According to Israeli military leadership, all civilians in Gaza are being held hostage by Hamas, which is considered a war crime and a gross violation of international law governing armed conflict. This, then, provides legal and moral justification against the accusation that Israel is the one killing civilians. Presumed human rights violations carried out by Palestinians against Palestinians, taking hostages and human shielding, thus become the legitimization of lethal and indiscriminate violence on the part of the occupying force. Hence, the use of human shields is not only a violation; it is also a propaganda opportunity. In contemporary asymmetric urban wars, accusing the enemy of using human shields helps validate the claim that the death of “untargeted civilians” is merely collateral damage. When all civilians are potential human shields, when each and every civilian can become a hostage of the enemy, then all civilians become acceptable targets.
And, critically, Israel is absolved of any moral responsibility for any of it. And that is what worries me. When military might is expended on crowded civilian areas, and all civilian casualties are presumed the responsibilities of others, you get well over 500 dead, including countless women and children, including attacks on hospitals and families breaking the Ramadan fast in their own home. You also get no foreseeable end to the bloodshed.
One war crime against a populace does not excuse another, and pretending that it does is the height of insanity. And yet, some even argue that this horrifying spectacle is actually a moral necessity…
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.
When you are killing scores of children, it is not enough to argue self-defense (and the fact that the Iron Dome has given Israel about as robust a defense against home-made rockets as you can get undermines the self-defense argument). You have to argue for something grander to nullify the corpses of children. That something grander is notably absent. The dehumanization of those living in Gaza, to the point at which spectators with popcorn cheer their deaths, has led to Israeli indifference to the deaths of human beings that, if they were Jews, would be regarded as the harbinger of calamity. Can you imagine the response in Israel if over 200 Israeli children were killed by a rocket attack by Hamas? Can you imagine anyone saying that the Israelis did this to themselves? That tells you everything about how deep the moral rot has gone, how this kind of zero-sum war and brutalizing occupation over decades cannot do anything but destroy a country’s morals.
There is a trope going around that Gazans forfeited their right to be treated as innocent civilians by voting for Hamas and allowing the group to operate in their communities. This is the worst kind of specious argument, and one preferred by terrorists globally. Non-combatant status can be forfeited only by becoming a combatant, and that doesn’t happen by having voted for the current leadership or simply by living under their rule. By that imagining, Americans would be legitimate targets while living under the leadership of a GOP president; Republicans traveling abroad would be fair game for the crime of having voted for the person.
Forfeiting non-combatant status requires taking up arms or directly assisting those that are fighting, and that doesn’t apply to the civilian victims killed during the current operation at all. It may (and likely will) 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 I cannot imagine they won’t, 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 and continue creating more vengeful families for as long as this operation continues. Nothing could be worse for the ongoing security of Israel.
This is the truth about the state of Israel today. To maintain power for its conservative government, it must crush. The more it crushes, the deeper the resistance will run; the deeper the resistance, the more unthinkable the carnage will have to become. This is an unending spiral of revenge and hatred, the dreadful consequence of every failed utopian scheme in human history. The Israeli leadership is winning with its populace for getting tough on Palestinians and flexing its military might; Hamas is winning by having propaganda and a rich crop of new recruits, strong in hate and a need for revenge against those who killed their family members, handed to them on a silver platter. it is the civilians of Gaza that are losing, and they are losing badly.
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