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The Gaza Death Chamber, a Centrist’s Take

The Gaza war, now six months in, has been exacting a horrible price from us, Israelis, as well as from the Arab Palestinian population in Gaza. Those of us with a heightened conscience and sensitivity have been watching the devastation Israel is causing in Gaza with concern and apprehension in addition to grieving daily for our own soldiers killed in combat and for the civilian casualties of frequent Palestinian terror attacks across the country. 

A centrist with a lefty “Peace Now” background, I listen to the voices around the world screaming criticism of Israel’s handling of the Gaza war with mixed feelings. On one hand I desire to give any criticism of Israel a fair hearing, I have plenty of my own. On the other hand I filter these claims (by mostly Western commentators) through a good dose of skepticism and suspicion, especially since October 7. An American colleague, and a peace activist, whom I appreciate and whom I know to be a decent and honorable person, lately wrote an essay describing the situation in Gaza as a “death chamber” for Palestinian civilians during a war of “genocidal nature” that is driven primarily by Israel’s desire for revenge. In the following paragraphs I will voice a skeptical yet respectful response directly to my well-meaning colleague. I believe that he, along with many others around the world are plain wrong about framing the war in this way. 

Dear esteemed colleague, no, feelings of revenge should not drive Israel’s response in Gaza, nor are revenge feelings an effective driver for responding to any aggression whether minor or major. I fully agree with you about the risk of giving into vengeance and appreciate this consideration as you critique Israel’s response to the October 7 massacre. It is true that here in Israel we are still processing the extent of the October 7 tragedy, a vicious and cruel attack on primarily innocent civilians waking up from their slumber on a holiday morning. The internal healing and reckoning of Israeli society will take some time and feelings of revenge are indeed present in the sad post massacre mix. 

Israeli extremist and minority voices in the political arena as well as folks on the street have expressed said feelings on occasion. An example that comes to mind is my childhood friend, Amnon, who openly expresses his opinion that exterminating all Gazans would be the best way to resolve the conflict. When I confronted him about this extreme view and reminded him of his parents, he did acknowledge that their Nazi concentration camp trauma does affect his point of view. I still remember the sight of his parents’ camp numbers tattooed on their forearms from when we were children. Many of us in Israel carry within us the trauma-based internal constructs that multiply feelings of anger, hurt, and the desire to lash out in revenge. There is no denying of this reality. 

However, I don’t accept your conclusion that Israeli society’s need for avenging the October 7 massacre is driving our war policies and as such turning the Gaza strip into a “de facto death chamber”. The reality is that Gaza is rather a de facto “suicide chamber”, if nothing else. In the context of this conflict’s particulars, I would describe Gaza as a shahid’s (martyr’s) sanctuary – and I do not say so facetiously at all, but quite literally. I do apologize if the terms “shahid’s sanctuary” or “suicide chamber” are uncomfortable to hear. However, I do use these terms advisedly and judiciously, and I hope you can bear with me while I proceed to explain why. 

There is a cultural religious context to the conflict that deserves acknowledgement as well as a good and honest reckoning. A close look at Gaza’s culture especially as it pertains to the conflict reveals that Gazans idealize and sanctify martyrdom. This is, in my opinion, a significant element that we need to factor in when attempting to truly grasp the dynamics of the current Gaza war as well as the long history of the conflict with the Palestinians. The Gaza children’s educational curriculum, Gaza’s religious and cultural influencers, Gaza political and military leaders, and Hamas’ founding charter preach killing and dying for the glory of Islam and the liberation of their holy land, Palestine. 

Our enemy, Palestinian Arabs, have developed a culture that values religious honor more than life, a notion that is typically hard for us Westerners to fully comprehend. This is why the Hamas government does not prioritize protecting its population, and also why the distinction between combatants and civilians is not an inherently meaningful construct in the Arab Muslim value system, especially not currently in Gaza. The distinction between civilians and combatants is rather a Western construct that we project onto a society we are woefully uninformed about. 

The reason Gazans chose to spend their abundant resources on posh neighborhoods by the seaside and the mega construction of war tunnels heavily equipped with combat armament and long range missiles instead of on economic development and bomb shelters for their citizenry is a culturally and religiously based choice. It stems from a value system that glorifies death and martyrdom. Thus a “suicide chamber” or a “shahid’s sanctuary”. 

“De facto death chamber” sounds dramatic while rooted in a Western sense of virtue but misses a critical and glaring truth. You seem to imply that Gazans have no choice about their tragedy just as a death-row inmate would have no choice about his or her execution. But Gazans do. They can stop the fight. I believe that your characterization is misguided and misguiding. Palestinians have made their collective choice to kill and die for their passionately held cause. How do we know it? Because they openly speak and write about it.

