by Liel Leibovitz
Here’s a bit of wisdom that cannot be repeated often enough: Deliberately targeting civilians is a war crime. If you don’t believe me, ask U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who was adamant on this point last year, when Syria’s president Assad, aided by Hamas’ brethren Hezbollah, engaged in the very same tactics we now see coming out of Gaza, albeit with much more devastating results. And if that’s not enough, consider a regime that targets not only the enemy’s civilians but also its own: Appearing on TV the other day, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri waxed poetic about the merits of using men, women, and children as human shields, a heinous tactic that puts every civilian in Gaza in needless risk.
The world has repeatedly—and rightly—asked that Israel take measures to protect the civilian population of Gaza. Israel chooses its targets very carefully, and, knowing that Hamas’ cowardly creeps would have likely stacked every strategic building with armfuls of kids, according to the instructions of its leaders, it takes extraordinary measures to provide ample warning before each strike. These include text messages and calls, leaflets dropped from above, and “knock on the roof” measures, or firing flares to signal an upcoming strike.
As Will Saletan correctly noted in an article today in Slate, “The worst civilian death toll—seven, at the latest count—occurred in a strike on the Khan Yunis home of a terrorist commander. Hamas calls it a ‘massacre against women and children.’ But residents say the family got both a warning call and a knock on the roof. An Israeli security official says Israeli forces didn’t fire their missile until the family had left the house. The official didn’t understand why some members of the family, and apparently their neighbors, went back inside. The residents say they were trying to ‘form a human shield.’ ”
These are not interpretations, spins, or attempts at hasbara. These are facts. Which makes it all the more infuriating when people who should know better ignore them and cling instead to bizarre notions of equivalency. Speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv earlier this week, the White House Coordinator for the Middle East, Philip Gordon, declared: “This is a moment for leaders on both sides to demonstrate reason and calm,” mainly because “there has clearly been far too much recrimination and some reprehensible examples of racism on both sides.” Gordon then called on the Israelis in the room to work toward finalized borders, and promised that the United States will protect Israel and “guarantee” its safety—presumably, one assumes, in the same way this administration has “guaranteed” the security of Iraq.
The laughable nature of Gordon’s remarks was demonstrated very clearly when the conference in which he was speaking was interrupted because of missiles launched at Tel Aviv from Gaza, which Israel, striving to work toward finalizing its borders, exited from in 2005; it is hard to escape the conclusion that the result of exiting the West Bank at this point in time would be twice as many rockets with a much greater range. As The Times of Israel editor David Horovitz wrote in a stellar account of Gordon’s speech, “sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
Cry is more like it. Turn on any Western radio station, read any newspaper, listen to almost any politician address the situation, and you’ll hear a simple and compelling story: Two sides, Israel and Palestine, are locked in a bloody tango, each responsible for the taking of innocent lives, each culpable for the violence that, like a demonic Old Faithful, testifies to the might of ancient and irrational hatreds. If you believe this story, you also believe that the only way to stop the cycle of violence is to exert pressure on both sides, and since Israel is the stronger and more established party, it would make much sense to start with Jerusalem before turning to the Palestinians, who after all still leave mostly under Israeli occupation. It’s a neat formulation, and it fits in perfectly with a certain genteel liberal worldview. It’s also dead wrong.
Not that Israeli military control of Palestinians is a good idea. I oppose it, both for what it does to Palestinians and for what it does to Israelis. The occupation is wrong. But it is also wrong to believe that ending it depends solely on Israel. As Israel’s experience in Gaza proves, disengagement does not necessarily bring about peace; the only party that can guarantee a successful accommodation is the Palestinian leadership, which, to date, has been far, far, far less than adequate in its efforts to sincerely end the conflict. Rather than try and work towards reconciliation, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas invited Hamas to join his government, thereby sentencing the residents of the West Bank to life under the same sort of ideology that bans hip-hop music, executes gays, and uses its entire population as human shields that already afflicts the Palestinians in Gaza.
Naturally, you’ll hear little of that on the news. But while persistent disregard of reality may be forgiven from pundits, it is inexcusable when coming from other nations and international bodies. Of course, there are some nations that will blame Israel first no matter what she does, and I’m sure those nations have good reasons for doing so—emotional reasons, religious reasons, financial reasons, or the sheer and undeniable pleasure of hypocrisy. That’s their business. But what’s infuriating are those who espouse their formulas of equivalency with passionate, doe-eyed sincerity. Those people are not just misguided, but responsible for the erosion of a moral principle all civilized people should cherish and protect.
The principle is simple: Some things are just plain evil, and when things are evil, they should be prohibited by law and by the consensus of right-thinking people and nations and prevented with all the means at our disposal. Raining down rockets on a civilian population is evil. Instructing one’s operatives to kidnap and murder children is evil. Using children as human shields is evil. Putting missile launchers underneath hospitals is evil. People who do these things are supposed to pay a price, so that they don’t do them again. That’s how the international system is supposed to work.
Moral equivalency vitiates this crucial principle, which is precisely what makes it not only immoral, as Ruth Wisse noted in a recent excellent article, but also the enemy of international law. By failing to actively support Israel’s efforts to defend herself, well-meaning writers and diplomats are gutting the moral and legal basis by which gassing people, or burning them alive, or kidnapping and murdering children, or occupying land that doesn’t belong to you, can be credibly seen as wrong. The message of ignoring international law is that might makes right—which makes it easier for tyrants like Vladimir Putin to treat Western protestations with the contempt that they unfortunately so richly deserve.
So, what should the international community do about an organization that has been designated as a terror group by the United States Department of State, which fires rockets at civilian targets at a rate of one every ten minutes, with no other aim than killing men, women, and children and rendering daily life in Israel impossible? The answer is not dispatching more John Kerrys, or condemning bloodshed, or asking “both sides” to stop. The answer, whatever side you are on, is to start being intellectually honest and admitting that the fight at hand does not have two responsible parties but one. Once that happens, and once clear and real collective measures are taken to bring terrorist organizations to justice, it might be possible to talk about peace.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine.