Questions about Gaza

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Everywhere I look on social media I’m bombarded with passionate stories from every direction about the conflict between Hamas and Israel in Gaza. It’s positively wearying, although of course not wearying in any way that compares to how weary the people who live there are weary of the violence. As Jon Snow recalls, actually being there is a horrendously life-changing experience that forbids you from ever forgetting.

From one Facebook user to the next and from one blog to the next, people are wearing their “allegiance” on their sleeve on this one. Not everyone is doing it, mind you. There are some who are expressing the fact they feel genuinely torn. Torn about which side has any moral high ground, torn over just what they can believe in light of the prevalence of propaganda and photographic deceit and so on.

I have thoughts about who I think, on the whole, is the worst in this conflict (I struggle to say that I have thoughts about who is right) and who bears the lion’s share of guilt. I’m not going to preach to you about that, but you’ll probably be able to tell where I stand (roughly). I’m going to describe some facts that I think any of us must accept and I’m going to put some questions out there.

Hamas has relentlessly kept up its rocket fire into Israel from within Gaza. It happens every day, many times every day. It isn’t reported every day, and if it were, it would sound the same every day: “Today, again, just like yesterday, Hamas fired a bunch of rockets into Israel.” Hamas is also spending huge resources on building tunnel networks beneath the Israeli border to infiltrate and attack Israel. The resources that Hamas is using to do this could have been used to significantly improve the lives of those living in Gaza. There has never been any realistic hope that Hamas was willing to listen to the pleas of anybody to stop. They are a group that desires the eradication of Israel.

Some people believe that the Israeli civilians in the path of these rockets just shouldn’t be there, and that’s the problem.

Some people believe that the Israeli civilians in the path of these rockets just shouldn’t be there, and that’s the problem. They will tell you that because of the history that has led to Israel existing where it does, within the borders that it has, Israel is in the wrong and, effectively, asks for such attacks. While of course Israeli civilians cannot be asked to go back where they came from (because they already live where they came from), the solution, say some, is that they should find somewhere else to live. Others, with equal conviction, deny this claim entirely, claiming in reply that really there is no such legitimate nation as “Palestine.” I do not profess any expertise whatsoever on the history of Middle-eastern politics. I do not know which, if any, of the many, many competing and often impassioned claims about legitimacy, borders or nationhood are correct. But I do not believe that any such claims justify firing rockets into civilian neighbourhoods, and I suspect that nearly everyone sees this.

Israel has a very effective anti-rocket defence system called the “Iron Dome.” But in the first place, it is only a very good defence – not a perfect defence. Some rockets get through. Perhaps more importantly, it is wrong – a great, grave evil, in fact – that Hamas keep firing rockets into Israel. Even if I were an expert at blocking punches, it would be indefensible for my neighbour to come into my house every single day and relentlessly try to kill me by punching me to death. It would be good, of course, that I was able to block most of his punches (with the caveat that every now and then he got a punch through, bruising me). Assuming that nobody was going to come to my defence, I would have the right to defend myself.

But, as everybody knows, that is where things become complicated. Israel cannot be required to tolerate the repeated daily and even hourly attempts to kill her people and has a right to defend them. What’s more, if Israel has this right, she presumably has the right to do so with the least possible risk to her people. But nobody, I think, has this right at all costs. If I could defend myself against your personal attack only by using a weapon that would kill you and one hundred other people – none of whom have done anything to me – then I have good reason not to defend myself. But this, surely, would be an intolerable scenario. For Israel is not an individual defending herself against the attack of another individual. Israel is a sovereign state depending potentially all of her citizens from death (because it is clearly not the case that Hamas would stop at one, ten, one hundred or one thousand dead Israelis). And as a matter of course, the Hamas aggressors place themselves in civilian homes, schools and other buildings, deliberately concentrating the presence of civilian lives in the areas from where they choose launch their attacks.

Even if Israel somehow managed to destroy only those sites that Hamas uses as weapons installations – namely if Israel used the minimum force required to effectively defend itself – there would be hundreds, even thousands, of civilian casualties, including many children.

For Israel to not defend its civilians against these attacks would be to accept that Hamas can kill Israeli civilians with impunity, which nobody should ever consider tolerating. But what does it mean to defend against these attacks without risking the lives of Israelis? Because of the way that Hamas chooses to attack, to return fire against the attackers will harm and kill people who are not attacking, namely the civilians who live or work in the places that Hamas chooses to use from which to attack. Even if Israel somehow managed to destroy only those sites that Hamas uses as weapons installations – namely if Israel used the minimum force required to effectively defend itself – there would be hundreds, even thousands, of civilian casualties, including many children.

After responding with air strikes on the sites from which Hamas attacks but over a long period of time being unable to eradicate the threat, Israel have embarked on a land invasion of Gaza to seek out and destroy Hamas. If the Israeli military intended to completely destroy Gaza, it could. There is no doubt about this. They are a larger nation with vastly greater military capability. Israel issues warnings to the civilians of Gaza in the areas that it is about to bombard. Israel also provides medical support to the civilians of Gaza. Many of the civilians of Hamas are, chillingly, willing (and sometimes unwilling) human shields. In the past, groups of them – with apparently and horrible zeal – have rushed to crowd the rooftops of buildings that are used as attack sites when the Israeli warnings are issued. But of course, many, many more of the civilians of Gaza would do no such thing and abhor and fear all of the violence taking place around them, violence that claims the lives and well-being of those they love. Through no fault of their own they are in fear and grave danger every day.

Is there a clearer case anywhere of an impossible situation?

  • If Israel did not respond at all and the rocket fire continued unchecked, we would not be seeing it in the headlines every day and the number of civilian deaths would be very small. In strict utilitarian terms you might think this is the best course of action (namely, no course of action). But is this a defensible demand on Israel?
  • Israel (obviously) did not choose for the rocket attacks to take place, and certainly did not choose for Hamas to launch its weapons from within densely populated civilian installations and neighbourhoods. Can Hamas, by using these locations, legitimately tie Israel’s hands and compel them to not retaliate?
  • It comes naturally to look at major damage, loss of life, injury and suffering – including that of children – in the neighbourhoods in Gaza where Israel has retaliated with bombardment – after warnings – and to think “This just shouldn’t have happened.” I hope this is what we all think when we survey such terrible suffering. In light of what I think is the impossible situation described above, who is responsible for it?
  • Like you (I hope!), I want the invasion and the Israeli bombardment to stop, because it is hurting and killing many people including civilians, including children. It is horrific to see. But if we had the power to force Israel to stop, what would we have them do instead? This is not a rhetorical question. Saying “stop the violence” is easy. But if you have any answer to this question, I truly want to hear it: What should Israel do instead? Let us hear if you have any thoughts. World leaders aren’t reading this blog (apart from the GCSB), but put your idea out there anyway.

I lied a little. I said that I wouldn’t preach, but this may seem a little preachy. My own solution as to what people should do is something like this: Hamas should lay down its weapons. As has been said many times, if Israel did this, the violence would continue. If Hamas did this, the violence, by and large, would end. But the questions that I have asked above presuppose the depressing reality that Hamas is not going to stop.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 23 comments… add one }

  • Max July 29, 2014, 11:13 pm

    I would suggest sending gifts rather than death. If Israel were to pump money into improving the lives of the Palestinians in Gaza, the popular support for military action against Israel would soon end.

    You cannot bomb people into peace. It has never worked. What *has* worked is gift-giving people into peace.

    It would take a radical change in world-view for people to return good for evil. To return food and medicine for rockets, to turn the other cheek and renounce evil… but this is what Israel needs to do if they really want peace.

  • Glenn July 29, 2014, 11:33 pm

    “to return good for evil”

    My understanding of that phrase is that it is about returning good to those who have done you evil. But you’re not talking about Israel giving gifts to Hamas -have I got that right? You’re talking about giving to the civilians of Gaza.

    On a long term level that would doubtless do some good in changing the attitudes of a population. But what about in the short term as the rockets fly over the border? Presumably doing nothing to stop that happening next week isn’t a feasible option. Is it?

  • Giles July 30, 2014, 12:24 am

    Glenn, I would have agreed with every word if this had been written about previous Israeli incursions. In fact I would have said you understated. Hamas is not just committed to the destruction of Israel. It’s constitution commits it to the extermination of the Jewish people. Indeed I recently heckled an anti Israel demo. But then a friend pointed out to me that this time the conflict didn’t start with Hamas rockets. It’s started with three murders of Israeli teenagers for which Hamas disclaimed responsibility. This time the rockets came after the Israeli response. Now this makes a crucial difference because it makes the Israeli response look like (illegal) collective punishment rather than (legal) self defence. I have stood where you are standing in many prior outbreaks, but not this time. International Law can be an ass, but it’s better than the law of the jungle.

  • Frank July 30, 2014, 1:27 am

    “It would take a radical change in world-view for people to return good for evil. To return food and medicine for rockets, to turn the other cheek and renounce evil… but this is what Israel needs to do if they really want peace.”

    I might agree if the only maxims in play were “turn the other cheek” or “return good for evil,” but we are also called to defend the weak, and we certainly aren’t called to turn the cheeks of the oppressed.

    G.K. Chesterton rightly said that ““The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”

  • Nathan July 30, 2014, 1:33 am

    I have a hunch that Hamas would forcibly prevent the people in Gaza from accepting gifts from Israel.

    Giles, what exactly was the Israeli collective punishment in response to the murder of the three teenagers?
    Which part of this timeline is missing the collective punishment? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_kidnapping_and_murder_of_Israeli_teenagers

  • Giles July 30, 2014, 1:50 am

    Well, when did the rockets start? If it was during the first phase when Israel was just arresting people, I will retract my claim. I didn’t actually follow in detail as I assumed it started with rockets like usual but then I was told it started with the murders, which changed my mind. That is my friend informed me it went, murders, Israeli incursion, then rockets. Is that wrong?

  • Glenn July 30, 2014, 10:06 am

    “That is my friend informed me it went, murders, Israeli incursion, then rockets.”

    Then your friend is not even remotely acquainted with the facts, Giles. The kidnappings and murders of those three young men were recent, in June 2014. Hamas have been firing rockets into Israel for years.

    This may be of some use: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Dome

  • Giles July 30, 2014, 11:00 am

    I am astonished you could imagine I don’t know that. My point was previous operations went, Hamas rocket attacks, Israeli operation then pause in attacks. This one seems to have gone, Israeli kidnappings, Israeli deaths, Israeli operation. So the point of my question was at what point in the narrative do the renewed rocket attacks come. If during the swoop to get the suspects, then fine, it’s self defence. If it postdates the Israeli incursion proper, that’s another thing. Then you have Israeli murders, Israeli bombardment, Hamas rockets. To observe that is not to excuse Hamas but it may make a difference to the legality. I’ve deliberately refrained from googling the answer, because I was asking a genuine question the old fashioned way.

  • Giles July 30, 2014, 11:41 am

    I gave up, googled it, and it was still clear as mud to me. I’m not going to comment any further for that reason.

  • Giles July 30, 2014, 11:55 am

    Better still. Delete all my comments. Should follow cardinal rule of knowing what you are talking about.

  • Glenn July 30, 2014, 2:47 pm

    “I am astonished you could imagine I don’t know that.”

    I would never have imagined that you don’t know that. That’s why the claim you relayed from your friend just made no sense to me. I just took it literally. My point was only that this isn’t a new wave of rockets. They have really never stopped. They may have intensified, but Hamas generally does not respect anyone’s expectation that they are at peace. The kidnapping may have escalated things, but rocket attacks were already happening. If your friend thinks that rocket fire has somehow restarted since the kidnapping episode, I don’t know what he’s talking about but it doesn’t resemble what has been going on for quite some time now.

    Some time ago I “liked” the IDF on Facebook, and they are vigilant in keeping their readers up to date about the fact that this is ongoing, and they were releasing announcements well before the kidnapping (ever since I friended them, actually). It just didn’t usually appear in our evening news.

  • Giles July 30, 2014, 2:56 pm

    It was my fault, I was taking relative lulls in rocketing for a full pause as most attacks aren’t reported. Anyhow now Hamas is rejecting a ceasefire.

  • Max July 30, 2014, 11:38 pm

    “I might agree if the only maxims in play were “turn the other cheek” or “return good for evil,” but we are also called to defend the weak, and we certainly aren’t called to turn the cheeks of the oppressed.”

    I agree. But I do not think that killing hundreds of Palestinians (the vast majority of whom are women, children, and other civilians) is a particularly good example of protecting the weak or protecting the oppressed. Besides which, in the medium to long term the spirit of generosity and love would lead to security for citizens of Israel as well.. so this action would protect the weak in both nations.

    The myth that violence is a solution to violence is one we should have got over 2000 years ago.

  • Frank July 31, 2014, 1:26 am

    The weak and the oppressed I was speaking of were the men, women, and children whose neighbors have specifically named in their charter to murder, i.e. the Israelites. As far as I know the Israelites don’t have a similar charter regarding the Palestinians, and the Israelites have been very loving to them. They have loved their enemy and have gone the extra mile.

    Israel didn’t want war, the Palestinians did (they elected Hamas). I think it’s naïve to think that if only Israel wouldn’t fight the people who want to murder them then those murderers would, in the medium to long term, have a change of heart and decide to love them in return. Israel wouldn’t exist if they followed that advice.

    Also, I don’t think anyone claims that “violence is a solution to violence.” In this case, violence is a solution to the men, women, and children of Israel being murdered.

  • Giles July 31, 2014, 7:45 am

    Hello, what happened to Gong’s link? I disagreed with most of the claims eg the notion that Israel wouldn’t have to defend itself if only it gave up that 3% of the territory it gained in 67 that it still retained. But it explained where my friend got his claim about Hamas rockets. It said that the rockets leading up to the kidnapping were not launched by Hamas and that Hamas was arresting the militants behind them.
    Now I’m not saying that’s right. I dispute pretty much all the other claims in the link, so I’d have no problem rejecting that one as well if it is false. Just wondering why the link is no longer present on the page I see now. Did you delete it because of the errors? Not criticising. It’s your blog.

  • Matthew Flannagan July 31, 2014, 10:31 am

    Max “You cannot bomb people into peace. It has never worked. What *has* worked is gift-giving people into peace.”

    While I would love to believe this, it seems clear to me this claim is false. Germany in the 1940’s was bombed into peace, as was Japan. As has every nation that has been forced to surrender hostilities when defeated on the battle feild. I am not saying I agree with the tactics used against Germany or Japan, but just pointing out this claim is wrong.

    Moreover if you visit Aramoana, you’ll find a small town where after 13 people were indiscriminately killed peace was restored,by the bullets of the armed offenders squad. I doubt very much throwing gifts to David Gray while he opened fire on the residents would have been a terribly sensible idea.

  • Giles July 31, 2014, 10:59 am

    Not really, Mathew. Read the reports of both USAF and RAF on effects of bombing. The Germans fought up to the streets of Berlin and the bombing largely ineffective in terms of effect on the war effort, notwithstanding the huge casualties. German war production peaked in 1944. In the case of Japan yes the atom bombs brought forward the surrender by maybe three months.

  • Giles July 31, 2014, 11:05 am

    I’m not 100% the US report was USAF. It was the official report on the strategic bombing, which had J.K.Galbraith as a member and concluded, inter alia, that Japan would certainly have surrendered before 31st December 1945 and almost certainly within weeks.

  • Max July 31, 2014, 11:14 am

    You can bomb people into death, or defeat, or slavery and then call this peace.
    The war will tend to reemerge as the hadred brews though.
    The success of lasting peace in bith Japan and Germany was precisely what I say: gift giving.

  • Glenn July 31, 2014, 11:43 am

    Giles, all users who post comments at the blog indicate that their comment conforms to the blog policy. Unfortunately, although Gong agreed to this, his/her comment did not conform to that policy. Drive-by linking, that is, offering no substantive comment but just posting a link, has never been permitted. The comments section is for discussion of the issue. His/her comments are welcome, should he/she wish to offer any. I also note that he/she used a pseudonym in spite of a real name being clearly required (see the comment box).

    Also, future concerns about the policy and its application may be sent privately.

  • Giles July 31, 2014, 11:50 am

    Fair enough. Was just wondering. My own policy on my site is to delate any comments I don’t want, for any reason I like, casa mea regulae meae!

  • Glenn July 31, 2014, 11:51 am

    Max, are you suggesting that gift giving alone ended World War 2, or do you think that military victory may have had something to do with the surrender?

  • Max July 31, 2014, 12:07 pm

    I think that gift giving prevented futute wars. I think that many situations in the world which are on the verge of war would benifit from adopting a policy of giving rather than the default of violence.

    Of course historically spraking many wars were ended with massive amounts of violencr with milloons upon millions killed directly and indirectly due to the aftetmath of war. No one can deny this. It is a sad historical facy which we should try to avoid in future.

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