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Ceasefire now?

Rally for Palestine, Dunedin NZ, Sat. 4 Nov. 2023 (CC BY 3.0 NZ - Photo by Mark McGuire)
Rally for Palestine, Dunedin NZ, Sat. 4 Nov. 2023 (CC BY 3.0 NZ - Photo by Mark McGuire)

Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently appeared on the Austrian public television channel ORF2 decrying the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza and imploring the Israeli government not to commence operations in Rafah. In the German language interview, he called for the unconditional release of the hostages as well as an immediate ceasefire and admonished “all sides” to comply with international humanitarian law. When asked by the interviewer whether he currently sees these rules adhered to, he answered with an unqualified “no”. He went on to explain “[…] when you look at the numbers of more than 31,000 Palestinians who lost their lives, of which over 70% women and children, it casts very serious doubts on the notion of [Israel] abiding by humanitarian law”. Notably, a few moments earlier there was no implication of uncertainty in his response. He is certain the IDF is committing war crimes because there are “serious doubts”. This pretense of certainty inferred from the flawed idea that where there is smoke there must be fire, is regrettably representative of Israel’s critics.

In pursuit of truth, it is crucial to grapple with the strongest proponents of the counterargument. That is why I sought out the most fervent critics of Israel such as Norman Finkelstein, Rashid Khalidi, Ken Roth, Avi Shlaim, John Mearshimer as well as several lesser-known names. I must say: I am not impressed.

While many of them take the detour of accusing Israel of the usual litany of the most atrocious moral infractions (genocide, ethnic cleansing, collective punishment, etc.), they are all calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire. A unilateral ceasefire, one might add, as there are rarely any demands made of Hamas, no releasing the hostages, no cessation of rocket fire, certainly no surrender and exile. The essential argument is always the same as that of High Commissioner Türk: tens of thousands of dead Palestinians is unjustifiable and all you really need to know. Respectfully, I disagree: the details matter! So, I shall fill in the blanks and provide several mitigations which are never earnestly addressed by the opposing side, and all too often denied.

  1. Numbers originate with Hamas

The cited figure of 31,000 is provided by the Hamas run Gaza Health Ministry. The order of magnitude is generally accepted as accurate, although there is some debate on whether Hamas inflates the share of women and children. Nevertheless, this is an important piece of information because Hamas does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. The IDF estimates to have killed more than 13,000 Hamas operatives.

The Gaza Health Ministry also fails to distinguish between Palestinians killed by the IDF and those killed in rocket misfires by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) or by Hamas while trying to evacuate combat areas. In an op-ed in February military historian Michael Oren implied as many as 3000 civilians (15-20% of civilian casualties) may have been killed by Hamas and its allies rather than the IDF, though he cites no sources.

However, 9000 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel since October 7 with 10-20% falling short. That means hundreds, possibly thousands, of PIJ and Hamas rockets contributing to the death toll. During Operation Breaking Dawn in August 2022, 200 rockets fired into Israel fell short killing 16 Gazan civilians. Extrapolating that number would suggest hundreds of casualties in the current conflict. Moreover, this could easily be an underestimate considering that it would include mass casualty incidents like the Al-Ahli Hospital explosion (initially falsely attributed to an Israeli airstrike) which by itself killed 100-300 Palestinians according to US intelligence.

The death toll also includes 70 civilians killed by Hamas when fleeing Gaza city in October and by now the victims of the February aid convoy incident which claimed 115 lives according to Hamas. An IDF probe found most of the Palestinians were killed in the stampede or run over by the trucks with no more than 10 killed by gunfire after a group of looters approached nearby IDF soldiers. 21 were killed when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a crowd of civilians awaiting humanitarian aid in Gaza City’s Kuwait Square according to an IDF probe.

With an unknown number of smaller scale unreported incidents like these, Oren’s estimate of 3000 appears quite plausible. In any case the true civilian death toll is likely much closer to 15,000-18,000 than the often cited 31,000.

  1. Nothing to see here

As Barry Posen and Oren in his op-ed have argued, neither the scale nor the proportion of civilian suffering in Gaza merit the extraordinary attention and outrage. The civilian-to-combatant casualty ratio barely exceeds 1:1 which is at the lower end of the spectrum for modern urban warfare campaigns and largely attributable to the IDF going to unprecedented lengths to minimize civilian harm. And while 18,000 dead Palestinians is horrific enough, it does not come close to the death toll of the 2003 Iraq War or the campaign to eliminate ISIS and remains a rounding error to the catastrophic civil wars in Yemen and Syria each of which saw hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.

