Friday, October 13, 2023

Reflections on Yet Another War Between Israel and Hamas

This blog has been on hiatus for several years (for reasons that I’ll one day discuss in more depth), but the current situation in Israel has motivated me to lift my head out of my burrow, at least for the moment. I don’t want to rehash (or completely rehash…) the many ideas that I’ve talked about, often at length, between 2008 and 2017. Look up the Israel and Anti-Semitism labels on this blog and you’ll find plenty of articles, many of which remain sadly relevant today. (Note that in recent years, I’ve begun using the more modern “antisemitism” in place of the hyphenated “anti-Semitism” but that label has been in use for a long time.) However, there are a few thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head over the last few days and this blog seems to be the perfect outlet.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I think it is possible to support Israel and the right of Palestinians to live in peace, with dignity, and the right to self-determination. These are not competing views. I believe in that a two-state solution is the only viable solution, but that it will take a lot of work – by both parties – to find the courage, common ground, and trust to make that happen.


First, one of the recurring themes that I’ve heard from those who oppose Israel and/or support the Palestinians generally or Hamas in particular is that Hamas’ actions are justified because Israel is an occupying colonial power that has been waging war on the indigenous people of the region (or some variation on that theme). This view (let’s call it the “Historical Justification” worldview) has several serious flaws (some of which I’ve addressed in the past), but I’m not going to use this time to rehash history or the reality of who Israelis are (with the exception of a brief discussion of the point, below) or whether the Arab inhabitants are “more” indigenous than the Jewish population (made up of European Jews, Arab Jews, Persian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, and Jews from many other ethnic backgrounds). Rather, I want to look at the hypocrisy of those who take espouse Historical Justification or what that position might really mean if equitably applied. So, solely for the sake of argument, let’s presume that Historical Justification is correct and agree arguendo that Israel is an occupying colonial power, that Israel has “waged war” on the Palestinians and in so doing has deprived them of self-determination and the ability to live share the same human rights as others (though it may be worth asking whether the human rights Palestinians desire – and are absolutely entitled to – are extended to the populations of other Arab and Muslim countries…). Again, I’m agreeing to the Historical Justification worldview solely for the purpose of argument and discussion.

I presume (perhaps incorrectly) that those who do advocate Historical Justification do so in good faith and would agree that a similar framework for Historical Justification should apply not only to Palestinians but also to other groups who are “oppressed” by “occupying colonial powers”. Thus, I take it, that those who condone the actions of Hamas because of Historical Justification would also condone Native Americans bombing busses in Minneapolis, firing rockets at Tulsa, and kidnapping babies from Phoenix, right? No? Please explain, with specificity, what is worse about the Palestinian situation than the Native American experience (from colonization to conquest to genocide to reservations and residence schools to loss of language to forced sterilization to broken treaties and on and on and on…) and then tell me why Palestinian use of force against a civilian population is acceptable but Native American use of force against America (or Canada) is not. When you’ve completed that assignment, please take a step back and apply the same rationale to other ethnic, cultural, or religious groups all across the globe who believe that they are oppressed or lacking in self-determination. Aboriginal Australians? Basque and Catalan people in Spain? Tibetans? Muslims in India or China? I’ll wait. And before you answer with something like “because Israel drops bombs on Palestinians” or builds a security fence, query whether violence directed towards Israel and Israelis plays any role in that aspect of Israel’s conduct.


