Rafael L Bardaji and Davis Lewin were right to argue yesterday on this site that Hamas needs martyrs at Israel and Gaza’s borders. The attempted mass incursions into Israel are a brilliant new tactic, aimed at reinvigorating protests abroad against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. It comes in the wake of the organisation’s marginalisation by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Hamas has been leaning closer to Iran in the great civil dispute between the two main schools of Islam, Sunni and Shiite, that are dividing Arab and Muslim countries (though Sunni Turkey is on much better terms with Shiite Iran than it was). These violent protests are getting it back in the game.
It’s true that the Hard Left’s hatred of Israel is extraordinarily selective, and best explained psychologically rather than politically. The country is the only western-flavoured liberal democracy in the region – complete with free elections, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, a lively civil society, and rights for women and gay people. Since the Far Left’s mentality is essentially adolescent, driven by protest against the western norms which allow it freedom to dissent in the first place, Israel must thus be the target of special venom. That it has been governed from the Right for the best part of 20 years adds fuel to the flames.
None the less, Israel’s status as a liberal country is curiously fragile. In very simple terms, it cannot survive as one, in the long term, if it is to annex the West Bank, denying the Palestinians who live there the same democratic rights that Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike, possess. Many in Israel would counter that they would like nothing better than a negotiated peace with the Palestinians, but that one has never seriously been on offer. There is force in the claim. But Israel has its own extremists. Remember the murder of Yitzak Rabin. Mull the fanaticism of some of the settlers. And consider how the country’s proportional representation system, which ensures that its minorities are fairly represented, also empowers the anti-Arab fringes. Above all, the country’s demographic future is itself uncertain.
Mark Regev, Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, claims that the Hamas-driven protesters are “charging the border fence with wire cutters, with explosives, with molotov cocktails, with other weapons”. This is doubtless so. But our own Government is right to recoil from the country’s use of live ammunition. We are not experts in crowd control, nor in a position to second-guess the IDF. But one school of thought has it that the decision to fire live rounds is less a military one, shaped by officers on the ground, than a political one, driven by government ministers who have voters to satisfy. That doesn’t bode well for the liberal ethos in which Israel takes pride.
Israel is diplomatically very active in Britain – which it needs to be, given the mood on the Left. It is fighting to hold on to what standing it has left in the Labour Party, which has leaned towards the Palestinians since the 1980s. Its relations with the Conservative Party, and therefore with the Government, are a great deal better. But we need to step back for a moment, and see ourselves as others see us. To Israel’s Government, the view of European governments and voters is of secondary importance. What matters is what America’s Congress and President think and do.
The protests were not planned as a reaction to Donald Trump’s decision to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. Rather, they were originally devised to mark the flight and explusion of Arabs from what is now Israel in 1948. But Israel’s Ministers will feel that if they have Trump onside, little else matters. Netanyahu even seems to have squared Putin – to his country’s protection of its interests in Syria, at any rate. What Theresa May does – even with the tantalising possibility, for him, of a pro-Israel tilt by Britan post-Brexit – is, when push comes to shove, incidental.