The Truth In Gaza and A Bodyguard of Lies
August 2, 2014 § 5 Comments
Winston Churchill famously declared, “In wartime, truth is so precious she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” As I try to sift through the cacophony of accusations about blame for the deaths and injuries of innocent civilians in Gaza, I recall that statement. The Friday evening suspected capture of an IDF officer by Hamas has evoked a violent response that appears to have extinguished, at least for now, the flickering candle of hope that the carnage might soon end.
Friday evening, about 9:30 pm local time, some Hamas soldiers emerged from a tunnel near the Israeli/Gaza border. IDF soldiers, arriving there to destroy the tunnel, encountered them. One Hamas soldier appeared to be wearing suicide explosives. A firefight ensued. Both sides sustained casualties and an IDF officer was seen being dragged into the tunnel. It has been assumed that he was captured. Hamas has denied that they have him. President Obama has called for his immediate and unconditional release.
This incident occurred during the first hour of an agreed ceasefire. It was a plain violation of that agreement. Some have suggested that the Hamas troops may have been unaware of the ceasefire. Brief cease fire periods had occurred intermittently during the previous ten days. The fact that the firefight occurred less than an hour after the cease fire began lends some credence to that possibility, but there is no evidence either to confirm or refute it.
Israel immediately declared that the ceasefire arrangements had been breached and, within an hour, began a wholesale assault on Rafah, a small village near the incident’s location. using both tank-mounted artillery and areal bombardment. At least 65 Palestinian civilians were killed and about 350 were injured. Since then, Hamas has renewed the launching of rockets into Israel and Israel has resumed assault on targets in Gaza as well as a wide-ranging search for the captured soldier.
The Guardian has posted a comprehensive account of the incident. Here is a link: Guardian
Media Reports and Reactions
These events have been reported and discussed at length by journalists and commentators in Israel and around the world. Some have likened the capture of the IDF soldier to the kidnapping of an Israeli man several years ago, which led to extended negotiations. Finally, after five years in captivity, the Israeli was released in exchange for the release of over a thousand Hamas members and supporters held by Israel. Others have objected to this comparison, arguing that capturing opposing soldiers is a normal and generally accepted occurrence during a war, not usually thought of as a kidnapping.
Here is another account of the incident from BBC which I found helpful because it includes a timeline and some details conveniently organized as well as a video of the newscast. BBC .
Here is blog post by a Haaretz writer, Peter Beinart. Beinart This blogger is a liberal American journalist who has been writing and reporting on Israeli issues since 1985. He is a practicing Jew whose parents were Holacost survivors. He has definite opinions that conflict squarely with those of Benjamin Netanyahu and his political supporters, opinions he makes no effort to conceal.
I offer his views of the background of the present conflict because the facts he cites are different from those often cited by both American and Israeli news sources. Beinart is a controversial but respected journalist, having worked for the N.Y. Times, New Republic as well as Haaretz. He has written a book about some aspects of Israeli history.
The current dispute was briefly debated by Beinart and Alan Dershowitz and another commentator during a news program I found interesting. Dershowitz .
Some Thoughts of Mine
I am put off by the constant claim by spokesmen for Israel that Hamas uses “human shields” as tactics in their war against Israel. I am skeptical of these claims.
First, when a family is destroyed while in their home because the building where their home is located is flattened by Israeli-launched missiles or bombs, it is a stretch for me to accept the idea that they were “human shields”. The Israeli spokesmen explain this kind of carnage results because someone from the building fired on IDF troops; or because the IDF had information that some Hamas member was in the building; or because Hamas told the occupants not to respond to an Israeli warning by leaving the building. The first two of these justifications seem insufficient to me and the third seems extremely improbable.
Taking number three first, I find it incredible that a mother would put her children, herself or her other family members in danger out of loyalty or devotion to Hamas. My advice to Israel: Stop using this one. It won’t sell.
One and Two are also troublesome to me. They would be reasonable rules of engagement if opposing armies were facing each other on a battlefield where lines were drawn and plainly recognizable. In that case, if fired upon, any army would fire back with whatever force was available. But the war in Gaza is urban warfare conducted in tightly packed neighborhoods where there are very limited numbers of safe places. In those circumstances, I think it is incumbent on the IDF to make diligent efforts to determine whether a building is occupied by innocent civilians before destroying it. The pictures I have seen don’t show little cottages where single families live. They show multistory buildings where several apartments are located. The occupants can’t control every nook or cranny where some marksman may be crouching. It is not reasonable to me that anything less than a complete atmosphere of passivity and tranquility is required to avoid being targeted for a massive assault.
Finally, like anyone else, I bring to these judgments my own history. WWII occurred when I was ten or eleven. I read Life magazine and watched newscasts in darkened theaters, waiting for Saturday afternoon cowboy movies. One episode I remember very well concerned Lidice, a small town in Czechoslovakia. Some British commandos killed Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi official and a close friend of Hitler, near that town. There was a claim that one or more people in Lidice were complicit in the killing. In response, the Germans executed 192 men and sent all the women and children to concentration camps, where most of them died. Here is link to an a account of that event: Lidice .
