Again, I Ask: How Should Israel Respond
Unfortunately, a recurring subject on this blog has been the question of the proportionality of Israeli responses to rocket fire from Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In November 2012, during the last major outbreak of violence, I posted What Is a "Proportionate Response" to Terror? (Repost), which was itself, a repost of a December 2008 post. And here we are again. And, yet again, I feel the need to offer some thoughts on what’s going on in Israel. But this time, I want to take a slightly different approach.
First, as a preliminary matter, if you don’t think that Israel has a right to exist or that Jews don’t deserve their own homeland, then you may as well stop reading. If you believe that Jews murder Palestinian (or Christian) children in order to use their blood to bake matzah for Passover (the “blood libel”), then you may as well stop reading. If you don’t believe that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz, that Hitler and the Nazis had a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem”, or that the estimate of six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust is an exaggeration (which was the subject to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ doctoral dissertation), then you may as well stop reading. If you want continued war rather than peace, then you may as well stop reading.
Second, before reading any further, if you use an iPhone or iPad, please take a moment to download the (free) Red Alert app which will send you an alert each time a rocket is fired toward Israel. The app has generated alerts on my iPhone three times since I started writing this post. And do this: After you download the app, imagine how you would respond, what you would do, if the red alert signal was for your community. In parts of Israel, from the time a red alert sounds, people have approximately 15 seconds to reach shelter.
Finally, my point is not to address the underlying conflict between Israel and the Palestinians (or, more broadly, Israel and its Arab and Muslim neighbors). Rather, I want to focus in on the general issues of what is Israel supposed to do when faced by continued rocket fire and terrorist attacks against its people and how Israel conducts itself in these times of war?*
I guess the first question is whether Israel should be “allowed” to respond at all or must Israel simply watch as rocket after rocket falls upon Israel? If you’re answer is that Israel shouldn’t respond at all, I guess I have to ask you “why"? Why isn’t Israel allowed to protect its own people from attacks? Again, if you’re answer sounds something like “Israel shouldn’t exist” or “Israel stole Palestinian land”, then you’re ducking the issue. Perhaps you’re right (I think you’re wrong); but does that mean that Israeli civilians should just allow themselves to be murdered? Should all international disputes be resolved at the point of a gun (or, as in this case, at the point of a rocket) instead of through negotiation? In the aftermath of the Holocaust, people asked why the Jews didn’t fight back; yet now, when they do defend themselves, people object and make the perverse claim that Israelis are acting like Nazis.
Now I’m sure that some people will say, “But, gee, the rockets that Hamas fires aren’t accurate and don’t do much damage”. While true, that ignores a few things. First, the range and accuracy of those rockets is increasing (especially as Iran and Syria supply more and better rockets to Hamas). Second, so what? Israel should ignore rocket fire simply because it’s ineffective? I presume that if your neighbors pulled a BB gun and started shooting at you while you worked in your yard, you’d ignore them and just keeping working? After all, BB guns are inaccurate and it won’t hurt too much if a BB hits you (unless it hits you, say in the eye, or breaks your window, or hits your pet, etc.). Furthermore, the fact that those rockets aren’t accurate adds to the terror associated with them. It might — repeat might — be a somewhat different discussion if those rockets were only targeting military installations. But the rockets are pointed and fired, more often than not in the direction of cities and other civilian targets. Thus, I guess the question becomes whether Israel is required to either respond with its own inaccurate response (more on this in a moment) or isn’t allowed to respond at all until the Hamas rockets are better? Does that make any sense?
So let’s move forward with the assumption that Israel is “permitted” some sort of response. What should that response look like? Obviously, the answer is not for Israel to respond in kind. I don’t think that simply firing back untargeted rockets at Gaza is appropriate in any way. First, it would put non-terrorist targets at risk; second, it would not be a very good way of stopping the continuation of the rocket fire. Nor do I think that Israel should be limited to only responding with a like number of responses. This isn’t a sport where where we aim to achieve parity. Israel is trying to protect its citizens. Or, perhaps, think of it this way: Is Israel allowed to try to destroy missiles and rockets before they are fired by Hamas (or Islamic Jihad or Fatah or whomever)? Or does Israel have to operate in a perpetual state of response and defense? If I know that you have a weapon and I know that you’re planning to use that weapon to harm me, why can’t I try to eliminate your ability to use that weapon to harm me instead of just hitting back after you’ve taken your best shot?
Well, you say, but Israel is killing civilians and destroying houses in Gaza! True enough. But let’s break that down a bit, shall we? First, ask why Israel is destroying houses. Might it be that those houses are used by Hamas to store weapons or as gathering places for Hamas terrorists to hide and plan their next move? Israelis build bomb shelters to shelter people from bombs; Hamas builds bomb shelters to shelter bombs from people (in planes). If those shelters in Gaza were built for people instead of weapons, then perhaps fewer people would be killed.
