By Azu Ishiekwene
This is the moment the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu always feared with great anxiety. Yet when Hamas launched a deadly attack on Southern Israeli border towns in the early hours of October 7, Bibi and Israel’s elite security forces were unprepared.
In a bizarre fabrication intended to complete Bibi’s humiliation a few days into the war, social media claimed, falsely, that an antisemitic crow had given the victory to the Palestinians in a mystic moment of avian fury.
The truth is more nuanced and complicated. After over five decades of bloody conflicts, the Israeli-Palestinian war has not produced winners or losers. Only a cycle of senseless violence that appears totally avoidable to everyone except the combatants and those who occasionally use them for their proxy war.
The current war, which Hamas claimed was to avenge Israeli attacks on the Al Aqsa Mosque, is one of the bloodiest in a long time, but will not produce a result different from all the rest.
In the popular imagination, no thanks to the Israeli left-wing press, Bibi is a warmonger. The popular view is that he will make war even when peace would cost him nothing, to gratify his anti-Palestinian obsession and deflect from his ruthless control of power and domestic woes. An omen of his just desserts was summed up by the video of a crow tearing up an Israeli flag from a pole on a building in the occupied territories. It didn’t matter that it was an old video which had gone viral nearly six months before the recent outbreak of hostilities. All is fair in war.
Bibi can hardly escape some responsibility for the present state of affairs in the Middle East. After 35 years of being a part of the Israeli political establishment and 16 years as Prime Minister, it is fair to say that if he genuinely wanted a different outcome in Israeli-Palestine relations, there would be no need for the parable of the crow to achieve one.
Within the first four days, the current conflict claimed over 1,500 lives on both sides, with thousands more injured or displaced, and communities leveled in the most brutal ways. In figures that seem very conservative, the UN reports that about 6,400 Palestinians and 300 Israelis have been killed in the conflict since 2008. And that is discounting casualties in the ongoing clashes.
Anatomy of anger
But every story has at least two sides. While the world struggles for a ceasefire to bring relief to millions of innocent victims trapped in this conflict and hopefully, drag the parties back to the forlorn two-state road map for peace, those who want Bibi’s head on a platter might also do well to hear his side of the story.
Perhaps he might never have been prime minister or he might have been a different one if his brother, Yonathan, had not been brutally killed in 1976 in Entebbe when Yonathan led Israeli special forces to rescue mostly Jewish passengers who were taken hostage and their plane hijacked to Uganda by Arab terrorists. Bibi was only 27-years-old then.
Perhaps he might not have been prime minister or he might have been a different one, if Egypt, Syria and Jordan did not join hands in a single-minded pledge to wipe out Israel in the Six Day War in 1967 or in Yom Kippur six years later. Israel has mended fences with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and a number of other Arab countries since, but one or two old foes in the region have become implacable enemies, too.
Perhaps Bibi might never have been a prime minister or he might have been a different one altogether, if the Palestinian leadership from Yasser Arafat’s PLO to the current leaders of Hamas were not sworn to the destruction of Israel, at all costs. Sadly, the PLO has either become irrelevant or at best is playing second fiddle to Hamas, while the chaos in Lebanon has given Hezbollah free reign.
Is it about Gaza?
If the Israeli occupation of Gaza was its worst crime all these years, then Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from there in 2005, in defiance of Bibi and other doubters at the time, might have changed the course of that region’s history. Maybe it might even have forestalled Bibi’s emergence as prime minister many years later. Unfortunately, what Bibi said then, that withdrawing to escape terror is inviting terror to chase you, appears to have been proved right.
Author and syndicated columnist, Jonathan Power, holds a clearly different view, of course. In an article entitled, “Government supporters in Israel are dangerously ignorant of their own history,” he suggests that the same painful memories that radicalised Bibi also radicalised a significant number of five million Palestinians over the years, admonishing those who always talk about the blood libel and the Holocaust not to also forget biblical “genocides” committed by Moses on the journey to the Promised Land or the kindness of Muslim Turks or medieval Spain.
Who owns the land? This is where Bibi’s story gets even more interesting. In his book, Bibi: My story, he accuses an Arab Knesset member of twisting historical facts, in answering the question.
“The first thousand years or so,” he writes, “are covered in the Bible, and are attested to by archeological and the historical records of other contemporaneous peoples.”
He traces the history of the Jews from Ur in the Chaldeans through Abraham’s burial in a cave he bought in Hebron, to Egypt and from there to the wilderness where the children of Israel received a moral code that would change the world on their journey to the Promised Land. He recalls the conquests by Joshua and how after Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, David and his siblings in the battle for control split the realm in two.
“The northern kingdom, Israel, is destroyed, its ten tribes lost to history,” Bibi writes. “The southern kingdom, Judea, is conquered and Solomon’s temple destroyed by the Babylonians by whose rivers the exiled Judeans weep as they remembered Zion.”
He then traces the history of the Jews from Roman rule and the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70 CE to the times of the Byzantines when the Jews were finally reduced to an insignificant minority. “It is not the Jews who usurp the land from the Arabs,” Bibi writes, “but the Arabs who usurp the land from the Jews…the Jews are the original natives; the Arabs the colonialists.”
Lion and the lamb
This is a story that is hardly told, understood or believed. And perhaps the course of history might also have been completely different if Britain, which maintained control over Palestine under the League of Nations mandate, had implemented the two-state solution instead of dumping the problem at the doorstep of the UN in 1948.
Anyone familiar with Britain’s legacy of elegantly concealed systematic violence against its colonies which watered the seed of apartheid in South Africa and created the Kashmiri and Cypriot problems, will not waste time blaming that country for the 75-year-old problem in the Middle East. To adapt Max Siollun, the whole object of British occupation was not only to protect the people from themselves, but also to set them against each other.
Yet, the choices made by Palestinians and Israelis over the years have mostly worsened a bad legacy. Blighted as the region may be from its colonial legacy, it cannot be hostage to the hate or personal injuries of its present elite. After the depredations of COVID-19 and the serious supply chain problems caused by the Russia-Ukraine war, the world could use some respite.
Bibi is right to feel that his worst fears about Gaza and the West Bank under the current Hamas leadership and a weakened PLO was confirmed by the recent unprovoked attack of innocent civilians at a peace concert in Israel.
But his current objective of “wiping out Hamas” even if it succeeds, which is improbable, is not a guarantee that a worse mutation of Hamas will not rise again in Gaza. A stubborn pursuit of his goal might produce in young, innocent Palestinians today the same sentiments that pushed him to the far right.
The lion and the lamb must find a common ground in their shared, chequered history.
Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP