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Irrational venom trumps logical argument in Middle East debate

Part of the challenge of writing for a wider public is resisting being provoked into knee-jerk responses to attacks on what you have written. Sometimes it is OK to simply let contrary viewpoints go by unchallenged, even when they are palpably ill-founded. At other times, though, remaining silent is not an option, and the latest crude and bludgeoning diatribe by Sentletse Diakanyo, in which I feature prominently, falls very much into that category.

I first locked horns with Diakanyo on Thought Leader about a year ago, when he wrote that disproportionate Jewish influence was a reality that the world needed to deal with. I responded in the same forum. Since then, he has sniped periodically at me and now has used a response I wrote to Alistair Sparks in Business Day to come out with a full-frontal assault on my moral and intellectual integrity in the course of rehashing the usual string of shrill and defamatory canards against the State of Israel.

Writing on the Middle East conflict is a thankless task, and anyone who has read the kind of responses this invariably elicits will understand why. Some readers do try to genuinely engage with the arguments of both sides, but polarised, contradictory and wholly un-nuanced assertions tend to be far more common.

Having been active in this field for many years now, I have long recognised that many people’s prejudices against Israel are so fanatically entrenched as to be impervious to reasoned argument to the contrary. Indeed, far from merely avoiding confronting those arguments, the latest trend has been to impugn, often quite viciously, the moral standing of those who dare to make them.

Sometimes, though, one has to take a stand for what firmly holds to be the truth, even when knowing that in certain quarters, it will not make the slightest bit of difference.

What follows are some of the key arguments I made in my response to Sparks and which Diakanyo cannot bring himself to deal with. For a start, if Israel targeted Palestinian civilians as a matter of deliberate policy during last year’s war in Gaza, why was the final Palestinian death toll so extraordinarily low? One thinks of how an estimated 30 000 civilians in Dresden were killed in a single night of bombing during the Second World War. With the weaponry at its disposal, the Israeli Defence Force could have inflicted at least as much carnage within a few hours against the Gaza population. Indeed, if Israel had adopted the notorious Hamas tactic of seeking to wreak as much death and injury amongst civilians as possible, it could certainly have done so. Instead, after three weeks of intensive fighting in heavily built-up urban areas, Palestinian casualties were a little over a thousand, tragic certainly, but unquestionably a tiny fraction of what they could have been. How would Diakanyo, who insists that Israel clearly set out to cause harm to civilians, account for this indisputable fact? He does not and, of course, cannot.

Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and someone who therefore knew from first-hand experience what he was talking about, said during the war: “I do not think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when an army has made more efforts to reduce civil casualties and deaths of innocent people than the Israeli Defence Force is doing in Gaza.” One need look no further than the relatively low Palestinian casualty figure, and compare this with the kind of casualties incurred in similar conflicts around the world to acknowledge the accuracy of this assessment. For example, in the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war, conducted more or less at the same time as the Gaza incursion, an estimated 20 000 civilians were killed.

Looking back at the Gaza tragedy, it is further indisputable that had Hamas not continually bombarded Israeli civilian areas with thousands of lethal missiles over an extended period, no Gaza war would have taken place at all. And if Palestinian “militants” had not carried out its military operations from within densely populated civilian areas, hardly any civilians would have been harmed at all.

It is Hamas, in fact, that must be held responsible for every drop of blood that was shed in that war, whether Israeli or Palestinian. It provoked the confrontation and then used human shields behind which to continue hostilities, knowing very well that deaths amongst its own civilian population would inevitably ensue. The Hamas leadership would seem to be deliberately engineering deaths and injuries amongst its civilian population for propaganda purposes. People like Diakanyo who rush to accord them such propaganda victories in fact make themselves complicit in that profoundly evil strategy.

The difference between the Israeli Defence Force and its Hamas equivalent is that when a military operation results in civilian casualties, Israel conducts an intensive investigation into what they did wrong. By contrast, Hamas will pat itself on the back for getting things right, since harming Israeli civilians is precisely what it seeks to achieve. When Israel finds that members of its military violated the Law of Armed Conflict, whether intentionally or through negligently, it punishes them appropriately. The Hamas reaction is to fete them as national heroes or, if they perished in the operation, as holy martyrs. (Sadly, even the more “moderate” Fatah in the West Bank similarly holds successful terrorists up as role models for the population at large.)

