For a number of diplomats and journalists, predictable story lines have emerged, as the most recent round of Israel-Hamas fighting continues into its fourth week.
At best, the struggle is essentially a Hatfield-McCoy feud. It just goes round and round and round. No one at this point remembers why it began, but no one is prepared to end it, either, so the two sides, basically indistinguishable from one another, just keep at it.
At worst, it’s a tale of the strong, Israel, against the weak, Hamas. Thus, the relentless focus has become the damage inflicted on poor, defenseless Gaza, as well as the comparative body count, as if the side with the higher number of casualties is, by definition, in the right.
In reality, though, neither version comes close to the truth.
It is too intellectually lazy, not to mention dangerous, to stand on the 50-yard line and assert that the two combatants — a democratic nation seeking nothing from Gaza other than a quiet border, and a terrorist regime calling in its Charter for the elimination of Israel — are little more than mirror images of one another.
And to render judgments solely according to body counts would have made Nazi Germany the hapless victim and the U.S. the brutal aggressor. Among wartime civilians alone, the ratio of victims was close to 100 Germans for every American killed. Among soldiers, it was also strikingly (and fortunately) lopsided.
What’s glaringly missing in all this discussion is the ability of some to grasp the true nature of Hamas.
Not that it should be so difficult. After all, Hamas is largely an open book. Yet too many, from the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to BBC, don’t seem willing to read the pages of that book.
Instead, they resort to such traditional tools of observation as blindness, denial, or projection.
They refuse to see, even if that doesn’t stop them from rendering judgments.
Or they look but don’t allow themselves to be persuaded by the facts staring them in the face, finding comfort instead in airtight beliefs, ideologies, and presuppositions.
Or they succumb to projection, believing that everyone else would act in particular circumstances just as they would, thereby not allowing for the possibility of alternate patterns of behavior.
An example: An outsider might say that she would never allow her children to go a school which is also used as an arms depot. Unthinkable. And most assuredly, therefore, no other mother or father anywhere would, either. Hence, the Israeli assertion that Hamas uses schools to store weapons must be sheer propaganda. After all, no Gaza parent in her right mind would do what she and all her friends in Boston, Berlin, or Brasilia couldn’t conceivably even begin to think about.
But it’s precisely this failure of imagination that gets to the root of the matter — this unwillingness, or inability, to accept another pattern of behavior so contrary to our own that it challenges our most basic assumptions.
It’s happened before, of course.
Most tellingly of many historical examples, when Hitler came to power in January 1933 and until his invasion of Poland in September 1939, for 80 months the Western world was treated to one example after another of governments, scholars, and journalists who simply couldn’t, or wouldn’t, grasp the true nature of the Third Reich or its intentions.
Here, too, Hitler didn’t exactly hide his world view in “Mein Kampf” or his speeches, but his words were too often dismissed, minimized, or deemed hyperbole.
As many as sixty million people paid with their lives, not to mention the wounded, displaced, and exiled, for this failure of imagination.
Hamas in its Charter calls for the annihilation of Israel. The Charter also has some pretty revealing things to say about Jews, the West, women, etc. It should be required reading before anyone offers a comment on the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Is what’s written in that document just meaningless, distracting, or irrelevant, or might it actually be a key to understanding what’s going on?
In the same spirit, Hamas uses schools, including UN-run educational institutions, to hide weapons. That’s why Israel has no choice but to enter these compounds.
The fact that this positioning of arms caches seems beyond imagination for many outside Gaza is beside the point. It is a stark reality, one Israel must confront.
The same with hospitals and ambulances.
It wouldn’t for a moment occur to us — indeed, the very notion would be so utterly repugnant — to violate the sanctity of medical facilities by using them for terrorist headquarters, transportation, or storage. But this is precisely what Hamas does, again forcing Israel to take action.
And what about houses of worship? Well, why be so generic? After all, there are no synagogues in Gaza and only a handful of remaining churches, since Christians have had a hard time of it at the hands of the ruling jihadists. So, yes, mosques are also being used as an integral part of the terrorist infrastructure.
How could that possibly be? For us, houses of worship of any religion are deemed sacred spaces. Surely, this must be an Israeli fabrication. Yet it isn’t, not at all. To the contrary, evidence abounds of the use of mosques in the Hamas war waged against Israel.
Hamas with its wily PR and a gullible, sometime intimidated, diplomatic and media community in its thrall, rushes to show damage to schools, hospitals, and mosques, as if any destruction, ipso facto, is proof of Israeli culpability.
And what about the use of civilians in the Hamas campaign?
Again, it’s way beyond our imagination to think that women and children could be exploited as human shields, indeed be placed, willingly or unwillingly, in the crosshairs of the conflict to protect the Hamas masterminds, and, of course, to draw world sympathy, especially if this vulnerable population gets added to the casualty list.
At the end of the day, our corner of the world is about the affirmation of life. That defines the core of our being, the essence of the societies we aspire to build, and the way we conduct ourselves. Even if we sometimes fall short in practice, it doesn’t change the larger design.
How then can we possibly make the mental leap to another place — the world of Hamas and the other members of its jihadist family tree, from Boka Haram to Hezbollah, from Islamic Jihad to al-Qaeda — who fantasize about death, and who yearn for “martyrdom” and the lure of the life in the hereafter?
Countries, institutions, and individuals far from that world may be lucky in their geography, but they have a profound stake, whether they realize it or not, in Israel’s success. What Israel faces is increasingly surfacing elsewhere as well. European countries, for instance, are now waking up to the fact that thousands of their citizens are fighting in Syria and perhaps Iraq as well. Many will one day return to England, France, and Germany. What will they do next? Well, we have at least one answer. The suspect in the May murder of four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels was a French resident who had indeed fought in Syria.
Israel is on the front line against an adversary that few understand. It is an enemy that plays by different rules entirely. Accordingly, Israel has to adapt in order to survive and fulfill the most basic function of any government — the protection of its people.
Others may suffer from a failure of imagination. Israel, however, cannot.