Monthly Archives: July 2014

What does “Israel has a right to defend itself” mean?

'The holy books read backwards make for excellent artillery manuals' - El Roto

‘The holy books read backwards make for excellent artillery manuals’ – El Roto

Let’s consider a sentence. The sentence is: “Israel has a right to defend itself.”

What does this mean, exactly?

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, or if you are familiar with the Israel-Palestine conflict, you’ll have encountered this proposition hundreds if not thousands of times. It is continually affirmed by Israeli officials, US officials, EU officials, security analysts, political correspondents, columnists, people who express solidarity with Israel, even people who express solidarity with the Palestinians in the face of attacks by the Israel Defence Forces and who oppose Israel’s occupation and annexation of Palestinian land.

Plenty of people dispute the validity of the proposition. In certain contexts they see it as an excuse for the pursuit of a colonial logic on the part of the State of Israel. They may well be justified in doing so. But I am not concerned with the proposition’s validity, but what it actually means.

What does ‘Israel’ mean in this sentence? Does it mean the State of Israel? If so, we can expand the sentence to say ‘The State of Israel has a right to defend the State of Israel’. Such a meaning contains the tacit proposition that states have rights. Do they? Let us recall how the State of Israel was established: people simply declared (after killing lots of Palestinians and driving hundreds of thousands of them from their homes, but this is not especially important for the purpose of this exercise) that it was established, and others accepted that it had been established. That is, they said: there is this thing, and it exists. How can such a thing –which is an imaginary relation, albeit one sustained by lots of weapons- have rights? How can a thing, as opposed to a person or indeed an animal, have rights?

Perhaps ‘Israel’ does not mean the State of Israel in this case at all. Perhaps ‘Israel’ is the name for the people of Israel. In which case: the people of Israel have a right to defend the people of Israel. If this is so, who is ‘the people’ in question? Is it Israeli Jews? Is it Israeli Jews and Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship? Or, given that the Jewish State exists to open the gates of open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew, does it mean every Jew in the world? And does it exclude Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship? Does this sentence actually mean “All Jews in the world have a right to defend themselves?” It could, I suppose, but it wouldn’t make a great deal of sense in any of the particular contexts in which the sentence is normally uttered.

So either: a) things have rights, and a thing has a right to defend itself; b) people (whoever these people might be) have a right to defend themselves;

or…what else?

Perhaps the only way this sentence can be otherwise made intelligible is to assume that ‘Israel’ in this case is a composite entity: the name, at once, of both the people (whoever these people might be) and the State. Or, in other words, the State is the same thing as the people.


To tell you the truth, I have no idea what it really means. I am guessing that it is not supposed to be fully coherent. All I know is that it is continually repeated. A lot. With a great deal of assuredness. And a lot of people think it makes sense, and they preface their remarks with it, and then they go on to justify the slaughter of Palestinians.

Now, compare the number of times you have heard the phrase “Israel has a right to defend itself” to the number of times you have heard the phrase “Palestinians have a right to defend themselves”, or “The Palestinian people have a right to defend themselves”. If you’re like me, you’ll probably never once have heard the phrase “Palestine has a right to defend itself”.

Now why is that? Why does it appear as incontrovertibly true that “Israel has a right to defend itself”, and yet as regards Palestinians, the Palestinian people, Palestine…there’s nothing? Do you know what that means?


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Anti-Semitism and ‘The Left’

I left this comment in response to a post titled ‘Why is the Left so nonchalant about anti-Semitism?’ on Northern Ireland political website Slugger O’Toole.

Arthur Ruppin

Arthur Ruppin

It is a matter of fact that the accusation of anti-Semitism is used to deflect attention from Israel’s crimes. Nonetheless anti-Semitism as a phenomenon needs to be taken seriously because of its harmful social effects. The fact that some people make unjustifiable accusations of anti-Semitism does not mean it doesn’t exist or that it is nothing to be concerned about. It is therefore right to question the consequences of people using anti-Semitic imagery and language, and on occasion committing acts of physical violence motivated by anti-Semitism. Fine.

The problem I have with this piece is the way it treats the phenomenon of anti-Semitism that appears on the Left as a problem of the Left as such, and not a reflection of the broader social context in which such manifestations of anti-Semitism occur. ‘The Left’ is not a political organisation. Despite what many people claim, there is no ‘we’ of ‘The Left’, unless you think you can speak for characters of such diversity to the point of absurdity as Stalin, Tony Blair, Shining Path, Gerhard Schroeder, Dolores Ibarruri, Pol Pot and the Progressive Unionist Party. Despite all claims to the contrary, there is no ‘true’ Left, so to speak: it is merely an orientation.

