As Palestinians and Israelis are again locked in conflict, innumerable citizen advocates aim to promote the side with which they identify. Supporters of Israel face structural disadvantages in a fight for hearts and minds that can have real-world implications. Here’s why.
Going back nearly a century, the Zionist position was not against the creation of a Palestinian Arab state, simply in favor of reviving the Jewish state alongside it.
By now, a pragmatist element of Palestinian leaders has technically accepted Israel’s existence but failed to abandon domestic messaging that demonizes and delegitimizes Israel. Moreover, jihadist groups like Hamas—which seized control of the Gaza Strip—remain openly committed to Israel’s destruction.
While this extremism might be expected to bolster the standing of Israel’s defenders, it deprives them of stridency that can resonate: Typically these defenders do remain on the defensive, while Palestinian activists go on the offense. Mainstream Israel-advocates appeal for coexistence, for calm. Often, however, pro-Palestinian voices demand “justice.” That can be impactful.
Justice can imply the existence of one victim and one villain, a convenient narrative in an era of zero-sum populism and social media platforms that favor easy-to-rouse hashtags. Anti-intellectual, “anti-elite” sentiment on the far-right is increasingly matched by disdain for moderation and nuance on the far-left.
And so, a tendency has hardened among some to see power as confirmation of unjust privilege—and also to recognize only certain forms of power. Palestinians are seen to be stateless and weaker than Israel militarily. But too many do not ask whether Palestinians have had opportunities for statehood, as they have, or whether Palestinians “offset” military inferiority, as their combatants do, through asymmetric warfare that exploits limitations on a uniformed military.
Too many see a blockade on Gaza, but not the violence and explicit threats that precipitated it. Too many see Israel’s relative strength, but not its longtime vulnerability in the midst of a vast Arab world, let alone nearly 60 Muslim-majority states at the United Nations.
The UN condemns Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy, more than all other countries combined. UN bodies tend to dedicate extraordinary attention to Israel only after it responds to attacks—not before.
But the realities are even more daunting outside such halls of power. Not all Muslims or Jews are animated by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but the fact that the world is home to some 1.5 billion Muslims and only around 15 million Jews affects what goes viral on social media, the size of solidarity rallies, and that which politicians and news outlets hear.
After a year of the pandemic, audiences are eager to change focus. Among Palestinians, the realization that more Arab governments have recently shifted toward accepting Israel has sparked a determination to regain visibility.
Progressives also perceive conservatives as generally supportive of Israel—and react by emphasizing Palestinian goals over regional peacemaking. Palestinian activists’ campaign to tie their nationalism to the Black Lives Matter movement—while stigmatizing Jews’ nationalism as “racist”—is giving their efforts yet another edge.
An under-appreciated reality is that there is little cost or risk to excoriating Israel, something that isn’t true of major world powers or authoritarian regimes.
Israel is one of the world’s smallest countries and it long lacked natural resources, in contrast with its oil-rich neighbors. With fewer than 10 million citizens, it does not wield a tremendous consumer market. Additionally, Israel remains isolated and boycotted by adversaries. Its assets are strained by the need for defense against relentless, recurrently existential, threats.
Despite this, political debate is always robust in Israel—which can do little to silence critics abroad.
The fact that many vilify the Jewish state does not confer guilt; it shows that detractors face few consequences for doing so.
Journalists are fallible. From story placement to selective data, and from editorializing in reportage to objective errors, providing true context to complex subjects is a tall order.
These hazards especially apply to Israel—the focus, quantitatively and qualitatively, of unsurpassed scrutiny. No other nation is so critiqued for counterterrorism efforts, let alone equated with terrorist aggressors. Why are terrorists described as such elsewhere but often called “militants” when their targets are Israelis? Why are Israeli leaders labeled “hard-line” but Palestinian nationalists, Lebanese or Iranians rarely are? Why are the terms “occupation” and “settler” applied to Israeli Jews but few others? Why does endemic Palestinian incitement go unreported?
More people have been killed in numerous countries than in Israeli operations against Hamas. Unequal reporting devalues the lives of those deemed unworthy of attention and advocacy.
Finally, at a time when new technology is available to document facts, imagery can also be manipulated—or tell just part of a story.
