Opinion

If You Call the Gaza Death Toll 'Disproportionate,' How Many Israelis Have to Die for the Sake of Symmetry?

If 100 Jewish bodies were strewn across southern Israel, would the American left more readily forgive Israel’s defensive actions against an angry mob of tens of thousands propelled by the murderous, anti-Semitic terrorists of Hamas?

Supporters of Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh (unseen) react during his speech near the border with Israel east of Gaza City on May 15, 2018.
THOMAS COEX/AFP

The death toll in Gaza has left me reeling. Many of the dead were innocents; some were children. Each and every death was tragic, rending the heart.  

And the questions had to be asked: Who was to blame? Was Israel the guilty party? Had the Israeli army acted carelessly, shooting hastily into crowds of helpless civilian protestors? Or, even worse, were the killings an intentional act of cruelty, intended to teach a lesson to the hated Hamas enemy?  

For some, the answers were easy.  

Eddie Glaude Jr., a professor of religion at Princeton, said on MSNBC Monday that the only important thing was that "all of those babies are dead."  To the claim that Hamas was using those dead children as tools in their political struggle, he offered these words: "That’s like saying the children in the Children’s March in Birmingham - it is their fault that Bull Connor’s attacking them."

Excuse me?

Is a professor at Princeton really saying that the leaders of Hamas, known for their wholesale murders, casual cruelties, obsessive anti-Semitism, and devious terror are somehow comparable to the leadership of the American civil rights movement?  

And that Israel’s need not to be overrun by huge, angry mobs of terrorists and demonstrators is equivalent to Bull Connor’s desire to perpetuate permanent segregation of black and white in America? And that the prayers of civil rights leaders that their children not be harmed are equivalent to the desire of Hamas leaders that their children be wounded or killed? 

Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times acknowledged in passing possible grounds for blaming Hamas. But she more or less dismissed such claims, and noted "(t)he Israeli military’s disproportionate violence."  

John Cassidy, writing in The New Yorker, used similar language, pointing out that the "the casualty count was hugely asymmetrical."  

Again: Excuse me?

A Palestinian demonstrator looks on at the Israel-Gaza border, May 14, 2018
\ MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

Charges of disproportionality are among the most common leveled against Israel in her long struggle against Hamas, and they are among the most infuriating

Are Goldberg and Cassidy suggesting that if there were a lot more Israeli dead, and a hundred Jewish bodies were strewn across the desert in southern Israel, then Israel’s action would be acceptable, or at least more readily forgiven? If not directly stated, that is what is implied.   

Such a thing could happen easily enough, of course. If the fence were breached and a single terrorist were to reach one of the civilian towns or settlements that have long been the intended targets of Hamas rockets and tunnels, the Israeli and Hamas death tolls might quickly "balance out."  

But Israel will not sacrifice a single life in these long-suffering towns without a fight. Neither will Israelis permit an Israeli soldier or civilian to be kidnapped without doing their utmost to stop it.  

That is why Israel will do what she must to repel these mobs, and it is a moral obscenity for Goldberg and Cassidy to propose that she should do otherwise. And if either of them was a resident of a town near Gaza, they would be quick to demand - just as the current residents do - that Israel’s military do no less.

I should note that as an American Jewish liberal, I am a fan of both Goldberg and Cassidy, not to mention a regular viewer of MSNBC. And so I found myself asking whether my sympathies for Israel had skewed my thinking.  After all, we can all be victims of our ideological straightjackets, and Professor Glaude was right about one thing: Babies had died. And minimizing these deaths is unacceptable to me, as both an American and a Jew.  

I therefore looked long and hard at the question of whether or not Israel’s military had alternative means available to contain the demonstrators.  Multiple commentators have argued that non-lethal methods of restraint would have been sufficient and greatly reduced the death toll.  

A Palestinian man uses a slingshot during clashes with Israeli forces along the border with the Gaza strip, May 14, 2018
SAID KHATIB/AFP

But this argument seems to me more a wish than a reality. The rules of engagement were not a secret. Israel is a small country, her army is a people’s army, and its preparations for the May 13 demonstrations were widely reported in the media.  

What one learns from reviewing this material is that 40,000 to 50,000 determined protestors - the number at the height of the protest - cannot be contained with water hoses or conventional crowd control. 

All reports indicate that Israel’s training of its soldiers was intense, instructions were detailed, and experienced officers were in command.  Shoot-to-kill was not a first resort but an absolute last resort.  

Nonetheless, if resorting to deadly force had been ruled out, a breach of the fence by thousands of demonstrators was likely inevitable. And the result would have been chaos, terror, and locking down all of southern Israel. No Israeli government, of the right or the left, could tolerate such an outcome.  

Does this mean that Israel is blameless? Not at all. The misery in Gaza has reached intolerable levels, and while Israel is not the sole, or even the primary villain here, it must share responsibility with others for the suffering of her neighbors. 

In 2007, the Quartet – Russia, the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States – set out the conditions for normalizing the political status of Hamas and for moving ahead with a plan to provide international support for Gaza residents. These conditions included a Hamas commitment to non-violence, recognition of Israel, and support of past international treaties and obligations relating to the Middle East. 

Hamas refused then, and refuses now, to meet these conditions. It is this refusal, and not the actions of Israel, that isolates Hamas and makes it a terrorist group and an international outlaw.  

View from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border with the Gaza strip shows tear gas fumes rising amidst Palestinian protesters during clashes along the border. May 15, 2018
JACK GUEZ/AFP

To all of the above must be added its ongoing feud with Egypt and the Palestinian Authority and its redirecting of humanitarian aid for military purposes. And the result is the humanitarian crisis that has made life in the Strip unbearable for all but a tiny elite.

Israel cannot resolve these problems alone, and the politics of resolving them are complicated.  

Israel would prefer to help the residents of Gaza without strengthening the hands of Hamas. But it is neither practical nor moral to ignore the plight of nearly 2 million people on its southern border - which is mostly what she has done up to now.    

So now is a good time for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is basking in the glow of his recent diplomatic triumphs, to put forward an Israeli plan to relieve the suffering that Hamas has inflicted on the residents of Gaza.  

Now might be a good time for Israel to reach out to America, Saudi Arabia, and the Sunni world for help in implementing such a plan. And now might be a good time for Bibi Netanyahu to take advantage of ideas proposed by his own cabinet members - such as building an artificial island off the coast of Gaza - to improve Gaza’s economy. 

There will be no magic cure or immediate solution. But Israel should take the initiative and start moving right away. To do otherwise is to send the message that Israel is indifferent to the abysmal plight of Gaza’s residents. 

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie