A Vicious Cycle Plays Out in Gaza

Blogging, as opposed to more in depth writing, tends to lend itself toward issues in which the author is clearly on on side of an issue. While some recognition might be paid towards the nuances of an issue, for the most part bloggers are for or against a candidate, and are for or against the Iraq war. The situation in Gaza is far more difficult as neither side is totally in the right. Megan McArdle sums up the problem with writing about the conflict between Israel and Hamas:

Since no action in the region has occurred without plausible provocation for 4,000 years or so, this requires constantly shifting the metrics by which you measure whichever side you happen to favor. Point out that Israel is killing a lot of civilians and you are told that they had to do something in response to the Hamas rockets. Point out that practically, the response they chose has absolutely no strategic or tactical benefit, and a huge potential downside, and you are castigated for your lack of moral outrage about Hamas’s attacks on civilians. Either Israel is doing this because it hopes to gain something, in which case the whole thing is hopelessly ass-backwards–they are strengthening Hamas and worsening their international political position–or it thinks that it’s okay to kill boatloads of civilians purely for revenge against Hamas; revenge for attacks that have so far killed and injured almost no one. This rather undercuts the argument of moral superiority, because guess what? That’s what Hamas thinks it’s doing.

On the other side, there’s a tendency to forget, or forget to mention, that whatever the provocation, a plurality-to-majority of Palestinians constantly and actively wish to kill large numbers of Israelis purely for revenge. Gaza wants to be at war with Israel, and then hide behind the protections of not-quite-war, because they haven’t the foggiest hope of winning anything like a real war.

As with many such conflicts, this is a situation where plenty of fault can be found on both sides. While Megan does attempt to avoid taking sides, and I share her skepticism that Israel’s current actions will be of any long term benefit, ultimately the most important point here is that “Gaza wants to be at war with Israel.” There is no doubt that Israel has reacted to this situation in ways which are objectionable, with regards to the occupation, the subsequent blockade, and its conduct during war, but the underlying reality of the situation is that whether these conflicts continue is far more up to the Palestinians. There is no hope for peace as long as one side to the conflict has a visceral objection to making peace. Overreaction to such a situation, while perhaps not always morally justified, is the inevitable response.

While some speak of a proportional response, such expectations are not realistic. Shooting rockets into civilian areas will inevitably lead to a disproportionate response from virtually anyone, even if civilian casualties have so far been low. I don’t totally buy Alan Dershowitz’s argument that Israel’s actions are “proportionate” but his example still remains relevant to understanding the situation:

When Barack Obama visited Sderot this summer and saw the remnants of these rockets, he reacted by saying that if his two daughters were exposed to rocket attacks in their home, he would do everything in his power to stop such attacks. He understands how the terrorists exploit the morality of democracies.

In a recent incident related to me by the former head of the Israeli air force, Israeli intelligence learned that a family’s house in Gaza was being used to manufacture rockets. The Israeli military gave the residents 30 minutes to leave. Instead, the owner called Hamas, which sent mothers carrying babies to the house.

Hamas knew that Israel would never fire at a home with civilians in it. They also knew that if Israeli authorities did not learn there were civilians in the house and fired on it, Hamas would win a public relations victory by displaying the dead. Israel held its fire. The Hamas rockets that were protected by the human shields were then used against Israeli civilians.

These despicable tactics — targeting Israeli civilians while hiding behind Palestinian civilians — can only work against moral democracies that care deeply about minimizing civilian casualties. They never work against amoral nations such as Russia, whose military has few inhibitions against killing civilians among whom enemy combatants are hiding.

Regardless of whether it is justifiable, Israel’s actions are going far beyond the actions of Hamas (primarily because Israel has far greater ability to wage war than Hamas does), and violate what we would like to think are accepted laws of war. AP reports on the destruction being caused by Israel in Gaza. Still it is notable that they report:

Before the airstrikes, Israel’s military called some of the houses to warn of an impending attack. In some cases, it also fired a sound bomb to warn civilians before flattening the homes with missiles, Palestinians and Israeli officials said.

Giving warning by itself does not justify targeting of civilians, but this does note a significant difference between the two sides. The Israeli airstrikes might be a disproportionate response to the rocket attacks fired by Hamas, but Hamas did not give any warning first. Israel does deserve criticism when civilians are harmed by its airstrikes, but at least their goal is to minimize such casualties. On the other hand when Hamas rockets hit schools in Beer Sheva it was most likely due to a fortunate chance and not the wishes of Hamas that no children were killed. Israel would also not use school children as human shields, but Hamas is not above this.

Kevin Peraino, writing for Newsweek, considers whether these actions will help or hurt Israel and finds both short term benefits in restoring its aura of invincibility but long term problems in terms of achieving peace in the region. The article concludes:

Retaliatory strikes aside, an intense Israeli assault on Gaza could indeed restore some element of its deterrent power vis-à-vis the Islamists. The Jewish state “has already improved its reputation and powers of deterrence by yesterday’s performance,” says Jerusalem-based historian Michael Oren. Yet even as Israel strengthens its position with regard to Hamas, it risks simultaneously weakening its ability to confront larger, more-dangerous players—particularly Iran. Regional Arab allies like Egypt and Jordan will be critical if the United States and Israel are to effectively increase pressure on the Islamic republic. The bloody images of dismembered corpses that are now airing around the clock on Al-Jazeera will strain those ties. Israel’s latest campaign may restore some measure of its long-lost aura of invincibility. Yet in the long run, it will come at a price.

Part of this price is that yet more Palestinians will find justification for rocket attacks or other terrorist activities in the future, leading to yet more acts of retaliation such as the current strikes in Gaza, even if counter-productive. There is no clear end for this vicious cycle.

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  1. 1
    koranist says:

    Its funny how Islam is much debated when it comes to this issue while Judaism and its claim that Jews have a birthright to that land is not. Also the fact that Israel has a right to exist is always claimed but never as to where that existence should be and on what basis does it have a right to exist as compared to Kurdistan or Chechniya has a right to exist.

    Why do we expect and insist Hamas accept Israel when most Islamic nations, including US allies, do not? Why do we also always refer to Hamas as “Islamis” but not the Iraqi government? And why always the need to clairify Iran as backers of Hamas but not Noor Al Maliki?

    The debate about Israel and Palestine never takes into account how Hamas sees the world and why it sees it that way. Little is emphasized that many occupants of Gaza were driven to Gaza in 1948 from areas Hamas’s is now firing rockets at such as Beerseeva etc.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:


    To try to go back to 1948 is a dead end–see the first line of Megan’s post which I quoted above.

    We must deal with the situation as it now exists. Any arguments which exclusively look at this from one side will go no where. This includes both denying the right of Israel to exist now that people have been living there as well as denying the real problems of people such as those in Gaza.

    If there is to be a solution it must respect both sides. Proposals such as a two state settlement have a chance at success (despite all the obstacles). To simply deny the right of Israel to exist leaves no room for a real peace settlement, increasing the chances that Israel will respond as it is now (even though such actions are likely to be counterproductive in the long run).

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