My own view is that Diakanyo, and many others like him, are in reality motivated less by compassion for the Palestinians than by an implacable hatred of Israel. What confirms this for me is how I believe I would react if the situation were reversed — that is, if Israelis were in the same situation as the Gaza Palestinians and were engaging in the same kind of murderous provocation against their much stronger neighbours as the Hamas-led Palestinians are currently doing. My anger in that case would not be directed against the Palestinians for inevitably retaliating but against the Israeli leadership for provoking such bloody confrontations in the first place (and then brazenly playing the victim when they get the worst of it).

One final point: it has become commonplace to jeer at Jews for “crying” anti-Semitism in order to shield Israel from legitimate criticism. In certain cases these even have a basis of truth, since certain individuals do indeed rush to unfounded conclusions without proper consideration of what is actually being alleged. Now, however, we are seeing the escalation of a similar type of ad hominem attacks from the other side. Today, merely presuming to contest the standard black-white, good-evil, oppressor-victim narrative that is being propagated about the Middle East conflict with such increasing stridency is enough to have one labelled as a collaborator with Israeli “war crimes”, “atrocities”, “genocide” or what have you. It is an ugly piece of character assassination, not to mention calculated moral blackmail. I, for one, have no intention of yielding to it.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.


  1. Sydney Kaye Sydney Kaye 30 July 2010

    I think your first instinct, i.e. not to bother replying was probably the right one. Yes you have to deal with Alistair Sparks, elevated by the Independent Group as a “veteren” writer, but to respond to every on-the-band wagon wannebee Israel hater is a waste of enegy.
    This chap has no interest in the details of the arguement nor does he even pretend to follow it. It is just a matter of picking out what appears to support the standard obsessive narrative and preaching to the converted.
    Perhaps the M and G should have a sub-sub section called “Thought Followers” instead of Thought Leaders.

  2. Muhammad I Omar Muhammad I Omar 30 July 2010

    Nobody has a problem with a person being a Jew. The Golden Age of Jewish History was in Spain and Portugal under Muslim rule. What happened to the Jews after the Crusades? Israel will have its place in the world if it is ready to make peace, stop its settlement activity and retreat to its 1967 borders. Will Israel stop its setllement activity? Israel refused to recognise Hamas which won a democratic election in Gaza (as opposed to the puppet Fatah) and this is why the trouble started in Gaza. Israel will not give in to an independent two state solution because West Bank has water and Gaza has gas in the ocean. Can anyone tell me today where exactly are the borders of Israel?
    Sadly Goldstone and Sparks have denounced Israels actions and every day israel is becoming more and more isolated like the old apartheid South Africa.

  3. Robert James Basil Duigan Robert James Basil Duigan 30 July 2010

    I agree that if it was Israels aim to slaughter civilians they could have done much worse. Fair enough, that shows consistent logic. But in terms of who is to blame for the attack in 2008, it is rediculous for you to blame Hamas. Philosophocally, the position you take lacks something. By blaming all casualties on both sides of the conflict, you must, in moral consistency, blame the ANC, IFP and PAC for all the atrocities committed during apartheid. Its rubbish. Besides, according the IDF’s official website in 2008, they were already publically planning the invasion many months before any provocation from the Palestinian population occurred.
    So while, it is ludicrous to suggest that Israel is slaughtering civilians for fun, I wouldnt say they arte doing the minimum. But to look at the overall pattern of behaviour from Israel, which is to make life as miserable for the natives as possible, passify any political and material opposition, refuse to recognise the existence of a Palestinian state, instigate conflict to attack whenever they see any advances in organised leadership amongst their victims, I cannot say their supporters have a foot to stand on.

    Besides, Israel still treats Israeli terrorists as national heroes, and applauds their bombing of British embassies during the British mandate, so philosophicallly, this means your moral sanctity depends entirely on which side of the fence you are born on.

    And if all we Palestinian-sympathisers are doing is excercising hatred of israel, what would you call your position?

  4. CiA CiA 30 July 2010

    @ DS. I am with SD on this one. I am no fan of Hamas or Hezbollah or whatever, but your article is just more self-righteous pro-Israel denial. Tell me, are you getting paid by the state of Israel for running this sort of propaganda?

  5. George S George S 30 July 2010

    What’s happened to the Golden Age of Islam? I’ll leave it there. My opinions usually don’t get approved by the editors.

  6. Grant Walliser Grant Walliser 31 July 2010

    What many seem to miss in this debate is that it is not an issue driven by morality yet we judge it to be such. The Israeli – Palestinian conflict is a geographical, resource and security issue inflamed by religion. The religion makes it impossible to deal with the other issues calmly and the geography has always meant that if Palestinian territories combine, Israel splits in half, the size of the country means that any enemy is far too close for comfort and there are too many people with too few resources in a tiny space. The rest is just humans doing what they do best – fight eachother.