There is a lot to be said for the old description of anti-Semitism as the ‘socialism of fools’. But who are the ‘fools’ in this case? In the main, people who believe that there would be nothing wrong with society if it were not for the malign influence of Jews. It is a belief in the fundamental soundness of the way things are, threatened by conspiratorial aliens who tell lies, manipulate people and the workings of the world. But this is only a particular instance of anti-Semitism, it isn’t anti-Semitism as such. Anti-Semitism can be better understood as the belief in the existence of race, of racial difference, and in Jews as constituting one such race. It follows from this that there is an essential difference between someone who is considered a Jew on the one hand and the rest of society on the other. As a political consequence, Jews, because they are considered different from everyone else in the societies they inhabit, must move somewhere where they can have their own political space.

Some people think this should be performed forcibly, others believe Jews should do so willingly. This means that there is common ground to the position of German racial theorists under Nazi rule and certain key figures in Zionism. Thus as historian Mark Mazower notes in Hitler’s Empire, ‘German-born Zionist Arthur Ruppin..was close in many of his theoretical views to Hans Gunther, the ‘Nordic race’ expert who acted as mentor to Himmler. Both men –they met in 1933 to discuss the ‘Jewish question’- believed the Jews were a racially distinct people who should not assimilate and did not belong in Europe.’ Ruppin, as Mazower notes, was the first head of the Palestine Bureau.

The point I am making is that anti-Semitism as a contemporary social phenomenon must be seen in terms of the way in which Jews are perceived in society more broadly than just on ‘the Left’. If it is common sense that the proper place for Jews is Israel, which is a central tenet of Zionism, and it is common sense that Israel is the representative State of the world’s Jews, and this is what the State of Israel claims, then this is a major cause of anti-Semitism. Is Northern Ireland –with its strong strain of Christian Zionism- equipped to question these issues, let alone address them politically? (I would note in passing that neither Brendan O’Neill nor Daniel Hannan, the commentators cited in this piece, seem particularly well equipped in this regard either. I would also note that David Cameron has proudly acknowledged he is a Zionist, but this rarely seems to give grounds for fear of anti-Semitism on ‘the Right’)

Finally, although the author feels as though he is in a category of his own on Twitter: ‘pro-Palestine, but likewise concerned about anti-Semitism and the wellbeing of our Jewish neighbours’, all the dedicated Palestinian solidarity campaigners I know are vehemently opposed to anti-Semitism, not merely because it is harmful to the Palestinian cause but also because it is wrong in itself. And many of them have Twitter accounts too.

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Palestine, Propaganda and War


This is a translation of an article by José Abu-Tarbush. It was originally published 30th July on the Contrapoder blog in

Palestine, propaganda and war

In politics, words count, and in international politics, they count, if you will, even more. Situations of crisis and conflict illustrate this very well. Confrontations are normally preceded and accompanied by a psychological and propaganda war. The objective is to create a favourable state of opinion for the amassing of internal and external supports, and to mobilise resources of every kind (human, material, economic, political, military and diplomatic).

In the current era, presided over by information and communications technology, this trend has increased. The use of ICT is an essential weapon in the information war that accompanies the deployment on the ground. In certain cases the disparity in access to information and communications resources between the conflicting sides also reflects the disparity in other spheres, from the technological to the military. This pattern appears in the current military confrontation between the Israeli army and the militias of Hamas. Whereas the former tweets in English about its military assault on Gaza, the latter lack anything equivalent on the internet in English.

All of this recalls the dominance and, on occasion, the hegemony that Israeli official discourse has held over the conflict throughout its long history. Right from its origins at the end of the 19th century, the Zionist movement launched a political and media campaign in Western power circles. The myths and slogans regarding its colonial enterprise in Palestine proved very effective in winning the sympathy and support of the main world powers of the time. Particularly so France and Great Britain, who, during the First World War, planned on delivering the coup de grace to the declining Ottoman Empire by dividing up its territorial dominions in the Middle East, as revealed in the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916).

At the time, Palestine was a reality, and Israel merely a colonial dream in the mind of Zionist leaders. More than 90% of the population was Arab Palestinian (largely Muslim in religion, followed by Christians and a Jewish minority) and similar proportions applied in land ownership. To invert the terms of this state of affairs (that is, for Palestine to be practically a fiction and Israel a reality), it was essential to have the support of Great Britain as the mandatory power in Palestine during the inter-war period; and the support of the United States from the post-war period until the present.

