Rafah Crossing

Palestinians from Gaza at the Egyptian-controlled Rafah border crossing last week. One of Hamas’ demands is to have international supervision of the crossing. Photo by Reuters

After we’ve said everything there is to say about Hamas: that it’s fundamentalist; that it’s undemocratic; that it’s cruel; that it does not recognize Israel; that it fires on civilians; that it’s hiding ammunition in schools and hospitals; that it did not act to protect the population of Gaza – after all that has been said, and rightly so, we should stop for a moment and listen to Hamas; we may even be permitted to put ourselves in its shoes, perhaps even to appreciate the daring and resilience of this, our bitter enemy, under harsh conditions.

But Israel prefers to shut its ears to the demands of the other side, even when those demands are right and conform to Israel’s own interests in the long run. Israel prefers to strike Hamas without mercy and with no purpose other than revenge. This time it is particularly clear: Israel says it does not want to topple Hamas – even Israel understands that instead it will have Somalia at its gates – but it is also unwilling to listen to Hamas’ demands. Are they all “animals”? Let’s say that’s true. But they are there to stay, even Israel believes that’s the case, so why not listen?

Last week 10 conditions were published in the name of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for a 10-year cease-fire. We may doubt whether these were in fact the demands of those organizations, but they can serve as a fair basis for an agreement. There is not one unfounded condition among them.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad demand freedom for Gaza. Is there a more understandable and just demand? There is no way to end the current cycle of killing, and not have another round in a few months, without accepting this. No military operation, by air, ground or sea, will bring a solution; only a basic change of attitude toward Gaza can ensure what everyone wants: quiet.

Read the list of demands and judge honestly whether there is one unjust demand among them: withdrawal of Israel Defense Forces troops and allowing farmers to work their land up to the fence; release of all prisoners from the Gilad Shalit swap who have been rearrested; an end to the siege and opening of the crossings; opening of a port and airport under UN management; expansion of the fishing zone; international supervision of the Rafah crossing; an Israeli pledge to a 10-year cease-fire and closure of Gaza’s air space to Israeli aircraft; permits to Gaza residents to visit Jerusalem and pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque; and an Israeli pledge not to interfere in internal Palestinian politics such as the unity government; opening Gaza’s industrial zone.

These conditions are civilian; the means of achieving them are military, violent and criminal. But the (bitter) truth is that when Gaza is not firing rockets at Israel, nobody cares about it. Look at the fate of the Palestinian leader who had had enough of violence. Israel did everything it could to destroy Mahmoud Abbas. The depressing conclusion? Only force works.

The current war is a war of choice, a choice that we had. True, after Hamas started firing rockets, Israel had to respond. But as opposed to what Israeli propaganda tries to sell, the rockets didn’t fall out of the sky from nowhere. Go back a few months: the breakdown of negotiations by Israel; the war on Hamas in the West Bank following the murder of the three yeshiva students, which it is doubtful Hamas planned, including the false arrest of 500 of its activists; stopping payment of salaries to Hamas workers in Gaza and Israeli opposition to the unity government, which might have brought the organization into the political sphere. Anyone who thinks all this would simply be taken in stride must be suffering from arrogance, complacence and blindness.

Terrifying amounts of blood are being spilled in Gaza – and in Israel to a lesser extent. It is being spilled in vain. Hamas is beaten down by Israel and humiliated by Egypt. The only chance for a real solution is exactly the opposite of the way Israel is going. A port in Gaza to export its excellent strawberries? To Israelis this sounds like heresy. Here once again, the preference is for (Palestinian) blood over (Palestinian) strawberries.


Israel’s hollow victory over Hamas

Gaza building destroyed in Israeli air strike. A Palestinian woman walks past the rubble of a residential building, which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, i… / Photo by Reuters
By Brent Sasley
Published 13:17 22.07.14
Israel is far from having lost the strategic war to Hamas. But the real cost has been to its social cohesion: violence and intolerance both domestically and toward the death of Palestinian civilians.
Ariel Ilan Roth’s recent article in Foreign Affairs was headlined “How Hamas Won.” He argues that Hamas can already declare victory in the 2014 Gaza war, because Israel has lost the strategic contest. In his view, Israel has won a set of purely tactical victories – the destruction of much of the tunnel infrastructure and preventing large-scale casualties among the Israeli population.

To be sure, the strategic context doesn’t look good for Israel – it can’t completely end the rocket fire or defeat Hamas by military means. But that’s not because of the war; it’s because Israel doesn’t have a long-term strategic agenda that can take it beyond regular attacks on Gaza to “mow the grass” – intermittent efforts to punish Hamas and degrade its military capacity.