  7. David David 31 July 2010

    “if Israel targeted Palestinian civilians as a matter of deliberate policy during last year’s war in Gaza, why was the final Palestinian death toll so extraordinarily low”

    The fact that there is a deliberate policy of killing civilians is not the same as a policy to kill as many as possible. Terrorism works on the basis of killing small numbers and amplifying the effect of this through the nature of the violence, i.e. by showing that you are safe nowhere and that we (read Israel) can do to you as we like, by eroding the support of civilians for a particular regime or . Same logic used by Al-Qaeda terrorists when they killed ‘only’ 50 people on the London transport system. For you to use the example of Dresden as an analogy is disingenuous. The only similarity is the common terror experienced by German and Palestinian civilians.
    HAMAS has killed only a small number of Israelis, as has any of the Palestinian organisations, and I don’t see you relating the extent of their terrorism to the numbers of civilians killed. Again, quoting a British officer from an army complicit in massive violations in Afghanistan (see the recent Wikileaks reports) as a source in support of your argument is ludicrous. Like Saddam Hussein calling Kim Jong Il to testify to his democratic credentials. Its called mutually-reinforced delusion.

  8. Marcus Tshetshe Marcus Tshetshe 31 July 2010

    It is evident how little regard mr Saks has for palestinians lives,to claim that over 1500 unnecessary death of civilians is extraordinarily low! That’s show how cold some hearts are towards palestinians.secondly he claim that had Hamas not attacked civilians in Israel,this so called Gaza war would have been averted. This is blantant distortion of facts,at the start of the aggression,the israelis made it clear their aim was to release a soldier captured by the resistance movement Hamas,in that operation no a single israeli civilian was harmed. Hamas went for a legitimate military target and succeded. In returning the favour the israelis went straight for civilian targets including a UN school resulting in the scary civilian victims toll. It has now become a common practice for israeli to use its mighty army against unarmed civilians,the latest victims being the Mavi Marmara passengers. You claim that Hamas fighters hide in civilian areas,these are civilians forced to defend their families and land from people chased in europe,their weaponry is mainly primitive home made or improvised, that’s why its accuracy is not guaranted,hence they occasionaly land in jewish property on palestinian land. Soon or later the truth will definitly prevail,once the americans realize that they can no longer afford to carry the albatross called israel on their shoulders.

  9. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 31 July 2010

    The organized South African Jewish community of which David is an important spokesperson really has a dilemma similar to that of many school girls:

    There is one boy in class that is head over heels in love with her. However, he is not ‘cool’: his devotion is an acute embarrassment to her.
    However, there is another boy that she really likes but, despite bringing him gifts, shuns her makes eyes for a rival girl.

    Most Afrikaners are ardent supporters of Israel and of the Jewish people, “God se uitverkore Volk.”
    However, reading Jewish Affairs, it is patently clear that this is a one-sided love affair.
    There is a general lament that the South African Jews did not do enough during the Apartheid struggle, not shouting hard enough for Black when he and Boer fought it out on the school’s playground.

    Even bearing gifts such as the Apartheid Museum and Nadine Gordimer’s Nobel Price is not endearing her to her preferred suitor.
    Meanwhile the preferred suitor is making eyes for her old rival and exotic distant cousin, Palestine.

    How cruel can life be!

  10. Frank Wilking Frank Wilking 31 July 2010

    As a newborn Non-Theist (9.11 was the wake-up call)I see the big enlightenment coming, critical of all organized faith. I never had a problem with Jews, just on the contrary. I am scared that if Israel falls, Europe is gone. Prophet-wise – I believe in Geert Wilders. Bye bye to the politically correct media. The paperless internet holds the future anyway.

  11. Elliott Smith Elliott Smith 31 July 2010

    As a South African currently living in Jerusalem, I appreciated your struggle in terms of trying to answer the continuous stream of mindless and shrill denunciations of Israel. It has to be done and continued. Down through the centuries the Jews – even before the 1900 years of dispersion following the 70 AD destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Romans – have been on the despised list of many nations. They have been told to “get the hell out” as most recently done by Helen Thomas of Washington; they have been told to leave many countries down through the centuries – hounded by nationalists of every hue – to stay a people in dispersion. Now they have their ancestral homeland – ceded to them by the UN in 1947 (as was Jordan) – and they have no other place to get the hell to. As for wanting peace? Even although I may not always agree with all the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, when he said that “If the Arabs would lay down their arms there would be peace. If the Jews laid down theirs, there would be no Israel,” he was spot on. Just this morning another rocket from Gaza landed in Ashkelon damaging several buildings and vehicles, but by Providence, no casualties were reported. The fight goes on. Whose fight? And when Israel is eventually forced to retaliate – after excercising great restraint as before – who will be vilified?