To my young eyes and ears, that was a frightening event. I thought it was unbelievably brutal and vicious. The idea of mass punishment for the acts of specific individuals was shocking to me. I am long years away from that memory. My judgments are now informed by many other events. I neither equate nor relate Israel to the evil minds that caused that horror. But I realize that childhood experience affects my reaction to justifying innocent death and injury by citing hostile actions of unrelated combatants.
My Tort Lawyer Brain
For over fifty years I made my living trying lawsuits and arguing about liability for civil wrongs, or torts. A fundamental principle underlying the concept of tort law is: Every person is responsible for the natural consequences of his or her acts and omissions. The application of this principle to human intercourse depends on the concept of causation. That is, “What are the ‘natural consequences’ of particular acts or omissions?” Centuries of experience with these ideas has crafted some rough outlines to guide and inform the answers to this question.
One answer is: A person’s behavior will not be judged according to his claim of personal intent. Adults are not allowed to protest, like thoughtless children, “I didn’t mean to.” Their acts and omissions will be measured against the behavior of a fictional and imaginary “reasonable person.” So, when Israel’s defenders say, “Hey! You know us! We don’t believe in killing innocent children. Those are the beliefs of the other guys, not us.”, their acts and omissions will drown out their words unless they conform to “reasonable person” rules.
Some things are undeniable: Artillery shells and bombs are not precision killers. When they are aimed at civilian neighborhoods, the intent to kill civilians is obvious unless reasonable steps have been taken to insure that civilians have been evacuated. But, even if this is impractical, the shelling and bombardment may be excusable if it is the only way to accomplish a reasonable goal. This, as I understand it, is Israel’s defense. That’s why they destroy the electric power system that is essential for providing potable water. That’s why they shell and bomb Rafah because it might be harboring the captors of an IDF soldier.
One thing about which I have seen little comment is the ability of Israel to visually monitor everything and every movement within Gaza.In my last post on this blog I included a link to a July 23,,2014, Haaretz story. The link was labeled “Revenge”. The writer described an incident when some Hamas soldiers emerged from a tunnel wearing IDF uniforms. At first, the Israeli forces were confused. Then they used an areal photograph, taken by a drone, which enabled them to see that the Hamas soldiers were carrying Kalashnikov rifles, not IDF rifles.
This raises a question: If that kind of surveillance is available, why can’t the IDF tell whether women and children have entered a building and have not emerged? Are they using the technology available to them to avoid killing innocent people, or are they using it only to more efficiently destroy neighborhoods?
Further Discussion of the Human Shield Argument
The universally condemned “Human Shield” tactic is designed to prevent an opposing force from attacking the shielded force by hiding behind innocent civilians. The success of the tactic requires that the attacking combatants be made aware of the civilian shield.
In order to fit the IDF’s assault on civilians in Gaza into this model, it must be assumed that they are aware that they are killing and wounding innocent civilians. This precludes any claim that they do not intend to harm innocent civilians. It assumes that the IDF is aware that their rules of engagement endanger innocent civilians and elects to proceed anyway.
I don’t see how they can have it both ways. Either they don’t know that innocent civilians are endangered when they loose their missiles or drop their bombs, or they know they are slaughtering innocent civilians and have made the moral calculus that killing their target is sufficiently important to justify the “collateral damage”.
The tragedy of the Gaza conflict is that Hamas gains strength and leverage, regardless of which alternative is true. In this time of 24-hour-news-cycles and ubiquitous TV screens, Youtube and Iphone cameras, the pictures of grieving mothers and dead children are doing more damage to Israel than the generally ineffective Hamas rockets. Israel should heed the bitter lessons learned by Bull Connor and LBJ: Pictures of children attacked by police dogs are powerful weapons. The picture of a naked Vietnamese girl, skin burned by Napalm, standing alone in the middle of a road, was indelibly etched on enough brains to defeat the war plans of a President determined to win against a much less powerful adversary.
The Moral Difference
When I think about these issues I never forget or ignore a vital fact: Israel represents and embodies a core of compassion, morality and devotion to justice that is, so far as I can discern, entirely foreign to Hamas. Israel would never identify with, or ascribe to, the kind of hatred expressed in the founding document upon which Hamas is based. The first paragraph includes this statement: “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.‘ The document goes on for several pages and never deviates from this kind of violent rhetoric. I don’t recommend that my readers waste their time reading the whole document but, so that it will be available for reference, I offer this link: Hamas .
The pages of Haaretz demonstrate that, even in the emotional cauldron of war, while sons and daughters are in uniform and in harms way, there is an active debate within the Israeli community. While most Israelis support the actions and tactics that I find objectionable, there is a vocal and articulate minority that opposes them. And that minority has not been muzzled or suppressed. It is easy to imagine how differently this kind of public debate would be treated by Hamas.
The tragedy of the Gaza conflict in Gaza is, as I see it: Israel is behaving in ways that are contrary to the ideas and principles that have guided it during centuries of struggle and strife. We should never do anything to weaken or threaten Israel, especially when their enemy is so bereft of morality and justice. But we should do whatever we can to stop them from furnishing their enemies with ways to undermine their reputation for humane justice, not merely because of our concern for Israel, but also because the better part of our own cultural values demand it.