The United States has been dropping bombs, mostly using unmanned drones, on terrorist cells along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border for years now.  These are incredibly remote and sparsely populated areas, we are using the most accurate guidance systems in the world, and we don’t drop all that many of them.  And yet, even so, those bombs sometimes hit the wrong targets–instead of assassinating terrorist leaders, we kill innocent children.  It happens often enough that there is increasing pressure on the Obama Administration from liberal groups to cease these attacks altogether.

The Gaza Strip is home to about 1.7 million people.  It has roughly the same population density as Washington, DC and is about twice as large.  The Israeli rockets and bombs are not as accurate or technologically advanced as what we are dropping in Pakistan,  and dozens of warheads are landing on Gaza every day.  Over 100 Palestinians have died in less than a week, including 24 women and 10 children–and those number will surely climb daily as long as Israel keeps dropping bombs on Gaza.

First of all, Hamas clearly started the current engagement.  I will make no excuses for their behavior–firing rockets into Israel was certainly an act of evil, and they have certainly killed civilians as well.  Last I checked, the Israeli death toll stood at three, and those were surely innocents.  I understand completely why Israel would want to respond to such an attack.  But Israel’s response has been completely disproportional–to such an extent that it will prove to be self-defeating.

Israel claims that Hamas is using “human shields”; for instance, by placing their offices in populated office buildings.  First of all, even if that were true, that doesn’t justify killing civilians.  ”Shoot the hostage” may have been a good line in Speed, but in the real world police officers and soldiers are taught to find other ways to accomplish their objectives.  Secondly, remember that Hamas is the elected government in Gaza, and that Gaza is a populated and urban environment.  Hamas doesn’t have to hide out in Gaza; they are free to rent office space in buildings just like everyone else does.  Hamas friendly media outlets have their offices in the same buildings that every other news organization in Gaza uses, because those are the buildings with the appropriate infrastructure.  That’s not called “hiding”; that’s called living out in the open in a densely populated urban environment.  Israel’s arguments don’t pass the laugh test.

These civilian deaths are not just tragic and largely unnecessary.  They also completely undermine Israel’s position.  Israel’s friendly relationships (particularly with the United States and Germany) are vitally important to their long-term security and economic prosperity.  Every time that Israel kills civilians it risks undermining those relationships.  Citizens in the United States and Germany don’t like hearing about how our ally drop bombs on a family that was just sitting down for dinner–and as much as Israel claims that those are mistakes, when you drop bombs on cities civilians will die.

Hamas may be a threat to individual Israelis–but they are not a threat to the State of Israel.  Hamas doesn’t have nearly enough firepower or support.  The bigger threat to the State of Israel is when the Israeli’s decide that the proper response is to kill Palestinian families.

So yes, Israel certainly has the right to respond to attacks against it’s citizenry.  But it needs to find a better way.  Israel’s current response isn’t just tragic.  It’s stupidly short-sighted.

  3 Responses to “A Call for Sanity”

  1. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that ‘better way’. The problem is, as much as Israel is playing into Hamas’s hands, it’s hard to think of anything better to do, and sitting back and letting Hamas fire rockets into Israel isn’t acceptable either.

    One small quibble – it’s fine for Hamas to have offices in urban areas, it’s another thing to fire rockets into Israel from those offices. Israel’s frustration is that Hamas deliberately attacks from places where responses will lead children to be killed – Israel traces the location of origin of the missile… Hamas is using civilians as human shields.

  2. “One small quibble – it’s fine for Hamas to have offices in urban areas, it’s another thing to fire rockets into Israel from those offices”

    Does that happen? Absolutely. I think I mentioned at the top that Hamas is pretty much an evil group, and they certainly do evil things. On the other hand, Israel never suggested that Hamas was firing rockets from the building that housed the international media or the building that housed the office of the Hamas Prime Minister. And even the bomb that took out a car in the middle of a street carrying Hamas’ military leader; the killing itself may have been justified, but you blow up a car in the middle of the street and you will create shrapnel, and you have a good chance of killing civilians.

    Like I said, if the bad guy takes a hostage, the right answer is almost never to kill them both.

    As far as alternatives:

    1) More proportional responses. When Israel invaded Gaza a few years ago, they killed about 10 Palestinians for every Israeli; the back and forth bombing right now has taken out about 25 Palestinians for every Israeli. In both cases, most of those deaths were civilians. If Israel wants to play tit-for-tat, the international response would be a lot less severe.

    2) Understand that the whole point of the rocket attacks is to generate this kind of response. Hamas doesn’t actually care about killing some random Israeli citizen; they aren’t that careful about where they fire, and they aren’t firing anything with a guidance system. Hamas doesn’t even really care about the hundred of Palestinians who die in the response. What Hamas cares about is that Israel will look bad when it kills hundreds of Palestinians in response. You say that not doing anything is unacceptable, and perhaps from a domestic political standpoint you are right. But from a purely strategic standpoint not doing anything IS the right response. Because if Hamas’ tactic stops working, they will move on to a different strategy–and perhaps even one that doesn’t involve killing Israeli citizens.

    3) Work harder to get the international community on their side. Israel has long operated under the assumption that as long as the United States supports it, it doesn’t have to worry about anything else–and they tend to take American support for granted. But instead, they could take a page from the Americans: when we were attacked on 9/11 we didn’t just go in to Afghanistan or even Iraq by ourselves. We built an international coalition. Israel has spent decades battling with the UN in large part because they’ve taken a short-sighted view of security. They’ve been so worried about whether someone might possibly use the West Bank or Gaza as a staging ground to attack Israel (not to mention appeasing the Orthodox zealots who want to settle those areas without giving any political rights to the people who currently live there), that they’ve completely lost sight of the fact that international allies and goodwill can in the long run provide them with a level of safety and security that they will never be able to achieve if they remain isolated.

    Keep in mind that Israel is the dominant military power in the region, and they are close allies with the largest military power in the world. They no longer face a serious threat of extinction from any of their neighbors; in fact they have generally even had good relationships with two of the more powerful countries in the region (Egypt and Turkey) for the last 30 years (although both of those relationships have become strained over Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza). Israel would be better off trying to find a long-term solution to their problems with the help of their neighbors and the rest of the international community, instead of insisting on always going it alone. Because in the long-run, the only thing that Israel really has to fear is isolation.

  3. 1) More proportional response – sure, I’m with that. I think Israel is working under shock and awe assumptions – if we hit you with overwhelming force, you’ll think twice about attacking again. They’re fundamentally misunderstanding the strategy of Hamas, which gets emboldened by shock and awe. That said, I don’t think proportional response would fundamentally change the strategic situation – psychology of deaths pretty clearly shows that the difference between 10:1 and 25:1 has basically no effect in how external actors view things. Psychologically there’s little difference between 2000 deaths and 20,000 deaths – a phenomenon known as psychophysical numbing. The mind simply can’t process numbers that large, and just thinks “large”. So, for ethical reasons, proportional response is something I’m on board with. Not so much for strategic considerations.

    2) Yes, I meant domestically. No leadership can expect to stay in power long if they allow foreign actors to send rockets into their cities with impunity. In democracies they get voted out, in non-democracies they eventually face rebellion. So, doing nothing is not a viable strategy.

    3) I’m not 100% with you on the notion that there’s no threat to Israel existing. If Iran gets nukes, there are some scary possibilities. That said, that’s not the meat of your argument. You won’t hear any argument from me about the benefits of multi-lateral support. Part of Israel’s problem is that many governments in the region could not support Israel, no matter how justified, without losing support of many internal constituents. They had good relations with Egypt, but Sadat was assassinated for that… and with the new ‘democracy’ there, it’s unclear what the relations with Israel are going to look like.

    But what do you do if you’re getting bombed, you go to the international community, and they preach forebearance (as they will) and we already know that’s not politically viable from a domestic perspective (see point #2)? Getting the rest of the world on board is easier in theory than in practice. Especially given that many countries are predisposed to negative views towards Israel…

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