In fact, though, Israel seems on the verge of winning a major victory over its enemy: Hamas’ military power has been considerably degraded already and it remains contained in Gaza, while Israel is not suffering any backlash from other governments.

Instead, the real cost to Israel has been the exposure and exacerbation of internal social tensions. And these won’t be overcome as easily as laying siege to a territory or building alliances with friendly countries.

While Hamas and the other Gaza jihadist groups survive and disrupt life for many Israelis, the trajectory of the broader regional context in which the war is playing out doesn’t work in their favor.

The outcome of the war, which doesn’t seem likely to end with any major changes to the status quo – at least none that strengthen Hamas’ credibility and capability – will rather reinforce Israel’s military superiority.

With many tunnels dismantled and rockets destroyed or spent, and its operations in the West Bank disrupted, it will be some time before Hamas can rebuild its military power. And that’s assuming the war ends soon, before more of its infrastructure is taken apart. In the meantime, it will have to deal with internal challenges to its rule from the other jihadists in Gaza.

Part of the reason for Hamas’ decision to fight has to do with the financial crisis it finds itself in. It can’t pay the salaries of civil servants under its rule, and the destruction of the tunnels has meant the loss of revenue it gained through taxing them.

The Hamas leadership will have a difficult time trying to pay its workers and rebuild its rocket arsenal simultaneously.

Hamas’ regional allies – those who can protect its interests in cease-fire talks – are few and far between these days. Ties with Iran have been strained for some time now, and though the two seem to be moving toward reconciliation, Iran has no role to play in cease-fire efforts.

Its ability to rearm Hamas – even if it wants to – is constrained by the damage to the tunnel system under the Sinai border through which Iranian arms and equipment was sent. Hamas’ traditional ally, Egypt, is, under Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and the military, more aligned with Israel’s interest than Hamas’.

Only Turkey and Qatar remain relatively close to Hamas. While they can still provide some diplomatic support and – Qatar especially – financial support, that’s not enough to bolster Hamas against Israel.

Turkey took itself out of the equation with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, and it is Qatar’s very relationship with Hamas that causes Israel to be suspicious of its involvement.

At the same time, Israel retains considerable sympathy from world leaders because of Hamas’ refusal to accept previous cease-fire offers and its use of Palestinian civilian areas to hide its weapons, tunnels and fighters.

It’s true, as Roth asserts, that the Israeli public has suffered, particularly in the south. Millions of Israelis have been forced into bomb shelters on a regular basis. But, to put it bluntly, they are used to it. They won’t punish their leaders for it, particularly when they see how much damage was caused to the Hamas rocket infrastructure in Gaza.

While they may grow frustrated, there’s a deeper sense among much of the Israeli public that the threat surrounding the country is simply one to be accepted and dealt with on a case-by-case basis when the need arises.

None of this means that the status quo itself is not costly to Israel; it is. But that is not a function of this war, which is rather a symptom of the larger disease – the inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel’s other “loss” in this war is to its social cohesion, which in turn has led to the public outbreak of racism, violence and intolerance. The lead-up to the war (the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli yeshiva students) led directly to calls for revenge by many Israeli leaders and citizens, roaming mobs of violent racists and the horrible murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

The war itself heightened these feelings while diminishing the ability to see the other side’s suffering and to tolerate those who might sympathize with it, leading to even more internal violence. Supporters of the war have attacked both Arab citizens and Jews protesting the war. Many admit to having little ability to empathize with Palestinian mothers, fathers and children who have lost family members and their homes. And there isn’t much more interest in the lack of bomb shelters for Israel’s own Bedouin citizens.

Of course, this doesn’t represent all Israelis; many have protested this behavior, and many others don’t subscribe to them while remaining at home. But it’s still too many, and there is much work to be done. The excuse that Israel is currently fighting a war and cannot be distracted by these minor issues is just that; it is precisely at this moment that tolerance and human empathy should be reinforced.

A society that cannot generate sorrow for civilians being killed elsewhere becomes inured to violence against its own members, and more sympathetic to and excusing of it. It will produce many more Yigal Amirs, Baruch Goldsteins and La Familias. That’s not the meaning of a Jewish and democratic state.

Brent Sasley is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches and conducts research on Israeli and Middle East politics and Jewish identity. He blogs at Mideast Matrix. Follow him on Twitter at @besasley

The Atlantic

The Dangerous Logic Used to Justify Killing Civilians

A supporter of Israel’s campaign in Gaza evades a longstanding taboo, using logic uncomfortably close to what’s employed by Palestinian and Al Qaeda terrorists.


