Text size

Imagine a situation in which thousands and thousands of people, many of them children and the elderly, are plunged into a reality in which they must fear for their lives day in and day out, in which their livelihoods are crippled, with their schools and even pre-schools under siege. Entire communities are trapped, paralyzed. Whole childhoods are spent in a state of post-traumatic stress. Occasions that should be high points in a lifetime are routinely curtailed or canceled.

The people living in this place are forced to bear the burden of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are the unarmed proxy warriors of their side, victimized by the tactical cruelty of the other.

They are the victims of collective punishment. And they live in Israel.

The world is unsympathetic. The world does not think highly enough of Hamas to hold it accountable for the actions of the gunners who use the launchers produced by Hamas and the rockets produced by Hamas.

The world believes that if Israel outguns Hamas with an arsenal that includes the most advanced fighter bombers and even explosives millions of times more powerful than a Qassam rocket, the people of Sderot will somehow be protected from the rockets that strike them day in and day out, year after agonizing year.

The people of Sderot have nothing but miracles to depend on. And even miracles betray them. Because if they are spared from death by one miracle after another, the world cannot be bothered to care about them. Even their fellow Israelis concede that they would do more to defend the people of Sderot, if more of them were being killed - yet another form of collective punishment, as the people of Sderot know that they must literally die, and in appreciable numbers, for the government to take action on their behalf.

When Israel cut fuel shipments to Gaza this month, the same defense establishment that had been given weeks and months to plan for the step, found itself taken aback that water and sewage pumps stopped working in some areas of the Strip - not because of Hamas subterfuge or Hamas hyperbole: Palestinian power plants had no fuel. Many Gazans, non-combatants, were left without water in a public health crisis akin to a natural disaster.

Ironically, Israel's ability to misread the plight of Gazans may only have been prevented from causing catastrophe by an accompanying miscalculation: the failure to anticipate the exodus of thousands of Gazans into Egyptian territory in search of vital supplies.

There's a certain perverse justice to how all this works. When it comes to terrorism, the Palestinians practice intentional killing of civilians. When we kill civilians in the context of military activity, we view it as incidental, the regrettable by-product of necessary self-defense.

In the case of collective punishment, the opposite situation obtains. We practice collective punishment as an intentional tactic, believing it to be more humane than outright invasion and carpet bombing - holding on, as we do, to the preposterous hope that after 40 years of failing at it, perhaps this time we will persuade the people of Gaza to bring their own militants to heel.

The Palestinians who fire Qassams, meanwhile, see that act not as collective punishment but as legitimate self-defense, employed because they have no other alternative.

They are wrong. Dead wrong. And so are we.

Collective punishment is abhorrent. It is morally reprehensible. It is functionally self-defeating. It destroys the moral fiber of those who order it, practice it, countenance it, turn a blind eye to it. And those who are subjected to it.

This may explain why the victims of collective punishment may find themselves resorting to its use. We are guilty of it. The Palestinians are no less guilty.

Crimes against humanity are crimes against humanity. The victims of crimes against humanity never "had it coming to them," much as we might try to persuade ourselves of this.

We're going to have to find some other way to stop the Qassams. After an eternity of both sides resisting it, we may have to talk to Hamas, the only party in Gaza with the potential to actually stop the Qassams. In the meanwhile, it is time to think long and hard about what we gain and what we lose by practicing collective punishment in Gaza.

The Israeli airwaves have been awash in recent days with learned, intelligent people arguing that no one who has a healthy mind supplies his enemies with the tools and the fuels of war. Their point is understandable. But it assumes that there is logic to this conflict. It assumes that the target of Palestinian anger over collective punishment will be Hamas and not Israel. It assumes that the world is ready to change its rotation.

It also assumes that the world is ready to accept collective punishment. Perhaps the world's silence over the Qassam fire on Sderot proves that it is. If that's the case, God help us all.