By Lauren Gillespie
We all do things when we are fifteen that we later regret. In my case, in addition to the usual suspects, this was to draw a false moral equivalence between Israelis and Palestinians during the Second Intifada. In 2002, I wrote an op-ed for the Roanoke Times blaming leadership on both sides (Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat) and calling for everyone to just share the land and get along, as if this were as easy as two children agreeing to share a sandbox. At the time, Palestinians were launching suicide attacks that claimed the lives of hundreds of Israeli civilians, while Israel’s alleged offense was to continue settling land won in the 1967 War. Were I to see the piece today, I would likely blush in embarrassment.
At the time, I lacked an in-depth understanding of the background of the conflict and bought into the naïve notion that both parties must share the blame for any violence. Like others in the millennial generation, I have no memory of the Cold War. I grew up in the 90’s, that golden decade when communism had been defeated and Islamic terrorism still seemed a distant threat. The world was a safe, happy place. We didn’t have enemies bent on our destruction. Conquest and empire were things of the past, to be replaced with tolerance, multiculturalism, and self-esteem. If people in other countries still killed each other, they were either immature or mean.
In the twelve years since my first foray into writing about the conflict, I have earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in Foreign Affairs with a concentration in the Middle East and spent five years teaching AP World History. I say this not to claim to be an expert on the region (which I am not), but merely to explain how my thinking on the subject has evolved.
For the past month, I have been devouring any new information I can on the ongoing Israeli-Gaza War. Each day brings new developments, and I am still discovering new layers to the proverbial onion. I have been hesitant to write on the subject because of both the complexity of the situation and the fact that it has become such an emotional issue for so many. Warfare has always been brutal, and civilians always suffer disproportionately for the mistakes of their governments. In the past, we read reports of the carnage and statistics of casualties. Now we see pictures of disemboweled toddlers posted to twitter in real time.
But I have reached the point at which I can remain silent no longer. I cannot read another blog post, twitter trend, or facebook status accusing Israel of genocide and not respond. It turns my stomach to hear people compare the Israeli Defense Forces to Hitler – as if Israel’s objective were to kill civilians; as if they have forgotten that the Holocaust claimed the lives of six million Jews.
Many Americans are as ignorant of the background of the conflict as I was at fifteen, and some just as naïve in their understanding of foreign policy. Unfortunately, this seems to include Secretary of State John Kerry, whose embarrassing attempt to negotiate a ceasefire ended in disaster, legitimizing Hamas (a terrorist organization) and infuriating Israel (our long-time supporter and ally).
Critics of Israel have only two arguments: that Israel has killed more Palestinian civilians than Hamas has killed Israelis (1,650 Palestinians killed in attacks by the IDF at last count, compared to 60 Israeli soldiers and 2 civilians killed by Hamas), and that Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians are justified as “resistance” to Israeli “occupation.” Both arguments fall apart upon closer inspection.
First, comparing death tolls is not the proper way to determine the moral high ground in a conflict. More important is the intent behind the action. In a court of law, self-defense can be used as justification for taking another’s life. There can also be cases of manslaughter in which the intent was not to inflict harm, but it resulted from negligence. At best Israel’s actions fall under the first category, at worst the latter.
Israel has taken several measures to limit civilian casualties among Palestinians, including “roof-knocking” bombs delivered as warnings, leaflets urging evacuations, and even text messages. This has proven extremely difficult, as Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet and Hamas has embedded itself within the civilian population, even urging Palestinians to ignore Israeli warnings.
Have they done enough? The shelling of another UN school (where Hamas rockets have previously been found) certainly raises this question. I’m sure that were I the mother of a Palestinian child killed in an IDF operation, I would be too devastated to care whether or not it was intentional; this is why we must always pray for peace. But charges of genocide imply an intent to inflict harm that simply has not been demonstrated. From the Israeli standpoint, it is also illogical. What does Israel stand to gain from killing Palestinian children? It only makes them look worse in the eyes of the world. Their quarrel is with Hamas, which they rightly perceive as an existential threat.
Hamas, on the other hand, has done everything it can to kill or capture Israeli civilians, including rocket attacks and tunneling. They have endangered Palestinian civilians by firing from schools, cemeteries, and playgrounds, even killing 10 Palestinians in a recent misfire. Since the conflict started on July 8, Hamas has launched 3,000 rockets at Israel. Is Israel to blame for the fact that they are better at (and more interested in) defending their civilians than Hamas? If Israel dismantled their Iron Dome Missile Defense system and Israeli civilian deaths climbed into the thousands, would world opinion shift in their favor? Somehow I doubt it. Israel has the military capability to annihilate Gaza – every man, woman, and child – but they have at least attempted to limit their attacks to military targets. It is highly doubtful that Hamas would show the same restraint if the roles were reversed.
