TIME foreign affairs

The Bizarre Moral Criticism Against Israel

ISRAEL-GAZA-BORDER-OPERATION PROTECTIVE EDGE
Israeli soldiers rest beside shells for a 155mm M109 Dores self-propelled howitzer at a position in Southern Israel near the border with Gaza, on the seventh day of Operation Protective Edge, on July 14, 2014. Li Rui—Xinhua/Sipa

What does it mean to say that casualties are “disproportionate”?

On “NBC Nightly News” on July 12, David Gregory spoke of growing pressure from the United Nations for a ceasefire in Gaza. He noted that the United States and many other nations believed that Israel had a right to self-defense. Nonetheless, Gregory reported, these countries were likely to be sympathetic to calls for a ceasefire because of the “disproportionate” number of casualties between the two sides. Among the residents of Gaza, the death toll then exceeded 100, while Israel had suffered dozens of injuries but no casualties.

Mr. Gregory was simply reporting the news, but I found his comments disturbing, nonetheless. What does it mean to say that the casualties are “disproportionate”? And is that really the moral issue that we need to be concerned about?

The implication of the “disproportionality” claim is that, given their losses, the people of Gaza are the real victims. But morally and politically, this is an intolerable and distorted interpretation of the realities in the region.

The reason that Hamas has not killed more Israelis is not because they haven’t tried. In the seven years during which it has controlled Gaza, Hamas and its proxies have fired more than 5000 rockets into Israel; almost 800 have been launched just this past week. Each one has been aimed at civilians and intended to murder and maim. The reason that more Israelis have not died is that the weapons are mostly crude and inaccurate and that, over time, Israel has prepared herself with shelters, warning sirens and an anti-missile system. In addition, Israelis have been just plain lucky.

But that luck could change at any moment. If a single rocket were to hit a school or a mall, the number of dead could balance out in a flash. Then, to be sure, you would have “proportionality,” but there is no moral calculus by which additional dead civilians is a preferable outcome.

For Israel, the fundamental issue is the responsibility of its government to protect its citizens. As missiles have fallen on her cities over the years, the government has not succeeded in providing that protection. The reasons are many, including sensitivity to American wishes and a concern for world opinion; but the desire not to hurt the innocent is the most important. Now, however, as children in the south continue to live in terror and civilians throughout Israel flee to shelters several times daily, Israel’s leaders have concluded that they must act.

There is something bizarre, in fact, about the idea of “proportionality” being used as a moral criticism against Israel. A proportional response by Israel to the attacks of the last seven years would mean that every time a rocket is fired by Hamas at an Israeli civilian center, Israel would respond by firing a rocket at a civilian center in Gaza. Israel, of course, rejected that, then and now. Still, when Hamas violated the ceasefire yet again and got its hands on longer-range rockets, something had to be done.

The best way to evaluate Israel’s action is to imagine how we as Americans would respond to similar provocations. Assume the following: a terrorist group embedded in Mexico that the Mexican government refused to disarm is firing missiles into Houston night after night, endangering American lives. Our government would not wait a week or a month; indeed, it would not wait a single day before taking action to assure the well-being of her citizens. In fact, we need only remember how American forces flew half way around the world to engage in a war in Afghanistan against terrorists who carried out an attack on American soil. The talk then was not of proportionality, but of providing security for our country and stopping those who wished to do us harm.

Of course, let us not think for a moment, God forbid, that we can be indifferent to the death of innocents. The death of any child, Israeli or Arab, Muslim or Jew, is an unspeakable tragedy that rends the heart. Israel must do everything humanly possible to avoid the civilian casualties; already she issues warnings and calls for evacuation of areas about to be attacked, and must do more. Still, for any country, morality begins with a reasonable measure of security for her own citizens, and it is not right to say that Israel must protect Palestinian civilians at the cost of abandoning her own.

The issue was never “proportionality”; it is the suffering and dying of too many Arabs and Jews. And while there is much that is complicated about the Middle East, ending the violence in Gaza is not complicated. Hamas needs to halt the missile attacks and provide credible assurances to Israel and the world that they will not be resumed. If the rockets stop, quiet can come tomorrow. And tomorrow is not soon enough.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

TIME Israel-Palestine

Israel Launches Military Offensive Against Gaza, Strikes 50 Sites

Israel has said that nearly 300 rockets and mortars have been fired at it in recent weeks by Hamas. Israel has retaliated by launching a dozen air strikes on Gaza, Monday. The offensive, is aimed at striking Hamas and ending the rocket fire that has intensified after the killing of three Israeli teenagers and a Palestinian teenager

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(JERUSALEM) — The Israeli military launched what could be a long-term offensive against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Tuesday striking at least 50 sites in Gaza and mobilizing troops for a possible ground invasion aimed at stopping a barrage of rocket attacks against Israel.