  12. andrew andrew 31 July 2010

    Israel were given the land by God 3,500 years ago. No human force will ever take their land away from them. The root cause is not the 1967 borders or settlements, but goes back to Esau who sold his birthright (inheritance) to Jacob (renamed Israel by God). The descendants of Esau want it back even if they have to annihilate Israel. Hatred between brothers started with the murder of Abel by Cain and seems to bring out the worst in humankind.

  13. marcus marcus 31 July 2010

    Well said Muhammad Omar.

    Robert Fisk has written a good article in the Independent today on the way Israel has slipped quietly in the EU. It’s sarcastic, yes, but the truth rings through:

    “Fisk: “Now mark you, I’m not comparing Israel and Hamas. Israel is the country that justifiably slaughtered more than 1,300 Palestinians in Gaza 19 months ago – more than 300 of them children – while the vicious, blood-sucking and terrorist Hamas killed 13 Israelis (three of them soldiers who actually shot each other by mistake).”

  14. owen owen 31 July 2010

    I think one is born into either one of two different schools of thought on war. There is a revolutionary (freedom fighter) way of making war and hence what is acceptable war practice and there is a patriotic (armed forces) way of making war with its disciplines. David is clearly part of the latters thinking where one does not wage war with civilians. Sentletse Diakanyo on the other hand was raised on the liberation struggle where clearly civilians especially children (eg June 16 and I witnessed teenages committing a neklace murder) were used to wage war.

    So what is acceptable practice for one is unacceptable to the other and, as it is war, never the twain shall meet as ‘reason’ does not prevail in war.

  15. dimwit dimwit 31 July 2010

    It requires vigilance and conviction to counter the big lies with persuasive buckets of the truth. Happily the masses have embraced the internet as the fastest disseminator of the Truth, so the amoral will increasingly have to use reasoning to win and reasoning they don’t have.

  16. MLH MLH 31 July 2010

    Wouldn’t it be great if the SABC showed The World at War again? Younger generations don’t really have a clue of the history and the Jewish struggle for Israel.
    In fact, what do any of them really know about wars of any kind? Terrorism, although dastardly, is not quite the same and right and wrong there, often lie in the eyes of the beholders.
    Freedom fighting is similar. Remember all the people thrown off the trains here? Hardly a competent demonstration of anti-apartheid avtivism…
    We could all use a reality check from time to time and watching something like that on TV would be a huge improvement on what we watch now.
    And a good reminder.

  17. hilly hilly 31 July 2010

    the truth is that israel sees any opinion that does not approve their manslaughter as venom. Humanity is their snake, their belief that they are doing god’s work is actually the devil’s. dude, venom is not irrational, venom is as venom does, which is kill the body by using it’s own self-defense mechanism to kill it.

  18. Hugh Robinson Hugh Robinson 31 July 2010

    The problem one – As I see the public condition has more to do with selective current affairs knowledge. Anyone who knows history would side with Israel.
    Problem two – Is that the media will never admit that their news coverage is somewhat skewed.

    I honestly find it a complete joke that the media whinge about press freedom but impose censorship of their own. A case in point, few gave as much coverage of the attacks on Israeli soldiers by the so-called peaceful blockade busters even when the truth was made available. It seemed that the media believed that the blockade Busters had more rights than the citizens of Israel. The media are never as impartial as they like to believe.

  19. V3 V3 31 July 2010

    MLH: The SABC will not show “The World at War” again: (1) Anything that reduces the ANC’s “we-were-the-worst-victims” bleat is veboten. (2) Anything that could generate sympathy for Israel or the Jews is even more beyond the pale. (3) The parallels between the racist National Socialism (NaZism) of Hitler and their own should be quietly buried. (4) Worst of all, the graphic illustration of how insidious creeping despotism is, for a party intent on introducing the Cover-Up Bill, is totally unacceptable.

  20. George S George S 31 July 2010

    So what should Israel do? Defend itself but make sure not more than 13 are killed? I’d like to think that Hamas would have preferred that 13 000 were killed in its attacks. The fact that they are just plain useless at hitting their targets is no reason for Israel to pull out all stops when defending her citizens. Hamas should think about that but perhaps they just don’t want to. If you come at me with a BB gun I will make sure you don’t do so again.

  21. Zubair Zubair 1 August 2010

    In fact, both sides seem to enjoy the conflict, and neither side seems willing to compromise on their unrealistic demands, so the global community should just let them get on with it while we focus our attention and efforts elsewhere.

