Many years ago I wrote this piece which even garnered a mention in Wikipedia! Essentially I argued that despite claims to the contrary, there is a moral, or rather immoral equivalence to the actions of the Israeli army during the second intifada and that of Hamas. The claims of “the right to self-defense” on the Israel side, and the “right to resist occupation” on the Hamas side do not justify deliberate attacks on civilians. Both sides in fact engaged in doing exactly that. Anyone who truly cares about peace and human rights had to condemn both sides.
For that same reason, immediately on the outbreak of the second Lebanon war, and again on the outbreak of Operation “Cast Lead” I strongly came out and opposed both these operations. In the second in particular, the Israeli government and army declared openly that their aim was to intimidate the Gazan population and get them to oppose Hamas. Since the use of violence to achieve political ends is defined as terrorism, that war was by definition a terror war. In the course of the war, Israel engaged in many war crimes. The results, 1400 Palestinian dead, prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Of course, both Hezbollah and Hamas are by the same definition terror organizations and their actions were also for the most part war crimes. But as an Israeli and ex-IDF reservist, I can only try to influence my own government’s actions. So my comments in this blog are for the most part about the Israeli government and army.
It might therefore come as a surprise, that my perspective this time is radically different. I don’t often update this blog anymore because the situation seems depressingly static, and there isn’t much new I can contribute. I still post stuff on Twitter, but I don’t have a lot more in me to write in long form (except to complete the Israel-US piece I started years ago). But given my much different perspective, I thought it might be useful to write something to explain it.
Firstly, this time the Israeli government has explicitly stated they have a limited goal – to destroy Hamas missile infrastructure and in that context restore Israel’s deterrent capability. While the second part can be deliberately vague and open to interpretation, the IDF & government have been unusually open and explicit in not demanding the end of Hamas rule in Gaza, but rather the end of missile attacks on Israel. This is quite a different stance than Cast Lead. If these words in fact match Israel’s actions, then one has to concede these are legitimate goals of a government and army acting in self defense of its civilian population.
Critics of Israel can rightly point out that the gap between the words and actions of the Israeli government has often been a chasm (and I have often wrote about that myself). So while the stated goals might be justified we have to judge Israel by it’s actions. In particularly, Bibi is the master of spin, so one has to be particularly skeptical of his declarations.
While it is still early in the operation, the actions of the IDF thus far, seem quite in line with their words. Again critics point out that as in the past, there were incursions and attacks by Israel prior to the assassination of Jabari and those provocations (along with the assassination itself) prove that Israel was just looking for an excuse to go to war. Even many Israeli cynics argue this is Bibi’s pre-election gift to himself. But a more objective look shows these arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny.
First the tit-for-tat war between Hamas and Israel has been ongoing since Cast Lead. But many, many things have changed over the past 4 years, and not just the Israeli Prime Minister. Israel has backed off from its iron-clad demand that Hamas be replaced in Gaza before anything or anyone can leave or enter. The hermetic siege of Gaza has loosened considerably and the day to day lives of Gazans has improved. Israel has in fact engaged in negotiations of various sort with Hamas, including the successful release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Apparently there were ongoing discussions with Jabari himself about developing a long term truce.
But since the Shalit exchange, the Hamas leadership has become more militant and rejectionist. Perhaps emboldened by the fall of Mubarak, and the election of Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood is ideologically close to the Hamas movement, it is Hamas, not Israel, who have heated up the southern sector with repeated provocations, making the lives of the residents of southern Israel miserable.
But in particular, the Fajr missile story is at the crux of Hamas’ moral and political failure. Iran, hoping to deter an Israeli attack on it’s nuclear sites, has been arming Hamas with long range missiles capable of hitting remote sites deep within Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. While Hamas might like to deny they are a pawn of Iran, still they weren’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth and exploited the loosening of Israel’s blockade to smuggle in many missile including around 100 long range Fajr missiles.
Just to briefly address the Iran angle, let me point out that there is no justification for any country to seek nuclear weapons, which are essentially weapons of genocide. So no moral person can argue that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are “legitimate” in any way, shape or form. While that does not mean Israel is necessarily justified in attacking Iran (a complex issue I won’t get into at this point), it certainly doesn’t justify Iran arming Hamas with missiles that can only be used for killing and terrorizing the civilian Israeli population.
Most importantly, the fact that Hamas used Israel’s loosening of its stranglehold on Gaza to arm itself, not defensively, but with civilian targeting weapons, proves that the characterization of Hamas as a terrorist organization is an accurate one. Again, that is not to say that Israel shouldn’t try to reach an accommodation with Hamas. But it does mean that Israel, in order to defend it’s civilian population, is totally justified in attacking and destroying Hamas’ military capabilities which are offensive (in every sense of that word).
Some brief responses, to the usual objections: “What about Gazans right of resistance?” That does not give one the right to engage in war crimes, which raining missiles on civilians is. “What about the occupation?” Again, whatever Israel does wrong does not justify murdering Israeli civilians. “Israel does not have a legitimate right to exist on Palestinian land!” We can debate that endlessly, but even if that is true, certainly Israelis, like all other humans, have the right to exist, and live in peace and security. “What about the extra judicial killing of Jabari?” This is a bit more nuanced an issue, but at the end of the day, he is a military, not civilian target. I don’t think anyone can justifiably argue a general isn’t a legitimate target, and given the ongoing fighting, it’s pretty pedantic to argue this is an “assassination” not a military attack (just like I object to calling Shalit’s capture a “kidnapping”).
In summary, this time there is no moral equivalence. Israel did show relative restraint in the face of Hamas provocations and, at least thus far, is engaging in a legitimate military operation which has important and legitimate strategic objectives. Hamas unwisely provoked Israel and is engaging in war crimes, period.
One political postscript: I don’t have much faith in Bibi, but I have to grudgingly say his rule has been better than any of his predecessors since Rabin. Of course, considering how awful those predecessors were (Barak, Sharon, Olmert, Livni) this is not necessarily a great achievement. Still, even in this operation he seems to have learned from the failures of those four. Again, thus far, in contrast to the bombast of his predecessors and their open embrace of terror against Palestinians, he is keeping his military objectives modest and reasonable, and not overtly punishing the people of Gaza or engaging the army in vengeance. As one of his harsh critics, I feel obligated to give him some credit where it is due. I can only hope, though I am not optimistic, that he will leverage this military operation to subsequently engage in developing some sort of political accommodation with the Palestinians.