The news reports of the escalation and casualties of the most recent engagement between Israel and Hamas/Islamic Jihad all highlighted the deaths of a Palestinian pregnant woman, Falestine Saleh Abu A’rar, and her young niece. By focusing on these victims, they emphasized the tragedy of what is happening in Gaza, where innocent lives are being destroyed. Even when there is no active war, Gaza is a hellish place to live, and so many people suffer on a daily basis. Unemployment rates are among the highest in the world, more than 50% live in poverty, with even higher rates of the population suffer from food insecurity. Anyone with a heart feels deeply for the tremendous suffering of the Palestinians living in Gaza. And it is only made worse when we read of an innocent woman, literally full of life, and her niece killed.
The question is: who killed this pregnant woman and young child? Hamas reported them among the casualties for whom Israel was responsible. Israel investigated and concluded that, in fact, they died because of an errant rocket fired from within the Gaza strip. Most of the news reports and politicians’ statements were all carefully crafted to ensure ambiguity around this issue. On the one hand, the tragedy of dead innocents seems to argue for the irrelevance of who did the killing. During the escalating violence they died; ascribing responsibility is not primary. And yet, while this specific instance may not be crucial, the question of culpability is EXACTLY what needs to be asked with reference to the Gaza strip and all the suffering that takes place within its borders.
Israel left the Gaza strip in 2005; language of occupation is not only incendiary; it is patently false. After Hamas won a US-brokered election, a war broke out between the two Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas. Hamas won, kicked out Fatah, and has been ruling with an iron fist over Gaza. The EU, Canada, US, Egypt and Jordan all list Hamas as a terrorist group because their actions define that term—they terrorize not only Israelis but their own people.
Time and again Hamas has manipulated and abused the sympathy of the international community not to help the Palestinians but to further their own ends. The cement that was sent into Gaza to help rebuild after Operation Cast Lead was used to strengthen the terror tunnels; the money sent to alleviate the suffering of the people was used to line the pockets of the leadership and to purchase weapons.
Experts estimate that Hamas has built up an arsenal of thousands of short and long term rockets that can hit anywhere in Israel. Since Israel left the Gaza strip, over 10,000 rockets have been launched into Israel. Hamas uses the local population as human shields, firing these rockets from among them. And they have come down ruthlessly on their own people whenever the Palestinians try to protest Hamas’ suffocating and violent rule.
Yes, Israel does monitor its borders to Gaza. Yes, Israel does respond to rocket attacks with their own bombings (after sending a warning “knock” on the rooftops to warn people to leave the buildings). Yes, Israel does protect its borders from violent protestors who are trying to invade the country with maps labeled with kibbutzim where they can find Jews to murder. And yes, Israel does deliberately kill Hamas operatives and leaders when Israelis are injured or killed by Hamas. However, from a purely military calculation, Israel could easily carpet bomb Gaza from the air and get rid of all the terrorists, but outside a few fringe and frustrated voices, this is never- ever- suggested. The Israeli government has consistently acted with tremendous restraint. In fact, many Israelis have become critical of the government’s refusal to fully engage with the terrorist leadership in Gaza.
There is a huge debate going on in Israel right now over Israel’s responses. The majority of Israelis are very torn. They do not want innocent Palestinians to die, but allowing Hamas and Islamic Jihad to continue to lob rockets with impunity at kindergartens and cars, killing Israeli civilians, is unacceptable. They do not want to send their sons and daughters into Gaza to wipe out Hamas; but the vulnerability of Israel is untenable. One of my students at Shalem, who had served in Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s elite unit, said to me today, “How is it that they kill our people, but we continue to supply electricity and fuel to them?” He answered his own question, ruefully, “We have a supreme court of justice that elevates human rights, even the rights of those who are trying to kill us.”
Which brings me back to my original question. Pro-Israel activists do themselves no service when they dismiss the misery of Gaza or the tragedy of innocent lives lost- on both sides. Instead they need to raise the question of: who is responsible? For too long, in an unhelpful paternalistic manner, the world explained away the detrimental and dangerous choices of the Palestinian leadership by suggesting Palestinians could do no better, or they knew no better. Thus, if one cannot expect much from the Palestinians, that leaves only Israel to blame.
The backhanded compliment of assuming Israelis are capable of acting thoughtfully, empathetically, and in accordance with human rights- and holding them accountable for doing so- is appropriate. However, it needs to be extended to everyone in the region. I have met too many intelligent, caring and reflective Palestinians, some of whom teach at Shalem College, to disrespectfully assume they deserve no better than Hamas, or Fatah, for that matter. Unfortunately, for decades the world has enabled the rule of corrupt Palestinian leadership, by being circumspect in their judgement of those who hold the masses hostage through power and violence.
There are many complicated issues around the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but this is not one of them. Political leaders, journalists, and other thought leaders need to be able to squarely place blame when it is due, and acknowledge that at least when it comes to Gaza, there is one side that cares deeply about saving lives on both sides on the border, and one side that shoots rockets indiscriminately because they don’t care about saving lives on either side of the fence – even those of a pregnant women and children.