  22. PeterH PeterH 1 August 2010

    David, I think the emptiness of your arguments has just been revealed by your feeling the need to respond to Sentletse.

    Nothing against the man, but he does have a tendency to fly off the handle and only look at one side of the story. He paints a ‘poor, pitiful Palestinians’ picture which does ignore the terrorism and despotic actions of Hamas in Gaza. It’s easy to attack him – you simply have to take a contrary position and echo his words.

    What you have consistently failed to do is acknowledge, for even the shortest moment, that Israel ALSO does terrible, terrible things and is largely the architect of much current animosity towards itself. You attempt to paint Israel as a shining example of protection of human rights, firm yet fair disciplinarian, and innocent victim of misdirected rage.

    Obviously you need to fly the flag for Israel (you wouldn’t be “Jewish” if you criticised Israel, no, not “Jewish” at all…) and that’s fair enough. But by being just as one-sided as Sentletse you make yourself look just as silly as him.

    However, in Sentletse’s defense, never does he pass an airy wave over the deaths of 1000+ civilians and claim that we should be grateful that the figure wasn’t far higher. So I’m afraid he wins this debate as at least he has some understanding of humanity.

  23. Paul Paul 1 August 2010

    This reads like the emotional outburst of a self-proclaimed protector of “the holy land”, filled with choice little bits like “murderous provocation” and “the notorious Hamas tactic of seeking to wreak as much death and injury amongst civilians as possible”, while ignoring the very obvious sustained subjugation of the Palestinians by the Israelis. It is so one-sided that no one should ever be expected to believe this nonsense. This is not thought leadership – it is propaganda drivel. Reminds me of the rubbish we were fed during Apartheid – maybe the writer is hoping if he repeats it often enough we may start believing it.

  24. brent brent 1 August 2010

    One big truth as to why there are more Palestinian casualties than Israeli is that the latter have rocket/bomb early warning signals and many civilain bomb shelters. Whereas Hamas has zero protection for its civilians knowing that it always wins the propaganda war as its purposely unprotected civilains get killed.
    Would love Hamas supporters to comment on why they do not comment on their side being so callous, would you like to be ruled by these people and be its cannon fodder?


  25. Michael Liermann Michael Liermann 2 August 2010

    “The difference between the Israeli Defence Force and its Hamas equivalent is that when a military operation results in civilian casualties, Israel conducts an intensive investigation into what they did wrong.”

    Still waiting for one of these “intensive investigations” to come to any conclusions other than the inevitable whitewash, myself.

  26. Russell Russell 2 August 2010

    I agree that having an opinion on the Middle East is a thankless task. I have lived and worked here for some time now and here’s mine. The comparison of last years invasion of Gaza to the cowardly bombing of a defenceless Dresden is a good one. I’m sure if Israel wanted to beat the Dresden body count it could have. Thanks Israel for showing such mercy. I’m sure God/ Allah/ Yahweh was very proud.

  27. Alan Alan 3 August 2010

    This article is the work of hasbara.
    Hasbara refers to the propaganda efforts to sell Israel, justify its actions, and defend it in world opinion. Using contemporary euphemisms, it is Public diplomacy for Israel, or using a pejorative interpretation, then it is apologia. Israel portrays itself as fighting on two fronts: the Palestinians and world opinion. The latter is dealt with hasbara. The premise of hasbara is that Israel’s problems are a matter of better propaganda, and not one of an underlying unjust situation.

  28. Jason Jason 14 April 2011

    It is with much fear and sadness that I write this comment. The absolute internal baseless hatred for Jews has so underhandedly reared its ugly head again in the form of anti-Zionism. The fact that the world can once again be so blind to fact and open to myth is staggering to the modern mind. To believe that peace can come about by Israel giving away more land is as absurd as saying that Islam calls for fair treatment of women, homosexuals, Christians and Jews. This would be considered a myth, a lie; a cover-up for experience has shown its truth. Time and experience at the cost of Jewish lives, will once again separate fact from myth. The myth being that Hamas and the Palestinian people desire peace and land so they can live side by side with Israel. If this were the case, there can be no explanation for the massacre of Jews in Israel between 1929-1939. If this were the case, prior to the British Mandate while so called Palestine was under ottoman (Muslim) rule an independent peace loving state could have been created with Jerusalem as its capital. 100 years of Muslim rule over Palestine and not one attempt to make it an independent state. Why? Because there was no desire for it, no need for it and the people that now call themselves Palestinians identified themselves with Syria. Settlements and “occupied land” are not obstacles to peace. Deception and lies are.

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