The Gaza occupation myth — a war of words
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The Gaza occupation myth — a war of words

Leonard Grunstein of Teaneck, a retired attorney and banker, founded and was chairman of the Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of N.Y. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council.

Gaza is occupied by Gazans. Neither Egypt nor Israel, its territorial neighbors, occupy Gaza, as a matter of fact or law.

Yet the provocative terms “occupation” and “occupier” are misused casually, by many in the news media and others, to describe the relationship between Gaza and Israel. The words project an explosive image of Israel, as a so-called occupier, which is assumed to be oppressing an otherwise innocent and peaceful Gaza. The portrayal often is expressed with certainty, as if the occupation were an obvious truth, but it is nothing more than fake news.

Gaza is not occupied by Israel, and Gaza’s problems are self-inflicted.

A candidate for Congress in New York City recently evoked this occupation canard to blame the situation in Gaza on Israel. When challenged, she couldn’t explain why, and sputtered that she was not a geopolitical expert. If this were not bad enough, a former spokesperson for the State Department under John Kerry defended the candidate’s gaffe, insisting it is the U.S. position that Gaza and the West Bank are occupied.

Is this plain ignorance or something more insidious? Gaza is not under occupation by Israel under international law, and the State Department no longer refers to Judea, Samaria, and Gaza as occupied in its annual Human Rights report.

The term occupation is defined in the Hague Convention and interpreted by international tribunals. In sum and substance, for Gaza to be occupied, it would have to be invaded by a hostile army; surrender to the invader, which establishes its own governmental administration to replace the Hamas government that it rendered incapable of functioning publicly; and the invader must then be able to issue and enforce its directions to the civilian population of Gaza, backed up by its military presence on the ground. Air and naval control or the potential to invade and control are insufficient. International tribunals rejected these fanciful arguments, requiring actual boots on the ground and effective control for there to be an occupation under international law.

This makes eminent sense. Otherwise, it might well be argued that the United States occupies Canada and Mexico; not because it does, but because it could. Similarly, it would be absurd to suggest that the United States occupies Germany and South Korea because it has military bases in and other security arrangements with those countries. The United States doesn’t exercise effective control over them, and its security rights are per agreements.

How then could the terms “occupation” and “occupier” be so cavalierly, albeit inappropriately, applied to Israel’s present relationship with Gaza? How is it that so many are taken in by this canard? It may help to outline some of the modern history of Gaza to better understand how ludicrous it is to continue to mislabel Israel as an occupier of Gaza.

After Israel declared independence in May 1948, Egypt and four other Arab countries invaded it. Egypt conquered the Gaza Strip, and the Jews, including the community of Kfar Darom, were forced out. Egypt continued to control Gaza, even after the 1949 Armistice Agreement with Israel. Egypt lost control of Gaza only as a result of the Six Day War, which it precipitated in June 1967.

A peace treaty was signed with Egypt in March of 1979. Egypt demanded and received the return of all of the Sinai under the treaty. It did not, however, require control of Gaza.

Israel administered Gaza until it transferred governmental authority over it to the Palestinian Authority, in 1994, pursuant to the Gaza-Jericho Agreement. It withdrew entirely from Gaza, including removing any military presence and all Israeli residents, in September 2005.

Under the Oslo II Agreement and the subsequent disengagement agreement with the Palestinian Authority in 2005, Israel negotiated and obtained certain rights to patrol Gaza’s coastal waters and air space. This was intended to enable Israel to interdict illegal weapons deliveries to Gaza, which are expressly prohibited under the agreements noted above.

Gaza has borders with Israel and Egypt. Both Israel and Egypt, like so many other countries, have a security presence on their own side of the border, but not in Gaza. They also have the general sovereign right of all countries, recognized by our own Supreme Court, as an established principle of international law, to control their own borders and close them to noncitizens. As embodied in the U.N. Charter, each also has a right to self-defense.

Gaza also has a security presence on its side of the borders with Egypt and Israel. It controls who and what enters and leaves Gaza. Israel does not control the Egyptian border crossing with Gaza; Gaza and Egypt do. Gaza also has the right to build an international airport and the use of its own adjacent territorial waters, but not for the purpose of importing weapons and other such materials proscribed under the agreements noted above.

Hamas is a terrorist organization. Its avowed goal, enshrined in its charter, is the destruction of Israel. It also espouses anti-Semitic and genocidal doctrines directed against the Jews generally. Christians also are persecuted in Gaza. In stark contrast, Israel is a tolerant and diverse society. Its citizenry includes Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as well as members of other faiths, creeds, denominations, and beliefs. Israeli society is a veritable kaleidoscope of color, ethnicities, orientation, and places of origin. It is one of the most progressive places in the world.

If Hamas were so interested in the health and welfare of the people of Gaza and their ability to travel outside of Gaza, then why is it spending so much treasure on building terror tunnels? Why is it illegally acquiring rockets, other weapons, and war-making materials, prohibited under the agreement with Israel and smuggling them in by sea, over land, and through the underground tunnels it constructed illicitly under the Egyptian border? Why is Hamas not focused, instead, on building the international airport permitted under the agreement with Israel and other infrastructure to improve its people’s lives?

Why is Hamas continuing to attack Israel and Egypt instead of choosing peace? Why has it launched many thousands of rockets, mortar shells, and explosive or incendiary devices against Israel? Why has it attempted armed incursions of Israel? Why is it callously using its own people as human shields and provoking incidents, which as Hamas intends are dutifully reported by the news media?