Of no lesser importance in the effort to legitimate the transformation of Palestine have been a potent propaganda apparatus and the transmission of certain myths: from the supposed divine promise to the definition of Palestine as an empty space. The Palestinians were either invisible, or they simply did not exist in the eyes of the Zionist leaders, but it was not because they did not see them, but rather because from their colonial prism they did not consider them a people worthy of rights. Hence they were defined as nomads, without roots in any particular territory and as a consequence, could be moved to any Arab State in the area. Then they were named refugees: a mere humanitarian problem, devoid of any national connotation. It was on this basis that Israel deflected its responsibility (for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine) onto Arab rulers. Not forgetting, lastly, their everlasting branding as terrorists.

In sum, despite the fact that the so-called new Israeli historians have dismantled official Israeli history, the new cycles of violence brought about by the conflict are still defined predominantly by one of its parties. Successive Israeli governments have maintained control over of the terms and the (mis)labelling for the other. Worse still is the way they are echoed and reproduced by certain media circles with neither objection nor empirical contrast. Thus a massacre is defined as a defensive war and its victims are blamed for being there or for allowing themselves to be human shields of Hamas, with no verification or evidence other than a tweet from the Israeli army, whilst the right to legitimate defence is the exclusive monopoly of Israel. As the veteran journalist Eugenio García Gascón points out: “there are two ways of reporting the conflict: by placing emphasis on declarations or placing emphasis on the facts. Depending on the option that is chosen, what gets transmitted will be either fiction or reality”.

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RTÉ: Compounding The Deceit

RTÉ’s claim that it did not ‘misinterpret or misrepresent’ the views of a woman featured in footage from Gaza is as deceitful as the original report. The footage of the woman appearing onscreen is prefaced by images of a building exploding as a consequence of a missile strike. There is no indication given as to who launched the missile. The voiceover says “even as international pressure increases, the war continued unabated from both sides”.

An uninformed viewer could easily interpret the explosion as caused by a missile launched by either Israeli or Palestinian forces, given the statement of “unabated war from both sides”. In fact, Palestinian forces have used no weapons capable of causing such destruction.

Since the images of the explosion are followed immediately by the Palestinian woman speaking, a viewer could easily infer that the explosion was caused by the Palestinian side. Such an inference would be reinforced by RTÉ’s interpretation and representation of her words: she is ready to strap on an explosive device and fight. Her words and gestures are part of the same flow of images concerning “the war of both sides”.

It is not just a question of her views being ‘paraphrased’, as RTÉ claims: proper paraphrasing requires due attention to the context. Her words about being ready to strap on an explosive device and fight are not because she is a combatant in one “side” of a “war”, which is what RTÉ suggests with the sequence of images and words in its report, but because she is witness to the death of children, as a consequence of precisely the kind of explosion caused by Israeli forces, but shown in the report as if it could have been generated by either “side”.

As she says herself in the translation furnished by RTÉ: “Four to five children die every single day, where are you people? …a four-storey building fell on their heads, it is horrific”. Then: “I am ready to wear the explosive jacket and joint (sic) our fighters…all our children are dying”.
There is a vast difference between a woman saying she will join the fight because “all our children are dying”, and a woman saying she is “ready to strap on an explosive device and fight” without any context or rationale for her words, amid the suggestion furnished by the RTÉ report that even ordinary women are combatants.

Thus the RTÉ report presents the situation in Gaza as a two-sided and even contest, but with the difference on the Palestinian side being that there is no distinction between a civilian and a combatant. The presentation of the Palestinian woman is therefore in keeping with the image of what pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz once described as the “continuum of civilianality” to justify attacks that primarily injured civilian populations, and in keeping with Israeli propaganda more generally. RTÉ’s claim that it did not ‘misinterpret or misrepresent’ the views of this woman could only be justified if it were under orders from the Israeli military, and not subject to obligations as a public broadcaster in Ireland.


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Winning Hearts and Minds, Israel-Style

Yesterday I wrote about images detailing death and destruction, and expressions of concern in media about the effects of transmitting such images. There was a discussion of the same topic on last night’s Tonight with Vincent Browne, presented by Dearbhail McDonald. Journalist Colette Browne said that whereas broadcasters have to abide by certain codes, the dissemination of such images, by people whose governments are involved in supplying aid to Israel and sign arms deals with Israel, allows them to get some sense of the grisly reality endured by Palestinians. I agree with this. But there is another kind of image worth thinking about here: images devoid of any direct representation of suffering or mutilation or death.

There are frequent arguments against continuous exposure to images of pain and suffering: they desensitise people; they might make people reel in horror, but they don’t engage them politically, they don’t make them more inclined to act. I think these arguments can be justified under certain conditions. But what about images that banalise or trivialise or stage a false dramatisation of violent events?

Here is an image produced by the Israel Defense Forces, circulated widely online.


Here is another.



Obviously, these are military propaganda images. They are intended to produce certain effects in the way people think and respond: hearts and minds, as the military expression has it. (cf. ‘Israel is not only winning the war in Gaza but the hearts and minds of Americans.’, in Israel’s Winning Hearts And Minds, The Jewish Week, 23 July 2014).

What kind of effect might be sought from such an image? First of all, ‘winning hearts and minds’ has little to do with winning people over to your point of view with sweet reasonableness, or truth-telling, or logic. It just means using whatever is most effective in making people respond in ways that help meet your strategic objectives. If that means lying, well and good.

In the case of these particular images, there are a whole range of suggested messages, calculated to obtain a set of effects. Missiles are being launched at a capital city. Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower are national symbols, hence the rockets being launched at these symbols are intended to suggest national destruction. What would you do? The suggestion is that Israel is a Western sovereign state like Britain or France. Hence the beholder is called upon to imagine what he or she would do if Britain or France were subjected to a war of national obliteration. Identify with Israel, not whoever the faceless entity is firing the rockets.

What kind of viewer does the image designer have in mind? It is unlikely to be a random person. Certain segments of society may have been identified for particular attention. The image designer may be drawing on research on particular tendencies among particular groups of people, for example, British nationalists and French nationalists, people who already feel as though they are under threat from forces that never show their faces. So the image becomes a call to such people’s sense of chauvinism -and their sense of eroded colonial authority and racial superiority- to agitate in favour of Israel. The images are reminiscent of Armageddon scenes from Hollywood movies: another intimation of Israel’s sameness, its shared culture, in contrast to those who would destroy all this.

Such images also seem to have taken into account the arguments over international and humanitarian law, proportionality, discrimination, historical right and wrong that regularly come to the fore when Israel unleashes one of its military offensives. Fuck that – there’s a war on! The viewer of the image is called upon to imagine a state of exception, in which normal considerations do not apply because the very ground upon which considerations rest -political and legal institutions, humane culture, historical memory- are subject to an existential threat from outside. One can imagine Charlie Flanagan or someone else looking upon such an image, then saying, but of course Israel as a democratic State has the right to defend itself! These images, then, can provide ideological materiel in order to allow Israel to act unrestrained by public opinion.

Evidently, any suggestion that Israel’s opponents are human beings is deliberately left out of the picture. In such scenes of Hollywood Armageddon (the images also resemble video game covers), the only option is complete annihilation of the enemy (but since this is like a movie or a video game, it never really happens…). Through these images, Israel invites us to identify with the sovereign power that takes it upon itself to decide those groups to be preserved, and those to be exterminated.

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Charlie Flanagan and Ireland’s Green Light To Israel

Charlie Flanagan

Charlie Flanagan

On Wednesday, Ireland, along with the rest of the member countries from the European Union, abstained from voting on a UN Human Rights Council resolution to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate war crimes in Gaza. An initial statement from the European Union countries was issued, and then Ireland released a supplementary statement outlining its particular reasons for abstaining.

On Thursday, Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Patricia O’Brien, appeared on RTE’s News at One radio programme. She gave a lengthy explanation of the diplomatic considerations behind the decision to abstain. It was a strange appearance. You might wonder why a diplomat should be giving an account to the public of an abstention that ultimately reflected the government’s political viewpoint. The crucial part of Ireland’s cited decision to abstain –the feeling that the resolution did not give adequate condemnation to rocket fire from Gaza- did not come from Patricia O’Brien, but from the Fine Gael-Labour government.

Listening to the interview, it was hard not to get frustrated with O’Brien’s circumlocutions and qualifications, but it was also hard to shake off the feeling that she had been called upon to do the dutiful thing in the absence of willing government figures.

O’Brien’s rationale for voting along with the rest of the EU was that Ireland, as a small country, was best served when it was in a position to articulate an agreed position, and that “twenty-eight states are louder and more persuasive than one”. Moreover, “our voice is more powerful, as I say particularly in negotiations, when we speak as twenty-eight countries, and this is reflected in the EU statement that was delivered yesterday”.

Well, it was certainly a powerful and persuasive course of action: it was a powerful repudiation of efforts to hold Israel to account, and a persuasive green light to Israel to go on massacring, safe in the knowledge that its privileged status under EU agreements would remain unaffected if it decided to bomb some more hospitals and schools.

