Israel’s Tarnished Moral Calculus

We used to shoot and cry, as the old Si Heyman song says. Now we kill and justify. Hamas is out to kill Israelis, but when did we lose our interest in minimizing brutal tactics?

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
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Palestinian mourners cry at Gaza City's al-Shifa hospital after an explosion killed at least seven children in a public playground in the beachfront Shati refugee camp on July 28, 2014.
Palestinian mourners cry at Gaza City's al-Shifa hospital after an explosion killed at least seven children in a public playground in the beachfront Shati refugee camp on July 28, 2014.Credit: AFP
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

I watched the first 18 days of our latest nightmarish war from Down Under, on the other side of the world.

Free of the albatross of moral one-upmanship and PR positioning, Australians responded like decent, thinking and feeling people: No one should have their children kidnapped or killed; no civilians should have to endure rocket attacks, and no government would be expected to stand idly by; and no army should massacre whole families or scores of bystanders in efforts to kill individual operatives.

Aussie television had reporters stationed both in Gaza and Jerusalem, and with the nightly images of dead and maimed children and their dismembered families, public sentiment began to shift. The pendulum swung from overwhelming Australian support for Israel to revulsion over the carnage in Gaza.

My first concern while I was away naturally was for my children, my family and friends back in Israel under attack. I am humbled by the courage of those on the front lines, by the tributes to every fallen soldier, by the tens of thousands who showed up for funerals of strangers. And I took l pride in how calmly and responsibly my own kids behaved, assuring us that we need not rush home.

Just as the Gaza death toll reached 300, a Malaysian airliner on its way to Australia was shot out of the sky. For a weird and disconcerting moment, there were competing stories, each featuring 300 dead people.

As Australian rage brewed at the baffling and meaningless murder of its own civilians, Gaza was bumped off the front page, becoming the transition segment on the TV news between the Russian-Ukrainian cover-up and the latest Aussie football and rugby results.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, the number 300 receded into the distance of our rear-view mirror. We arrived home to the strange mix of anxiety, calm and sadness, sirens and funerals.

We used to shoot and cry, as the old Si Heyman song says. Now we kill and justify. We have a case. Hamas is the governing agency in Gaza but diverts massive resources to building tunnels and rockets to try to kill Israelis, so Israel has no choice but to try to destroy them. They continue to attack us and Israelis are not willing to be terrorized, and since this is war, not a soccer game, we have no interest in a fair fight or proportionate response.

But it does not take a military expert to know that we are not doing our best to prevent civilian casualties on the other side. We are operating under a new moral calculus, which gives carte blanche to “collateral damage,” to killing any and all Palestinians who might be in the line of fire of targeted Hamas operatives.

We have made a choice to inflict pain on the people of Gaza and to blame the other side for the brutality of our tactics. And since a high proportion of Gazans are kids, this means that the Jewish state is murdering many children.

It is a horrible calculus, an evil and deadly calculus, and we will not come out of this war untarnished.

For many Israelis, the masses of Palestinian dead present no problem beyond image management; Hamas is forcing us to kill civilians, including children, by using them as human shields, and raising the stakes for Israel’s image by daring us to attack their arsenals stashed in schools and hospitals.

As much as we would like to avoid killing civilians, our soldiers are us – our family and friends – so our primal concern is that the Israel Defense Forces does everything possible to minimize the casualties on our side.

But most Jewish Israelis I know are much more conflicted, and our empathy for the faceless and nameless dead on the other side still flickers, if not enough to demand an end to the war on purely moral grounds.

We don’t know if there is another way to prosecute a war against Hamas, but we know these killings are awful.

I don’t expect we will own up to our changed calculus. It certainly won’t happen now, while we are running for cover several times a day, while we are losing our own boys, while anyone who expresses empathy for Palestinians is attacked in the social media or by politicians. In war, jingoism rules the day.

Once this is all over, we will remember the moment before, the impotence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, how our government exploited the kidnapping-murder of three innocent teens as a pretext to attack Hamas in the West Bank, and how our prime minister stood by while Jews hunted Arabs down in the streets in Jerusalem, in response to the revenge kidnapping and murder of an innocent Palestinian teen.

Even Netanyahu’s belated condemnation of that atrocity as a terrorist act was undermined by his claim that Jews worship life while Arabs worship death, the message of a man incapable of seeing beyond Jewish pain.

Hamas has nothing to offer the Palestinian people other than its failed strategy of violent resistance. The pride they instill through standing up to Israel is a legacy of the doomed, creating hopeless tales of a last stand.

If the Palestinians want to restore hope to Gaza, they will have to depose Hamas. But if we want anything better than the status quo ante, we will need leaders with a different vision as well.

Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel for the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation, which works to strengthen democracy and civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV-1’s The Promised Podcast.

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