Israel: ‘do not destroy your soul’
A 74-year-old Canadian woman named Vivian Silver exemplifies the futility of calling for peace in Gaza. A prominent peace activist living in a kibbutz near the Gaza frontier, she had been a board member of B’Tselem, a Israeli organization lobbying for Palestinian rights. On October 7, Hamas terrorists kidnapped her. She has not been heard from since.
Ms Silver worked for and with Palestinians. Her good intentions did her no good. Along with the 1300 Israelis, old and young, who were slaughtered in the attack, she became a casualty of a vicious war.
Supporters of both sides are passionate and blinkered. They overlook competing arguments. They ridicule objections. There is only black and white, good and evil.
But the issues behind this war are devilishly complex. It is folly to give uncritical support to either side.
Here are some suggestions on how to read the media in a time of moral anguish.
In war truth is the first casualty. This is a cliché, but it cannot be emphasized too often. The terrible facts are terrible enough without embellishing them with ghoulish allegations. The widely circulated claim that Israeli babies had been beheaded may be true, but it remains unproven.
In the era of social media, mobile phone cameras, and 24/7 reporting, outright lies are not the problem. More important is bias: reading only analysis which confirm our preconceived ideas or supercharges our anger. Believe it or not, both sides have plausible narratives. Try to read widely to understand which is more factual.
Don’t demonise. The savagery of the Hamas terrorists was demonic. But demonizing opponents will justify horrific crimes in revenge. “We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly,” said Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant.
And President Isaac Herzog told a press conference that all civilians were combatants in the war. “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible. It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’etat.”
Perhaps these words were uttered under pressure, but they are appalling. About 42 percent of Gazans are under 14 years old. They weren’t even alive when Hamas took over. And Hamas runs a vicious, thuggish dictatorship which tortures and kills its own people. How could Gazans throw off its yoke?
As American defence analyst Ryan Evans tweeted: “I support Israel's right to exist and to defend itself and its people, but my support does not extend to constructs that can justify war crimes.”
Only just wars deserve to be supported. Israel’s agony is excruciating. It lost 1,300 citizens on October 7. In proportion to their population, that would be 45,000 Americans or 3,600 Australians. But in a civilized world, one injustice cannot excuse another. The requirements for a just war, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, are that
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
The first of these conditions is clearly satisfied. The attack by Hamas is an existential threat to Israel. It holds hostages and continues to shell Tel Aviv. But how about the other conditions?
Are there any other avenues? Is it possible to negotiate through Qatar? Turkey? China? The Vatican?
Will Israel’s impending invasion be successful? That depends upon what “success” looks like. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has vowed that Hamas will be destroyed. Ehud Barak, a former commander of Israel Defence Forces, a former defence minister, and a former prime minister, is sceptical. “What does it even mean?” he says. “That no one can still breathe and believe in Hamas’s ideology? That’s not a believable war aim. Israel’s objective now has to be clearer. It has to be that Hamas will be denied its Daesh-like [ISIS-like] military capabilities.”
Will it produce even more serious evils than 1,300 Israeli dead? Quite possibly. The latest death count is 2,750 killed by Israeli air strikes. When the invasion begins, the number of Palestinian deaths could be astronomical.
The questions raised by these four conditions have to be answered.
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Know your history. Since World War I, Jewish immigrants and Palestinians have been battling over the land which is now the State of Israel. Each side has scores, perhaps hundreds, of stories of assassinations and massacres. Each side has epics of tragedy and heroism. A history which chronicles only the pain suffered by one side is worse than useless; it’s deceptive and cruel.
We cannot avert our eyes from the fundamental question: was it right for Israel to declare its independence as a Jewish state and to expel the Palestinians from their homes? Dialogue between the two sides is impossible unless this ulcer is lanced.
There is more than one way forward. Ahead are thousands of military and civilian casualties and possibly the total destruction of Gaza. Does it have to be this way? Israel is the aggrieved party but not all Israelis believe that this war will be successful or just. This is what B’Tselem has to say:
Israel has been bombarding the Gaza Strip indiscriminately for a week. The airstrikes have killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, including more than 700 children and dozens of families. Entire neighbourhoods have been wiped out, people are living without water and power, and hundreds of thousands are internally displaced. All this is completely forbidden. A ground invasion will amplify the horror to unimaginable degrees. This must not be allowed to happen.
We must state the obvious: calling on Israel to hold back from revenge does not, in any way, mitigate the horror of Hamas's actions. Criticizing both Hamas and Israel does not form a symmetry or provide a comparison. This is not a zero sum game: the amount of pain and trauma in the world is not finite.
Suffering does not justify suffering and, one injustice does not justify another and one crime does not warrant another. Revenge cannot be a plan of action for a state. We can – and must – demand other solutions: ones that are based not on more death, destruction and loss, but on a fundamental acknowledgement that all human beings are equal and deserve to live. Every single one.
Drawing an historical parallel is like sticking your hand into a nest of scorpions. But perhaps there’s a lesson in a forgotten incident from American history. In 1637, 200 warriors from the Pequot and Wangunk tribes attacked an English village in what is now Connecticut. They killed nine unarmed settlers and took two teenage girls as captives. A militia took just revenge and slaughtered hundreds of Pequots, men, women, and children. The tribe was effectively annihilated. “Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents,” wrote one of the soldiers.
Now that chapter of history is a source of shame for the state of Connecticut. There are calls for statues of the colonial soldiers to be removed from public view.
I don’t live in Israel. I have never lived in a country where my neighbours hate me and want to kill me. I realise that hard decisions have to be made. I am glad that I don’t have to wrestle with my conscience over a Gaza strategy. I will only quote the advice given by New York Times columnist David French: “the challenge for the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza isn’t simply to win the fight with Hamas within the laws of war. There is a third imperative, one that will define the soldiers who fight and the nation they defend for years to come: Do not destroy your soul.”
Michael Cook is editor of Mercator
Image: Gaza turned to rubble / screenshot from The (London) Telegraph
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