Its never easy being outside the country when Israel is engaged in direct confrontation with any one of its neighbors. It is even more difficult when your immediate friends or family members are on the front line as they are called up for reserve duty, and when, living and working in the south of the country, your colleagues are affected by daily rocket-fire and spending their time between office and shelter as the sirens continually sound.
But canceling your participation in an international conference during a period when the support for academic boycotts is beginning, once again, to rear its ugly head is an important consideration. It is an opportunity to be seen and be heard, to provide some balanced analysis of what is happening in Israel, even if that is not the purpose of the trip. The venue is a large geopolitics conference in China. Many of the participants are international affairs analysts and Israel is a topic which is of great interest to them. Given the events in Gaza, Israel is a major topic of conversation, if not in the formal paper and discussions sessions, then definitely around the coffee breaks and the dinner table.
Some of the participants are knowledgeable people. Many have visited Israel in the past as research fellows or on tours of diplomatic duty. Some have even been active in direct and indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in the past.
And there are many Chinese students who want to know about Israel, their only knowledge of the region and the conflict coming from the news broadcasts which show pictures of destroyed houses and devastation in Gaza as the conflict becomes more intense each day.
Each has their own inbuilt political bias.
They are mostly critical of Israel for the continued occupation of the West Bank and the siege of the Gaza Strip.
But they are equally critical of both Hamas and Hezbollah for firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel, not least because of the association of these groups with the global terror of the past decade.
They are critical of what they perceive as Israel’s disproportionate response, but all agree that if it was their country being attacked by rockets they would expect their respective governments to respond without undue considerations of proportionality.
They are concerned about the high asymmetry in the numbers of fatalities on each side. They demand that Israel take greater caution in avoiding all civilian targets but are equally highly critical of the way the civilian population is manipulated by Hamas as human shields.
The international response has probably been more muted than at any other point during the past two decades when Israel has undertaken similar actions in either the Gaza Strip or South Lebanon. Even the anti-Israel demonstrations in capital cities around the world have been smaller and less violent than in previous cases.
Overall, there is little support for Hamas, which is perceived as a terrorist movement rather than one fighting for national liberation.
Around the world, people feel threatened by the growth of fundamentalism and violence and they see Hamas as being part of the global movement which has to be stopped.
The entry into Gaza commenced but a few short hours after the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. While the 40,000 Israel army reservists were being prepared for the Gaza incursion, it was unclear when it would actually take place. The shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft, coming immediately after the unsuccessful attempt at a cease-fire, shifted the world headlines away from Israel, albeit temporarily.
But Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the government should not be fooled into believing that the toned-down global criticism will not become more vociferous the longer the military operation goes on. Every innocent child who is killed while playing football on the beach, every family that sees their home destroyed as they are turned out on to the streets with nowhere to go between the closed borders of Egypt, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, turns opinion against Israel.
The most recent events in Shejaia, which are being portrayed as a massacre, may yet serve to change that in the coming days.
Ironically, the success of the Iron Dome anti-missile system and the general preparedness of the civilian front in protecting itself against the missiles that do get through, creates a numerical asymmetry in the numbers of fatalities, and this too has the potential to shift the scales of international opinion back to a more widespread criticism of Israel.
Somehow or other, the world expects Israel to miraculously destroy all the missiles and the tunnels without inflicting casualties.
International opinion does not equate the tragic loss of life of young Israeli soldiers with that of casualties on the other side. The death of soldiers is perceived as some sort of expected outcome of a conflict of this nature, to be equated with the deaths of the Hamas fighters rather than that of civilians. Unlike the impact of every such death in Israel, the soldiers are perceived as no more than a dry statistic which, when compared to the number of Hamas fighters killed, slide into insignificance.
The Gaza operation needs to be completed as speedily, and with as few civilian casualties and collateral damage as possible. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu should not mistake the toning down of criticism as a measure of unconditional support. The world opposes Hamas missiles but they continue to oppose the wider political context in which Gaza has become one of the largest open prisons in the world, closed in on all sides and preventing any move toward political and economic independence.
Once Hamas has been defeated, Israel should not repeat its previous mistake of sitting back in self-satisfaction and doing nothing on the diplomatic front, waiting for the next round in two or three years’ time when the missiles have been replenished and yet another generation of young warriors have taken the place of those killed in the present operation.
The world may, for a very limited period of time, be partially receptive to Israel’s response to the threat to its civilian population from the firing of missiles. It has allowed Israel some breathing space to put an end to the situation.
But opinion will quickly change – it is already beginning to do so – if Israel does not take this opportunity to move ahead with a new diplomatic initiative following the end of hostilities.
Only in this way can Israel expect that the short-term acceptance of Israel’s current military operation will be translated into a real change in international public opinion.
The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.
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