Shawn Zelig Aster

Why There is ‘No Safe Place in Gaza’

Hamas Rocket Launches into Israel from Humanitarian Zone
Hamas Rocket Launches at Israel from Humanitarian Zone , Credit: Israel Defence Forces

As December 26th  sales were generating lots of buzz in American shopping malls, a different sort of buzz filled St Mary’s church in Iqrit. Located in Northern Israel, less than 4 km from the border with Lebanon, the church was hit by a Hizballah missile fired from Lebanon, which targeted the 80-year-old church warden. In videos filmed from Lebanon, Hizballah terrorists show the warden entering the church, and seconds later, a missile is fired, largely destroying the church and severely injuring the warden.

The sick rationale of firing at an 80-year-old Greek Catholic church custodian became clear minutes later, when IDF soldiers made their way to Iqrit, to bring the church-warden to hospital. Hizballah then fired missiles at the IDF soldiers, wounding nine soldiers, one of whom is in serious condition. The church warden was “bait.” Knowing that the IDF and Israeli emergency personnel would come to rescue the Christian man, Hizballah intentionally attacked the church as he entered. This allowed Hizballah to target IDF personnel.

This is far from the first such occurrence on the Lebanese border. Hizballah’s modus operandi is to target a single person on the border, in order to draw a larger group of rescuers and fire missiles at them. What is the moral course for IDF personnel to follow in such circumstances? To allow the man to bleed to death? The mind boggles.

The same callous disregard for the lives of Palestinians, and the same attempts to create impossible moral circumstances for Israelis, characterize Hamas’ militarization of schools, mosques, clinics, and kindergartens in the Gaza Strip. Every Israeli soldier to whom I have spoken in the last two months tells the same story:  “There is no house in which there are no weapons or terrorists, and in most houses, there are tunnel shafts going down into the Hamas tunnel system. There is no school in which we do not find weapons or tunnel shafts or Hamas equipment.” This statement, by Col. Oded Adani describing Shajaiya, a neighbourhood in the northern part of the Gaza strip, characterizes the reality everywhere in the strip.

Any area that is supposed to protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza is turned into a source of fire by Hamas. A month ago, Israel designated certain areas in the southern part of the Gaza Strip as a “humanitarian zone.” This is the area north of al-Mawasi, where Israeli settlements stood until Israel withdrew in 2005. On December 8, Hamas launched rockets at Israel from this humanitarian zone.  Apartment buildings housing civilians in Gaza City were used for storing long-distance Grad missiles. On December 9, Kalachnikov machine guns and hand grenades were found in a school in Shajaiya, and weapons were found in classrooms at a school between Jabaliya and Beit Hanoun, east of Gaza City, hidden in bags marked “UNRWA”.

What is Israel supposed to do in reaction to this reality? Can one really argue that it is moral to ignore Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians emanating from areas that are supposed to be safe for Gaza’s civilians?

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Volker Türk’s complaint that “Nowhere in the Gaza Strip is safe” has been echoed repeatedly. Does Türk really expect Israel to ignore attacks coming from areas that are supposedly “safe”? Are any UN agencies willing to enforce the demilitarization of such “safe” areas and to ensure that Hamas doesn’t use them to attack Israel?

The largest single international agency in Gaza is the UN Relief and Works Administration, UNRWA. Established 75 years ago to aid Arab refugees from the 1948 War, it is the only UN agency in the world that encourages refugees to retain that status four generations later. In recent years, it has become little more than a cover for Hamas. Its schools educate Gazan children about the need to invade what is now Israel, under the cover of the “right of return.” The educators in its schools, which receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the Canadian government, openly praise the October 7 massacre.  As huge quantities of “humanitarian” aid enter Gaza, aid designated for UNRWA is taken by Hamas terrorists into the tunnels, where only Hamas terrorists can enter, leaving civilians to fend for themselves.

In the last few days of fighting, the IDF has focused on Darj Tuffah, south of Gaza City, and on El-Bureij, near Deir el-Balah in the centre of the Gaza Strip. In Darj Tuffah, soldiers report that every house contains guns and other weapons. In El-Bureij, ostensibly a refugee camp, four rocket-launchers and at least nine tunnel shafts have been discovered. Hamas fighters holed up in a UNRWA school, hiding behind civilians. IDF soldiers entered the school, separated the Hamas terrorists from others, and released civilians.  In an interview with the commander of the 188th Tank Brigade, he tells of the cynical use of the civilian population by Hamas fighters, who fire rocket-propelled grenades at IDF soldiers as the latter are trying to separate Hamas fighters from others. Is it moral, in such circumstances, for the IDF to try to save Gazans who are giving cover to Hamas fighters?

There are no easy answers to this question, but two points must be clear. First, there is no justification for allowing schools, houses, or apartment buildings in the Gaza Strip, so many of which contain tunnel shafts and weapons depots, to remain standing. The international community must accept that the blame for the utter destruction in every town that the IDF has entered in Gaza rests on Hamas. There is no justification for allowing civilian buildings that have been converted to military use to remain standing.

Second, there is indeed no safe place in Gaza for civilians. The blame for that reality lies squarely on Hamas. If the international community is serious about seeking a safe place for civilians in Gaza, it needs to create such places, to which Hamas has no access. A sign on a building designating it as a school cannot provide immunity when the school has been taken over by a terrorist group.

About the Author
Shawn Zelig Aster is associate professor of biblical history and geography in the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University.
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