When Hamas does something particularly indefensible, like attack Israel 90 minutes into a humanitarian ceasefire, their apologists quickly claim that an occupied people have the right to resist in any way they see fit. But Israel does not occupy Gaza. In 2005, they withdrew all their forces, evicting 10,000 of their own settlers and essentially creating the first independent Palestinian state. World leaders kept telling Israel the attacks were due to settlements and occupation. Why not give it a try?
Unfortunately, Palestinians in Gaza voted Hamas into power over the more moderate Fatah. Hamas devotes most of their resources, including international humanitarian aid, to the construction of costly tunnels and purchase of new rockets to attack Israel, rather than improve the lives of Palestinians. They preach Anti-Semitism to children and celebrate the slaughter of Israeli civilians. After the 2012 conflict, parents in Gaza named babies after the Iranian rockets that had been used to strike Israel.
Israel has been criticized for its blockade of Gaza (not the same as an occupation), and perhaps they could do more to ease this. But Israel’s strategy is based on the desire to keep Hamas from getting new rockets and to shift Palestinian support away from Hamas, much like our nation’s economic sanctions of Iran. Egypt has also restricted access to Gaza, yet they do not face the same criticism.
Second, if Hamas is justified in resisting “occupation,” isn’t Israel justified by the same logic in resisting its destruction, the stated goal of Hamas? If America had an enemy that was constructing tunnels to kidnap and kill American civilians and launching rockets into our airspace, how would we expect our leaders to respond? Perhaps it is not surprising that 95% of Israeli Jews see the operation in Gaza as just. Denounced by both traditional adversaries and allies, including the UN, Israel seems to have concluded that nothing short of national suicide would increase their global popularity. They have chosen the survival of their people over the approval of others.
In a way, Israel and Hamas are both succeeding in their different objectives, which is why a ceasefire has been so difficult to negotiate. Israel has dismantled hundreds of terrorist tunnels and 3,000 Hamas rockets, protecting their civilians at the cost of 60 soldiers. Hamas has won international sympathy, protecting its political relevance at the cost of an estimated 1,650 Palestinian civilians. Israel’s stated goal is to destroy Hamas. If it is allowed to succeed, Palestinians in Gaza might benefit just as much as Israelis.
But Israel’s struggle means more to me than just this most recent conflict. In Dinesh D’Souza’s America, Bono claims America is exceptional because it is the only nation that is also an idea: that you can advance as far as your talents and work ethic will take you, no matter where you were born or what your father did for a living. But Israel too is the embodiment of an idea: the belief that the Jewish people should control their own sovereign state in the Promised Land, also known as Zionism. In a recent column defending Zionism, Michael Oren writes:
“Though founded less than 150 years ago, the Zionist movement sprung from a 4,000-year-long bond between the Jewish people and its historic homeland, an attachment sustained throughout 20 centuries of exile. This is why Zionism achieved its goals and remains relevant and rigorous today. It is why citizens of Israel—the state that Zionism created—willingly take up arms. They believe their idea is worth fighting for.”
Hamas is also founded on an idea they are willing to fight and even die for – Islamic supremacism. But Hamas is not the only organization dedicated to this cause. Just look across the Suez to the Muslim Brotherhood, only recently ousted from power in Egypt. Look at ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Islamic supremacism (which is distinct from the religion of Islam) has been shown to lead to the persecution of Christians and the perpetuation of violence wherever it spreads. Zionism, for all its flaws and critics (including some Jews), has proven the only thing capable of protecting and empowering many of the world’s Jews.
Even in the face of Hamas’ rockets, Jews continue to immigrate to Israel by the thousands. Why? Because they still believe in the idea of Zionism. Because Anti-Semitism is alive and well around the world. In Europe, the black flags of ISIS were recently allowed to fly over the Netherlands, as crowds chanted “Death to the Jews!” In the United States, pro-Israeli demonstrators had to be escorted away from the White House after being attacked by a pro-Palestinian crowd. Online forums erupt with Anti-Semitic rants, yet facebook decides they do not violate their community standards. The virulence and hatred on display cannot be explained by anger over Palestinian casualties in the ongoing war.
The Holocaust did not give birth to Zionism, or even Jewish migration to Israel, but it did offer definitive proof of the need for a Jewish state. For a brief moment, the world realized that never again should Jews be forced to rely upon the goodwill and generosity of strangers. It is a lesson we would all do well to remember.