In Pictures of Hamas Rockets, What is Left out

Published: August 18, 2014 14:46 IST
(A.B. is an academic who frequently visits Palestine.)

The international media has done well to correct its historical misrepresentation of the conflict in Palestine, but there is some way to go yet.  A report by NDTV, followed by one from France 24 , showing Hamas firing rockets from civilian areas, is a case in point. By overlooking the broader context of occupation, these images highlight the disproportionate nature of the conflict rather than its root cause. Israel has the right to defend itself, most seem to agree, but the manner in which it has done so is repugnant.

Yet it is not proportionality viz. death tolls that is at stake at all. It is Israeli criminality vs Hamas cynicism: both are very wrong but in very different and disproportionate ways. While reportage has highlighted wrongs on both sides, too tight a focus has prevented us from seeing the larger picture.

The issue here cannot simply be one of proportionality precisely because we are not talking about two sovereign states. Israel is an occupying power; this is clear in international law as even the United States acknowledges. As such, Israel is the primary aggressor:  it fired the first shot. How can you go into someone else's home and claim self-defense when the owners try to get it back? Israel's crime is thus not merely one of disproportion, it is one of criminal aggression.

What of Hamas? By firing at Israel from a dense city, don't its actions cry out for condemnation? Doesn't Hamas endanger Palestinian children by its reckless aggression against a matchless military power? Hamas' action might appear to distribute the guilt equally, but our vision clarifies once we keep a simple fact in mind: Israeli rockets (paid for by Americans) kill Palestinian civilians, not Hamas fire. As the columnist Tom Friedman notes, Israel is signalling to Hamas that "You will not out-crazy us out of this region." Israel is indeed winning in the craziness stakes, even if Hamas comes a close second.

Could there be an Israeli response that minimizes innocent deaths? Criticizing Israel as disproportionate implies that a proportionate response, whatever that is, would be justified. To say that Israel should do better reduces Israel's error to the merest technicality. It implies that Israel needs to be a more targeted, efficient killer because what is at stake here is technical error viz. collateral damage. In this way, the proportionality argument, while sympathetic, still obscures a level of colonial criminality that is tantamount to state terror.

This "war" is not wrong because it is disproportional. This is wrong because it is criminal. Firing projectiles made out of water pipes at Israel is morally and legally justified as an attempt at self-determination (viz. article 51 of the UN Charter) but tactically stupid because it is militarily and politically ineffective. That the current negotiations in Cairo have failed to achieve Hamas' political goals (lifting the siege chief among them) is solid proof of the tactical failure of its kitchen-rockets. Of course, in human terms, Hamas' actions are unthinkably costly.  

Firing water-pipe rockets at Israel is deeply cynical because it makes the death of Palestinian innocents a bargaining chip. But this unrighteous death emits from the Israeli military machine. Hamas' cynicism is precisely that it makes an asset out of Israeli criminality by banking on an immoral response from an occupying power. Hamas instrumentalizes the pervasive and prior fact of Israeli criminality. Saying this in no way puts Hamas and Israel on the same moral plane at all, even though we can see the error of Palestinian violence.

The NDTV report claimed that Hamas does indeed have more ethical choices: there are open spaces that it could use that would not invite recrimination on heavily populated areas. Here again, a seemingly neutral observation creates a false sense of equivalence. It is not that Hamas does not have open spaces. It is that they are in an open-air prison and are choosing, unwisely but justifiably, to use the entire prison context as a weapon to get out of their miserable condition. You can't seriously say, sorry, you can only use the prison yard for self-determination!

Hamas is deeply cynical to use the prison and not the prison yard, but let's not lose sight of the fact that Gaza is a prison and not a sovereign state. The moral constraints binding a state simply cannot apply, even though we can condemn Hamas on other grounds.

While new-found sympathy for the Palestinian cause is welcome, the fundamentals of the situation must not be obscured by images of Hamas fire. There is plenty of wrong to go around, but these two wrongs are in no way equal.

In a world where the image is part of reality, journalism needs a form of ethics to judge how its actions will impact the ground it covers. This is messy but completely necessary; suggesting otherwise is to be blind to the world we live in. Journalistic ethics need to evolve for this new world.

In this conflict, that means going even one step below the surface of disproportionate violence to foreground, in every frame, that these are prisoners hurling weaponized plumbing at a mini-superpower. Hamas is wrong to bargain with the lives of innocents, but it is Israel that makes this inhuman bargain possible.

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