Susie Becher

Self-Defense Is Not a License To Kill

IDF soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip on Nov. 4, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip on Nov. 4, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

Most Israelis don’t understand how the outpouring of sympathy on October 7th turned so quickly into accusations of war crimes. They don’t see that the issue is not the fact of the war on Hamas but the manner in which Israel is fighting it.

With eyes wide in disbelief and expressions of bewilderment, most of the Israeli public, TV anchors, panelists from the left and the right, politicians from the government and the opposition, generals and foot soldiers, commentators and social media influencers, almost everyone is wondering how can it be that the world’s sympathy for the horrendous tragedy the Israeli people suffered on October 7th dissipated within 24 hours and that it has been replaced with international condemnations, the recall of ambassadors, mass demonstrations, hateful graffiti, and threats to Israeli and Jewish facilities overseas. They cannot understand how the world so quickly moved from fierce denunciation of the brutal massacre and the kidnapping of hundreds, including infants, to calls for an end to the fighting and accusations of war crimes directed at Israel.

The default answer is always antisemitism. There’s no need to look inward if you believe that the whole world hates us no matter what we do and that simmering neo-Nazi sentiment is just waiting for an opportunity to burst forth and sweep hordes of latent  sympathizers along with it. Of course, there are anti-Zionists who believe that Israel is guilty of original sin by the very fact of its existence, and it would be foolish to deny the worrisome increase in antisemitism worldwide since the outbreak of the hostilities; however, one cannot dismiss or explain the major shift in world public opinion with this simplistic argument, especially as Israel did not have the sympathy of the antisemites from the outset.

Many are treating the fact that Israel is now on the defensive as a PR failure. They are pushing for Israel to publicize the most gruesome footage of the atrocities committed by Hamas in order to shake people up and win them back to Israel’s side. Is this the road we want to take? Do we want to hold a face-off in which we disseminate photos of scorched Israeli infants or the mutilated bodies of young Israeli mothers to counterbalance photos of Gaza infants being pulled from the rubble or the torsos of young Gazan mothers whose limbs were ripped off by the blast of a bomb?

When Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sleiman spoke of dead Gaza babies in an address to the Knesset, MK Merav Ben-Ari rose from her seat, screaming over and over: “There is no symmetry! There is no symmetry!” Ben-Ari’s meltdown was somewhat surprising because she is a member of Yesh Atid, which is right in the center of the political spectrum. Yet her view that the intent of Hamas’s vile attack trumps the scope of Israel’s deadly airstrikes and that one dare not mention a dead Palestinian baby in the same breath as a dead Israeli baby is shared by many.

Fourteen hundred murdered on one side in one day; close to 10,000 on the other side killed in one month.  Brandishing these statistics, both sides are playing a macabre numbers game that demeans the victims and is unworthy of anyone who values human life.  Israel is not losing support because more Palestinians than Israelis have died or because the photos they’re releasing are more jarring than ours. The reason moderate forces are turning against us is not the fact of the fight against Hamas but the way it is being conducted.

Yes, I believe that Hamas has shown itself to be a terrorist organization bent on the annihilation of the State of Israel and its people, and I fully support military action to defeat it.  The actions of the IDF, however, must be conducted within the international rules of warfare, which means keeping civilian casualties to a minimum and enabling the provision of humanitarian assistance. And no matter how you cut it, Israel is in gross violation of these rules.

Most Israelis do not understand that.  For one, Israeli media is almost exclusively focused on the Israeli dead, missing, and kidnapped. While the pain and suffering of the Israeli people remains foremost in our minds, the media is doing the public a disservice by not also covering the scope of the death and destruction in Gaza and what it means. We are not talking about “collateral damage,” a problematic phrase in any context but one which is usually applied in the event of incidental deaths. What Israel is doing, however, includes carpet-bombing of entire residential neighborhoods in order to take out a few terrorists or blow up a single munitions warehouse in the area. There are no blips here.  The marching orders given to the army from the highest echelons are to level anything that stands in its way, and it is exhibiting callous disregard for human life.

To this, most Israelis would reply that the IDF remains the most moral army in the world because it advises Gazans of planned strikes and has been urging the residents of northern Gaza to move south for their own protection. That’s all well and good, except that some do not have the means to leave, some are not physically capable, while others fear that if they leave they will never be able to return. This is based not only on memories of the Nakba but also on recent statements by Israeli ministers about resettling the northern Strip. There is also the problem of roads becoming impassable because of debris or blocked by Hamas terrorists who won’t allow people to pass.  And then there are civilians who are not affiliated with Hamas but choose to stand their ground against the invading forces.  If these were Israelis, their choice would be considered an act of bravery, but when the reference is to Gazans, in Israeli eyes it makes them at best Hamas sympathizers and at worst Hamas operatives.

The anguish and outrage over the brutal October 7th attacks and particularly the ruthless kidnapping of innocent civilians is blinding most Israelis to the suffering of the Gaza population, and among those who do see it, most believe that the Palestinians brought it upon themselves. Even President Herzog lost his cool in a press conference and blurted out that “it is an entire nation out there that is responsible” because they didn’t overthrow the Hamas regime. He later tried to walk back his remarks, but his words fit right in with the general mood. No one wants to take into account that Hamas rules Gaza with an iron fist and that even talking against the regime can cost Gazans their lives.

As for the government’s decision to cut off the supply of food, water, and electricity, the answer one hears is that no one knows who is feeding the 10-month-old infant taken captive by Hamas and whether the basic needs of the other children, the sick, the elderly, the hundreds of hostages being kept somewhere in the darkest corners of Gaza are being met.  Thus, the blame for the humanitarian situation is also being placed on Hamas. Free the abductees, people are saying, and we will turn on the taps and the lights. With this approach, they are essentially turning the entire population of Gaza into Hamas hostages as well. Yes, Hamas uses civilians as human shields and builds its command centers under schools and hospitals, but one would expect that this would pose a moral dilemma for a civilized country rather than be used to excuse its massive bombardments.

When we ask ourselves how it is that people don’t identify with our pain, we should look at how we have hardened our hearts to the suffering of the Palestinians. That we can consider pummeling millions of Gazans or starving them into submission a legitimate tactic in the war against terror is frightening, but it comes from years of desensitization in which the Palestinian people have been demonized and their children portrayed as terrorists-in-the-making.   More than two decades have passed since Salah Shehadeh, leader of the Hamas military wing, was assassinated in an airstrike that claimed the lives of 15 civilians, half of them children. Asked how it felt to drop a one-ton bomb under such crowded conditions, then Air Force chief Dan Halutz said he felt no more than “a slight shudder on the wing.” At the time, his remark generated quite a political flap. Today, the discourse on our airwaves and in our living rooms is far worse.

There is room to question the effectiveness of Israel’s military strategy. The unrestrained airstrikes and the treatment of humanitarian aid like a bargaining chip appear to be doing more harm than good, as they are increasing the international pressure to stop the fighting before Israel has met its objective of crushing Hamas. In addition, we should be questioning the legitimacy of the IDF’s actions. Under no circumstances should the horrific actions of Hamas even enter the conversation as a yardstick against which we measure our virtue.  Our standards are codified in the laws of armed conflict and international humanitarian law and in adherence to universal values. We should not need US President Biden to remind us of that, but we would do well to heed his reminders.

About the Author
Susie Becher is Managing Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a collaborative quarterly published in Jerusalem; is Communications Director of the Policy Working Group, a team of senior academics, former diplomats, human rights defenders, and media experts who advocate for an end to the occupation and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and serves on the Steering Committee of Zulat, an activist think tank advocating for human rights and equality in Israel.