I’ve been dismayed to see so many organizations either blaming Israel for the Hamas attack or cheering the terrorists who perpetrated it. Most of the groups are led by young people, many in university settings. Their simplistic view of the situation ignores the history of the Middle East and the foundation of Israel as well as the nature of Hamas.
First, Hamas is not a group of freedom fighters. They are a jihadi terrorist organization with antisemitic roots and a violent history. For years, they sent suicide bombers into Israeli cities to blow up civilians on buses and in cafes. They don’t want peace, freedom, or democracy for anybody. They want to eradicate all Jews and have vowed to destroy the country in the name of Islam. They are considered a terrorist organization by Arab countries as well as Western ones. They are more ideologically and tactically tied to ISIS or the Taliban than to democratic freedom fighters. There’s a reason that Egypt is enforcing the blockade, too.
Israel is a pluralistic society and the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. The country has about 10 millions citizens, including almost 2 million Arabs who share the same rights as Jews, though they certainly face some discrimination. Most of the Jews in Israel come from Middle Eastern and North African heritage, while a large portion are descendants of European refugees. We should be supporting a diverse country that gives its citizens a voice in choosing its government, even if we sometimes harshly criticize the policies of that government.
Protesting Netanyahu’s right-wing government is fine, but cheering for the destruction of Israel or excusing the deaths of innocent Israelis is not. Nobody has been more angry or dismayed by the direction of current government than Israelis themselves. Until the attack, Israelis have staged ongoing protests of the government for months. They can do that in a democracy.
Most Israelis want a two-state solution to give Palestinians a homeland. However, they do not want a country led by groups committed to the destruction of Israel on their border. The Palestinians themselves have a responsibility to find leaders who will move them toward peace and away from armed conflict. Israel will not accept a country on their border run by the likes of Hamas terrorists.
The attack happened, in part, because Israel was loosening its restrictions on Gaza, albeit slowly. The government was allowing more Palestinians to cross into Israel for work, improving the economic circumstances of Gazans. The Israeli government naively believed that Hamas was moderating, focusing more on improving the economic lives of Palestinians than killing more Jews. They won’t make that mistake again.
The story of Israel is not an easy one. The country was borne of systemic oppression of Jews throughout the world. It’s history is complicated by European colonial rule, two World Wars, and the rise of fascism in Europe. The Jews who populate Israel today aren’t just refugees from the Holocaust. Many, if not most, are people of Middle Eastern descent whose parents and grandparents were stripped of their land and homes and faced brutal discrimination in the years after the Holocaust. At the time Israel was formed, more than a million Jews lived in the Middle East outside of the 1948 borders of Israel. Most emigrated to Israel for security and hope for a future. If the United States is country of immigrants, Israel is a country of refugees.
Israel was established in the wake of the Holocaust when Nazis killed more than 6 million European Jews, about two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe. While the area that is today Israel had a substantial Jewish population for centuries, Jewish emigration from Europe increased in the late 19th and early 20th century because of oppression and pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe. With the rise of fascism and the refusal of western countries, including the US, to take in Jewish refugees, the Jewish population in the region grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s. In the aftermath of the war, Jews who survived the horrors of concentration camps flooded into the area.
The period from 1945 to 1948 was marked by wars between Jews, Arabs, and the British colonial powers. The United Nations tried to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Jews accepted the measure but the Arabs rejected it. As soon as British troops left region in May 1948, the Jewish leaders declared the state of Israel, accepting the UN borders for the most part. The new country was recognized by countries across the world.
The armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon immediately attacked the new state. Over the next year, Israel managed to push the Arab armies out and, along with them, many of the Palestinian Arabs. About 700,000 Palestinian refugees ended up in camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan while about 150,000 stayed in what is today Israel.
Today, there are about 6 million Palestinian refugees living mainly in the West Bank, Gaza, or in the countries bordering Israel. Most have never lived on the land that makes up Israel. For its own survival, Israel needs to work toward a solution for the Palestinians. They have lived under oppressive conditions for too long. However, the responsibility also lies with their Arab neighbors who refused to accept a Jewish state for far too long and whose attacks 75 years ago led to the refugee problem today.
Since the end of colonial rule in the Middle East, only one country has established a liberal democracy—Israel. Like all countries, it’s far from perfect, but it aspires to have more respect for human rights than its neighbors, in spite of the seemingly obvious contradictions. It’s fair, and even right, to criticize Israel for its failings, for its mistreatment of Palestinians, for its constant incursions into Palestinian land. Israelis sure do.
However, it’s not acceptable to cheer for Hamas terrorists who are not only killing Israelis but bringing death to their own people. It’s not okay to say Israel had it coming. We need to condemn those groups who do.