“It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than sympathy with thought” – Oscar Wilde

16-Jan-09

For the past twenty days the population of Gaza has had to face severe aerial bombardment and a deadly ground offensive from the Israeli military. For the past eight years the inhabitants of Southern Israel have had to endure a constant stream of rockets fired indiscriminately at civilian targets. For the past sixty years the Palestinians have been mourning what they consider the greatest catastrophe in their recent history, the displacement of thousands following the Israeli declaration of independence, and for almost a century Jews around the world have accepted the declared intent of the great powers to create a homeland for them in historic Palestine.

Under the suffocating weight of all this historical baggage, with a never-ending stream of wars, acts of terrorism, deaths and UN resolutions thrown in for good measure, it is very tempting to draw a line under the past and insist we focus on the present. ‘Who cares about history? People are dying as we speak and the death toll is growing daily. Let’s deal with that, rather than rehash old issues!’ 

If only life were that simple. There are no ‘old’ issues and the uncomfortable truth is that moral decisions cannot be made in a vacuum. A legitimate analysis of any event must, above all else, be based on context. People are suffering in Gaza – there is no question of that. The Palestinians living in that ‘densest strip of land on Earth’ have endured appalling conditions for decades, and their situation has deteriorated beyond measure since Operation Cast Lead began. It is impossible to look at the pictures of death and destruction and not be moved to tears, but if our arguments are to be taken seriously we cannot let our judgements be clouded by our emotions. The tragic state of affairs in Gaza should automatically and unconditionally inspire in all of us a profound sorrow and a desire to alleviate the misery. We should not, however, let ourselves feel misguided, knee-jerk fury at Israel and unthinkingly whitewash the actions of Hamas. When a child is dead it is only natural to curse the hand that dropped the bomb, but the guilt often lies elsewhere. And while no Hamas operatives were flying bombers over Gaza, indirect culpability is no less damning. It takes time and effort to establish context, but any conclusion reached before having done so is, to speak frankly, entirely worthless.

‘All right, but even when considering the context, how can one possibly put the blame for the Gaza operation on anyone other than Israel? Almost 1,000 Palestinians have been killed by the IDF whereas only 8 Israelis have died as a result of Qassam rockets in the past year.’ When phrased in this manner the conclusion seems inevitable, but there are three important points to bear in mind. 

Firstly, we cannot let ourselves be goaded into playing the numbers game. Not only because numbers are in and of themselves irrelevant (in the Second World War, the casualties suffered by the United Kingdom amounted to less than 8% of the total number of German dead – greater loss should not be taken as an indication of the greater right), but also because the rules of this game are horrendously skewed.

How many Israelis would have been killed if every one of the almost 9,000 rockets fired into Israeli civilian centres over the past eight years had hit their targets? If the intelligence services had not been competent enough to pre-empt large numbers of attacks, if the early warning systems had not been as efficient and if the medical response teams available were not among the best in the world? Any number of people killed by either side is a tragedy, but death tolls are less important than the goals both parties aimed to achieve.

The tens of Qassam rockets being fired into Israel almost daily have one purpose and one purpose only: to destroy, disrupt and disfigure Israeli society to the greatest extent possible. If any of the randomly fired rockets should happen to hit an Israeli – no matter what their age, profession or even religion, then that is considered a victory for the Hamas militants. By contrast, the IDF approach is one of careful, surgical targeting of those areas or buildings out of which rockets have been fired. Yes, mistakes have been made (tragic mistakes are always made in times of conflict: even when Hamas and Fatah members attempt to wipe each other out, the screams of Palestinian children are occasionally heard to ring through the streets of Gaza, though their sound echoes less forcibly in the living rooms of Western Europe), but the strategies employed by Israel have always attempted to minimize the civilian casualties incurred: such as when leaflets are dropped on areas targeted for destruction, urging all those inside (often including grateful Hamas militants) to flee.

The most incredible thing about the way Hamas fights is its Machiavellian willingness to increase Palestinian casualties. Rather than spending the money they have had responsibility for over the past three years on schools, hospitals and shelters for their own people, they have invested in weapons and military training in an attempt to destroy the Jewish state. Rather than attempting to save their own people from the inevitable Israeli counter-strike, militants fire rockets from inside schools, plant bombs inside ambulances, stockpile ammunition in mosques and use their families as human shields. Hamas have been taking their own people hostage – hiding among civilians to protect themselves and blaming Israel for any deaths that ensue.

The constant, heart-wrenching stream of images that comes out of Gaza is an indication of the extent to which Hamas have mastered what Alan Dershowitz calls the ‘CNN strategy’. A calculating and exploitative use of the suffering of their own people, Hamas uses deaths it has direct responsibility for to paint an image of Israeli barbarism in blood. When playing such a brutal, cynical and manipulative opponent, there is no way the numbers game can yield a fair result.

Secondly, the response from Israel is not in proportion or in response to any isolated event or events. The response is to a threat posed by a dangerous and extremist terror organization whose stated aim and key political message is the destruction of Israel. There is a widespread belief that the fact that Hamas was democratically elected means that any criticism of their motives amounts to a hypocritical attack on democracy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Mussolini was elected democratically and Hitler came to power in a Germany that still used a system of proportional representation. The democratic victory Hamas enjoyed is an indication solely of the popularity of their message – not its legitimacy.

Thirdly, there is no need to embark on grisly rhetoric to reiterate that war is a ghastly, brutal, ugly thing. People die. Among them civilians. But that’s what war is like – NATO’s actions regrettably killed civilians during the conflicts in the Balkans and Afghanistan, civilians have again and again proved the victims of the Sri Lankans’ campaigns against the Tamil Tigers, and the bombing of Dresden and Cologne by the Allies during WWII resulted in severe non-combatant casualties. And while it would be absurd to claim that ‘because other countries can kill civilians, Israel is entitled to’, it is equally preposterous to hold Israel up to a standard that no other country in any other conflict has ever had or even been expected to reach. Israel should be held up to a high standard (and indeed the democratic, liberal society that exists in Israel ensures that the country holds itself up to a higher standard), but that does not equate to exposing it to grotesquely unfair criticism. The IDF have gone to greater lengths and suffered greater losses in their attempts to minimise civilian casualties on both sides than virtually any other military force, as the Israeli Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over the military has enforced higher levels of accountability.

Over the past three weeks, much has been said of the obligations of ‘Israel and Hamas’, or calls on ‘both sides’ to put an end to the violence. And while attacks in both directions need to stop for progress to be achieved, it is morally absurd to claim any sort of equivalence between the actions or intentions of the IDF and Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization that leads its own people to believe that waging war against Israel is the best way to secure a future. Not only is this logic hopelessly misguided, it implies a staggering blindness to political realities. Israel’s existence is no longer under question, and the presence of a strong Jewish state in the region needs to be accepted, not fought at the expense of the Palestinian people.

What we are seeing in Gaza are the tragic consequences of a democratic state exercising its inalienable right to self-defence against a fundamentalist, violent entity more concerned with eliminating its enemy than preserving its own people. The moment Hamas starts to treat the lives of Palestinians as more valuable than the deaths of Israelis, lasting peace will be a stone’s throw away.

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