Israel, Gaza, morality – and who started it

A black and white approach to the conflict isn't likely to yield better outcomes for either Israelis and Palestinians.

Nir Elias/Reuters
An Israeli soldier prays in front of a tank at a military staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip July 24, 2014.

There are two broad narratives about the current conflict between Hamas and Israel.

The first, presented by Israel and its allies, is that rocket-fire from the Gaza Strip by Hamas and other militants is an intolerable threat to the country, and that Israel is simply responding in self-defense. The second, presented by Hamas and its allies, is that the economic blockade of Gaza, the arrest of hundreds of Hamas members over the past month, and the heavy ordnance that has pounded the tiny enclave is intolerable, and they're responding in self-defense.

Both sides are right. And both sides are wrong. They are right in that they are pursuing their interests with the tools that they've decided are best suited to the purpose – rockets and bombs. And that both sides would like the attacks from the other side to stop. 

But they're wrong if they think they're going to achieve their objectives, or if the latest burst of fighting will do anything beyond reinforcing an ugly status quo. The underlying issue is the dying dream of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with no other possible solution on the horizon.

Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel's Shin Bet security agency, wrote an example of Israel's over-simplified narrative for the New York Times.

We do not measure ethics and morality by counting dead bodies. The fact that many more Palestinians than Israelis have died does not mean that our cause, or this war, is not just. Many more Germans than Americans died in World War II. Does that mean that Hitler was right and America was wrong?

Every state has a duty to defend its citizens. That is what we are doing. The rockets and tunnels targeting Israeli civilians are real threats. But there is a gap between a just war and justice at war, so the question whether our response to the rockets and tunnels is proportionate remains legitimate.

The first answer is that we are in compliance with international law. Second, our actions in this war have to be compared with what other states have done or would do when facing similar threats. We give advance notifications to areas we are about to attack. Because of our intelligence capabilities, we give specific warnings to every house we intend to strike, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the attacks -- destroying the launch sites but allowing the militants to escape. How many other states have done this?

Who could argue with a country defending its citizens? But the choice of defense is the mass bombing of Gaza that has claimed over 670 lives so far, most of them civilians. And this feeds anger and despair among the population. 

Moreover, Mr. Ayalon's comments about warnings to Gaza residents are risible. Many of the survivors of Israeli attacks say they weren't given any warning, didn't have time to evacuate, or didn't have any place to go when Israel declared their neighborhoods as free fire zones. The four boys killed by an Israeli strike last week while playing on the beach in front of the al-Deira Hotel in Gaza City certainly weren't warned. 

Israel argues that it has had little choice in the matter. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said about his government's decision to strike Hamas hard in Gaza that "a man's gotta do what a man's got to do." In this narrative, Israel's hands were tied and only had one possible response to the situation. 

Pick a starting date

How did we get here? It depends on who you ask, and where you start. The conflict begins in 1948, with the formation of Israel and the mass-expulsion of Palestinians from towns and cities in what became the Jewish state (the majority of Gaza's residents are descendants of people expelled.) The result is that Palestinians remain stateless to this day.

More proximately, one could begin in the 1990s, when Israel still occupied the Gaza Strip, and tacitly encouraged the rise of what was to become Hamas in the hopes that it would weaken secular Palestinian liberation groups. This includes the Fatah movement of current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Or one could focus on the failure of both Israelis and Palestinians to make the compromises necessary to fulfill the promise of the Oslo Accords – two states for two peoples – that were signed in 1993 and 1995.

Who started the latest hostilities? Israel says Hamas, by choosing to fire rockets and breaking a ceasefire agreed in November 2012. Last year saw the fewest rockets fired from Gaza since 2001, when militants in Gaza first obtained the weapons. Hamas had been enforcing the ceasefire not just on its own members, but on Islamic Jihad and the local militia groups more aligned with Fatah than with the Islamist movement that rules the strip.

For its part, Hamas says the resumption of rocket fire was in response to Israel's decision to round up hundreds of Hamas members in the West Bank, including over 50 who had been released in 2011 under a prisoner swap with Israel. The mass arrests followed the abduction on June 12 of three Israeli teenagers outside Hebron. In response, Hamas apparently decided that "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" – on June 16 four rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, and detonated harmlessly.

