Q: Is Israel's response proportionate?Question to and response from Sean McCormack, State Department Spokesman, January 5, 2009.
A: Each sovereign state has to define for itself what it needs to do to defend itself.
Barack Obama may have -- perhaps understandably -- no comment about the current crisis in the Gaza Strip, but I have a few observations.
I want to preface all of these comments with the following clear and unequivocal statements:
1. I reject the use of force against civilians, Israelis or Palestinians. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have any right to deploy force that is virtually certain to result in significant civilian casualties in the current situation.
2. I am no supporter of Hamas. I reject any calls for the destruction of the state of Israel. I reject any calls in support of terrorism or violence.
Now, my observations.
First, consider the implications of the State Department's statement above (and keep in mind that this is the official position of the United States as to the current conflict, Israel's ground incursion, etc.) Do we really mean this? Of course not. Otherwise, how would this principle apply to Iran's or North Korea's nuclear program, Russia's reaction to South Ossetia, or Iraq? This principle applies only when we want it to apply. Moreover, what does it mean to discuss the rights of "sovereign states" when dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict, where the Palestinians still do not have a sovereign state? Does the continued denial of a sovereign state to the Palestinians mean that the Palestinians do not have the right to "define for [themselves] what [they] need to do to defend [themselves]?" Apparently, yes.
Second, let's just pull something out of the memory hole, before it is lost forever. For better or worse (and it's not hard to argue the worse side of the equation) it is a historical fact that Hamas was democratically elected. Does this mean Hamas is a good and noble organization? Of course not. Hitler came to power in a democracy. [UPDATE: See comments] The will of a majority does not always equal the highest good. See also Proposition 8. But it remains worth noting, as a matter of historical accuracy, that Hamas came to power in elections urged upon the Palestinians by the United States. This is a useful bit of trivia when confronted with rhetoric from Bush, Cheney, and others about the need for the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East. How much do we believe in democracy? Do we believe in democracy only when we approve of the victors in a democratic process?
Third, the origins of this specific conflict in Gaza are nearly impossible to discern in the American media. Nevertheless, the NYT offered this helpful summary of the origins of the end of the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel:
Opening the routes to commerce was Hamas’s main goal in its cease-fire with Israel, just as ending the rocket fire was Israel’s central aim. But while rocket fire did go down drastically in the fall to 15 to 20 a month from hundreds a month, Israel said it would not permit trade to begin again because the rocket fire had not completely stopped and because Hamas continued to smuggle weapons from Egypt through desert tunnels. Hamas said this was a violation of the agreement, a sign of Israel’s intentions and cause for further rocket fire. On Wednesday [24 Dec 08], some 70 rockets hit Israel over 24 hours, in a distinct increase in intensity.NYT.
Fourth, let us assume that every human life is of equal value. To this point, according to Wikipedia's entry on the conflict, Israel has lost eight lives (three civilians), and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have lost five hundred and fifty (two hundred civilians). Even putting aside casualties among soldiers and militants, the loss of life has been distinctly out of balance. This is to be expected. Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations have been launching relative primitive Quassam rockets -- which are nevertheless potentially deadly. Israel, on the other hand, has used Apache helicopters, American-made fighter planes, and tanks in the current conflict. It simply cannot be argued that the two sides are engaged in a fight between equals. I do think Israeli spokesmen and their allies do have some basis to argue that they (the Israelis) are attempting to strike militants and minimize civilian casualties, while the Palestinians are targeting civilians. However, I will also note that the Israelis have struck police stations, universities, prisons, [UPDATED: schools] and other civilian locations with American weaponry designed for use against armed forces. In these circumstances, with this type of weaponry, substantial civilian deaths are all but assured. The cynical view would read this use of force as a calculation by the Israeli government that by inflicting a significant number of casualties, among militants and civilians, they will be sending a strong deterrent message, to the Palestinians in Gaza, in the West Bank, and to other would-be foes in the region.
Let us consider that last point from a purely Israeli perspective. From that perspective, how does this strategy make sense? Do we, as Israelis, truly believe that bombing throughout Gaza -- one of the most densely populated areas on Earth -- and the inevitable high civilian death toll will in fact help reduce the use of rockets against Israel? Will we not simply be stoking greater hatred and anger towards Israel? What better recruitment tool for terrorist organizations than the sight of Israeli planes bombing a university or police station? Are we thinking about long-term deterrence of other threats? How does an attack on the essentially defenseless positions in Gaza demonstrate Israeli strength? Does this attack restore the credibility of Israel's military after the debacle of 2006 in Lebanon? It's hard to see how. Is this, as Bill Kristol suggests, a proxy war against Iran? If so, how is victory defined? If 1,000 Palestinians are killed, do we, as Israelis truly believe that this will eliminate the rocket attacks?
In the end, I have to conclude that the Israelis know that this bombardment and incursion into Gaza will not end the rocket attacks on Israel. I understand Israel's desire and need to defend its civilians against the rocket attacks. Israel should not be expected to simply endure the random fall of rockets onto its territory. However, even accepting and understanding the need to defend itself, one must ask if this is the right strategy -- even putting aside whether the actions are justifiable. I fear that the current assault is not in Israel's best interest, nor in the best interest of the region. I am unable to tease out which side bears more blame in starting this particular conflagration. However, I return to Sean McCormack's formulation. In this conflict, one side is a stateless, unrecognized, widely-condemned organization; the other side is a sovereign state. Perhaps in addition to the rights that attend to sovereign states, the sovereign state in this conflict should bear the responsibility of having its actions judged according to the standards that apply to sovereign states.