I’ve written extensively in the past about the idea of a “proportionate response” and what exactly that means (for example, see What Is a “Proportionate Response” to Terror? (Repost) and Again, I Ask: How Should Israel Respond). Feel free to go back and look at those posts again and then consider how the idea of proportionality applies to the current situation. What is the proportionate response to an armed incursion that was directed at a civilian population and to whom apparently no quarter was given. Tossing grenades into bomb shelters? Check. Dismembering babies? Check. [Note: I recognize at the time of writing that there is some question as whether babies were actually dismembered or just burned and shot from point-blank range.] Kidnapping women and children and elderly Holocaust survivors? Check, check, and check. Taking refuge, hiding munitions, and then firing rockets from heavily populated areas where civilians have no choice but to act as human shields? Again, check. So, again I ask, how should Israel respond and what is the proportionate response? Should Hamas essentially benefit from hiding in and acting from heavily-populated civilian areas? Should Hamas benefit from hiding weapons in schools, from firing rockets from schools, from digging tunnels under schools? If so, what will stop this from happening again and again and again. Is Israel supposed to just shrug its collective shoulders and so, “Oh, well, nothing we can do other than build better bomb shelters or flee from our homes and return to Ukraine and Iran?” and then just await the next barrage of rockets, paragliders, and suicidal jihadis? Try telling that to the parents whose children were dismembered, to the husbands and wives whose spouses are currently being held somewhere in Gaza, to the residents of villages and kibbutzim that no longer exist. Or is Israel free to take such military action as may be necessary to once and for all eliminate Hamas as an effective fighting force?

After writing the initial draft of the preceding paragraph (news keeps happening…), I came across a quotation from Israel’s President Isaac Herzog who spoke about proportionality during a press briefing:

Herzog also got visibly agitated when responding to a similar question at the same briefing. Matt Frei, from UK broadcaster Channel 4, asked the Israeli president whether Israel is holding ordinary Palestinians in Gaza responsible for not removing Hamas. “With all due respect, if you have a missile in your goddamn kitchen, and you want to shoot it at me, am I allowed to defend myself?” Herzog retorted. “That’s the situation. These missiles are there. These missiles are launched, the button is pressed, the missile comes up from a kitchen onto my children,” he continued.

(Israel’s president says it is abiding by international law, when asked by CNN about war crime accusations, internal paragraph breaks omitted; story apparently no longer available because it was part of a running “live” news ticker. The quotation can be found elsewhere.)


I find it troubling that while everyone feels bad for the innocent in Gaza (as we should), there is no assignment of agency to any of the population of Gaza for any acts committed in the name of Islam, the Palestinians, or Gazans, as if that population plays no role whatsoever in Hamas’ actions, strength, or role within Gaza. Contrast, for example, how Jews – even across the globe (not just Israelis) are blamed for the actions taken by Israel.

Do Gazan mothers encourage their sons to join Hamas and praise them when they do join Hamas or do those mothers try to convince their sons to stay away from Hamas and find productive ways to work toward peace? Do international organizations staffed by Gazans (UNRWA among others) take affirmative actions – including telling their parent organizations – about Hamas weapons caches in or around their facilities or do they keep their mouths closed (see further discussion on this below)? Do Gazans push for Hamas, as the de facto ruling power, to build bomb shelters and other infrastructure to improve life in Gaza or do they just look the other way when Hamas uses donor funds to buy weapons, dig tunnels, and leave the civilian population in squalor? Do Gazans spend their days training for war or working to improve their own living conditions and infrastructure? Why hasn’t Hamas built its own water desalinization plant? Do Gazans march in the streets to demand more freedom from Hamas, to have elections, to engage in dialogue with Israel or do they sit by and allow Gaza to be run by a terrorist organization and willingly allow themselves to be used as human shields each time Hamas elects to open new hostilities? Do Gazans not aligned with Hamas and/or who want to live in a better environment, perhaps with peace as a realistic hope, have any obligation to make even minimal efforts to bring those ideas to fruition? Think about it: The people of Gaza are willing send their children off to die in order to “free Palestine” from “Zionist control”. They’re willing to die to kill Jews. They are willing to die to free Palestine but don’t seem willing to die to free Gaza from Hamas.

