SINCE becoming the first EU country to formally recognize Israel’s ‘annexation’ of the West Bank, Ireland has both made friends and ruffled feathers on the international stage.
While its decision is unlikely to break the deadlock over the Israel-Palestine issue within the EU, Ireland’s non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council means it could have broader ramifications if, like New Zealand in 2016, Ireland sponsors a motion condemning the settlements.
Dr Dore Gold, a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, spoke to The Irish Post about how the landmark motion passed in the Dáil on Wednesday misses the bigger picture of what is going on in Israel and the region beyond.
To begin with, Dr Gold questions the timing of Ireland’s decision, as he says that Jewish Israeli settlement has “nothing to do with the war itself.”
For Dr Gold, Israel’s right to defend itself against an onslaught of missile fire is self-evident, and the blame for the recent conflict lies squarely with Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza who fired over 4,300 rockets and mortars at Israel over the 11 days of fighting.
But many international observers see Jewish settlements, encroaching on land previously occupied by Palestinians and widely condemned as illegal by the international community, as the main obstacle to peace.
Taking a step closer to this position, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said: “The scale, pace and strategic nature of Israel’s actions on settlement expansion and the intent behind it have brought us to a point where we need to be honest about what is actually happening on the ground…It is de facto annexation.”
So, when fighting broke out between Palestinians and Israeli police at Jerusalem’s Al-Asqa Mosque ahead of a court ruling on Palestinian evictions in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, it was unlikely to be viewed outside of this context.
This sparked a fierce battle on the last Friday of Ramadan at Al-Asqa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, and prompted Hamas to issue an ultimatum, which was predictably ignored, that Israeli police withdraw.
Hamas lost no time in seizing the moment to stake their claim to be the guardian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem by firing salvo after salvo of rockets into Israel, 90% of which were successfully intercepted by the country’s Iron Dome missile defence system.
An Israeli military source told The Irish Post that while they consider the war to have been a success, Hamas may have made some symbolic gains, especially early on, as their rocket fire was seen as retaliation for the police crackdown at Al-Asqa.
The clashes also played into the hands of the radical factions Israel is trying to oppose, including the Muslim Brotherhood, who Dr Gold says have “perpetrated for many years the lie that Israel is seeking to undermine the foundations of that mosque – some say in order to rebuild the Temple of Solomon.”
“This is a complete lie, but it captures the imagination of many Palestinians and also people in the wider Arab world,” Dr Gold said.
Israel’s response to the attack led to the destruction of over 450 buildings and the death of over 250 Palestinians, including 66 children – though estimates vary, and Israel claims that 200 Hamas operatives were among the dead.
Dr Gold is keen to stress the “moral challenge” faced by Israel during conflicts like this: “Israel’s adversary is not only attacking our civilians, but it’s also placing its military capabilities in its own civilian areas.”
To get around this, Israel uses “advanced technology to separate as much as possible the Palestinian civilian population from Hamas.
“That involves techniques like knock on the roof, where you give a warning to a building that you’re going to hit because you have hard intelligence that missiles and other equipment are stored there and therefore according to the laws of war it’s a legitimate military target.”
Despite these precautions, in the deeply unforgiving fog of war, Israel still makes what are considered by some of its own officials to be costly strategic blunders.
Footage of the owner of the Gaza media tower, which housed the offices of the Associated Press among other news organisations, pleading with Israeli forces to allow journalists to retrieve their equipment moments before the building was levelled did not go down well in the eyes of the world.
Dr Gold said: “I think that these cases illustrate that Israel after all these years still has to significantly improve its spokesmanship when it goes into a conflict of this sort.”
“If you’re going to destroy a building which has Hamas offices, and you can prove that, but there are also media outlets there, then you’ve got to get that information out even if it has a certain degree of military sensitivity.”
“Because what you’ll pay in terms of Israel’s political standing worldwide is greater than the military risk you take by exposing that information.”
Some unnamed Israeli officials went further, conceding to the New York Times that bombing the media tower was a mistake – especially for a country which distinguishes itself as a bastion of liberal values, including respect for press freedom, in an otherwise illiberal region.
This gets to the crux of the problem faced by Israel; while it can claim a military victory, it has come out significantly more bruised in the war of symbols – which has long been a core part of Hamas’s strategy.
In the wake of what some have dubbed the ‘TikTok Intifada’, both the military and Dr Gold acknowledge the increasing importance of social media in what is perhaps the most watched conflict in history.
Dr Gold says that Israel needs to adapt to it “in the same way it would with other new military technologies that change the dynamic of the battlefield.
“You have to understand the instruments that are being used to attack you in social media and you have to be able to respond in their terms in real time, particularly if you want to win support from the younger generation who are using these platforms.”
With scenes from Al-Asqa Mosque and the Gaza media tower reverberating on screens around the world, the narrative can all too easily become one of a heavy-handed state pummelling its weaker adversary.
Even videos of the state-of-the-art Iron Dome and its missile interceptions can, by virtue of its impressiveness, stress the unevenness of the conflict and leave some with the false impression that Israel is in no real danger.
The 12 people, including two Thai nationals who were killed in Israel during the fighting put the lie to this claim.
Hamas, whose charter openly calls for the murder of all Jews, have demonstrated their growing capabilities and are not only a threat to Israel but to the wider region as well, according to Dr Gold.
Dr Gold said: “The progressive poupart’s of the international community are not at all startled by the involvement of Hamas – which is a threat, a real threat to many of them, but it doesn’t seem to bother them.”
Indeed, Sinn Fein refused to condemn the firing of rockets by Hamas – despite its purposeful targeting of populous civilian areas such as Tel Aviv.
Dr Gold continued: “Ironically, in the Arab world, the threat of Hamas and the problem of Hamas is well understood.
“Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates view Hamas as an unadulterated terrorist organisation.
“Saudi Arabia understands that Hamas helped indoctrinate some of its people prior to the 9/11 attacks.
“Take for example Abdullah Azzam, who was a member of Hamas, who lived in Jeddah, and whose student was Osama bin Laden.
“So, they know the seriousness of the challenge that Hamas poses, but if you go to Paris, you’re never going to hear this.”
The Fenian refusal to condemn Hamas and the Irish government's solidarity with the Palestinian cause suggests a common feeling between the Palestinian and Irish struggles for independence.
This chimes with the feelings of many Western observers, who tend to see the conflict in terms of a David and Goliath-like struggle between Palestinians “who are smaller in number against a more powerful Israel".
“But it could be that the whole thing is just the opposite,” Dr Gold said.
The elephant in the room lurking behind the recent conflict is Iran, who, according to a recent report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, have used “radicalisation and indoctrination to nurture a network of paramilitary cells and militias throughout the region”.
Its goal is to “establish a pan-Shia Islamist state grounded in the authority of Iran’s supreme leader”, in addition to "eradicating Zionism and the state of Israel," the report states.
Despite being a Sunni organisation, Hamas is a significant beneficiary of Shia Iran’s funding, and was reportedly receiving up to $30 million per month in 2019.
This is the piece to the puzzle that Ireland is missing, according to Dr Gold: “We’re fending off a threat which comes from an Iran which is on the move, which is why Israel and the states of the Arabian Peninsula now have a common language which we lack with Ireland.”
“It’s unfortunate, because we could work very closely with Ireland, but it is what it is.”
Connection with the Irish cause is not the exclusive preserve of Palestinians, according to Dr Gold, who said: “The Jewish Resistance Movement in British Mandatory Palestine also identified with the Irish cause, Yitzhak Shamir used to speak about Michael Collins very fondly, but I guess that’s been forgotten.”
Given the current circumstances, and his awareness that to negotiate, the other party must first acknowledge your right to exist, Dr Gold thinks the closest thing to peace going forward is likely to be a long ceasefire.
He said: “Unless you have recognition of the illegitimacy if the use of force, which is in the UN charter, you can’t really get to first base – to use an American baseball term – in any meaningful diplomatic process.
“That’s hard for many people in the West to digest, but that’s the honest truth.”
While analogies with The Troubles may come to mind, Dr Gold makes an important distinction.
“You were dealing with people who were willing to reject violence and adopt a peaceful course, that’s a different situation than what we have with Hamas.”
“But I think those who are looking at our conflict, and commenting on it, haven’t taken that into account.”