But then where would Hamas store its weapons. I guess they could use mosques, hospitals, schools, and soccer stadiums. So ask this, then: If certain targets are off limits because of their primary use (home, mosque, hospital, school, etc.), then wouldn’t it be a great strategy to always store all weapons and military personnel (or terrorists) in one of those locations? It would be like “base” in a game of tag. “Nah, nah, nah, boo boo. You can’t hit me because I’m hiding in a hospital!” If that were the rule, then Israel (or any other nation facing a terrorist or military threat) would be completely handicapped and forced to wait for its enemy to pop out of hiding and hope it could hit that enemy before it regained “shelter”. Is that really what we expect Israel to do? For that matter, do we want to “reward” combatants who use houses, places of worship, hospitals, and schools as cover? I don’t think so. If those sorts of places are to be safe from being targeted, then they can’t also be used for purposes related to making war.
In the case of Hamas, the issue isn’t just storing weapons in houses, schools, and mosques; rather, the issue also becomes where rockets are fired from. If a Hamas terrorist shoots a rocket from an alley adjacent to a school or a field adjacent to a house, must Israel refrain from trying to kill or stop that terrorist because he has chosen an area that is somehow “off limits” to reprisals or defensive strikes? Once again, if that’s the rule, then wouldn’t all offensive operations by all countries be conducted from the shadow of impermissible targets?
As to civilians, there are a few important things to note. First, Hamas itself has asked the civilian population of Gaza to act as human shields. They tell people to go onto the roofs of their houses to deter Israeli airstrikes. And you know what? It often works. Israel has, on countless occasions, refrained from targeting a weapons cache or terrorist hideout because of the presence of civilians. Not always, but often. For that matter, Israel has even, from time-to-time, apologized for the death of civilians in these sorts of incidents. Consider that for a moment: A warring party apologizing. Have you ever heard Hamas apologize for the civilian casualties of one of its rockets let alone a suicide bomber? Of course not.
Moreover, Israel often tries to warn civilians of an impending attack. Israel will often drop leaflets warning civilians to avoid a particular location because it will be targeted. And prior to targeting certain buildings, Israel has begun using a “door knock” or “roof knock” warning. Israel launches a non-explosive missile at the building to warn those who might be hanging around (or acting as human shields) that a more serious attack is imminent. Even the United Nations (not known as a friend of Israel) recognized that “In most cases, prior to the attacks, residents have been warned to leave, either via phone calls by the Israel military or by the firing of warning missiles.” So, other than deciding not to target munitions, weapons factories, and terrorist hideouts entirely, what more should Israel do? Query whether any other country in the history of warfare, has ever done as much to limit civilian casualties as Israel is doing. Seriously. And yet it is Israel that is condemned by much of the world.
Or maybe ask the question this way: Do you honestly believe that Hamas, if it could effectively target Israeli cities and towns, would refrain from a bombing campaign that would do as much damage as possible without regard to “collateral damage” or civilian casualties?
It’s also worth noting that Israel is frequently accused of engaging in a “genocide” against the Palestinians, in particular the Palestinians in Gaza. Just a few days ago, Mahmoud Abbas compared Israel’s actions against Hamas in Gaza … to Auschwitz. Seriously. Last time I checked, Israel wasn’t rounding Palestinians up and forcing them into Gaza. Nor was Israel building gas chambers into which it was forcing Palestinians. For that matter, if Israel really was committing a genocide or, as others have contended, intentionally targeting civilians, then wouldn’t you expect the casualty counts to be far, far bigger? If Israel really wanted to kill Palestinian civilians, it would be perfectly capable of doing so. A few really big bombs in densely populated urban areas would lead to massive casualty numbers … if that was really Israel’s goal. I mean, if Israel really wants to kill Palestinian civilians and wage a genocide, then it must be pretty inept. The most recent report I saw was that Israel had carried out about 1,100 airstrikes against Gaza which killed approximately 100 people. If Israel really wanted to engage in a genocide, if Israel was really targeting civilians, then you’d expect a casualty ratio much higher than less than 1 death per every 10 airstrikes, wouldn’t you? Either Israeli pilots are really bad at killing Palestinians and miss with 9 out of every 10 bombs … or killing Palestinians isn’t the goal at all and Israeli pilots are really good at missing Palestinian civilians and hitting military and terrorist targets, instead.
Perhaps a comparison of the total casualties Israel has inflicted against Palestinians in Gaza during each of the recent rounds of violence to the casualty numbers in places like Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya … I think you get my point. Yes, there are casualties in Gaza; yes there is infrastructure damage. But go online and find some photos of Gaza and compare those to Homs in Syria or Grozny in Chechnya. And don’t forget that if Hamas wasn’t shooting those rockets at Israel (or building and storing munitions for the next time they decide to attack), then there would be no reason for those limited casualties.