When Israel told Palestinians in northern Gaza to relocated to southern Gaza (where there is a fair amount of open space and farmland), even dropping leaflets telling Palestinians where to go and where not to be, did Hamas arrange for an evacuation of its citizens out of Gaza City? Of course not. Instead, Hamas told the people of Gaza City not to follow the Israeli instructions; Hamas told people to stay in Gaza City. Why do you suppose Hamas would rather that people stay in Gaza City rather than relocate to southern Gaza? Hmm. Could it be that the goal is to make it harder for Israel to target terrorist infrastructure, weapons caches, rocket launch sites? Could it be that the goal is to make it harder for Israel to engage in targeted assaults aimed at rescuing hostages? Could it be that Hamas knows the value of using the civilian as human shields? I saw a video of a woman in Gaza complaining about the Israeli airstrikes and noting that Gaza had no early warning system (air raid sirens) or bomb shelters. Why, do you suppose, Hamas has not built an early warning system or bomb shelters? Israel is castigated for inflicting “collective punishment” on the Palestinians of Gaza yet no similar castigation seems to be aimed at Hamas for using the entire population of Gaza as human shields. Collective punishment vs. collective sacrifice?


Another thing that has been forefront on my mind is the language that has been used to describe aspects of the current conflict. As you listen to or read about what’s happening, pay attention to the vocabulary both used and unsaid. For example, are the members of Hamas who shot concert-goers at point-blank range, who dismembered babies (or at least burned and shot them at close range), who threw grenades into bomb shelters, and who kidnapped women, children, and the elderly referred to as “militants” or “terrorists”? For example:

The BBC has defended its decision not to describe Hamas militants as “terrorists” in coverage of the recent attacks in Israel. UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said the policy is “verging on disgraceful”. A BBC spokesperson noted it was a long-standing position for its reporters not to use the term themselves unless attributing it to someone else. Veteran BBC foreign correspondent John Simpson said “calling someone a terrorist means you're taking sides”. But Mr Shapps said the BBC needs to locate its “moral compass … I actually think it is verging on disgraceful, this idea that there is some sort of equivalence, and they'll always say, well there’s two sides,” he told LBC.

BBC defends policy not to call Hamas ‘terrorists’ after criticism.

I don’t know about you, but to me there is an important distinction between a militant and a terrorist (and if there wasn’t, why would the BBC have a policy on the wording?). Pay attention to which word is used and by whom. Furthermore, in all of the discussions regarding Hamas’ actions, in particular the kidnapping of Israeli (and non-Israeli!) civilians and transferring them back to Gaza, there is a great deal of contempt being expressed – appropriately so – but how often have you heard those actions actually described as “war crimes”? The Geneva Conventions specifically identifies the taking of hostages as a war crime. I’m not talking about soldiers who may be captured and who are deemed “prisoners of war” (but for whom specific protections are mandated, such as from mistreatment, yet we’ve seen video of captured Israelis being beaten by their captors or even Gazan civilians), but soldiers appear to be a small percentage of the hostages taken by Hamas. And now Hamas is threatening not only to kill hostages (more on that in a moment) but to even do so in the brutal manner “popularized” by ISIS and to broadcast the executions on social media. Israeli parents are being warned to keep their children off of social media for fear that their children may inadvertently see Hamas commit war crimes and show them to the world. Ask yourself why, even as Hamas’ actions are being condemned, they are not being explicitly labeled as war crimes.