Neither Egypt nor Israel threatens Gaza. Before it proceeded on this reckless, belligerent path, Gaza was doing mutually beneficial business with Israel, Gazans regularly worked in Israel, and Gaza’s GDP was growing, not declining. The issue is not Israel or Egypt; it is Hamas that is the problem.

The crisis in Gaza is not only self-inflicted, it is perpetuated and needlessly deepened by Hamas. Amazingly, even as Israel legitimately defends itself against Hamas attacks, it still is providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, despite all the challenges posed by Hamas’s terrorist regime. When will those who just emote and vociferously express outrage about the crisis in Gaza recognize Israel’s contributions? In this regard it should be noted that Israel also is providing real assistance to Syrian refugees on its northern border. Just recently, it helped save many hundreds of White Helmets and their families. How many of us sitting here can say the same?

There is no moral equivalence between Hamas’s unprovoked unilateral attacks on Israel’s civilian population and Israel’s acting in self-defense. Israel’s defensive actions are consistent with the highest standards of military conduct, as codified in the Talmud and halacha, as well as under international law. Ambassador Nikki Haley eloquently supported Israel’s right to self-defense and noted that no nation would have acted otherwise. She glowingly acknowledged the extraordinary restraint Israel shows. Hamas is the aggressor, and yet it manages to cast itself as the victim in this tragic drama that it authored, produced, and presented, with the help of an accommodating news media.

Hamas’ propagation of disinformation has become a near science, using social media, bots, trolls, and bogus or less-than-circumspect news sites, including its own controlled local news media, to disseminate its false narratives. This includes provocative false information, virtuous-sounding messages, and fake, staged, or manufactured images, as potent tools to fool us. Consider it was only in May that Hamas sought to invade Israel violently. It managed falsely to label the armed invasion as a peaceful protest. The armed Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives shot were incorrectly referred to as protestors. Let’s be clear, it was not peaceful; it was not a protest; and it was not along the Gaza border with Israel. It was a violent armed invasion of Israel.

Many in the news media are taken in by Hamas’ sophisticated propaganda apparatus. Others may be biased or have an agenda. Journalists on the ground in Gaza, are often threatened, intimidated, and see only what Hamas wants them to report. Some are seduced by the opportunity to present unverified and gruesome or otherwise compelling visuals for their TV or online audiences. How else to explain the widely disseminated apocryphal tale of the 8-month-old baby reported to have died on the Gaza border from tear gas inhalation and the accompanying image of the mother holding the lifeless body of the unfortunate child in a hospital morgue? As we now know, the child died from the same blood disease as her sibling, and Hamas paid the family to promote its fiction. This was not serious, thoughtful, and responsible journalism. It was a Hamas-contrived dramatic presentation, right out of its propaganda playbook, and the media was complicit in promoting it.

Many innocent people are profoundly affected or even overwhelmed by these powerful visuals and words and the perceived injustice they express. The constant repetition of these messages or other seemingly virtuous sentiments that go viral makes them seem reliable. It is so easy to succumb to their simplicity and seductive charm as they champion the rights of supposed victims. Never mind that the victims actually may be the aggressors. It is hard not to virtue-signal acceptance of the apparent popular wisdom; it’s all but irresistible. This soon may become an even more challenging problem, as artificial intelligence is adapted to become a player in this black art of disinformation. I can’t help but reflect on the prescience of the Talmud, more than 1,500 years ago, in predicting that in a future period, which may be our time, truth would be absent.

We therefore must steel ourselves not to be naïve or trusting. It is a critical lesson that informs how we might engage this new media. Indeed, the first clue that a source may be tainted is when it immediately engages our emotions and overwhelms us with a sense of injustice and outrage.

Take a breath and wait a moment. We must be skeptical and not act out of an emotional connection to the perceived virtue of a cause. We have to challenge myths and recognize the reality of the situation as it exists, not as spuriously promoted by Hamas and its knowing or unknowing propaganda agents in the media and elsewhere.

As a matter of fact and law, there is no occupation of Gaza by anyone other than the Gazans living there. It’s time to end the masquerade about Hamas-controlled Gaza wanting peace, if only Israel would satisfy some suicidal condition. These, like moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, are nothing more than pretexts that are intended to conceal Hamas’ express goal of destroying Israel.

As the wise Charles Krauthammer z”l cautioned almost a dozen years ago:

“…Israel evacuated Gaza completely. It declared the border between Israel and Gaza an international frontier. Gaza became the first independent Palestinian territory in history. Yet Gazans continued the war…Why? Because occupation was a mere excuse to persuade gullible and historically ignorant Westerners to support the Arab cause against Israel. The issue is, and has always been, Israel’s existence. That is what is at stake.”

Not much has changed in all these years. Peace still is available if Gaza simply would stop its attacks on Israel and Egypt and just live in peace. The framework for peace is and has been in place for many years now. We should no longer excuse or fund Hamas’ misbehavior or give credence to its pretexts.

It’s time for Hamas to stop the charade, recognize Israel, stop attacking it, and pursue peace. Let the blessing of peace prevail.

Leon Grunstein of Teaneck, a retired attorney and banker, founded and was chairman of the Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of N.Y. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council.

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