Dear Thomas Friedman,
Before I share with you my displeasure over your recent article in The New York Times, I want you to know that I really appreciated your work From Beruit to Jerusalem. I learned a lot about the Middle East from your beautifully written personal account. While I don’t always agreed with your columns, I usually find them informative and thoughtful.
However, your recent column really ticked me off. Its not that I disagree with your main points. I too think that Israel’s policies in the West Bank are misguided and counter productive. While I am very concerned about Iran’s nuclear program, I have yet to be convinced that a better deal was achievable with Iran.
So what was I so upset about? It was your presentation of the Israeli people that got to me on two levels.
Firstly, how do you know what you would think if you were an Israeli grocer, general, or politician? You are none of those. You are an extremely astute American journalist with a lot of knowledge and insight. Tell us Thomas Friedman’s opinions. I for one am interested in hearing what you think. I am not interested in your musings about what you would think if you were someone else. Let the Israeli grocers, generals and politicians speak for themselves; they don’t need you to speak for them.
But far worse than your misguided attempt to enter the Israeli psyche was your misrepresentation of Israeli military policy. You wrote:
“Israel plays, when it has to, by what I’ve called “Hama rules” — war without mercy. The Israeli Army tries to avoid hitting civilian targets, but it has demonstrated in both Lebanon and Gaza that it will not be deterred by the threat of civilian Arab casualties when Hezbollah or Hamas launches its rockets from civilian areas. It is not pretty, but this is not Scandinavia. The Jewish state has survived in an Arab-Muslim sea because its neighbors know that for all its Western mores it will not be out-crazied. It will play by local rules. Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah know this, which is why Israel’s generals know they possess significant deterrence against an Iranian bomb.”
Mr. Friedman, I learned about Hama rules from your aforementioned book. In the chapter entitled “Hama Rules,” in careful detail, you present the lead up, cultural background, and events of a massacre that took place in Hama in February 1982. As you note, Amnesty International quoted estimates of 10,000 to 25,000 dead in the month long operation. Let me remind you of some choice passages from your description, “Entire families were apparently rousted out of their homes and gunned down on the streets, simply because a single member was listed by Syrian intelligence as being linked to the Brotherhood,” (pg. 84)
“According to both Amnesty International and the Muslim Brotherhood, groups of prisoners suspected of anti-government sentiments were taken from detention camps, machine-gunned en masse, and dumped into pre-dug pits that were covered with earth and left unmarked.” (pg. 86). You quote Rifat Assad’s response to the suggestion that 7,000 died in Hama, “What are you talking about, 7,000? No, no. We killed 38,000.”
Based on your description, Hama rules, involve the deliberate targeting of civilians and unabashed swagger over the spilling of innocent blood.
Now you suggest that Israel’s responses to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza are manifestations of these same Hama rules. While it is true that Israel’s military operations in Lebanon and Gaza included the tragic death of civilians, and there might be a legitimate critique of these operations, there seems to me to be a world of difference between these actions and the blood bath of Hama.
Both the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon and last summer’s war in Gaza were of similar durations to the Hama operation of February 1982. Like Hama, these were operations against fundamentalist Moslem groups. Yet, a comparison yields striking differences between them. First of all, the numbers of fatalities in Israel’s operations against Hezbollah and Hamas are small fractions of the reported numbers who perished in Hama. Moreover, Israel demonstrated in its operations against Hezbollah and Hamas its intent to avoid the type of indiscriminate killing that playing by Hama rules demands. For example, in protective edge the IDF used flyers, phone calls, and “roof knocking” to warn civilians of impending attacks.
This distinction became quite poignant for me during Operation Pillar of Defense. A group of children from a kibbutz on the Gaza border had been brought to our northern kibbutz to get a reprieve from the bombardment in the south. I turned on the radio to hear that the IDF, about to begin an attack in Gaza, and had sent warnings to civilians in the area in question to leave. Hamas in response was demanding that its civilian population stay put. I couldn’t believe my ears so I checked non-Israeli media sources. Indeed the BBC and others were all reporting that Hamas was instructing its civilians to stay put. As Israeli children were moved from harms way, and the IDF attempted to do the same for Gazan children, Hamas was telling them that their place was in the battlefield.
If you have a critique of Israel’s military responses to Hamas and Hezbollah Mr. Friedman, then we should hear it. However your claim that Israel plays by Hama rules against Hezbollah and Hamas falls flat. In fact, in these conflicts, Israel avoided playing by these “local” rules. If I were a first class American journalist, I would avoid such unfair and inaccurate characterizations.