Another interesting word choice that I came across comes from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), headquartered in a suburb of Indianapolis. ISNA published a letter on Twitter (sorry, but I refuse to call it X), but oddly not on its website, that largely blames Israel for the violence and demands that the United States stop its “one-sided and unconditional support for Israel.” No great surprise there. The parts of the letter that I found interesting were the opening where ISNA expresses deep sadness for the “recent outbreak of war and violence in the Holy Land and Gaza” before going on to express solidarity with their “brothers and sisters in Palestine” and conclusion where ISNA calls on “all parties and governments around the world to exert pressure on Israel to cease its violence and war on the Palestinian people.” It’s not surprising that ISNA puts all of the blame on Israel. But, at least according to ISNA, Hamas didn’t attack Israel and Israeli citizens. Nope. Instead, in ISNA’s worldview (and you’ll see this sort of language frequently), there was simply an “outbreak” of war. You know, everyone was sitting around having a lazy Saturday morning when suddenly, out of nowhere, war and violence just broke out, the same way a thunderstorm or an earthquake might. In ISNA’s worldview, no blame is assigned to Hamas for actually – well, anything. Israel is to blame for all sorts of wrongs and because of those wrongs, war and violence just … happened. Note further where ISNA thinks that the war broke out. Yes, in Gaza, but not in Israel; rather, according to ISNA war broke out in the “Holy Land”. Apparently, ISNA can’t bring itself to acknowledge that the land on the other side of the Gazan border belongs to Israel and was included as a part of Israel as far back as the UN Partition Plan in 1947. Which of course begs the question when ISNA states that it expresses solidarity with its “brothers and sisters in Palestine”. What, precisely, does ISNA mean when it says “in Palestine”? Is ISNA expressing solidarity only with its Muslim brothers and sisters in Gaza and the West Bank? Or is it also expressing solidarity with Muslims (what about Arab Christians?) who live in Israel and are Israeli citizens? Are they included or excluded from that expression of solidarity with those “in Palestine”? If they’re included, that would appear to suggest that ISNA is denying the very existence of Israel. Now, consider this while remembering that the Hamas emblem depicts all of “Palestine” rather than the region divided into two states: Israel and Palestine.

Oh, and the swords just scream “peace” don’t they?


Do you think that any mosques or Islamic centers in America are worried that they might be attacked by angry Jews? Are supporters of Hamas or the Palestinians worried that they’ll be attacked by a mob of Jews as they walk down the street or take their children to school? Yet virtually every Jewish installation across the country has had to increase security (and security at Jewish facilities has already been dramatically increased after all of the attacks perpetrated in recent years including the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh and the 2022 hostage-taking at a synagogue near Dallas by a Muslim man). Once again, to quote Arsenio Hall, “things that make you go hmmm.” And just a few hours ago, fear began to spread online after the former head of Hamas appeared to call for – well, it’s unclear exactly what he called for and whether it’s limited to the Middle East or across the world. But many are interpreting his statements as a call for terrorism or violent demonstrations. Can you imagine if the head of a Jewish organization called on Jews to attack mosques? No. You can’t. Because it doesn’t happen. But my daughter did call to ask me if she was safe in the large American city where she now resides.

Threats and Warnings

Beyond kidnapping civilians and taking them across the border back to Gaza, “The spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, Abu Obeida, said the group would execute a civilian hostage every time an airstrike hit Gazans ‘in their homes without warning.’” Israel Orders ‘Complete Siege’ of Gaza and Hamas Threatens to Kill Hostages. Did you notice anything interesting or unusual about that threat? Hamas didn’t threaten to execute a hostage for each airstrike; rather, the threat was limited to airstrikes that hit Gazans “in their homes without warning”. A few things. First, does Hamas give warnings to Israelis before rockets rain down? I believe that the general warning to civilians in Ashkelon a few days ago was a first. Did Hamas warn people at the open air festival or having breakfast in their homes on the kibbutzim? And, I suppose, you could read that threat as explicitly exempting Israeli airstrikes that either: (a) don’t hit homes; or (b) for which a warning is provided. Right? Remember as I’ve discussed previously, in the past Israel has directly warned occupants of buildings that are being targeted for airstrikes:

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.


I’ve also heard repeated, almost ad nauseum, that Gaza is the “most densely populated area” in the ___ (fill in the blank; I’ve heard “region,” “Middle East,” and even “World”). Much of the reporting is likely to give the impression that Gaza is densely populated from north to south, east to west, with barely any room to breathe. However, like so much else, the truth is a bit more nuanced than that. First check out the following map of population density in Gaza:

(From Maps show the extreme population density in Gaza). Only the area in purple is densely populated (and the darker the purple, the denser the area). Another map from the same article is also instructive:

The article also includes a comparison of the density of Gaza City (the darkest purple at the northern end of Gaza) with other cities: Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, and Washington.

