[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
Wading into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dangerous work. It is an exceptionally charged issue, with both sides capable of as much passion as you'll experience in discussing a foreign policy dispute. Personally, I have been shocked and unnerved at some of the venom unleashed in the comments to past articles on the topic that have appeared on The Huffington Post. I can't help but think that if only people read up on the history of the conflict, they would see that things aren't as black-and-white as their fire-breathing comments would have you believe.
I am ashamed to say that the Israel-bashing has made me reluctant to write about the issue, at least in my contributions to this site. But after watching the conflict in Gaza unfold over the last three days, I have decided that it's time for me to venture into the breach and make my opinion known, damn the consequences. It's time for me to explain why I think the treatment of Israel has been unfair.
I understand that the history of the Middle East, going back to 1948, or even to the 19th century, is messy. Any side looking to make a point can cherry pick historical facts to bolster an argument. While I would feel confident arguing the Israeli side of the issue, I know that I am not going to win over anyone in one blog post. The whole issue is just too complicated.
But what I feel I may be able to accomplish in this space is to provide a counterweight for some of the subtly biased reporting on the Israeli actions in Gaza over the last three days. From reading or watching most news accounts, you might think that Israel, virtually unprovoked, has started indiscriminately bombing in Gaza, causing massive civilian casualties. The New York Times quoted Iran's religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, saying, "The horrible crime of the Zionist regime in Gaza has once again revealed the bloodthirsty face of this regime from disguise," as if his opinion was just another equally valid point of view. I will attempt to provide some context here.
It is important to understand that threats to Israel's survival are not theoretical. From the moment of the country's formation in 1948 to the present day, it has been surrounded by hostile neighbors who have wanted to see its destruction and used force to bring such an outcome about. Israel was attacked by neighboring nations in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. The country's seizure of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 occurred in this context. More recently, Israel has had to withstand suicide bombings, in which Palestinian terrorists would kill and wound innocent civilians inside Israel.
In 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza, dismantling all of its settlements and evicting its settlers, some by force. Palestinians proceeded in elections to put into power the terrorist group Hamas, which does not recognize the right of Israel to exist. With Israel gone from Gaza, Hamas seized on the opportunity to launch attacks from Gaza on civilian populations in Israel, firing more than 4,500 rockets and mortars into Israel since 2005. And Hamas used civilian areas as cover for the launching points for its attacks.
A little more than six months ago, Egypt brokered a cease fire between Israel and Hamas. The truce ended on December 19, and it was Hamas, not Israel, that refused to extend it. In fact, The current attacks began before the cease-fire agreement expired. In the last six weeks, Hamas has fired more than 400 missiles into Israel, including 40 Qassam rockets and mortars since December 19.
With Hamas attacking Israel, and with Hamas unwilling to extend the truce, Israel responded with the current offensive. While so many news reports have focused on the civilian casualties, given that Hamas uses civilians areas as cover to launch their attacks, it is shocking how relatively low the percentage of civilian casualties has been. As of this morning, of the 315 Palestinian fatalities, only 51 have been civilians. To be clear, my point isn't that 51 lost lives isn't tragic, rather it's that with Hamas putting its own people in danger by using them as cover for their assaults on Israel, the fact that roughly five in six fatalities have been military targets demonstrates that Israel is not indiscriminately attacking civilian populations.
And yet, Israel has continued to provide aid to Gazan residents, allowing 10,000 tons of food, tools, raw materials, medicine and medical equipment into Gaza since Dec. 7. Israel also provides 70 percent of Gaza's electricity, and Hamas has reportedly engineered blackouts to inflame the population against Israel while using the power for its own needs.
I am continually amazed when commentators and government officials assert that Israel should show restraint. How would any one of these countries and individuals react if it was their nation that was attacked daily by its neighbor, especially if that neighbor was an internationally recognized terrorist organization that didn't recognize the right of the subject of its attacks to exist and was dedicated to its destruction?
But that is the situation with which Israel is faced. Hamas will not recognize Israel's right to exist (calling the Jewish state "the Zionist entity"). And in retaliation for Israel's offensive, Hamas has fired rockets that have reached within 25 miles of Tel Aviv.
What is it that the critics would have Israel do? How do you negotiate with people that want to destroy you? How do you allow attacks on your civilian population on a daily basis without doing anything to protect your citizens? It feels to me like the critics ask Israel to make sacrifices and take risks that they themselves would never undertake for their home nations.
It seems to me that the critics would have Israel accede to all Palestinian demands, which would result in handing over huge chunks of land to a population bent on destroying Israel, both through attacks and assimilation, if the so-called right of return was granted. (From East Jerusalem, Hamas's rockets could hit virtually any point in Israel, including Tel Aviv, Haifa and West Jerusalem.) In my estimation, anyone who thinks Israel is somehow responsible for the current clashes with Hamas does not, in a practical sense, think Israel has a right to exist as a country. After all, short of surrendering, there is nothing that Israel could do that would satisfy Hamas, and without a right to defend itself from attack, Israel's survival would be in doubt.
I am all for a two-state solution. But both states have to respect the right of the other to exist, and nothing in Hamas's actions has demonstrated that it is in any way willing to take part in such an arrangement. Hamas wants a one-state solution, and that one state is not Israel.
(As a side note, the Palestinians still push for a right of return for those who fled and/or were pushed from the new state of Israel in 1948, which has been one of the primary issues acting as an impediment to peace, but there were an equal of number of Jews displaced by Arabs at the same time, and yet no Jews are claiming a right of return.)
Has Israel always acted correctly? Of course not. I dare you to show me a country that has conducted itself perfectly all the time. But how is it that Hamas, a terrorist organization that refused to extend the truce and fired rockets at civilians on a daily basis, gets so much sympathy, with Israel condemned for defending itself? In a vacuum, there is no defense for Hamas in this situation. So it seems to me that those that speak against Israel for its current Gaza offensive are doing so because they will never support Israel's side in the conflict with Hamas and the Palestinians. They see the West Bank barrier and the West Bank settlements and the other alleged transgressions by Israel without considering what prompted the actions in the first place (namely 60 years of attacks by its neighbors, most recently via suicide bombers killing civilians). It feels to me as though there is nothing Hamas could do to Israel that would, in the minds of Israel's critics, justify Israeli retaliation.
Hopefully, in the not too distant future, Palestinians will rally behind moderate, non-corrupt leadership, and a fair two-state solution will be hammered out under which both of the countries' citizens can live in peace and prosperity. But until that day comes, as long as the Palestinian people throw their lot in with terrorists like Hamas, who, in their name, attack civilian targets in Israel, a two-state solution cannot be put in place, and the Palestinian people will have to bear the consequences of their leaders' actions.
In an ideal world, a military action like the Israeli offensive in Gaza would never happen. No person of conscience can truly look at what is going on there and not feel sad. But at the same time, the Hamas bombing of Israeli civilians is equally disturbing, and there is no obvious alternative available to Israel to defend its citizens. It feels unfair to me when people take Israel to task without placing any significant blame on Hamas. And that is why I felt it was time for me to speak out.