Bilahari gives S'porean take on Israel-Hamas war: 'I hope no S'porean will ever celebrate atrocities'

‘Root cause’ of current violence must be addressed is a 'b*llsh*t' argument, he said.

Martino Tan | October 11, 2023, 07:56 AM



Armed militant group Hamas launched a brutal surprise attack on Israel on Saturday, Oct. 7, killing civilian and military personnel, which forced Israel to retaliate.

More than 1,600 people have been killed so far in just four days, after Israel declared it is at war and has called up 360,000 of its reservists.

Perspectives on the conflict

The current conflagration has been labelled by analysts as a failure of Israeli intelligence services for not seeing it coming, with predictions that the outbreak of fighting will lead to a prolonged war with more casualties expected on both sides.

The international community, including Singapore, has urged people to evacuate from Israel and Palestinian territories.

Given the severity and volatility of the situation and extreme conditions on the ground, not only has the world watched events unfold with bated breath, but many have already taken sides.

Singaporean perspective on Israel-Hamas conflict

To provide a Singaporean perspective on a war being fought a few thousand kilometres away, Bilahari Kausikan, a retired Singaporean diplomat and former permanent secretary of foreign affairs and current Middle East Institute chairman, has weighed in on the Israel-Hamas war.

His starting point and admonishment?

This war is not for Singaporeans to participate in and we should resist getting sucked into it.

In a Facebook post on Oct. 10, the former Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) from 2013 to 2018, debunked the supposedly persuasive argument that the "root cause" of the current violence should be addressed, and proposed ways on how Singaporeans ought to come to terms with the conflict without resorting to taking sides.

Bilahari, writing to address Singaporeans, argued: "We may have an opinion about this issue, as we have views about other international issues. But don’t forget ultimately these competing nationalisms have nothing to do with us."

Using injustice solution

Responding to the "addressing root cause of current violence" argument most often put forth as a defence for Hamas' actions, Bilahari wrote that he has heard it each time a conflict occurs between Israel and Hamas.

"Just because one party commits injustices does not excuse injustice by another party," Bilahari wrote.

It "is really just an excuse for terrorism masquerading" as an explanation, he said.

Bilahari also argued that Hamas cannot have people's support, given that its sole, explicit and non-negotiable purpose is to see to Israel's destruction.

Hamas is not just about protecting itself, he argued.

The former diplomat wrote: "Under these circumstances to call for ‘root causes’ to be addressed is just another way of saying Israel should not exist, particularly since Hamas’ declared purpose is to destroy Israel. It delegitimises the right to self-defence."

What if it happened to Singapore?

Buttressing his argument that getting to "root causes" really does nothing and it is nowhere close to making a case for self-defence, Bilahari offered a thought experiment by putting Singapore in Israel's shoes.

"Imagine if someone fired thousands of rockets at us, gunned down 200+ of our young people attending a music festival, as well as murdering scores of other civilians and kidnapped others including young children and old people," he wrote.

"Would we pontificate about ‘root causes’?"

In an earlier post on Saturday (Oct. 30), Bilahari said that Singaporeans should remain focused on our own interests, and "it is not in Singapore’s national interests to allow terrorists anywhere to believe they can operate with impunity".

He reminded Singaporeans that it was not so long ago that a terrorist plot — no doubt inspired by Hamas’ attacks on Israel — to launch rockets at Singapore from Batam was foiled.

Israel needs to demonstrate deterrence

Bilahari also contextualised the current conflict as a periodic and episodic violence that sometimes occur, which then serves as a reminder that Israel has to exercise deterrence in the form of a war to annihilate Hamas.

And there is plenty of buy-in from Israelis, who understand that conflict is needed, the former ambassador wrote.

"It will be very difficult and costly but I think most Israelis understand that a war of annihilation against Hamas must be fought regardless of the cost in blood and treasure to restore deterrence," he argued.

Moreover, the latest deadly attacks followed periods of peace in Israel, which was a necessary and sufficient condition for this conflict as people supposedly let their guards down.

"The political situation in Israel — not just the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations over the last several months, but going back at least 3-5 years, led Israel to be distracted from this harsh reality and that is why the current situation arose," Bilahari explained.

Hope no Singaporean will ever celebrate atrocities

Towards the end of his post, Bilahari urged Singaporeans to not be swayed by Hamas and to not take its side.

He also asked Singaporeans not to confuse human sympathies with Singapore's national interests.

"I think many of us have seen videos of Malaysians waving Palestinian flags on KL streets and celebrating Israeli deaths," Bilahari continued.

"I don’t think this represents the majority view of decent Malaysians. But I hope no Singaporean will ever celebrate atrocities."

He added: "And it is not in our essential national interest to let terrorists anywhere believe that they can act with impunity."

"It is in our national interest that Israel responds decisively to this terror attack."

You can read Bilahari's full post here.

Top photos via Middle East Institute & Patrick Perkins