Singaporeans are distant from the immediate realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and should be circumspect in our treatment of the topic. At the same time, we cannot adopt an isolationist or uninformed position on the current violence in the region because to do so would ignore how conflicts from afar affect Singapore’s social fabric.
Despite our geographical disconnection, Singaporeans are fully immersed in media narratives surrounding the issue, many of which are one-sided and incendiary. If mishandled, these narratives can stir emotions and impact interactions within our own community, affecting intercommunal harmony in Singapore.
To help bring light rather than heat, Regardless aims to dissect the Israeli and Palestinian positions in this three-part series to provide Singaporeans with a nuanced, albeit limited, analysis of the tensions. This will help Singaporeans have informed, fair, and measured conversations around this hot-button issue.
In the first two articles, we present the arguments for and against the Israeli and Palestinian positions, respectively, without critique in the interest of facilitating empathy on both sides. In the final article, we offer our cautious assessments of all the positions and key questions that we identify.
In this first article, we examine the arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ the Israeli position.
On 7 October 2023, Palestinian Islamist group Hamas launched a surprise attack on the State of Israel from the Gaza Strip. It was on a Saturday (the Sabbath), on the Jewish high holiday of Simchat Torah. It came fifty years and one day after the Yom Kippur war in 1973.
The attack began early in the morning, at around 6.30am, with a huge barrage of 2500 rockets. It was followed by the infiltration of militants by land, air and sea. They attacked at least six Israel Defense Forces (IDF) military bases and seven civilian areas, including a town, five kibbutzim and a music festival. Militants killed not only soldiers in uniform, but also civilians, including women, children and the elderly.
In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that the IDF “will immediately use all its strength to destroy Hamas’s capabilities”, and that Israel would “destroy them and… forcefully avenge this dark day that they have forced on the State of Israel and its citizens”.
The Israeli Case
Here is the case in favour of the Israelis, in a nutshell:
1. Every State has the Right to Self-defence.
The case in favour of Israel is based on the basic right of every State to exercise its right to self-defence against any threat to its existence or its citizens. This is a right affirmed by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, which refers to the “inherent right” of each State to engage in “individual or collective self-defence” in the event of an “armed attack”.
The Hamas Covenant of 1988 declares that “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it”, and that there is “no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.”
The 2017 Hamas Charter declares the establishment of the State of Israel “illegal”, declares that there “shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity” (i.e. Israel), and calls for “armed resistance” against the “occupation”.
Accordingly, Israel has consistently referred to Hamas as “terrorists”, noting that “Hamas wants to murder us all”, killing women, children and the elderly in their own homes.
Images and videos have emerged of Hamas atrocities, such as the video of Hamas militants parading a young woman’s naked and battered body in the back of a pickup truck. She was subsequently revealed to have died, confirmed by DNA analysis of a skull fragment.
Comparing the Hamas attacks to the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, Israeli ambassador Gilad Erdan told reporters that “this is Israel’s 9/11”, adding that “Hamas is a genocidal Islamist jihadist terror organisation”, “no different” from ISIS or Al-Qaeda.
2. Hamas and other Militants are Responsible for Civilian Casualties in the Gaza Strip
Israel’s immediate response to the Hamas attacks has been to launch hundreds of airstrikes against targets in the Gaza Strip. As of 8 November, the Gazan Ministry of Health has said that at least 10,569 Palestinians have been killed. Over 25,000 have been wounded in Israeli airstrikes since 7 October. Of the total death toll, a UN report claimed that about 70% were women and children. It is unclear how many of the killed were combatants since Hamas fighters dress as civilians.
However, IDF has said that Hamas “has continuously used civilians in the Gaza Strip as human shields”, and “does not hesitate to risk the lives of Gazan civilians… for the purpose of attacking Israelis”.
It has also said that there has been an “increase” in “failed” rocket launches by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad groups within the Gaza Strip.
In his speech on 7 October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the residents of Gaza: “Leave now because we will operate forcefully everywhere.” On 13 October, the IDF issued an order for all civilians in the northern half of the Gaza Strip to relocate south within 24 hours, explaining that this was in order to “minimize the harm to non-combatants”.