This morning, Charlie Flanagan appeared on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme. Called upon to justify Ireland’s decision to abstain from the UN vote, he voiced the same position as O’Brien, but was hesitant and incoherent where O’Brien was assured and fluent. It sounded like someone anxious to keep his documented sympathies for Israel at a distance from Ireland’s abstention. He emphasised, where O’Brien did not, the “right of Israel as a democratic State to defend itself”, thereby smuggling in as self-evident the ideas that Israel is a democratic State and that Israel’s actions vis-à-vis Gaza are normally the actions of a democratic State. That is, Charlie Flanagan, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, was reciting Israeli propaganda at its purest. Flanagan also suggested that Ireland’s abstention was down to the fact that the resolution did not condemn rocket fire from Gaza. In fact, it did.

O’Brien was more accurate here, saying that the resolution did not “adequately” condemn rocket fire. O’Brien was careful enough to allude to the political judgement involved; Flanagan simply lied. In Charlie Flanagan’s mind, do facts appear as one more enemy of the State of Israel?

I cannot help but wonder, however, if Ireland would not have abstained at this juncture if someone else from the Fine Gael-Labour government were Minister for Foreign Affairs, even someone without any record of public sympathy for Israel. My feeling is that it would still have abstained, because the government would not do anything to disturb relations with other EU member states, not least Germany, whose chancellor Angela Merkel wavers even less in her support for Israel than Charlie Flanagan does.


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Spotlighting The Voyeurs

“ Knowing the families, knowing some of the people who have been killed, do you think that we back here in the West should be sharing those images of mutilated toddlers, of kids quite literally with their heads having been blown off, because while on the one side people argue, actually, yes, it has raised consciousness, it has told the world exactly what this kind of war is, but on the other hand, it’s also, you know, these are some young people’s most treasured items or possessions belongings ever, and they’re being disseminated around the world, sometimes, one would have thought, well, in quite a voyeuristic way?”

-Philip Boucher-Hayes, Liveline, RTE Radio 1, Tuesday 22nd July.

Philip Boucher-Hayes’s question about “voyeurism” echoed an opinion piece in the Guardian the previous day. Columnist Suzanne Moore had diagnosed the sharing of bloody images on Gaza in terms of “semi-aroused outrage”. For her, “such images of war, of obscenity, of the “reality” of what sophisticated weapons do are everywhere. There is no more privacy”. Moreover, “all notions about respect for the dead have been ripped apart by the advent of social media”.

This kind of preoccupation shifts the focus of responsibility away from the perpetrators of death and mayhem, and onto the individuals who might view and distribute images that document it. The main problem for a Western public, then, is no longer its government’s tacit or explicit support for Israel’s bombing campaigns, invasions, annexation and occupations, but the way certain people are pruriently or neurotically disrespecting Palestinians’ right to be murdered in private.

It’s very easy to criticise the use of social media in general, to speak of its users as if a seething crowd given over to the latest sensational trend and incapable of consequential thought; that is why so many people do it. In reality, things are a lot more complex. The sharing and viewing of images as part of a wider set of cognitive and communicative activities; reading, writing, listening, thinking, speaking.

No-one beholds images of mutilated or dead children in isolation and in a void. I don’t mean to say that beholding such images is beneficial or indeed harmful – just that it always occurs in a particular context depending on one’s personal experiences and concerns, and that such considerations are cast aside when things are presented as a matter of the savage online crowd.

Isn’t a bit strange that you should find yourself weighing up your own sense of propriety and respect for Palestinian privacy when Palestinians are being massacred, their hospitals bombed and their homes are being blown to bits by a state your government considers an ally?


When I heard Boucher-Hayes’s question I thought about this image above. It’s from the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps people at the time seized on the image and thought it was showing grave disrespect for the victims of war. Maybe they thought it was a violation of the family’s privacy. Maybe they thought that the government ministry that created the image was borne by some kind of sexual neurosis or some kind of moral superiority complex. Maybe it was seeking to appeal to the voyeuristic tendencies of the international public.

Because those are the really important questions, right? What really matters isn’t about a just, peaceful and democratic future threatened by the racism of states that bomb civilian populations, including hospitals. It isn’t about seeking accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It isn’t about subjecting such states to social, political and economic isolation. It isn’t about any kind of active citizenship or international solidarity. It isn’t about seeing other people’s children as if they were your children, your family. It’s about onlookers delving into their unconscious, turning the spotlight on themselves, and making themselves respectable again. How, after all, can we expect public opinion to count for anything when it can’t keep its neuroses in check?


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