Taking the measure of the heat in Gaza

My following book review appeared in Saturday’s Melbourne Age:

Gaza: Morality, Law and Politics
Edited by Raimond Gaita
University of Western Australia Publishing, $29.95

Raimond Gaita’s collection tries to analyse a contentious conflict, writes Antony Loewenstein.

MONTHS after the release of the UN-backed Goldstone report that found alleged war crimes by both Israel and Hamas during their conflict in late 2008 and early 2009, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz lashed out at backers of the comprehensive study. He called rabbis who issued a statement that supported Goldstone’s recommendations “rabbis for Hamas”.

It is this heated atmosphere of debate that Raimond Gaita’s edited collection attempts to analyse and defuse. It is an ambitious task, not helped by Zionist and Arab ideologues. Gaita organised a 2009 series of talks by Australian public intellectuals on the Gaza conflict and related issues. Full houses were the norm for the entire season.

The absence of Israeli and Palestinian voices is perhaps understandable — it is a battle that resonates deeply in the Diaspora — but the accounts would have benefited from at least one eyewitness who could detail the chaos and anger on the battlefield. Academic distance has its limitations.

In his introduction, Gaita skilfully weaves the moral, legal and political questions over the contentious conflict. He doesn’t hold back, arguing “it is certain that Israeli soldiers committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity”.

He damns Israeli leaders such as former prime minister Ehud Olmert who talk about human rights, but then order “millions of cluster bomblets to be dropped on Lebanese villages”. Gaita is no less forgiving of Hamas, claiming their ambition is to “destroy Israel”.

The noted philosopher deserves credit for trying to engage questions around the legitimacy of the Jewish state and whether a democracy can be both Jewish and equal to all its citizens. However, he writes that “the reason Israeli Arabs are now second-class citizens in Israel is purely because they are victims of racist hostility”, but then denies that Israel is an “apartheid state”. In fact, like in apartheid South Africa, there are legal definitions for such terms and many legal scholars today argue that Israel, especially in its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, is guilty of racial discrimination.

The anthology’s contributors are connected to these themes, often wrestling with myriad competing issues. Gerry Simpson, who holds a chair of law at the University of Melbourne, concludes his essay by arguing that “killing in contemporary conflict [has] condemned both sides to war-making that is often illegal and yet also appears to each side as politically and morally necessary”. It is an undoubtedly true statement, leaving observers reliant on human rights reports and robust journalism.

None of the writers feels particularly comfortable with the conduct of either side, though the Goldstone report notes that Hamas did very little fighting, simply unable to match the Israel Defence Force’s firepower.

University of New South Wales political theorist Geoffrey Brahm Levey examines the concept of “just war” and finds countless statements by Israeli leaders that explicitly demand “disproportionate” force be used against an enemy. He ends with a wish for “genuine mutual recognition” and demands that we examine the “impact and consequence of . . . settlement upon others”. The Palestinians are under occupation, Brahm Levey writes.

Mark Baker, the director of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University, appears conflicted in his chapter, discussing the effect both the Holocaust and Nakba have had on Jews and Arabs since 1948. These are valid debates but what is missing is an articulation of any moral responsibility of Diaspora Jewry for either blindly backing most Israeli actions or remaining silent when feeling uncomfortable over Israeli behaviour.

Despite the evidence, Baker appears unwilling to acknowledge that the civilian death toll in Gaza was “deliberate” and in so doing relies on simplistic statements such as “the anti-Zionist left shares a common agenda with al-Qaeda”.

The most refreshing chapter is by Ghassan Hage, future generation professor of anthropology and social theory at the University of Melbourne. He labels as “bloody obvious” the fact that crimes were committed during the conflict but delves deeper into the inherent issue with nationalism itself. “The impossibility of a Zionist nation-state as a normal state” is Hage’s recurring theme.
Legal expert Hilary Charlesworth and international relations academic Anthony Billingsley complete Gaita’s circle. Charlesworth highlights women in war and how disadvantaged they are in war zones. A measured collection in heated times.

Raimond Gaita is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Antony Loewenstein is author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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