Andrew Roberts is a historian of note, but his robust defence of the state of Israel in the Financial Times (Israel is no more rogue than America, 3 March) is missing in both objectivity and accuracy. Indeed, if the title of his article is anything to go by, then he has missed the point altogether. If two rogues stand together, that doesn’t make one any less culpable than the other per se. Nor does it mean that innocence and justification for wrongdoing can be presumed.
The struggle in the land called holy by Jews, Christians and Muslims is one that prompts strong feelings on all sides of the argument. In his response to FT articles by Henry Siegman and David Gardner, Mr. Roberts makes some staggeringly inaccurate claims, twisting reality to suit his argument. For example, does nuclear-armed Israel really warrant his description as “doughty, brave, embattled, tiny, surrounded, yet proudly defiant”? This is the country with one of the most powerful and best equipped armed forces in the world, backed by the world’s remaining superpower. It is the state doing the occupying, not being the victim of occupation. Roberts is asking us to stretch our imaginations a little too much.
Many people have likened Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to South African apartheid, not least eminent persons like Desmond Tutu. Whether or not the occupied territories were “taken by Israel only after it was invaded by its neighbours” – something that Israel itself has admitted is simply not true; the country’s air force carried out pre-emptive strikes and destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground in 1967 – the fact remains that the acquisition of territory by war is illegal in international law and cannot be condoned. Through its policy of illegal settlements on these occupied territories, Israel does indeed have “colonial ambitions” and its system of passes, checkpoints, dispossession, house demolitions and so on certainly does not display any indication that, as Andrew Roberts claims, “Israel wants nothing more than to live peaceably within defensible borders”. In fact, it has never declared what those borders are, or might be, and the “separation wall” that Mr. Roberts seems to approve of is built on Palestinian land, pushing the nominal borders of 1948-1967 back even deeper into occupied territory. The International Court of Justice declared this wall to be illegal in July 2004 and said that it should be dismantled; Israel is still building it, at enormous cost to Palestinian lives and livelihoods, not to mention the Israeli Ministry of Finance (or should that be the US Treasury?).
If, as he claims, “Israel’s struggle with Hamas, Fatah and Hizbollah certainly constitutes” a war, then it is a war between a modern, well-armed state and a largely civilian population. The position of Hizbollah and Lebanon has to be considered in a very different context, but the situation in Palestine is not a struggle between two sides with equivalent military capabilities. That alone should answer Mr. Roberts’ question about why Israel is singled-out for criticism. We are not talking here about two states in dispute over a piece of land. It is about an occupying military power and an occupied, largely unarmed, civilian population. The state of Israel was created in someone else’s land, not the “land without a people for a people without a land” of Zionist myth. To compare the legitimate resistance against the illegal Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land with the US and NATO “war on terror”, as Roberts does, is a fallacious argument.
Israel’s situation is unique, and no amount of verbal gymnastics can disguise that fact. It was created by a partition plan devised by the UN in 1948, a plan about which the existing inhabitants of Palestine were not consulted. Fifty-four percent of historic Palestine was allocated to the nascent Jewish state even though Jews only owned around 6 percent of the land. In the fighting before and after Israel’s declaration of independence, what has been described by an Israeli historian, Prof. Ilan Pappe, as “the ethnic cleansing of Palestine” occurred, and Israel took even more territory than had been allocated to it by the UN. Israel was admitted to the UN under Resolution 273 on condition that it implements Resolution 194 which calls for the return of the Palestinian refugees. Even though it gave an undertaking to do so when it was admitted into the family of nations, Israel has refused consistently to facilitate such a return. Resolution 194 has been reaffirmed by the UN General Assembly every year since 1948.
Israel expanded again in 1967 and the land grab is ongoing through the colonial nature of the settlements in the West Bank, settler-only roads, military zones and the infamous Wall. At best, any future Palestinian state will constitute around 20% of historic Palestine, but that will not be contiguous territory due to the nature of Israel’s settlement policy.
If criticism of such a policy is “offensive”, as Andrew Roberts asserts, then he has a curious standard of justice and morality. And if he really does believe that “Arab Israelis… have the same rights as every Jewish Israeli”, then he has not applied the same degree of rigour to his research for writing his article as he would impose on himself for his history output.
Many people – Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of no faith – are working for a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis. Some question the legality of the state due to the nature of its creation; that is a long and complicated discussion for another time, perhaps. Others question the legality and legitimacy of the state’s actions, and increasing numbers of the critics are Israelis themselves, as is witnessed by the courageous work of, inter alia, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the ex-soldiers of Breaking the Silence and numerous Israeli human rights NGOs, notably B’Tselem.
When Andrew Roberts says, “The reason that such double standards still apply… is not because of the nature of [Israel], but because of the nature of its foes” he is, frankly, wrong. The world’s elder statesman Nelson Mandela once said, “Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do; a freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the opposition who defines the nature of the struggle.” Double standards do apply, Mr. Roberts, but in Israel’s favour, because no other state has been allowed to ignore so many UN resolutions and get away with it. When the world discusses with alarm the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons the elephant in the corner is Israel’s nuclear stockpile. When the UN’s Goldstone Report accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity, were there calls for sanctions? On the contrary, the British government wants to change English Law to permit the free travel of Israelis accused of such crimes. It is astonishing; and it is double standards; and they favour Israel.
If Israel wants to be treated with understanding by the international community, it has to start treating the international community with something other than contempt. Perhaps then we will see peace with justice for all in the Holy Land. One must be optimistic, but as long as apologists such as Andrew Roberts continue to live with their heads in the sand where Israel’s transgressions are concerned, it is a forlorn hope, for by condoning abuse of international laws and conventions people like Mr. Roberts encourage Israel to carry on regardless. And that is to the detriment of us all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.