The accusation of “genocide” is even more ludicrous than it seems at first blush (which is already pretty ludicrous). Why? If Israel was intent on killing Palestinians civilians then why, even in the midst of rocket fire from Hamas, would Israel continue to provide electricity, food, and other material supplies to Gaza? Each day, Israel sends several hundred truckloads worth of food and supplies into Gaza. How many warring parties worked to help the people that they were fighting while the fighting was ongoing? Similarly, if the death of Palestinian civilians was Israel’s goal, then why would it allow Palestinians seeking medical care to cross into Israel to be treated at Israeli hospitals? Is that the act of a genocidal regime? (Note that Israeli hospitals have also been treating casualties from the Syrian civil war, sometimes smuggled into Israel by Syrian doctors and NGO medical personnel.) No, the reality is that the claim of an Israeli genocide against the Palestinian people is simply a version of the blood libel.
Another thing worth considering when seeing news about events in Gaza is the phenomenon often referred to as “Pallywood” — the use of false images for a propaganda purposes — that the Palestinians have elevated to a virtual art form. There are numerous instances (perhaps I’ll provide some when I get some additional time) of Palestinians seeming to stage events in which Palestinians “die”. One such incident which remains hotly debated, was the alleged “murder” of a young boy (Mohammed Al Durah) in 2000. Other such incidents, though none as well known or as meaningful, have occurred in subsequent outbreaks of violence. Similarly, you will likely see many photographs of horrific casualties and mayhem; however, in many (though certainly not all) of these instances, the photos are not from Gaza at all. During the 2012 fighting, numerous images of casualties in Syria were passed off as depicting the events in Gaza and we’re seeing the same thing happening now, enough so that even the BBC (hardly a friend of Israel) noticed. Truth, you see, is not important; the value of an image as propaganda is what is important.
Related to the issue of “Pallywood” is the question of casualty numbers. First, it is worth noting that there would appear to be an incentive for Hamas to exaggerate the number of casualties inflicted by Israel. After all, the more casualties, especially civilian casualties, the easier it is for Hamas to claim that Israel is acting in a disproportionate or “barbaric” way. Unless I’m mistaken, investigations done after some of the prior conflicts found that Hamas had, indeed, exaggerated the number of casualties. Similarly, beware of claims of the number of “civilian” casualties. Most members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad don’t run around Gaza in uniform, especially not during times of war. So, if Israel targets a group of people in civilian attire launching a missile, Hamas is likely to include those combatants in its tally of civilian casualties. Unfortunately, the same can be said about children. Many of the Hamas combatants launching rockets at Israel or transporting munitions through tunnels are under 18 years of age. So there are unfortunate instances in which Israel targets — and kills — children who were actively involved in terrorist acts against Israel. However, when relaying casualty numbers, those combatants are usually categorized as civilian children rather than as active combatants.
Something else worth asking yourself: Why are so many of Hamas’ commanders uninjured while “civilians” are injured? Might it have anything to do with those commanders being able to take shelter deep underground while the civilian population is left to fend for themselves? In prior conflicts, there were, I believe, persistent reports that Hamas was using bunkers under the main hospital in Gaza for its command and control.
And please beware of the propaganda from Palestinian advocates. Just yesterday on CNN, a Palestinian human rights lawyer (somewhat of an oxymoron, no?) twice accused the CNN anchor of being racist for suggesting that Hamas had called on the residents of Gaza to act as human shields, notwithstanding that the CNN anchor repeatedly told her that CNN had video of the Hamas spokesperson. Similarly, she took umbrage at the suggestion that Palestinians had a “culture of martyrdom” notwithstanding that there is video of Hamas officials making just such a claim and Palestinian television series teaching that very culture to children.
Finally, consider this: If Hamas stopped firing rockets, stopped arming itself, stopped building tunnels through which to smuggle weapons, Israel would have no need for airstrikes. Or, consider this: What would life be like in Gaza if Hamas, instead of spending resources on rockets, hidden weapons caches, and tunnels, instead built infrastructure and schools to serve the people of Gaza? What would life be like in Gaza if Hamas would abandon its Charter that which includes statements such as “Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement” and “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.” (Article Thirteen). If Hamas stopped making war against Israel, perhaps there could be peace?
*Before you ask, yes, I condemned the revenge attack against the Palestinian boy. Twice, in fact. First, please see the statement from the Indianapolis JCRC (or which I am a past president and current member of the Executive Committee). Then see the open letter of condemnation from Elder of Ziyon to which I am a signatory.