But why not compare Gaza City to any of the 235 (!) urban areas (from the same source) that are denser than Gaza City (including Jerusalem (!), Istanbul, Cairo, Seoul, Mexico City, Berlin, and New York City)? See db-worldua.pdf ( (Schedule 4 beginning on page 61). But I guess providing closer comparisons or examples from within the region doesn’t lend itself to the propaganda point quite as well.


Another thing that caught my attention and made me laugh (in that sort of morbid laughter that horrible situations sometimes require):

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday urged “both” sides in the fighting between Israel and Hamas to “minimize or reduce to zero” civilian casualties. Speaking from Moscow on the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Putin suggested the lack of a two-state solution has led to the current “explosion of violence,” saying, “Israel, as we know, was created, but Palestine as an independent sovereign state was never created, it did not happen…. We understand that the bitterness on both sides is very great, but no matter what the level of bitterness on both sides is, we still need to strive to minimize or reduce to zero losses among the civilian population, among women, children and the elderly,” Putin said. “If men decided to fight among themselves, let them fight among themselves. Leave children and women alone,” he added.

Putin calls to ‘minimize or reduce to zero’ civilian casualties in expanding conflict (internal paragraph breaks omitted). This caught my attention for two reasons. First, with regard to Putin’s suggestion that women and children should be left alone and that civilian casualties should be minimized or reduced to zero, one has to wonder whether Putin: (a) has looked at the civilian casualties caused by his military’s targeting of civilians in Ukraine (estimated at 9,806 as of October 8, 2023, including 560 children [Ukraine: Civilians endure ‘unbearable’ toll amid ‘unrelenting’ attacks], (b) is aware of the continued war crimes committed by his military as they kidnap Ukrainian children and transfer them to Russia (Deportation, Treatment of Ukraine’s Children by Russian Federations Takes Centre Stage by Many Delegates at Security Council Briefing), and/or (c) is familiar with the word “hypocrite”. But perhaps more troubling is Putin’s attempt to rewrite history (or his unfamiliarity with actual history). Putin claims that “Israel … was created, but Palestine as an independent sovereign state was never created, it did not happen…”. But we have to remember that the United Nations Partition Plan created both a Jewish and Arab state. The Jews immediately accepted the plan and announced the creation of Israel. The Arabs rejected the plan and attacked. So if “Palestine … was never created,” who is to blame? I bet I can guess who most people will blame.

Black Lives Matter

I want to touch on something that may be a little more controversial, but seems important. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, American Jewry was front and center advocating for the Black community. More than six hundred Jewish groups signed and published a letter supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, just as Jews had been actively involved in the civil rights movement, including being among the founders of the NAACP and the Freedom Riders to the south in the 1960s. The bond between Jews and the Black community has a long and vibrant history. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!” Yet, even with all of that, it seems that some Black civil rights groups have become, if not fully antisemitic, at least anti-Zionist and/or supporters of the Palestinians (rather than supporters of a two-state solution and a peaceful resolution of the conflict). Now, in the wake of the recent attack by Hamas, some groups associated with Black Lives Matter appear to have amended a caveat to their view. Recall the anger when those on the right suggested that saying “Black lives matter” meant that “White lives don’t matter”? “Of course,” the Black community (and other communities of good will), answered, “all lives matter, but we’re not talking about all lives, we’re talking specifically about Black lives that don’t seem to matter to some.” Well, now it seems as if some in the Black Lives Matter community are amending that view to something more like “all lives matter … except Jewish lives.” How else to explain posts like this from a Black Lives Matter group:

