Leif Knutsen
Leif Knutsen

Persuading John Oliver to be less certain

Dear John,

I am a big fan of yours, I truly am. You courageously raise important issues, examine them carefully and manage to provide an in-depth explanation in impressively short time. So although you often are hilariously funny and I sing loudly along with your title sequence, I take you seriously.

The mismatch in military capabilities between Israel and Hamas is not itself of concern. I am horrified to think of the bloodshed if they were more evenly matched.

At issue is how the two of them use the capabilities they have. There is a difference between appropriate use and abuse.

Bombing civilian targets is a war crime, no question about it. But it is also a war crime to place legitimate military targets in a way that puts civilians at risk, i.e., that non-combatants become hostages, or “human shields.”

I hasten to add: this is not cut and dry. Armed forces are supposed to avoid civilian casualties even if it means putting their own forces in harm’s way, and even if it means putting the mission at risk. But this also has its limits. If a party deliberately puts their own civilians in harms’ way in order to get a military advantage, all bets are off, and it can get nasty.

In order to know whether non-combatant casualties (and especially children) in Gaza were the target or even victims of callous carelessness, we would have to know how the IDF chose its targets, what the intelligence was on so-called corollary damage, what precautions were taken to minimize such damage, etc.

I don’t have that information, and neither do you. How we judge whether the IDF used or abused its military power depends on what we *want* to believe about the IDF.

I could tip one way — as you and many others do — and assume that the civilian death, injury, and damage toll — was the whole purpose of the bombing;

Or I could tip the other way and believe that every target was legitimate and that the resulting death and mayhem was Hamas’s fault.

I am unsure, because I don’t have facts to be sure. You seem confident, and I would like to see what convinced you.

However, I think we agree that the death and harm done to children — both physically and emotionally — are horrifying.

But if you want to get cynical, which is sometimes helpful, let me point out the following:

  •  Israel in general and the IDF, in particular, have nothing to gain by these horrendous deaths. Public diplomacy is taking a merciless beating for each one. And domestic consternation is, if anything, even harsher.
  • On the other hand, Hamas has everything to gain by making Israel look bad, and we already know this is an organization that glorifies martyrdom, especially the involuntary kind.
  • Also, an important part of the IDF’s psychological strategy is to unnerve Hamas by knowing more about targets than Hamas is comfortable with.
  • Finally, keep in mind that if Israel really wanted to discriminately kill Palestinians, things would be a lot worse.

Draw your own hypotheses, but I urge you to consider alternate explanations.

Let me make one final point: Israelis are used to being called names, and most of them have learned to shrug it off. Especially if the criticism is unreasonable or hyperbolic. It may *feel* good to invoke apartheid, but most Israelis know that there are too many differences to make it a meaningful comparison.

And the hawks in Israel use unreasonable and shrill condemnation to their advantage. Lookit, they say, the world doesn’t understand us and doesn’t even want to. It’s futile to please them, so why even try?

Ironic, isn’t it?

And there is a lot to criticize and even more to argue about. I think you would have a lot more impact on the lives of people in the area if you were more precise.

I wish you all the best

About the Author
Leif Knutsen writes on Jewish and Israeli issues. He recently returned to Norway after 20 years in the New York area
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