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There are three expert timelines of the Israeli assault on Gaza published by John Judis, Larry Derfner, and Scott McConnell. They make clear that the first rockets fired by Hamas, after having observed a cease-fire since November 2012, came after a wide range of Israeli provocations. Israel had to deal with intermittent rocket fire from Gaza splinter groups, especially Islamic Jihad, throughout the previous eighteen months, but Hamas kept its fire. In March 2014, Netanyahu acknowledged that the number of rocket attacks from Gaza in the previous year was the “lowest in a decade.” The shock of the three Jewish teenagers kidnapped on June 12 led to widespread official calls for collective punishment, 1500 building searches, and some 500 arrests in the West Bank in the following two weeks, even though the government had every reason to believe that the teenagers were dead and that a group antagonistic to Hamas was behind the kidnappings. The clear purpose was to disrupt the accession of Hamas to the Palestinian “national consensus” government in early June. Israel not only arrested fifty-one Hamas members released in the exchange for Gilad Shalit, but also conducted thirty-four airstrikes on Gaza on July 1 and killed six Hamas men in a bombing raid on a tunnel in Gaza on July 6. After these Israeli actions, came a big volley of Hamas rockets, then Operation Protective Edge.
The previous experience with the cease-fire should have shown that it was possible to maintain a relationship of deterrence with Hamas, and not really possible to eliminate, save at a horrific cost, its capacity to lob inaccurate rockets into Israel—rockets that, in the aggregate, could kill no more people than a few traffic accidents. Though Hamas was in all likelihood not responsible for the kidnappings, its leader did publicly laud them, an incendiary and reprehensible comment. Israel was looking for an excuse; Hamas provided it. But Israel was wrong to attempt the disruption of the unity government, the terms of which required Hamas to subordinate itself to the far more conciliatory platform of the Palestinian Authority. It was deeply cynical for Netanyahu to use the kidnapping and death of the three teenagers as a cover for that purpose. In no way can the formation of the unity government be seen as a threat that would justify the war that Israel has fought.
The capacity of one symbolic incident to set the Israelis on a big war has many precedents. In 1982, the assassination of Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador in London, provoked Israel to invade Lebanon, to pummel Beirut in that dreadful summer, to force the PLO’s removal to Tunisia, and to occupy the south of Lebanon for another eighteen years, creating Hezbollah. In 2006, Israel made the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the death of three others along the Lebanese border the occasion for a major war during which the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah has its headquarters, were flattened. Hezbollah’s rockets flew into Israel after Israel began its air attack, not before. The preliminaries to the three campaigns in Gaza since 2008-09 show the same tendency. In the Israeli psyche, these incidents stand as a mortal threat to their existence. The wars that follow invariably cause more Israeli casualties than the initial incidents themselves. The only compensation for that is the devastation inflicted on the enemy, for which the incidents provide a convenient excuse. Then the Israelis go back to the previous policy of deterrence, until they feel compelled to mow the lawn again.
When war is one of choice and not necessity, the criticism of inhumane methods has even greater force. The Israelis, to be sure, claim fidelity to the laws of humanitarian warfare—Rob Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, recently nominated the Israel Defense Forces for a Nobel Peace Prize for their contributions on this score. The standards for receiving this august award have admittedly declined a bit lately; even so, it seems unlikely that the IDF will get the medal. And they definitely don’t deserve it, because their war methods inevitably cause large civilian casualties. Eminent authorities such as Michael Walzer (writing about U.S. methods in Vietnam) might be cited on the point, but we will have to make do with the recent headline in The Onion: “Israel: Palestinians Given Ample Time to Evacuate to Nearby Bombing Sites.” The policy of targeted assassination of the enemy’s leadership—together with their homes, children and immediate environs—is especially obnoxious: among all the older authorities on the law of warfare one would search in vain for a justification of such a practice.
That America should be deeply associated with these Israeli attacks on Arabs and Muslims cannot be beneficial to American security. Osama bin Laden once revealed that he got the idea for blowing up skyscrapers from witnessing the Israeli shelling of Beirut in 1982; and the plan took shape after he observed the devastation wrought upon Iraq by Desert Storm in 1991. Everyone says that it was the stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia that most offended bin Laden, but it was what the United States did with those forces—the war and the ensuing large civilian death toll in Iraq—that was the greater offense in his book. Violence motivates people, often to kill; that is a universal trait of our divided and depraved humanity.
No prudent foreign policy should ignore the motive for retaliation we give by recklessly using force in the Islamic world ourselves or by identifying the United States so closely with Israel. Adverting to this phenomenon two centuries ago, then-diplomat John Quincy Adams wrote that to take an eye for an eye allowed the allied powers ranged against France to “glut their vengeance for the wrongs” they had received from France, but Adams believed that they were “laying up stores of wrath for the day of wrath in revenge for those which they are inflicting.” Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority who has sincerely tried to bring peace for the last decade, spoke on July 22 in a similar vein:
The time has come for everyone to raise their voices and tell the truth, clearly and powerfully, in the face of the Israeli killing and destruction machine. The oppressing occupation forces have crossed every line and [have broken] all the laws. They have deviated from all standards of human and international morality in their ferocity and barbarism. . . . We will go anywhere in order to stop the aggression and the confiscation of our legitimate rights, and we will hunt down those who commit crimes against our people, no matter how long it takes. These crimes will not go unprosecuted and unpunished.
To the people in Gaza, he said: “Words cannot describe our emotions and what our heart feels for you. Your wound is our wound and is the great anger that is within us. We will never forgive and never forget.”
The announced purpose of Israel’s war has been to destroy Hamas, but its result will in all probability be to destroy Abbas. Perhaps that was after all the real intention of Netanyahu and his war cabinet: the extremists invariably seek to undermine the moderates.
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The settlement of the Palestinian question through a two-state solution is desirable from the standpoint of both American interests and values. We have a strong interest in containing the violence, and it is our duty to respect both the Palestinian right of self-determination and the Israeli right of self-defense. (The Palestinians have the right of self-defense too, but Abbas has accepted demilitarization in his peace proposals.) Despite the evident attractions of a peaceful settlement, it seems virtually impossible to imagine the circumstances in which the United States would make a serious attempt to force Israel to change its course. It is and has been so much easier to look the other way, especially for politicians. All the candidates of the major parties are squarely in the pro-Israel camp. Rand Paul, otherwise reputed to be an isolationist, is emphatically in favor of engagement on behalf of Israel (and has introduced a bill in the Senate to cut off all aid to the Palestinian Authority). Elizabeth Warren, the darling of the progressive left, is as regressive as Hillary Clinton on this particular issue.
About the only thing that might seriously disrupt this solid consensus would be a sea-change in the outlook of American Jewry. Despite strong discontent among many younger Jews, and stiff protests from some older ones, there are few real signs of that. Even J Street and Americans for Peace Now champion those annual $3 billion charitable donations, which equip the forces used in the attacks to which they object. To their credit, the liberals don’t accept the proposition that the only thing the Palestinians understand is force, but they do believe that the Israelis respond only to U.S. love—that is, that Israelis would never make concessions unless they were persuaded that America absolutely had their back.