  1. Hamas hides behind civilians

Civilians are encouraged and often forced to remain in combat areas to deter IDF attacks. The misuse of residential buildings as cover for Hamas military equipment and infrastructure is so ubiquitous that it is almost impossible to overstate. Tunnel entrances located underneath children’s bedrooms, firearms and explosives in every other home are merely the tip of the iceberg. Schools and mosques are also popular weapons’ caches, hospitals make great command and control centers, major data centers may be located underneath UN facilities. Combatants do not wear uniforms to make it more difficult to distinguish them from civilians.

It is not a coincidence that each of these practices constitutes a war crime under the laws of armed conflict. They serve to remove protected status from particularly vulnerable infrastructure and intentionally put civilians in harm’s way. Hamas – the elected government of Gaza – accepts no responsibility for protecting the Gazan people. On the contrary, the terror group never tires of reminding us that using civilian suffering to tarnish Israel’s international reputation is a central element of the its military strategy. That is why civilians are not allowed to shelter in tunnels and Hamas has no qualms about stealing what little aid is distributed in the Strip.

  1. Feel free to offer solutions

Türk’s interview was marked by the UN official’s pronounced incredulity and failure of imagination. “It’s unimaginable, when you have 1.5 million people crammed into a tiny space [in Rafah], all of whom are suffering from insufficient humanitarian aid, it’s impossible for me to imagine a military action there”, said Türk. This too is sadly emblematic of the opposition to the war. Every pundit is eager to share his or her view on what is unacceptable conduct without offering viable recourse or contributing ever so slightly to any attempt at improvement.

While Israel is facing unprecedented challenges in pursuit of legitimate defensive war aims, its friends in Europe are too busy pandering to activists and virtue signaling to its Muslim partners (especially Turkey and North African countries), on which the EU relies to control the inflow of Middle Eastern and African migrants. Even the US is continuing to harden its stance on a military operation in Rafah without offering realistic alternative pathways towards Israel’s war aim of dismantling Hamas, which Biden ostensibly still supports. His administration is proceeding seemingly without regard for the fact that the increasing international pressure on Israel only emboldens Hamas and hence decreases the likelihood of a hostage deal and temporary pause in fighting.

Needless to say, none of the Palestinians’ self-proclaimed allies have offered to accept any Gazan refugees. It may be true that Palestinians have good reason to worry about the possibility of returning, mostly because, once gone, Israelis have good reason not to want them returning. Nevertheless, if South Africa, Brazil, Columbia, Bolivia, Spain, Norway, Ireland, Russia, China, and the entire Muslim world truly believed there was a genocide happening in Gaza, then we should hope the lessons learnt from the Holocaust would compel these countries to accept Gazans who prefer moving to dying.

But with half the world (including the US, the UK, the EU and 9 of its 27 member states) heading to the polls this year, there seems to be little appetite for the delicate intricacies of foreign policy. Campaigning takes precedence over solving problems and elections are not the time ruling parties want images of dying children in their news cycle.

Credibility Contest

I will concede that some of these arguments rest on information released by the IDF. This is used at times to discount them as “Israeli propaganda”. Of course, the inconvenient reality that there are only two versions – the IDF and the Hamas version – for many points of contention (the civilian death toll, the number of killed Hamas operatives, what really happened in certain mass casualty incidents, etc.) remains largely unacknowledged.

However, there is no equivalence of credibility between the two parties. So before resigning to the impasse of the inevitably ensuing he-said-she-said diatribe, we should remind ourselves of the “him” and the “her” in the current context.

On the one hand, we have a morally rotten terror group running a totalitarian statelet which forces compliance with government-approved messaging among organizations wishing to operate within its remit. It is quite telling that criticism of Hamas by Gazans only ever makes in on the air in unscripted live news reports with visibly anxious hosts desperate to cut to commercials.

On the other hand, we have the conventional military force of a liberal democracy with a public code of ethics. Its spokesperson’s unit faces disciplinary and possibly legal consequences for intentionally misleading the public. Israel has an independent judiciary empowered, indeed obligated, to prosecute violations of the law of armed conflict. Perhaps most importantly, Israel has a free press through which the IDF continually publishes mountains evidence in support of many of its claims. To date this evidence has not been seriously discredited by any major publication, Israeli or international.

Returned reservists also overwhelmingly corroborate the official story of weapons and tunnels in Gazan homes, schools and mosques, underneath hospitals and UN facilities. They tell us that while generally regretting the sadly unavoidable harm to civilians, they believe to be fighting a righteous war which is why we can be sure there is no systematic disregard for humanitarian law and certainly no genocide.

Indeed, the tens of thousands of IDF troops deployed in Gaza since October are recruited from Israel’s entire political spectrum – left to right, young and old, men and women, Jews and gentiles – with the exception of the Ultra-Orthodox and large parts (though not all) of the Arab minority. But even if 99% of soldiers were on board with covering up war crimes and somehow competent enough liars not to reveal their duplicity inadvertently, this would still leave hundreds of people willing to leak incriminating memos and written directives to the press and going on record with their first-hand accounts of atrocities.

If for whatever reason the Israeli media – mostly vocal critics of Netanyahu – were cooperating with the government to keep the truth under wraps, these people would have no trouble leaking information to the foreign press corps. Most Jews around the world also have friends and family in the Israeli army, would have heard stories of what is happening in Gaza and could have relayed them to their local news outlet. The sheer scale of the conspiracy required to render anything even remotely resembling genocide conceivable makes it difficult not to draw comparisons to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In short, we should not be eager to lend much credence to the anti-Zionist buzzword bingo crowd, when it is proposing completely delusional accounts of Israel’s capacity to manufacture false narratives. It is simply not possible in an open society and one of the reasons why freedom of expression is rightfully held in high esteem. Conversely, we should be very skeptical of reports overly reliant on information released by Hamas or, more commonly, ostensible eye-witness testimony by unnamed Palestinian sources. Even reputable newspapers have been led astray by such misadventures more than once.

Where does this leave us?

With all of these concessions out of the way, we are nevertheless left with a profound ethical problem: How much collateral damage, that is civilian misery, can and should we tolerate in the pursuit of a just war? And although there is a slightly foul aftertaste in the fact that this question only seems to come up when the Jewish state is fighting a defensive war, it could hardly have picked a more appropriate moment than the present – at the end of the end of history – when outrage enhancing algorithms have brought imagery of the horrors of war directly to our handheld devices and we might reasonably expect a major return of armed conflict to the geopolitical stage in the decades to come.

It is a genuinely difficult moral quandary which requires weighing a multitude of potential consequences of an immediate ceasefire versus a continuation of fighting:

  • Can Hamas be successfully and sustainably dismantled?
  • What are the prospects for peaceful coexistence after the war with compared to without Hamas dismantled?
  • What is the expected improvement for Gazan quality of life given that in 17 years of government Hamas has shown little interest in anything more than the construction of roughly 400 miles (650 kilometres) of military tunnels underneath Gaza’s urban centers?
  • What would be the regional implications of Hamas surviving (tantamount to victory)? How would this demonstration of Israeli weakness (as it would be perceived) affect deterrence of Iran’s proxy militias, Saudi-Israeli normalization efforts and consequently Israel’s national security?
  • What might be the implications for guerilla warfare elsewhere in the world? Would a cessation of hostilities lead to a decrease of civilian suffering in future wars, because belligerents will have to show more restraint? Or would it ultimately lead to an increase as nonstate actors take notice of the effectiveness of a human shield strategy against western armies vulnerable to easily manipulated public opinion?

With all the attendant uncertainty there is ample room for disagreement even among well informed, reasonable individuals. Indeed, if 5 subject matter experts – moral philosophers, military strategists, human rights lawyers, geopolitical experts, etc. – were put in a room, they would surely come up with 10 mutually incompatible policy recommendations.

What tips the scale for me is the overwhelming sense that the war to destroy Hamas is inevitable and postponing it would only serve to further increase and prolong the human suffering. In that respect October 7 has completely changed the calculus. Hamas – and we must assume the same may be true of Hezbollah and possibly Iran – has revealed itself entirely undeterred by the prospect of catastrophic retaliation. Not only has the terror group vowed to repeat massacres of Jews again and again until Israel is destroyed, but we now know that under Iranian tutelage Hamas was in the process of developing precision guided missiles (PGMs). PGMs may be capable of circumventing the Iron Dome missile defense system and could be used to strike government buildings, IDF command centers, airports, water or power plants, communication centers and other high value military or civilian targets.

However, the ultimate nightmare is what may succeed PGMs, which is weapons of mass destruction – especially chemical and biological weapons that are easier to manufacture and keep hidden than nuclear or radiological weapons. Detailed instructions for building a cyanide dispersion device were found on the body of one of the Hamas fighters who invaded on October 7. There can be no more doubt that Hamas would not hesitate to unleash such horrors on Israel. So, despite Hamas having spent more than a decade engineering the battlefield to extract a huge humanitarian cost in the event of hostilities, this threat by a group so lacking in compassion – not just for Israelis but for its own people – can no longer be tolerated.

About the Author
Raffael Singer is an Austrian financial risk consultant and economic researcher at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. He holds a master's degree in Mathematics & Philosophy from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Mathematics from Imperial College London.
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