Are observers aware that Israel acts to minimize civilian casualties, while Hamas seeks (however successfully) to maximize them? Have readers been reminded that Palestinian violence spiked after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005? Do viewers know that Israel has maintained Muslim administration of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—Judaism’s holiest site?
Too often Palestinians are treated as powerless people, but Israel as a faceless state.
In reality, there is real suffering among both peoples—and each side holds critical responsibilities.
But this is likely too nuanced a message for the moment. Israel contends with asymmetric warfare not only on the battlefield but also in the battle for public opinion.
Read David's expert analysis in InsideSources.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
Recently, Israel blew the lid off of deplorable Hamas operations to divert humanitarian aid from development projects in Gaza into their efforts to attack Israeli civilians. And, sadly, the United Nations, and by implication, our tax money, was also affected.
The more notorious of the humanitarian aid scandals in Gaza was the arrest of Mohammed El Halabi, Gaza director of World Vision, a Christian charity, for funneling millions of dollars worth of money and supplies to Hamas over a multi-year period. World Vision gets funding from individual donors, churches, foundations and grants from many Western governments. The large amount of money that was diverted is staggering and deeply disturbing. The scandal has led some countries to withhold aid to World Vision, which has suspended operations in Gaza while it investigates. World Vision issued a statement condemning terrorism in only a general way, and instead of showing genuine horror that funds sent from donors (who thought it would benefit Palestinian children) were instead diverted to a terror organization bent on killing Israeli children, expressed skepticism about the allegations and lectured Israel on transparency.
The U.N. connection? Prior to working at World Vision, El Halabi worked at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). As Israel alleges, as part of his work for UNDP, El Halabi sent “farmers” to the areas near the border between Israel and Gaza, where they acted as scouts for Hamas terrorists (see more information on the El Halabi case here). The U.N. honored El Halabi as one of its “humanitarian heroes” in 2014 as part of World Humanitarian Day. That webpage was taken down, but is still archived here. World Vision has still not taken down an identical article about El Halabi on its own website.
After El Halabi was detained, a second arrest was made, this time of a UNDP Gaza staffer named Waheed Borsh, who allegedly funneled concrete, which was used to construct a base for Hamas’s terrorist operatives.
The U.N. reacted to news of the arrest similarly to World Vision—with concern about the allegations but also some skepticism and hectoring of Israel on judicial transparency. It should go without saying that Israel is a democracy with a strong standard of rule of law, while being careful not to endanger security. Gaza, on the other hand, is run by a terrorist gang that summarily executes people.
The U.N. also absurdly claimed that Borsh, as a U.N. employee, was entitled to diplomatic immunity. Borsh, however, was a local staff person, not a diplomat. If a local staffer at U.N. Headquarters in New York was accused of giving money to Al Qaeda, or a staffer at UNESCO in Paris of supporting ISIS, would the U.N. also claim diplomatic immunity for them? Highly doubtful.
In an added insult, the U.N. demanded that Borsh be let go from the prison where he is being held in Be’er Sheva. But, they did not write it Be’er Sheva, they chose to use Bi’ir as-Sab, the Arabic name for the city—a city with ancient Jewish historical connections. This tactic of purposefully mislabeling Israeli cities and towns with Arab names is a favorite of those who hate Israel and want to see it destroyed and replaced with an Arab state. For the U.N. to degrade itself in this way while demanding that Israel release a staffer accused of using U.N. resources to support terrorism is an unnecessary added provocation. These types of games should have no place under U.N. letterhead. Was this done by mistake? Then the U.N. should admit to it and apologize.
Israel hinted when El Halabi was arrested that there could be more arrests coming down the line. Unfortunately, these examples are also not the first time that Palestinian groups have taken advantage of well-meaning donors. During Operation Protective Edge, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the U.N. agency funded by many Western donor governments that takes care of Palestinian refugees and their offspring in perpetuity (while all other refugees are taken care of under the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees—UNHCR), found Hamas rockets hidden in their schools. It is not only Hamas that takes advantage—the Palestinian Authority takes in massive amounts of aid from Western donor governments while continuing to run a pension system for terrorists.
Indeed, transparency and accountability is needed, but from the humanitarian NGOs and U.N. agencies working in Gaza who are being used to further Hamas war aims against Israeli civilians.
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