Originally published in Tikkun Daily
On Sunday evening, a four-story house in Gaza was decimated by an Israeli missile. At the moment of impact, 25 people belonging to four families, including 19 children, were gathered together to break the day's Ramadan fast. All of them were killed.
Also eating with the families was, according to relatives, a guest who was likely a Hamas militant, ostensibly the strike's target. (Israel's military has refused to comment.) He died as well, buried the the rubble of a collapsed building along with the 19 children and six adults with whom he was eating.
What happened on Sunday isn't an isolated incident. To date, over 3,000 Palestinians have been injured and over 600 killed in Israeli strikes, 75 percent of whom the U.N. estimates have been innocent people unconnected in any way to the violence. And many of these civilians have been killed in strikes which have either completely or nearly destroyed entire families.
According to Israel, such strikes are considered to be both necessary and unfortunate, given the unspeakable loss of innocent Palestinian lives. However, Israel claims it is not to blame for such tragic deaths, instead insisting that Hamas is responsible, not its own missiles.
It's true that Hamas has used schools to house weapons, fires rockets from urban areas and clearly places civilians at risk with the ongoing violence. Here's the rub, though: there is no safe space in Gaza for people to flee. Indeed, many have been killed by missile attacks in areas Israel told residents would be safe. These are not "human shields." They are human tragedies.
The New Republic's Yishai Schwartz agrees with Israel that, despite all this, such strikes are necessary and must continue. However, he also performs some moral gymnastics to stunningly argue that such strikes are an absolute moral imperative. That the killing of innocent Palestinians, including children, is necessary to protect a just world.
No, I'm not joking.
After recognizing Israel's disproportionate use of force, and the shocking number of innocents dying (despite efforts to minimize the carnage), Schwartz twists himself into knots to explain why killing innocent Palestinians is a good thing. Why, you might wonder, would he posit such a thing? Because if a grotesque number of civilian deaths cause a moral, good army such as Israel's to stop fighting evil, our 'just world' will collapse. Witness his concluding paragraph:
Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.As disgusting or absurd as his moral assessment may be, more important is the narrative Schwartz constructs to arrive at his conclusion – a narrative Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has continuously fed to American media the past three weeks. It's a narrative most American journalists have accepted, despite Netanyahu's known history of dishonestly. But it's inaccurate, and shields Israel from the shared blame it deserves in starting this Gaza conflict.
Netanyahu and Schwartz's story goes like this:
1) Hamas (who I find abhorrent) started firing rockets at Israel without incitement.
2) Israel restrained itself like no other country, until finally it had to act.
3) Israel wants to stop and sign a ceasefire, but Hamas won't do it.
The truth is much more complicated, and nefarious. See, what nobody talks about is how, minutes after Hamas and the Palestinian Authority signed a unity agreement on the evening of April 23, the initial phase of a long-sought reconciliation amongst Palestinians, Israel bombed Gaza, wounding 12 civilians. Israel claimed to have missed its target, a Hamas militant. However, most observers in Israel saw it for what it likely was: an effort to elicit rockets from Gaza and immediately imperil Palestinian reconciliation, which Netanyahu greatly fears.
From that moment, Netanyahu has made every effort to incite Hamas to violence. Tragically, he found such an opportunity when three Israeli teens were kidnapped in the West Bank on June 12. Despite denials by Hamas that it was involved and evidence it was perpetrated by rogue criminals, Netanyahu placed the blame squarely on Hamas, saying it would "pay a heavy price." For the next three weeks, despite evidence which now suggests Israeli authorities knew the teens had been killed immediately, Israel pummeled and ransacked West Bank communities, killing a number of Palestinians while arresting many more connected to Hamas. Israel's military was supposed to be looking for the teens. What it did, to nobody's surprise, was finally provoke Hamas to act, making Hamas equally culpable in the ongoing violence.
And now, here we are today, with Israel pummeling Gaza, killing innocent civilians while also destroying tunnels and weapons caches, claiming that the goal is to achieve quiet for Israel's citizens, who have been dodging Hamas rockets for weeks. Nevermind that this goal cannot be attained by the current military operation, something history has repeatedly shown over the last seven years. Stopping rockets from being fired on a civilian population is a legitimate reason to be engaged in military actions.
Such a goal I wouldn't question, and if Israel had no hand in sparking the current violence, I would be much more reticent to critique its actions, as I too want the rocket fire to end. However, the problem is that this entire Gaza operation has not been about restoring quiet so much as destroying Palestinian reconciliation and the potential for an elected government which includes Hamas officials.
For if Israel truly wanted quiet, rather than more time to strike at Hamas, which continues to say Palestinian reconciliation will not be thwarted by Israel's missiles, Israel would have already engaged in serious ceasefire negotiations.
Despite what Israel claims, that has never happened. Sure, Israel and Egypt (whose ruling elite hates Hamas more than Israel) secretly negotiated a ceasefire plan and announced it to the world as the fruit of tough negotiations. However, Hamas was not included in such negotiations, and claims only to have heard about it through the media.
This ceasefire effort was not a sincere attempt to stop the violence. For if it was, negotiations would have been made with Hamas, since the basic math of ceasefire agreements dictates that it's agreed upon by both parties. If Netanyahu had been sincere about wanting a ceasefire, he wouldn't have said "No thanks" when President Obama offered to help broker it. No, it was an attempt to corner Hamas with demands everyone knew it would never accept. Indeed, an Israeli minister said as much, stating, "We made a ceasefire agreement with ourselves."
Which brings us back to Schwartz, who argues that Israel must continue striking at Hamas. According to him, Israel has the moral authority to not just represent a just world, but a duty to protect it. How? By not allowing the deaths of Palestinian children to deter it from attacking Hamas. To not legitimize the use of "human shields."
But moral authority cannot be so clearly granted, nor claimed. Hamas certainly can't claim it, as an organization which celebrates the targeting of civilians and chose to fire a constant volley of rockets into Israel. But neither can Israel, which is using disproportionate force in Gaza, obliterating residential blocks and killing scores of innocent people after inciting Hamas.
Israel says it wants the rockets to stop. This is legitimate. Hamas wants the blockade (or siege) to end, a collective punishment which has created an impoverished enclave of despair in Gaza. This too is legitimate.
Perhaps both parties could begin serious ceasefire negotiations, and an end to the ongoing violence, at these two places.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, recently published by Oneworld Publications.