However, Hamas told Gazan residents to stay put and prevented their departure while mosques broadcasted messages of: “Hold on to your homes. Hold on to your land.” The message implies that the evacuation order is a ruse for Israel to drive them out and seize control of the land. By contrast, the IDF has accused Hamas of trying to deny the move “in order to use these residents as a human shield”.
Responses to the Israeli Case
What are the responses to the Israeli position? Here are the rebuttals to the two points above:
1. The Hamas Attacks were Provoked by Israel’s Actions
A countervailing point of view is that the Hamas attacks were provoked by Israel, which was responsible for initial wrongdoing. Hamas has said that the “Al-Aqsa Flood operation” was a “natural reaction” to the “numerous crimes against the oppressed Palestinian nation for decades”, and that Israel had “desecrated” the Al-Aqsa Mosque in recent months.
Malaysia has likewise stated in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks: “The root cause must be acknowledged. The Palestinians have been subjected to the prolonged illegal occupation, blockade and sufferings, the desecration of Al-Aqsa, as well as the politics of dispossession at the hands of Israel as the occupier.”
Malaysia maintains a relationship with Hamas, considering it to be the legitimate government of the Gaza Strip, and has rejected pressures to condemn the organisation.
According to this view, the actions of Hamas are seen as a legitimate response to a range of actions by the Israeli government perceived by them to be illegal. These need to be briefly unpacked:
- “Occupation”: The “occupation” is a term that could be applied, in a limited sense, to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as “occupied Palestinian territories” (which is the view of the UN). Alternatively, it could be applied in a wider sense where even Israeli territory is considered to be “occupied”, as understood in the Hamas Charter.
- “Blockade”: Since the seizure of control of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007, Israel has declared it a “hostile territory” and maintained a land, air and sea blockade on the Gaza Strip. It restricts passage of goods, services and people.
- “Desecration of Al-Aqsa”: The Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem is the third-holiest site in Islam, and is the site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli presence and control over East Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa compound, has been seen as a degradation to the Muslim site. Occasional actions by Israeli police, such as the clashes in May 2021, are deeply provocative.
2. Israeli responses are disproportionate and causing a humanitarian crisis
Another critique is that Israel has responded in a disproportionate manner and is causing a humanitarian crisis. In a meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was quoted speaking about the “Israeli regime’s war crimes, indiscriminate and brutal killings, and destruction of homes, mosques, hospitals and public places”.
Here are some key criticisms:
- Two days after the Hamas attacks, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege” of Gaza. All food, electricity and fuel was cut off from the Gaza Strip, with the result that desalination plants were unable to function as well, thereby cutting off the water supply. As of 16 October, there are conflicting reports about whether Israel is providing water in the south of Gaza; while Israel asserts that it does, Hamas has asserted otherwise. As of 5 November, Gaza is operating at sub 5% of its regular production capacity, according to a UN official.
- In relation to the Israeli order for Gazan civilians to evacuate from the north within 24 hours, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric considered the order for 1 million Gazans to evacuate down south to be “impossible”, without “devastating humanitarian consequences”. Israel is blamed for the “humanitarian catastrophe” that would occur as a result.
- Israeli airstrikes have been criticised for being indiscriminate. Large numbers of Gazans have been killed or wounded as a result of the airstrikes, including women and children. It is reported that Israeli airstrikes have also killed those who fled south of the evacuation zone, and thus “Palestinians have no safe place to escape Israeli bombs”.
As a result of the numerous circumstances, Israel is accused of violating the laws of war.
In brief, the issues raised by the positions ‘for’ and ‘against’ the Israeli position can be summarised as follows:
A1. Who was responsible for the conflict in the first place? Did Israel legitimately exercise the right to self-defence, or was it the root cause of the violence?
B1. Is the suffering of the civilians in the Gaza Strip caused by Hamas or Israel? Or could it be caused by both? If so, to what extent?
In the next article, we will look at the Palestinian position.