World View: Israel-Gaza: Better call Cicero

Helping the casualties ... About 500 people died in an explosion at the Gaza City hospital.

The blame game has gone into high gear.

It started with the massacre perpetrated in Israel almost two weeks ago by the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip for the past 17 years. United States President Joe Biden called it “sheer evil”, and a chorus of other voices said the same.

Another chorus of familiar voices replied: the 2,3 million residents of the Gaza Strip are descended from Arab Palestinians who were victims of the “Naqba” (the Disaster), the expulsion of the Palestinians from their lands in what is now Israel in 1948.

Those refugees and their children and grandchildren have lived ever since in what amounts to an open-air prison, said the counter-chorus. So the attack was understandable, even if the slaughter of civilians was hard to defend.

As usual, there is some truth in both the narratives, and which one people believe largely depends on their existing loyalties. The same mechanism is at work in every subsequent turn of events, including the explosion at Al-Ahli Al-Arabi hospital in Gaza City that killed an alleged 500 people on Wednesday morning.

Hamas immediately said it was a deliberate Israeli attack and called the Israelis war criminals. (A bit rich, coming from an organisation whose fighters have just slaughtered about 1 300 Israeli civilians, many in their beds.) Popular opinion in Arab countries agreed, as you would expect, and started demonstrating against the Israelis.

Whereas Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) both denied responsibility for the blast. It was caused, they said, by a rocket launched at Israel by Islamic Jihad, Hamas’ rival and sidekick, that came down short and exploded in the hospital parking lot. Biden, on a brief visit to Israel, agreed.

Islamic Jihad denied that accusation, of course. And the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the “Palestinian Authority”, who were also scheduled to meet Biden in a “summit” during his whirlwind visit to the region, abruptly cancelled the event. They didn’t say why, but they are obviously afraid of the rage of the “Arab street”.

So can we figure out where the truth lies in all this — and does it even matter? Physical evidence would be best, but only one side has access to the site.

The Israelis say no impact crater is visible, which would argue in favour of an mis-firing rocket (Islamic Jihad) rather than a deliberate strike (Israel). However, any crater could be hidden by the debris, so without an on-site investigation that’s far from conclusive.

 What we are left with is the old Latin legal strategy deployed by the statesman and lawyer Marcus Cicero in a famous case in the late Roman Republic: “Cui bono?” Who benefits from this (crime)?

If it really is a deliberate crime, it’s unlikely to have been committed by the Israelis. The consequence was to stir anger in the Arab Street, influence world opinion against the Israelis, and force the cancellation of the meeting between the US president and Arab leaders. All those things benefit Hamas’ cause, not Israel’s.

Aha, say the proponents of the Israeli plot theory, but Israel wants to drive all the Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip so it’s using terror tactics (a second “Naqba”). But the only place those Palestinians could go is Egypt, which borders the Gaza Strip.

However, the peace treaty with Egypt in 1978 is the foundation of Israel’s relative security from Arab attack, and the Egyptian regime definitely does not want a couple of million Palestinian refugees on its hands.

The Palestinians would not only be an economic burden for Egypt, but a political threat to General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime, because they would work to replace him with an Egyptian leader more supportive of the Palestinian cause. Neither al-Sisi nor the Israelis wants that, so no second Naqba.

Al-Sisi did suggest that if the Israelis were really interested in avoiding civilian deaths in their impending Gaza offensive, they could relocate the entire civilian population to Israel’s Negev Desert until they have killed all the Hamas fighters, but that was probably a joke.

What are we left with, then? Not a definite culprit, but at least a list of probable causes for those 500-odd deaths at the hospital. In declining order of probability, they are:

  •  an off-course Palestinian rocket fired by Islamic Jihad. (They are almost all home-made, and at least 3 000 have been launched in this round of fighting.)
  •  an off-course Israeli missile.
  •  a deliberate Hamas false-flag explosion timed to coincide with Biden’s “summit” with Arab leaders.
  •  a deliberate strike ordered by the Israel government for inexplicable reasons (Cui bono?) or freelance revenge by some grief-stricken Israeli pilot.

And does it actually matter much who did it? Not really. Everybody will believe what they are used to believing, and act as they usually act.

  • Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled The Shortest History of War.

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