A Palestinian society, passionately religious, and deeply committed to killing and dying for the noble cause of liberating their holy land are thus relentlessly and hatefully dedicated to killing the Jews in former Palestine. This reality of a thriving Palestinian death culture poses a real danger to Israeli citizens as we have once again been reminded on October 7. 

How do we know that the Palestinian society is indeed so? They tell us. Read Palestinian school textbooks, media postings, Hamas and PLO founding documents, and more. Furthermore, did Hamas force itself on the civilian population of Gaza or was it voted in by a handsome majority? Recent polls suggest that if there were elections in Gaza and the West Bank today Hamas would win the vote. You seem to suggest that Israel could appease Palestinians with Ghandyesc nonviolent strategies that soar beyond feelings of revenge and that that would open the door to a new chapter of nonviolent coexistence. While a noble consideration, nonviolent coexistence doesn’t seem to be a sentiment shared by Palestinian majority culture as things stand today. 

Let me emphasize three points I think are key. One, the danger is very real, which a majority of Israelis, including myself, have now painfully sobered up to. Two, our enemy is very explicit and very public about its intentions. We do not need to guess their designs but simply take seriously the conversation in the Palestinian public square (which Westerners are typically blind to – and the Israeli intelligence community neglected to take seriously in the months and weeks leading up to the massacre). Three, the distinction you and others emphasize between the “Hamas terrorists” and Palestinian “innocent civilians” is not as clear cut as we, Westerners, believe it to be. 

Let us explore the question of who counts as a Palestinian innocent civilian? Are civilians who crossed the Gaza border into Israel along side the thousands of uniformed Hamas combatants liable or innocent? Are civilians who cheered in the streets of Gaza with glee when the hostages where trucked in freshly from the killing fields liable or innocent? Are civilian families who imprisoned hostages in their homes liable or innocent? Are civilians who kept stashes of weapons and ammunition in their apartments and had hidden tunnel access-shafts in their bedrooms or basements liable or innocent? Are the thousands of UNRA employees who aided Hamas Liable or innocent? These are some of the serious and vexing questions of wartime ethics that factor into what you and others glibly call “genocide” or a war of “genocidal nature”. 

However, this war is not one of genocidal nature at all. The “genocidal nature” interpretation is unfortunately gaining traction among folks who are either ignorant about the conflict or plainly malicious or both. The perception of genocide is perhaps understandable given the horrors we view on our TV screens (by editor’s choice, mind you). Genocide is a serious accusation yet you would be hard pressed to back up this characterization with solid facts.  

Why shouldn’t we take the ongoing danger posed by Palestinian Muslim society very very seriously? Why not take the Arab Palestinian suicidal culture very very seriously? Can you guarantee that when Israel ceases fire indeed “the cycle of violence would end”? Based on what? There was a ceasefire up until October 7. You and others would have a hard case to make here.

Furthermore, if history is any indication, what would happen if Israel would cease its fire tomorrow? Sooner or later Palestinian leaders would resume organizing, fundraising, and scheming in order to retake Palestine from the Jewish “colonialists”. That is what Hamas does, it is their official mission, their Raison De’tre (same goes for the Palestinian Authority). Conversely, if Hamas would cease fire tomorrow – no rockets, no terror, no weapons, no tunnels – what would happen? They would have Gaza and the freedom to thrive. So too in the West Bank.

The simple non-complex framing of this tragedy is that Gazan Palestinians, led by their government, initiated a daring war. War has consequences and Palestinians are unfortunately experiencing those consequences. Heroically fighting the IDF, as glorious as it may be, has consequences. Embedding within civilian infrastructure, as clever a tactic as it may have seemed initially, has consequences – which apparently they are all willing to suffer. These are Palestinian society’s choices, civilian and otherwise. This, in my view, is the simple and clear-eyed reality of the war. It is non-complex. 

After October 7 there was a lag of a few weeks until the ground invasion began. I was concerned about the looming war because war by its nature is messy. War can easily get out of hand. Tragic errors happen. War has a corrupting impact on the psyche of those involved. Good men and women easily turn into beasts during war. I had partly experienced same when I was an IDF soldier in the 1970s. I was also concerned about the corrupting impact that feelings of revenge would have upon us. I was afraid of the likelihood that the war would become a vendetta-fest and push Israeli society further to the right, further into decay. 

That did not happen. To our surprise the shock of October 7 shape-shifted Israeli society in a instant. It united the country and quite immediately cool heads took charge. The leadership center-of-gravity shifted to the IDF and to civic society, while the dysfunctional and pathetic Netanyahu government went into deep freeze – for a few weeks. As a result two very clear and very rational goals emerged as guideposts for the ground invasion: 1. destroy Hamas’ military capabilities and governing infrastructure 2. liberate the hostages. 

