President Obama said again today that Israel has a right to defend itself against the 1500 missiles Hamas has recently lobbed from Gaza into Israel and tunnel incursions to kill and capture Israeli citizens. But this morning he expressed concern about “the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives.” The Hamas missiles haven’t been particularly effective (mostly terrorizing rather than killing Israelis), so Hamas and pro-Palestinian activists criticize Israel’s response as not being proportional.
How can it be “proportional” if a weakened Hamas has as its main strategy the deaths of Palestinians? How else to explain the placement of its missile equipment in homes, schools and hospitals, then telling civilians not to heed Israeli warnings to leave? Clearly, and cynically, the more bodies pile up due to Israel, the better the standing of Hamas in the world.
Indeed, the Hamas Interior Ministry has sent directives to social media to refer always to any Gaza casualties as “innocent civilians” and the retaliation against all Hamas missile attacks as Israeli aggression. It’s only now that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is fighting on the ground (to eliminate the tunnels Hamas has built to infiltrate between Gaza and Israel) that Israeli soldiers have been dying. So is that a good thing because that’s a move toward proportionality? The reality is that Hamas’ shooting missiles into a civilian population is a war crime, and embedding its extremists in its own highly populated civilian centers is a war crime as well.
Hamas propaganda has had an impact in France, London and elsewhere, prompting nasty but predictable anti-Israel demonstrations. The Imam of Berlin called for the annihilation of the Jews (see this chilling video clip from the Middle East Media Research Institute). Iran has faulted the leaders of other Arab nations for remaining silent on the matter. But on Egyptian television, commentators, fed up with Hamas, said that while they would die for the cause of the Palestinians, they wouldn’t give up an eyebrow for Hamas. Some in Saudi Arabia, fearful of jihadists, are now openly supportive of Israel, and officials in Yemen, Tunisia and Turkey have been unusually subdued.
It’s unfortunate that Israel’s obduracy in building more and more settlements in the West Bank has limited its ability to use the increased economic growth of that area to persuade potential Hamas critics living in Gaza to stand up and demand the same kind of economic opportunity. The poverty rate in Gaza is twice as high as in the West Bank, according to the World Bank. 2011 and 2012 saw economic growth in the West Bank. Since then, especially now that the Palestine Authority is collaborating with Hamas, the economy has slowed.
Sadly, despite the nuanced differences in the 2014 replay of this familiar drama, there is a sense that this mini-war will wind down, perhaps within a couple of weeks or less, with a patchwork cease-fire; many of the Hamas rockets and tunnels will be eliminated or temporarily blocked only to be resupplied and re-dug. New peace conversations may be initiated, and eventually they will fail.
Four or five years from now, if not before, the situation will be right back where it is today. And that’s where it will stay, until all the nations in the Middle East accept Israel’s right to exist and confidence-building steps are taken locally so rational Israelis and rational Palestinians are secure enough to take risks for peace. Increasingly I fear this is unlikely to happen. The extremists in the Palestinian territories and their enablers outside continue to exercise a veto over the peace process. And from polling data it is clear that many silent majority Palestinians have not lessened their commitment to drive Israel into the sea. These risks are real, and the United States and Europe must not let that happen.
Even if there were to be a willing and able Palestinian partner for peace who could deliver on all the outstanding issues, I have increasing doubts that a similar willing and able hand could be found in Israel. Both sides have a vested interest in the status quo, but the status quo is not sustainable. And so it goes.
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