Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007, and there is not much in its record to admire. The Islamist party is harsh, narrow-minded and intolerant of dissent. Its charter is anti-Semitic. It fires rockets into Israeli territory and builds tunnels under it to kill or kidnap Israeli soldiers. It knows that the Israeli attacks it provokes will kill hundreds of Palestinian civilians, but does so anyway, knowing that those deaths will garner sympathy around the world.
It is also weaker than it was, because it is losing the military battle against Israel.
By contrast, Israel is the most successful state in the Middle East. It is the region’s only true democracy, a hub of invention, enterprise and creativity. Israel has overwhelming firepower in the fight in Gaza. Most of its people are united behind their soldiers and have the firm backing of America’s Congress.
Though Israel is winning the battle, however, it is struggling in the war for world opinion. That matters in part because Israel is a cosmopolitan trading country that looks to its American ally for security, but also because Israel needs to hear some of what its critics are saying.
A generation ago Israel had the best of the argument with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, in many ways a less vile outfit than Hamas. Young Europeans spent their gap years on kibbutzim. The Western world cheered when Israeli commandos rescued Jewish hostages from the terminal building in Uganda’s Entebbe airport in 1976.
As the occupation of Palestinian territory has dragged on, however, sympathy has seeped away. In a poll published in June, before the destruction of Gaza, the citizens of 23 countries put the balance of those who think Israel is a good or bad influence on the world at minus 26 percent, ranking it below Russia and above only North Korea, Pakistan and Iran.
A growing number of Europeans call Israel racist, with the sinister flourish that Israelis, of all people, should know better. Even in America, where a solid majority backs Israel, the share that thinks its actions against the Palestinians are unjustified has risen since 2002 by five percentage points, to 39 percent. Among 18-to-29-year-olds, Israel is backed by only a quarter.
Many Israelis, and their most fervent supporters in Congress, see today’s hostility as the culmination of a long process of demonization, double standards and delegitimization. They have a point.
Holding a country to high standards, as Israel’s critics do, can be a compliment, but against Israel morality is often used as a cudgel. The common slur that Israel is an apartheid state ignores the fact that Israel’s minorities, such as the Druze, Arabs and Bahais, are protected by the country’s independent courts, including the highest, which has a sitting Arab Israeli judge. The “BDS” campaign to impose boycotts, encourage divestment and introduce sanctions calls not only for an end to the occupation of the West Bank and for equal rights, but also for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees — in other words, for the erosion of Israel as a Jewish homeland. Protests in France against the fighting in Gaza have led to attacks on synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses. No wonder that many Israelis feel that the world is against them, and believe that criticism of Israel often is a mask for antipathy toward Jews.
They would be wrong to ignore it entirely, however. That is partly because public opinion matters. For a trading nation built on the idea of liberty, delegitimization is, in the words of an Israeli think tank, “a strategic threat.”