Targeting enemy civilians is a war crime. Let’s not entertain any doubt about that. Hamas and other Palestinian militants have targeted Israeli civilians with rockets for years; the fact that these rockets are crude and their aim poor doesn’t mitigate the simple fact: Targeting civilians is a war crime.
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Trying to determine who “started” our current state of conflict is not quite so simple, though, unless we accept ideology as fact. For some Jews, the Palestinians started it by refusing to accept our nationalism as ascendant to theirs; for some Palestinians, the Jews started it, in precisely the same way.
If, however, we’re trying to uncover a chain of discrete events leading to the seemingly permanent state of war between Israel and Gaza, the waters are muddy. Did the latest round of rockets come in response to an IDF incursion, or the other way around? Did it start when Israel neutralized a terrorist infiltrator, or was that terrorist a farmer trying to gather crops? Both sides play into the provocation-response cycle, each conveniently forgetting that actions have consequences, often beyond those we first imagined.
Each society brings to this process its own dysfunctions, as well, picking and choosing which events support which narrative, often to paradoxical ends. Israel’s paradoxical storyline goes something like this: We control the West Bank, and Gaza’s borders and airspace, but only because we have no choice, because we’re victims facing annihilation, but/and our military (which we love and are very proud of because it’s the region’s most powerful) can be trusted to pound our enemies (armed with crude rockets and a shattered society, but that goes into the “forgetfulness” file) into submission. Just let the IDF win - t’nu l’Tzahal lenatzeah!
As problematic as any of our cognitive inconsistencies might be (and I can only assume Palestinian society has its own), the biggest discrepancy appears to be all but invisible: The IDF has, actually, been pounding Hamas for some time, and oh hey, look – here we are again.
Let’s go to the tape:
Israel officially withdrew from Gaza nine years ago; the following months saw both rockets and air strikes. On June 24, 2006, Israeli forces entered southern Gaza and kidnaped two suspected Hamas members from their homes. Hamas retaliated the next day with a cross-border raid in which two soldiers were killed, and Gilad Shalit captured.
Israel then launched Operation Summer Rains. Prime Minister Olmert was clear about the operation’s goals: “to release the kidnapped soldier and eliminate terror.” In the course of hostilities, the IDF seized 64 Hamas-linked Palestinian officials, flattened Gaza’s power plant, razed several bridges, and by October, had killed 256 Palestinians, including 60 children. Two Israeli soldiers were also killed, and 31 civilians injured.
In the winter of 2008/2009, we saw Operation Cast Lead. A six-month ceasefire had expired, rockets were launched, and Israel slammed full force into the Strip. In eight days of air attacks, 400 Palestinians and four Israelis were killed; then came the ground invasion. Rockets continued to fly, if eventually at a lesser pace, and by January 18, 2009, some 1,300 Palestinians were dead and 5,100 injured; 13 Israelis had been killed, 80 injured. CNN reported that 22,000 of Gaza’s buildings had been destroyed, along with 80 percent of its crops, and quoted an IDF officer on the war’s goals: “To improve the security situation in southern Israelthe answer was to hit Hamas hardin order to prevent them [from] firing rockets that target our civilian population.”
Cut to November 2012. After four more years of tit-for-tat rockets and airstrikes, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense. A senior Israeli official had recently acknowledged that most rockets were not being launched by Hamas, but Defense Minister Barak was uncompromising: The IDF’s goals were “strengthening deterrence, damaging the rocket arsenal, damaging and hurting Hamas and minimizing injury to the civilians on the home front.” Over the next week, 167 Palestinians were killed (at least 87 noncombatants), along with four Israeli civilians and two Israeli soldiers. More than 380 residential properties were destroyed, and the Strip’s agricultural sector sustained $20 million in losses.
Between each of these major events there were of course other air strikes, other rockets, more damage to Israel’s own property, more frightened Israeli babies. And here we are. Again.
I have lived under missile attack, and I have family under attack in the south right now. I do not for one moment doubt Israel’s right to self-defense.
But even if we set aside the damage and forget the dead, if we remain incurious about the impact both might have on our enemy’s will to compromise – even if all we consider is sheer efficacy – how can we look at this history and believe that repeating past failures will keep the Jewish State safe?
Are you safe now?
Emily L. Hauser is an American-Israeli writer currently living in Chicago. She has studied and reported on the contemporary Middle East since the early 1990s for a variety of outlets, including The Chicago Tribune and The Daily Beast. Follow her on Twitter: @emilylhauser