Here is what Hillary should have said to Bernie in response to the question about the Israeli-Hamas war at the debate in Brooklyn:
In your interview this week with the Daily News, you argued that Israel acted “disproportionately” during its 2014 war against Hamas in Gaza by stating that Israel killed “over 10,000 innocent people.” Later in the interview you were informed that the real figure was about 2,300 total – 15%, at most, of the figure you reached for – with estimates of civilian deaths ranging from 36%-65% of this total.
A day later, after you had ample time to check the facts, you still got it wrong. Your revised statement was that over 2000 civilians were killed by Israel. Not only was the figure still very inflated, but it again seems to suggest that almost all who were killed were civilians. Even Hamas doesn’t make that claim. This statement defied logic, even for someone with little foreign policy experience.
Then, Bernie, you checked your facts and changed your answer for a third time – and still got it wrong. Here in this debate, you have just stated that 1500 civilians were killed. In doing so, you cite the figures provided by Hamas (through the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry to the UN) for how many civilians were killed in Gaza.
Yes, every life is valuable; yes, we need to respect the rights and dignity of Palestinians as well as that of Israelis, if we are going to resolve this conflict. And you might think that debating the number of civilian casualties is a mere detail. But when you are President, the details matter. When you are dealing with allies and adversaries, the details matter. When you are making a claim for “disproportional” response, the proportions you cite matter.
Proportionality in international law is not based on how many are killed on each side, but efforts to minimize civilian casualties, measured in proportion to the necessity of hitting military targets. How is it “even handed” to inflate even the Hamas casualty figures for civilians, first by over 600%, and then 33%, before on the third try citing the Hamas-provided figures? While the number of civilians killed continues to be in dispute, one could at least state the Israeli figure, alongside the figure provided by Hamas – an organization deemed by the U.S. to be a terrorist organization which has intentionally tried to foil a two state solution with dozens of suicide bombings after Oslo.
Being misinformed three times over concerning the evidence one produces to condemn an ally, seems to suggest that your opinion of the war was informed by news coverage of images of the war – images tightly controlled by Hamas, who allowed reporters to only take pictures of killed civilians, not allowing pictures of dead militants; who did not allow pictures of Hamas militants firing rockets from civilian areas, or being dressed as civilians. Should a presidential candidate’s information be based on images choreographed by Hamas, rather than a well-researched stance?
In contrast to your selective view from afar, I was there. Not only did I negotiate a ceasefire to end the fighting, but I understand and empathize with the suffering and needs of both Israelis and Palestinians and have supported self-determination for both nations for the last twenty years. I support adaptations of the Clinton Parameters that demand borders based on the 1967 borders with swaps, Israel conceding most of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian state including the Temple Mount or Haram al Sharif, and Palestinian curtailment of the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel rather than to the new Palestinian state.
All militaries, including our own, have to continually strive to be even more careful when fighting groups operating from civilian areas in civilian clothing. But ultimately it is a peace agreement ensuring Palestinians statehood that will ensure the rights and dignity of both peoples, and I have years of experience with the main negotiators and actors on both sides. While mediating peace negotiations, the U.S. should be even handed. Making exaggerated accusations against Israel that inflate even Hamas’s accusations of Israel during the war, is not even-handed and alienates potential partners to peace rather than engenders the respect needed by both sides.
Dr. Yael Aronoff is the Director of Jewish Studies and the Michael and Elaine Serling and Friends Chair in Israel Studies at Michigan State University. She is author of The Political Psychology of Israeli Prime Ministers: When Hard-Liners Opt for Peace (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and is currently writing The Dilemmas of Asymmetric Wars: Navigating Deterrence and Restraint.