To the victor go the spoils, but also the moral dilemmas. And Monday’s events – the U.S. embassy opening and the bloody day at the Gaza border – should pose painful and profound questions to those Jews and Israelis who still care about the morality of our actions.
When Israelis consider the Gaza protests and confrontations at the border fence, we are dizzy from the political spin, and genuinely confused about what’s going on, and what we are seeing. That makes it almost impossible to ask ethical questions about our own behavior.
Here’s what we see on Israeli news: tens of thousands of Palestinians milling about, burning tires to create a thick, black spiraling smokescreen to obscure the view of our soldiers, including the snipers.
We are repeatedly shown videos of Palestinians in small groups or throngs running at the fence, placing explosives next to the fence, trying to cut the fence with wire cutters, carrying what appear to be explosives, throwing Molotov cocktails, in one case, firing with rifles at Israeli soldiers, or sending burning kites over the fence to try to start fires in the adjacent fields.
Among the Gazans trying to breach the fence we are told there are armed terrorist cells with missions to kidnap soldiers or blow up Israelis, which suggests that live fire is justified.
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So we think we know that the protest is violent, coordinated, and meant to lead to a dangerous large-scale incursion into Israel. And we become amateur tacticians, justifiers and apologists, quickly agreeing that the fence must not be breached at any price, as if we know what we’re talking about.
Some of us believe a non-violent protest was organized by unaffiliated Gazans but their efforts were hijacked by Hamas, others believe it was always run by Hamas.
The day after, Nakba Day, when Hamas told Palestinians to stay home or go to funerals, and very few Palestinians came to protest or riot at the fence, it became clear to Israelis that Hamas is running the show and always has been. Unless they haven’t always been, and we are seeing only what we want to see.
We are also told that Hamas needs martyrs, and does not mind getting Palestinians killed, or even wants more dead Palestinians, because this provides effective imagery, and dovetails with the stories we tell ourselves about their use of suicide attackers.
The explanation circulating here for the unexpected calm on Nakba Day is that Hamas gave up on breaking through Israeli lines, and Egypt convinced them that video of 61 martyrs and 1000 wounded was sufficient for its PR purposes. And Gazan hospitals couldn’t handle new casualties – as if they are able to handle the load they have now.
But should we not ask what responsibility we bear for creating conditions in which so many young Gazans are willing to throw their lives away for so little?
We also hear that there are agreed upon ground rules between Hamas and Israel, and Hamas has decided to attempt to change those ground rules, and Israel has decided not to let them. In other words, the protest exercise is a deadly form of jockeying for position, a game initiated by Hamas. If this is true, is it right for us to participate in this game?
Our dismissal of Gazan misery as exclusively the fault of Hamas – if Gazans wanted peace they would not have elected Hamas, or would have overthrown them by now – has become a self-serving mantra, more deeply embedded from one war to the next.
We know that openly opposing Hamas risks death for Gazans, but we lock that information in the closed cabinets of our brains because it makes it harder for us to blame Gazans for the predicament they are in.
If we were utterly indifferent to Palestinian deaths, we tell ourselves, there would be hundreds or thousands of fatalities, and we believe the rules of engagement are being followed, usually. But again, it’s their fault, isn’t it? Or could it be both of our faults?
The sheer volume of events that has overloaded Israel’s news cycle for months has left little headspace for introspection. We have stopped asking ethical questions that might impact policy, such as whether the blockade on Gaza is morally defensible in 2018, or if it ever was. We slough off any responsibility for the misery of Gazans, including the deaths of the last six weeks.
We offer apologetics instead of investigation, treat every incident instrumentally, asking not whether our behavior is right but only of it achieves its ends or can be explained away.
It’s always their fault and there’s never sufficient cause to stop and question ourselves. Those who do are dismissed with contempt as disloyal, or self-flagellating.
We have become expert spinmeisters, on point, always on message, and amateur tacticians.
As we Israelis, out of exhaustion, complicity or alienation, continue to defer to leaders whose arrogance grows as they achieve their short-term goals, we may find that our own moral compasses are spinning too fast and out of control to direct our judgment at all.
Don Futterman is the Program Director, Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private foundation that works to strengthen Israeli democracy. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.