As the search for the missing teens went on, six Palestinians were killed by the Israel forces in the West Bank, and about 40 rockets had been fired at Israel in response. On June 30, the bodies of the teens were recovered. Israel then launched 34 attacks on what it called "terror targets" in Gaza, and the escalation cycle quickly kicked in. Hamas responded with a statement that if Netanyahu wanted a war, they'd give him one.


And here we are, with Palestinian civilians – many of whom don't support Hamas – once again bearing most of the costs. NBC correspondent Richard Engel said on Tuesday that it's hard to describe Israel's offensive in Gaza as a "pinpoint" operation, and cited his visit that day to a family living in an apartment block in Gaza. An Israeli missile attack, purportedly targeting a Hamas member on a lower floor, went through two apartments on higher floors, "killing the people inside of them to get to the militant two floors down."

Some have gone so far as to suggest that it's all the fault of Palestinian voters for electing Hamas. Thane Rosenbaum, a lawyer and director of New York University Law School's Forum on Law, Culture and Society, argued in the Wall Street Journal on Monday that folks there are getting what they deserve. (An earlier version of this story misidentified Mr. Rosenbaum as an NYU law professor.)

The people of Gaza overwhelmingly elected Hamas, a terrorist outfit dedicated to the destruction of Israel, as their designated representatives. Almost instantly Hamas began stockpiling weapons and using them against a more powerful foe with a solid track record of retaliation. 

... On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations. At that point you begin to look a lot more like conscripted soldiers than innocent civilians. And you have wittingly made yourself targets.

It also calls your parenting skills into serious question. In the U.S. if a parent is found to have locked his or her child in a parked car on a summer day with the windows closed, a social worker takes the children away from the demonstrably unfit parent. In Gaza, parents who place their children in the direct line of fire are rewarded with an interview on MSNBC where they can call Israel a genocidal murderer.

Hamas did overwhelmingly win the 2006 Palestinian elections. Still, anyone who covered that election and its aftermath knows that the average Palestinian wasn't voting for "terror." Fatah and the PLO had ruled their territories in a corrupt and thuggish manner, and many people turned out for Hamas in the belief that they'd prove more honest and fair in government.

A brief civil war broke out when Fatah refused to recognize the election results, with the US, Israel and Egypt backing Fatah. When the fighting ended, Hamas had Gaza and Fatah had the West Bank. And Israel imposed an economic blockade on Gaza that persists to this day.

Dov Weissglass, an adviser to then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, allegedly said: "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger. The hunger pangs are supposed to encourage the Palestinians to force Hamas to change its attitude towards Israel or force Hamas out of government."

Blockade begets provocation

The blockade led to the collapse of Gazan industry and mass unemployment. But Israel's collective punishment approach to Palestinian voters has, if anything, led to an entrenchment of Hamas's position in Gaza. There have been no Palestinian elections since, so any voters who regret their choice in 2006 (the evidence suggests there are legions of them) have not had a chance to correct their decision.

Many have argued that Hamas could have simply elected not to respond to Israeli provocation; that firing crude rockets indiscriminately is both a war crime and ultimately ineffective; and they've put the civilian population at risk so they can grandstand. To me, that makes plenty of sense. But to Hamas? They believe they need an offensive capability to prevent Israel from arresting and killing even more of their members, and that capitulation is ultimately more dangerous to their movement than defiance.

Their ceasefire demands – among them, the release of their prisoners and an end to the economic blockade of Gaza – are wildly popular among Palestinians, as shown by the support of PA President Abbas. Mr. Abbas is no friend of Hamas, but there's clearly Palestinian consensus on this question.

So far, 32 Israeli soldiers have died in the fighting with Hamas and two Israeli civilians have been killed by rockets fired at the country. Navi Pillay, the head of the UN's High Commission for Human Rights, says that both sides have likely committed war crimes in the latest conflict.

Is there any morality or "right" to any of this? It's hard to see any, and the prospects for a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dim as they were, have only grown dimmer thanks to recent events. That's good for hardliners on both sides, but terrible for peace.

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