one can hope for little else. So, I
    believe you can spare us the “both-sides-are-guilty” moral equivalence.
    In fact, I believe that view—one that is fearful of any qualitative
    distinctions– is already becoming passé as is witnessed by the growing
    number of European nations now more sympathetic to Israel’s cause this
    time around. (Obama has been surprisingly forthcoming in his support ,
    more so than Bush was in Cast lead.) The majority of Arab nations and
    third world countries hostile to Israel will always be so—except, of
    course, when Israel willingly allows itself to be the victim. (This is
    why the height of Israel’s popularity was when it was copping Saddam’s
    scuds in the Gulf War.) Finally, this explains the Israeli public’s
    overwhelming support. It has nothing to do with the demonization of
    Palestinians and everything to do with asserting the same human rights
    to defend their land and people as any other nation on this planet. To
    declare otherwise is no more than slander and clever propaganda.
    Finally, you yourself admit that the violence of the second Intifada
    brought the Palestinians to their knees (i.e. deterrence). If it did so
    once what makes you think it won’t do so again? There may or may not be a
    ground operation, there will probably be more tragic, unnecessary
    casualties on both sides, but, in the end, military operations are not
    conducted to achieve the emotional ends you ascribe to them but rather
    much more rational and achievable aims—as to the tragedy of the means,
    the Gazan leadership and those who elected them have only themselves to

  • It’s a nice thought, but impossible to implement probably. Has to do with us all being human, I suspect, it’s in our genetic makeup as groups (humanoids, not specific ethnicity). A good start would be to for each side to reject extremists within them and get them out of power. Very difficult to do, especially when the rockets and bombs are already in the air and flying.


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