Thoughts on Israel’s war with Hamas

On December 27th, 2008, Israel launched a series of air strikes on Hamas training camps, headquarters, weapons storehouses, underground missile silos and command-and-control centers in Gaza — the start of an open-ended offensive to stem the increasing barrage of rocket-attacks that have plagued Southern Israel in the past months.

Israeli ambassador to the UN Gabriela Shaleb defended the operation:

“Israel is taking the necessary military action in order to protect its citizens from ongoing terrorist attacks originating from the Gaza Strip and carried out by Hamas and other terrorist organizations,” Shalev said, adding that Hamas “holds the sole responsibility for the latest events.”

Israel, she continued, “has exhausted all means and efforts to reach and maintain quiet and to respect the state of calm… Israel’s response is aimed solely against the terrorists and their infrastructures in the Gaza Strip. It is not intended against the civilian population. Israel is committed to prevent a humanitarian crisis.”

Shalev asserted that “No country would allow continuous rocketing of its civilian population without taking the necessary actions to stop it.”

Commenting on the three-day air assault by Israel on Hamas, Deal Hudson states “Bombing Gaza Won’t Make Israel Safer”. It’s a good post and, if anything, certainly jeopardizes Hudson’s standing as a member of the cabal of “Catholic neocons” beholden to Israel and the Republican Party (see Robert Sungenis and other tirades from the fringe-right). That said, I wish to register some thoughts in reaction, both to Hudson and our fellow critics at Vox Nova:

Deal Hudson states:

Israel, of course, has the right of self-defense and the duty to protect its citizens. This assault on Gaza, however, will only embolden extremist groups, like Hamas, who would otherwise lack popular support.

I am curious what, exactly, does Deal propose that Israel do to “protect its citizens”?

Residents of Southern Israel are literally held hostage by a daily barrage of rocket attacks from Gaza, a subject which has been practically ignored by the Western media since 2001. (How many of those reading this post were aware of this?)

Since Israel left Gaza in 2005, giving Palestinians an opportunity to administer their own affairs, more than 6300 rockets and mortars have been fired by Gaza into Israel — more than 3,000 in the past year alone.

The Intelligence & Terrorism Information Center has a report (PDF format) on Palestinian rockets and mortar shells fired into Israel for the past 8 years. Note especially this chart depicting the statistical increase in rocket/mortar attacks since Hamas’ takeover in Gaza. (Hat tip: Little Green Footballs).

I encourage a browsing of Sderot Media Center, a citizen-journalist organization which seeks to depict what everyday life is like for the residents of Sderot and the Western Negev who suffer daily from the terror of Kassam attacks. Imagine your children growing up in a city where practically every day is punctuated by the signal of yet another rocket attack — one can only imagine the response of the United States if, say, terrorists launched thousands of rockets across our Southern border, with the deliberate intent of harming civilians. Yet Gaza can seemingly attack Israel with impunity, while international condemnation only comes when Israel decides to mount a defense.

What is the proper response? — As Jewish blogger Kiskkushim points out, a sustained air assault on Hamas’ positions is proving ineffective:

“Operation Cast Lead” has reached a critical point. It looks like the air force is starting to run out of significant targets to hit. Israel has destroyed Hamas’s major above-ground military installations and has bombed the known tunnels. The trouble is that rockets are still flying, and with more effect than before the war. Have Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabriel Ashkenazi sufficiently absorbed the lessons of the Lebanon war to maintain the initiative against Hamas?

Israel – Against Hamas, not Gaza

Deal Hudson goes on to say:

Gaza’s 1.5 million civilians have been under a virtual lockdown for over two years, with extreme shortages of potable water, food, gas, and electricity. Israeli policy has produced the exact opposite result from its stated objective of weakening Hamas. Unfortunately, the current Israeli campaign will have the same effect.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a televised interview to Gaza’s citizens Dec. 25 on the Arabic TV network al-Arabiya:

“You the citizens of Gaza, you can stop it. I know how much you want to get up in the morning to quiet, to take your children to kindergarten or school, the way we do, the way they want to in Sderot and Netivot…

“We want to live as good neighbors with Gaza,” Olmert said.“ We do not want to harm you. We will not allow a humanitarian crisis and that you should suffer from a lack of food or medicines. We do not want to fight the Palestinian people but we will not allow Hamas to strike our children.”

I concur with Hudson: Israel will succeed to the degree that it follows through with this stated intention, and demonstrates to Gaza that they are not the enemy in this conflict.

In November 2007, for instance, Israel was working, in the midst of attacks, to repair Palestinian sewage treatment plants and contributed supplies towards the repair of Gaza’s electrical grid). And despite the ongoing rocket and missile attacks, Israel on Friday (Dec. 26) transferred more than 90 truckloads of vital goods to Gaza residents and allowed the transfer of 100 trucks into the Gaza Strip carrying donations from Jordan, Turkey and international organizations carrying medical supplies, food and 10 ambulances. (See also Video: IDF humanitarian shipments to Gaza HotAir.com for further documentation).