This clear and focused formulation allowed me along with a broad majority in Israeli society to get behind the plan. The military’s defined aim was not to “show them”, not to punish them, not to exact revenge, but to eliminate a screeching high level threat. We have witnessed military commanders warning their troops against acting on emotion and specifically demanding discipline, precision, and cool headedness. Expressions of vengeance by troops in the field were immediately disciplined in several publicly known instances. The fighting forces on the whole have conducted themselves in a professional and focused manner, contrary to the fear of many a centrist, such as myself. 

The armed forces entered Gaza in an orderly fashion along with the Israeli Engineering Brigade – bulldozers, demolition professionals and all – in order to dismantle tunnels, headquarters, weapon factories, weapon depots, and communication centers. The general consensus is that the war’s goals to date remain practical, rational, and surgical. 

Additionally the IDF on the whole took pains to care for Palestinian non-combatants as much as an army can during wartime. This has not yet turned into a vengeance fest, thank God. I believe that any assertion to the contrary is erroneous and not supported by the facts. The 30,000 casualty count, assuming its accuracy only for discussion’s sake, is not a consequence of IDF’s policies nor the Israeli government’s policies. It is rather a consequence of Palestinian war policies and ongoing choices. 

If the IDF brass had not framed the operation’s goals in the rational way it had, I would not have supported it. You stated that “the dangerous desire for vengeance also plays a part – however latent – in the calculus of Israel’s response”. As I have shown above this is completely unsubstantiated. 

Additionally, I am curious why when Israel states that its goals are anything but vengeance you and others assume a “latent” presence of same? On what basis? Revenge is either part of the policy or it is not. It is part of the military culture or not. Individuals expressing understandable feelings of revenge are not the driving force of Israel’s response, the elimination of a threat is. Conversely, when Palestinian genocidal and suicidal intentions are publicly stated (albeit mostly in Arabic to their own public) and motivate a terrible massacre and continued suicidal fighting, you and others play it down. How come?

Additionally, why don’t you apply an equal analysis standard to both sides? Why not compare latent vengeance intentions on one side to latent vengeance intentions of the other? Or compare official public statements of one side to official public statements of the other – which would be my preference. 

When you equally compare the official statements that represent majority opinions on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides you are comparing cool headedness and moderation with passionate calls for violent Jihad respectively. In this light the nonviolent response to the Palestinian death culture that you and others propose doesn’t seem serious.

I believe that you alongside many other well meaning peace activists are not yet fully grasping the breadth and depth of the Israeli experience nor the significance of Palestinian society’s contribution to this round of fighting and to the conflict in general. 

In my opinion, you assign undue responsibility for the conflict onto Israel while robbing the Palestinians of any agency and absolving them of responsibility. As I see it, you have played into the time-honored Palestinian “victimhood pasturing”, a sociological pathology that is core to Palestinian identity and PR (a topic that deserves its own unpacking at another time). You do so by assuming that Israel is responsible for the death of Palestinians who collectively have chosen to fight to the death against us no matter what. 

Palestinians’ deaths caused by Israeli military action are not inevitable. They, the Palestinians, can choose to live. Their “suicide chamber” is avoidable. They can surrender and return the hostages. It is that simple. Let’s be very clear that Israel has not condemned any Palestinian to death per se, not judicially nor by war (some exceptions may apply to the latter – exceptions that prove the rule). 

I am still concerned that this war can turn into a quagmire as wars often do and pray that it ends before the cool heads of the IDF leadership are compromised and corrupted as often happens in war.

I pray that the goals of the war are sufficiently accomplished – the return of the remaining hostages and the destruction of the military and governing infrastructure of Hamas. 

I pray that Palestinian society transforms its core values and guiding belief systems in ways that better serve it. I pray that Palestinian society thrives. 

I pray that many of my well-meaning colleagues with whom I disagree about Israel Palestine find the courage to face our Jewish and Israeli tragic reality with open eyes and with a breadth of understanding even at the cost of pain, of discomfort, and of hopelessness about the prospects for peace. A peace for which we all yearn and that we all cherish. 

I pray that Palestinians lay down their arms, return the hostages and busy themselves with cultivating the spirituality, the beauty, and the prosperity that is available in their religion, in their culture, and in their society even if latent for now. 

I pray that the extreme right wing government of Israel collapses soon and a centrist coalition of the most brilliant and conscientious amongst us (there are many) take the reins so Israel can begin moving toward rebuilding and healing on all levels. 

I pray that we Israelis remain clear, cool headed, and maintain our moral fortitude as we continue to defend against the Islamic extremism that is pervasive in our neighborhood. 

About the Author
Rabbi Modek is the spiritual leader of Kehilat Kodesh Bet Israel in Netanya Israel. Ordained by both AJR NY and Aleph, Alliance For Jewish Renewal, Philadelphia, Rabbi Modek is the former executive director of Hebrew Learning Circles, NY. A native Israeli, and graduate of Haifa University School of Social Work, Rabbi Modek blogs about Jewish spirituality, ethics, Israeli society, wellness, and Jewish relevance for the 21st Century.
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