After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden argued that Al Qaeda was perfectly justified in killing all those people inside the World Trade Center because they weren’t really civilians–they were complicit in U.S. might and misdeeds. Didn’t their taxes fund America’s CIA assassinations and war planes? As every American understood perfectly well at the time, the attack that day would not have been justified even if all office workers in the Twin Towers had voted for a president and supported a military that perpetrated grave sins in the Middle East. Or even, indeed, if they were all subletting spare bedrooms to U.S. soldiers.

Killing civilians is wrong, no matter how often those who do it insist that the humans they killed weren’t really innocent. Everyone understands this truth when the civilians being killed are one’s countrymen or allies–but forget it quickly when the civilians are citizens of a country one is fighting or rooting against in war, even though the civilizational taboo against killing civilians becomes no less important.

The latest to succumb to this seductive illogic, to insist that slain civilians weren’t really civilians, is New York University’s Thane Rosenbaum, who writes in the Wall Street Journal:

Gazans sheltered terrorists and their weapons in their homes, right beside ottoman sofas and dirty diapers. When Israel warned them of impending attacks, the inhabitants defiantly refused to leave. On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations. At that point you begin to look a lot more like conscripted soldiers than innocent civilians. And you have wittingly made yourself targets.

For purposes of this article, let’s set aside all the adults killed in Gaza, just for the sake of argument. The dead Palestinian children are evidence enough that “real civilians” are being slaughtered. In the above passage, the author focuses on the dirty diapers rather than the baby that produced them. Elsewhere, he acknowledges the revolting number of kids killed in this conflict, and then adds, as if it’s concession enough, “Surely there are civilians who have been killed in this conflict who have taken every step to distance themselves from this fast-moving war zone, and children whose parents are not card-carrying Hamas loyalists. These are the true innocents of Gaza.” In fact, even a toddler whose father is a card-carrying Hamas loyalist is an innocent, by virtue of being a young child!

It is a moral failure not to acknowledge at least that. And the failure is worth dwelling on because wide embrace of Rosenbaum’s logic would be a setback for a world where civilians have legal protection in war, however often it is violated. As Daniel Larison explains:

Rosenbaum’s argument is extremely similar to the justifications that terrorist groups use when they target civilians in their own attacks. It is based on the false assumption that there are no real innocents or bystanders in a given country because of their previous political support for a government and its policies, which supposedly makes it permissible to strike non-military targets. It is very important to reject this logic no matter where it comes from or whose cause in a conflict it is being used to advance, because this is the logic that has been used to justify countless atrocities down through the years.

Just so.

No matter one’s position on Israel, Palestine, or the current conflict, the fact that innocent civilians exist on both sides, that they ought to be protected from death and dismemberment, and that they’re presently dying in large numbers ought not be denied.

Lest there be any confusion about what sorts of attacks I am condemning, consider any bygone instance of a Palestinian suicide bomber blowing up a restaurant or discotheque–or the lobbing rockets into residential neighborhoods inside Israel–as well as Israeli attacks like one that the New York Times just reported on:

When the strike leveled a four-story house in the southern Gaza Strip the night before, it also killed 25 members of four family households—including 19 children—gathered to break the daily Ramadan fast together. Relatives said it also killed a guest of the family, identified by an Israeli human rights group as a member of the Hamas military wing, ostensibly Israel’s target. The attack was the latest in a series of Israeli strikes that have killed families in their homes, during an offensive that Israel says is meant to stop militant rocket fire that targets its civilians and destroy Hamas’s tunnel network. The Palestinian deaths—75 percent of them civilians, according to a United Nations count—have prompted a wave of international outrage, and are raising questions about Israel’s stated dedication to protecting civilians.

Killing 19 children in order to get one Hamas fighter is horrific.

Says Larison, alluding to such attacks:

It may please Hamas to make use of these victims’ deaths for their own purposes, but that doesn’t absolve the Israeli government of its responsibility for causing those deaths. If Hamas benefits politically from these civilian deaths, and it seems likely that they do, it would seem obvious that Israel should not want to cause any more, and yet at each step over the last few weeks Israel’s government has responded with tactics that are guaranteed to continue killing many more non-combatants for as long as this operation continues.

Israel’s experience as a terrorist target suggests that watching foreigners kill children in one’s midst does not break a people’s desire to fight—it strengthens it. The spike in civilian deaths we’re witnessing appears to be a moral and strategic failure.