The military said “Operation Protective Edge” looks to strike the Islamic Hamas group and end the rocket fire that has reached deeper into Israel and intensified in recent weeks amid tensions over the killing of three Israeli teenagers and the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager.

In a statement, the military said it was seeking to “retrieve stability to the residents of southern Israel, eliminate Hamas’ capabilities and destroy terror infrastructure operating against the State of Israel and its civilians.”

Nearly 300 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel in recent weeks, including a barrage of close to 100 projectiles on Monday alone, the military said, a huge surge after years of relative quiet that followed a previous Israeli campaign to root out Gaza rocket launchers.

“We have repeatedly warned Hamas that this must stop and Israel’s defense forces are currently acting to put an end of this once and for all,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel has responded with dozens of airstrikes, and eight Palestinian militants were killed Monday. Israel had signaled that it would not launch a larger offensive if the militant group Hamas ceased the rocket fire.

“They chose the direction of escalation,” said military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, in a telephone briefing to reporters. “So the mission will go on as long as we feel it is necessary to carry it out. We don’t expect it to be a short mission on our behalf.”

After a brief early morning lull, the rocket fire from Gaza resumed Tuesday with more than 15 rockets fired toward southern Israel, including the cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon. The Associated Press video showed launches from inside Gaza.

The military said five were intercepted by the country’s sophisticated Iron Dome missile defense system. A German cruise operator docking in the Ashdod port said debris fell onto one of its ships late Monday as it was departing.

None of the 2,700 vacationers and crew aboard the AIDAdiva was harmed. “However, small debris that according to experts could have come from a defense missile were found on the passenger deck,” the company said. The ship continued to Crete without delay.

Israel’s defense minister announced a special state of emergency in the region Tuesday as summer camps and kindergartens were shut down and residents were encouraged to stay close to their homes.

Among the 50 sites the military said it targeted early Tuesday were four houses it said were “activity sites” belonging to Hamas militants involved in launching rockets at Israel or other militant activity. There were no reported casualties in the strikes.

The military identified the men whose houses were targeted as Eiad Sakik, Abdullah Hshash, Samer Abu Daka, and Hassan Abdullah. The Associated Press filmed Abu Daka and Abdullah’s demolished homes in the Khan Younis area of the Gaza Strip.

In addition, the military said it struck three militant compounds, 18 concealed rocket launchers, and other militant infrastructure sites. Most were targeted in airstrikes, and three were attacked from the sea.

Gaza health official Ashraf Al-Kedra said at least nine Palestinian civilians were brought to a Gaza hospital with light to moderate injuries from the airstrikes, including several who suffered from shock. He said some of the injured Palestinians were treated and released.

Lerner, the military spokesman, said the army will gradually increase its attacks on Hamas in Gaza, and is recruiting additional reservists for a potential ground invasion of Gaza.

Hamas has amassed about 10,000 rockets, including longer-range rockets that can reach “up to Tel Aviv and beyond,” Lerner said, adding that the military was preparing for the possibility that Hamas would launch rockets toward Israel’s heartland and its commercial and cultural hub.

The military ordered hundreds of thousands of Israelis within a 40-kilometer (25-mile) radius of the Gaza Strip, including Israelis in the major southern city of Beersheva, to stay indoors and near shelters.

Lerner said last month’s kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank was connected to the intensified rocket fire carried out by Hamas militants in Gaza. Israel blames Hamas for the teens’ abduction and is conducting a manhunt for two Hamas-affiliated Palestinians in the West Bank it believes carried out the kidnapping and killing.

The Israeli government has not yet provided proof of Hamas’ involvement in the kidnapping.

“The abduction of the three boys only cost them, and they had no gains from it,” Lerner said. “Therefore they have increased their involvement in rocket fire,” adding that nearly all of the rocket fire at Israel Monday was carried out by Hamas, not militants affiliated with other groups. He said Hamas was “trying to gain clout.”

Tensions have been high since three Israeli teenagers kidnapped June 12 in the West Bank were later found dead, followed by last week’s slaying of the Palestinian youth in what many suspect was a revenge attack.

The charged climate inspired President Barack Obama to pen an op-ed for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“All parties must protect the innocent and act with reasonableness and restraint, not vengeance and retribution,” Obama said in the piece published Tuesday.

Obama warned of a “dangerous moment” for the region after the collapse of U.S.-backed peace talks.

“As I said last year in Jerusalem, peace is necessary, just, and possible. I believed it then. I believe it now,” he wrote. “Peace is necessary because it’s the only way to ensure a secure and democratic future for the Jewish state of Israel.”

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