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David Ross

The War Against Hamas and the Weaponization of Empathy

On the 7th of October 2023, the world of everyone living in the land of Israel “from the river to the sea” was turned upside down by the worst massacre of Jewish people since the Holocaust. Just like in The Holocaust, the perpetrators did not only kill Jews, but their sick atrocities were perpetrated against everyone in their path – Jews, Arabs, workers from Thailand and other countries, men, women, children, including babies.

Since then, I have followed, as thousands of innocent people have died in the war that has been launched with the objectives being to bring home the 240 hostages taken captive by the Hamas genocidal organization and to destroy the capability of Hamas to repeat the attacks of the 7th of October. I do not have the stomach for war or the taste for war, but know that as an Israeli Jew, the reality of not going to war is far worse than the reality of going to war. Alongside this, my heart breaks seeing the images of devastation coming out of Gaza and the knowledge that because of the war, we are killing many people who do not deserve to die.

Hamas – weaponizing the empathy of good people

Watching the war and its propaganda machine unfold, I have been shockedby the amount of support that Hamas has been able to garner for its cause. How on earth does an organization, with its 1988 founding document calling for an obliteration of Israel by Hamas, manage to avoid criticism for being the worst enemy of the Palestinian people since its establishment? Why do people around the world choose to ignore the things that Hamas publishes, except for the number of civilian deaths?

The only reasonable answer I have been able to come up with, is that it is through Hamas’ weaponizing the empathy of good people. There are plenty of anti-Semites out there who have exposed their ugly libel in the past months – openly calling to “gas the Jews” on the streets of Sydney and attacking a plane landing from Israel in Dagestan. But I believe that the majority of those calling for an end to Israel’s war against Hamas, are simply good people that don’t want to see innocent people die. This care for the innocent is beautiful and I hope it will not stop.

Taking Hamas at face value

That said, I must admit: the part deep inside of me that desires peaceful resolution of conflict is experiencing internal conflict during this time. This is because I am struggling to see any way forward that does not involve bloodshed. One of the first principles of resolving conflict, is to listen to the other side. Unlike many progressives in the West, I listen to Hamas and give their statements the respect they deserve: they have repeatedly said that they want me, my family, my people – dead and gone. This is not theory, this is a very vivid reality. The 7th of October and subsequent statements by Hamas leaders, confirm this. With an enemy that has that approach, me telling them that I am not interested in causing them harm, am willing to share my home with them and have no deeply held principle preventing us from living in peace – won’t make a difference. I believe I have no choice but to resolve conflict with the use of force. It is either sit back and wait to be led like a sheep to be slaughtered, or to find my armour and go onto the battlefield. The battle is not against civilians or the members of a religion or people group – it is against those that have told the world they want me, as an Israeli Jew, dead. And yet, they manage to garner extensive sympathy.

The ‘empathy trap’

Hamas has built its infrastructure underneath hospitals, in mosques, schools – embedding itself all around civilian homes and buildings. This type of despicable behavior is not because they are poor wretched victims and have nowhere else to go; it is Hamas’ deliberate plan of action, its modus operandi. The reason for this is that they know that if they can increase civilian casualties on the Palestinian side, it will make Israel look bad and help to raise sympathy for their cause. It is terror in its worst form: dehumanizing the lives of the very people it claims to represent and using their deaths as a weapon in the propaganda wars. The international community then sees the death of these innocent people and empathizes with them as victims. So far so good, and so far, I stand with the international community in its concern for the devastating suffering of the Palestinian people.

But the next step is where the problem lies: Hamas places all the blame on Israel for the deaths of civilians and uses the international empathy to further sympathy for their cause of hate. Hamas wants an obliteration of Israel and many of those supporting the Palestinian cause have blindly fallen into their propaganda. Instead of calling out Hamas for the atrocities it is perpetrating against the Palestinian people, many in the international community put the blame purely on Israel, calling for an end of the Jewish Homeland, and in doing so, fall straight into the ‘empathy trap’ set up by Hamas.

There are few better examples of the successful use of this strategy than in the case of the Al-Ahli hospital: A rocket aimed at Israel misfired and landed near the Al-Ahli hospital causing an explosion that killed many innocent people. Hamas blamed Israel, the international community bought the lie and anti-Israel riots around the Arab world broke out. Once the lie was exposed, it was too late: the damage was done. Once again, Hamas haf successfully abused the suffering of the innocent as a tool to create empathy and utilized that empathy to get people to listen to and to believe their propaganda and messages of hate.

Can we keep empathy but not be manipulated?

I am left wondering, what can we do to actually support the innocent Palestinian people, without strengthening Hamas? How can I continue to empathize with the innocent people who are dying, but not fall into the trap of the psychological warfare being waged by Hamas? I think the answer to this question, which people have grappled with for generations is found in the thinking on the Laws of War. This is one of the questions of Just War Theory that have been written about for generations, including by the great theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas. It is the question facing every army in every armed conflict and the very reason that the body of IHL (International Humanitarian Law) exists. These laws set up rules that every army is obliged to follow, regardless of who they are fighting against.

The abuse of International Humanitarian Law by Hamas

In the war against Hamas, the radical-islamist-jihadist-terror-organization, the laws of IHL are tested to their utmost as one side [Hamas] deliberately abuses the fact the other side [Israel] attempts to adhere to these laws: Hamas combatants hide inside ambulances because they know “the Jews don’t fire at ambulances” in utter violation and abuse of the IHL principle of distinction; Hamas combatants build tunnels under hospitals because they know that hospitals have special protection under IHL. This disgusting abuse of internationally upheld principles, totally dehumanizing the citizens of Gaza and using the sacred protections of ambulances and hospitals as a tool in their propaganda wars is truly sickening.

Israel, is not beyond reproach and I am more than happy to discuss potential violations of IHL by Israel too. However, that is not my focus here and I don’t believe one needs to ‘call out everyone who did anything wrong’ to be able to identify and condemn the villain.

Why does there seem to be so little combination of empathy for Palestinians with rage at Hamas?

The lack of blaming of Hamas by the international community for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, especially by those that proclaim themselves as ‘fighters for social justice’ is deeply concerning to me. Why is it not possible to see the victims, have empathy for them and then to call out their biggest oppressors? Is the fog of war really so great that the authority on the suffering of Palestinians has become the very organization that has done the most to dehumanize them and to make their lives hell?

Don’t let Hamas win.

As I see it, a victory for Hamas, would be for them to ‘get away with’ the 7th of October attacks with impunity – not releasing the kidnapped hostages – and with international empathy for their cause strengthened. As long as Hamas holds power in Gaza, it will continue to use the resources it has to attack, kidnap, rape, mutilate and murder the citizens of the State of Israel and it will do so while disregarding the plight of the people of Gaza – building tunnels to shelter its fighters instead of bomb shelters to protect civilians, building rocket launchers instead of water pipes, maximizing civilian casualties to create empathy with those suffering and then using that empathy to create an identification with its messages of hate. If Hamas is not completely destroyed, what message does this send to terror organizations around the world?

But isn’t calling for a ceasefire the only truly humanitarian position?

Though I seek to uphold the value of human life with integrity, I cannot in good conscience call for a ceasefire when Hamas holds Israeli civilians hostage and along with them holds the entire civilian population of Gaza hostage. I do not think the correct humanitarian position is to just stop fighting. Historically speaking, most would agree that the policy of “appeasement” prior to World War II was not a policy that was the correct humanitarian position. Thus, I believe that simply accepting a cease fire would be giving in to the Hamas terror and sending the wrong message to terror organizations around the world and to their supporters. Though I write this with a heavy heart, with an awareness that many innocent people are likely to die, I believe the most humane thing to do under the current circumstances is to get rid of Hamas.

Ideally, this would involve international organizations calling them out for their terror [and supporting efforts to eradicate their terror base]. Ideally this would involve a force of nations from all over the world that have an interest in the destruction of the threat of radical jihadist terror. Ideally this would involve an implementation on the part of the Arab world, particularly Egypt, of a humanitarian corridor for the innocent in Gaza – to take them out of the line of fire for the duration of the war. There are many things that are ideal and are not happening. Instead of joining Israel in its military operation to bring back those kidnapped (citizens of 25 different countries), many are falling into the empathy trap set up by Hamas with the purpose of delegitimizing Israel and strengthening the perception of them as the heroic representatives of the Palestinian population.

Humanizing Palestinian People ≠ Supporting Hamas

There needs to be a humanizing of Palestinian lives, especially in a world of polarization, of blacks and whites and of ‘broad brush strokes’. In this polarized world we live in, huge populations can very quickly be veiwed as ‘guilty by association’ and can easily be dehumanized. Thus, everyone involved has a responsibility to seek to protect humanity and to humanize the innocent. In my opinion, this process can be dramatically assisted by the people who are advocating for the Palestinian people – drawing an absolutely clear line in the sand – disassociating with Hamas; disassociating from Hamas’ so called fight for liberation (which calls for the genocide of the Jewish people “from the river to the sea”); and actively calling it out for its cynical use of Palestinian lives – hiding underneath hospitals, inside mosques and schools – doing everything it can to violate the principle of distinction and to maximize civilian casualties.

Seeking to keep empathy without falling into the ‘empathy trap’

As an Israeli that seeks to remain humane and with empathy towards innocent human beings in the midst of a war against one of the sickest terror organizations out there, I welcome any ideas on how to not lose sight of humanity during war and also to not fall into the ‘empathy trap’ being set up by Hamas terrorists.

Final Words: On Freedom of Expression

I know that this conflict has a way of making people angry, distraught, and violent (also online). I want to say that I know there are people to my left and to my right, both at home and abroad – who think differently to me. I want to say that I respect your opinions and respect your freedom to express them – even if they are radically different to mine. I hope that you will also respect my opinions and hold space for them, even if you find them wrong or offensive.

“May He who makes peace on high, bring peace upon us, and upon all of Israel.”

~ Traditional Jewish Prayer

About the Author
Attorney David Ross was born in the UK to the son of a holocaust survivor and immigrated to Israel as a child. He studied at the Anglican International School Jerusalem before serving as an Officer in the IDF. David graduated with an LLB from the Hebrew University and is a graduate of the Schwarzman Scholars Program with a Master of Global Affairs from Tsinghua University in China. David recently completed his legal apprenticeship with the State Attorney Office Civil Law Department.
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