Even when BLMChicago took down the post (quietly and under pressure) and then (finally) tried to walk it back, the best that they could come up with was (emojis of Palestinian flag and colors omitted):

Yesterday we sent out msgs that we aren’t proud of. We stand with Palestine & the people who will do what they must to live free. Our hearts are with, the grieving mothers, those rescuing babies from rubble, who are in danger of being wiped out completely

No condemnation of Hamas or the slaughter or kidnapping; no hope for a mutual peace. Just recognition of the plight of Palestinians and a green light for them to “do what they must to live free”. I can’t help but wonder if BLMChicago knows that the Jewish population of Israel includes about 133,000 Black Ethiopians (around 2% of the population) who were rescued from Ethiopia by Israel or that approximately 45% of Israel’s Jewish population is comprised of people of color (Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa). So do groups like BLMChicago believe that Black lives (or the lives of people of color) in Israel don’t matter or that they matter, but just not as much as Palestinian lives?

Condemnation of Israeli civilians being slaughtered by Hamas should be the end of a sentence; it shouldn’t be followed with “but what about…” Condemning the actions of Hamas does not mean that Israel actions or responses are being condoned or that Israeli lives are more important than Palestinian lives.


One more quick point that I want to make on a subject that I kept meaning to discuss in more depth but never got around to (and which I alluded to above): UNRWA. As you follow coverage of the conflict, you’ll likely see or hear references to UNRWA (pronounced “un-ra”), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is the United Nations organization created to address Palestinian refugees after the 1948 War and administer Palestinian welfare efforts. Yes, UNRWA remains actively involved in Palestinian lives seventy-three years after it began operations in 1950. Among other functions, UNRWA operates schools in Gaza; schools where Hamas has been caught hiding and firing rockets and building tunnels and which uses textbooks that incite violence. UNWRA has also been caught employing staffers who post antisemitic messages on social media. But, perhaps, the craziest part of all of this is that UNRWA exists solely for the relief and works of Palestinians. It has no part to play with regard to Jews who became refugees after the 1948 War. More importantly, all other refugees in the world come under the auspices of the UNHCR (United National High Commission for Refugees) which has a very, very different definition for “refugee” than the definition used by UNRWA (the UNHCR definition is far narrower and doesn’t generally include descendants of a person who fled conflict). Thus, the literally millions of refugees of wars across the globe after 1948 (estimated to be as many as 35 million by Refuge Point) are subject to a far more restrictive and limited regime than the Palestinians. (If the definition of “refuge” applied to Palestinians were expanded to other conflicts, my children and I might be able to identify ourselves as refugees from Ukraine or Poland.) Yet in virtually none of those other wars are people living in refugee camps decades and decades after the cessation of principal hostilities. But in Gaza and the West Bank (and Jordan and Lebanon), refugee camps exist to this day, most administered by UNRWA. Why haven’t those people forced the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Jordanian and Lebanese governments to build the necessary infrastructure to dismantle the refugee camps or to take over providing and schooling these “refugees” in lieu of the United Nations?

And just for a note of comparison, when Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia massacred 460 – 3,500 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, approximately 400,000 Israelis protested in Tel Aviv to demonstrate anger at the massacre and demand an investigation into Israel’s role and responsibility. And even today, Israel is still struggling with and coming to terms with those events as part of a inward-looking reflection not too dissimilar to that engaged in by Americans during and after Vietnam or now in the aftermath of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I haven’t seen Palestinians protesting to demonstrate anger at Hamas’ actions.


I’m sure that I’ll have many more thoughts and much more to say over the next days, weeks, and months. Whether I say it here or not remains to be seen. I will acknowledge, in advance, that some of my language in this post may not be as precise as it should be; anger and fear are emotions that can overwhelm caution and care. As always, I welcome discourse on the subject, but I’m not likely to respond favorably to those who choose simply to insult me, call me names, threaten me, and so forth. But I am very willing to engage in good faith discussions on solutions and ways to work toward peace.

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