In fact, click here for a complete list of Israel’s humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza during the period of calm (June 19 – Dec 18, 2008) is available from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Unit for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories.

Such actions, I think, run counter to Deal Hudson’s citation of U.N. Special Rappoteur for Human Rights to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, John Dugard, that “Gaza has become the world’s largest prison, and Israel seems to have thrown away the key.”

Questions about Civilian Casualties

Writing at Vox Nova, Nate Wildermuth characterizes civilian casualties as “murder”:

[Citing Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni] “Unfortunately, in this kind of attack, there are some civilian casualties.”

How, exactly, does describing one’s murderous actions grant legitimacy to those murderous actions? If one could wipe away sins simply by describing them (as opposed to confessing them), we might hear things like this:

Unfortunately, in bank robbery, people sometimes get shot in the face and die slowly and painfully.

Unfortunately, in prostitution, sometimes men get STDs that they will then pass on to their wives.

Unfortunately, in torture, sometimes people will just die on you.

I think to frame the issue in such a manner contributes to moral confusion.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

I would think such an obligation is incumbent upon the nation of Israel as well.

If the Church condones the lethal use of force against an aggressor in extenuating circumstances, I think it would be incorrect, as in Nate’s case, to categorically condemn such actions as immoral and sinful. In ascertaining the moral culpability of civilian casualties resulting from Israel’s strikes on Gaza, there are several pertinent and unanswered questions in Vox Nova‘s discussion of the matter:

Did Israel adopt all other means at its disposal to prevent the attacks before resorting to armed force?

In resorting to armed force, did Israel deliberately target Palestinian civilians, or target a site with the specific intention of killing civilians?

Did Israel take necessary precautions to prevent harm to civilians? — For example, Ha’aretz reports:

Militants often operate against Israel from civilian areas, and that has led to steep civilian casualties in the past when Israel has retaliated. Late Saturday, thousands of Gazans received Arabic-language voice mails on their cell phones from the Israel Defense Forces, urging them to leave homes where militants might have stashed weapons.

At the time of this writing, the United Nations places the number of civilian casualties at 62, with the majority of those killed thought to be Hamas security forces. (A contributing factor may be Hamas’ tendency to use Palestinian civilians as “human shields by placing launchers, weapon stockpiles, arms factories and training centers in and around civilian areas).

I do think this aspect merits further discussion: Does Hamas’ deliberate use of ‘human shields’ negate the use of armed [lethal] force against them altogether?

Does the potential for civilian casualties prohibit the use of air strikes altogether?

Hamas’ Support Not Quite Universal

Curiously, this time around not everybody on the Arab street is assigning blame to Israel — Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have criticized Hamas for its role in the conflict:

“We spoke to them and told them ‘Please, we ask you not to end the cease-fire. Let it continue,'” Abbas said during a joint press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. “We want to protect the Gaza Strip. We don’t want it to be destroyed.”

Abbas called on Hamas to renew the cease-fire with Israel to avoid further bloodshed in Gaza.

Aboul Gheit also attacked Hamas, saying the group had prevented people wounded in the Israeli offensive from passing into Egypt to receive medical attention.

“We are waiting for the wounded Palestinians to reach Egypt. They aren’t being allowed to go through,” he said.

Asked who was to blame for the dire situation in Gaza, the foreign minister replied: “Ask the party that controls Gaza.”

In The Good Fight in Gaza (Weekly Standard December 29, 2008), Michael Goldfarb grasps the dilemma of battling an enemy that desires nothing else but your nonexistence and is willing to sacrifice everything to achieve that end:

Hamas doesn’t care whether the residents of Gaza live or die, whether they prosper or starve, it cares only that the Arab world and Iran support the organization with money and weapons, that the Palestinian people are united in their hatred of Israel, and that a moderate Palestinian faction is unable to pursue peace. If Hamas is left as the dominant force in Gaza, then their tactical defeat may also be a strategic victory — as was the case for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI commented on the escalating violence in Gaza (Catholic News Service):

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI deplored the latest escalation of violence in Gaza, following Israeli airstrikes that left nearly 300 people dead.

Addressing pilgrims at his noon blessing at the Vatican Dec. 28, the pope urged serious dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians as the only way out of the “perverse logic of conflict and violence.”

He called for a restoration of the truce in Gaza, and said the international community has a particular responsibility to leave nothing untried in helping both sides out of the current “blind alley.”

“I am deeply saddened for the dead, the wounded, the material damage, and the sufferings and tears of the people who are the victims of this tragic sequence of attacks and reprisals,” the pope said.

“The earthly homeland of Jesus cannot continue to be a witness to such bloodshed, which is repeated without end! I implore the end of this violence, which must be condemned in all its forms, and a restoration of the truce in the Gaza Strip,” he said.

Further Reading

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