In August 2005, Israel withdrew its settlers and ground forces from the Gaza Strip. No longer could terrorist acts be justified by pointing to Israeli occupation. No longer would Israel control the lives of 1.4 million Palestinians. At least that was the hope.
For the past 15 months, however, Israel’s willingness to concede territory unilaterally has been met with further violent rejection of the Jewish state on the part of terrorist groups like Hamas. Since August 2005, the Egypt-Gaza border has been used to smuggle 30 tons of weapons into the Gaza Strip. Qassam rockets continue to be fired into Israeli territory, and southern Israeli towns like Sderot live under the constant fear of these deadly barrages. On Wednesday, an Israeli woman was killed and a 24-year-old man had both his legs amputated as a result of his injuries. Eight hours later, another barrage of attacks on the same Israeli town seriously wounded a teenager, while four other rockets hit a second Israeli city.
From the point of view of many Americans, the aggressive behavior from Palestinian terrorist groups is irrational. Why wage a war in and among one’s own civilian population, knowing it is certain to place them in harm’s way and jeopardize their homes and businesses? Why not choose to build up Gaza economically, recognize Israel in order to encourage further international assistance, and negotiate a long-term peaceful settlement?
Hamas and the other Palestinian terrorist organizations, however, have a different agenda. They do not genuinely desire to aid the civilian population or to negotiate with Israel in good faith. What Hamas wants is to destroy Israel, a goal that its own covenant makes plain. “The Islamic Resistance Movement … strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine. … The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” As a consequence, Hamas is willing to go to brutal lengths to achieve its aims, with unfortunate results for both Palestinian and Israeli civilians.
There is a specific reason for the current attacks on Gaza’s civilian areas by Israeli forces: That is where rocket attacks on Israeli territory originate. On Nov. 9, the Boston Globe quoted a Gaza resident, Zakaria al-Kafarna, who had this to say about his residential neighborhood: “Anyone can come to the area and fire a rocket. … What about us? We are sleeping.” The callous practice of firing from crowded civilian areas serves both to insulate terrorists from the full brunt of Israel’s retaliation and to ensure international condemnation when Israel responds. It also presents Israel with a grave dilemma. When Israel is attacked, should it fire as precisely as possible into crowded civilian areas, knowing civilians could be killed? Or should Israel abdicate its right of self-defense and its obligation to protect its civilians — both Jewish and Arab — from murderous assaults? The concept of proportionality in international law must be applied carefully in every instance, but Palestinian terrorists using Palestinian civilians as human shields bear moral and criminal responsibility for putting them at risk.
In his column “Israel must cease needless Gaza invasion” (11/15), Mahdi Sabbagh contends that even if Israeli attacks on Palestinian targets are a response to rocket firings from the Gaza Strip, ending the life of terrorists through counterattacks is unjustified. Besides the obvious infeasibility of politely knocking on the door of Hamas operatives in Gaza and asking them to submit to arrest and trial, this doctrine should ring alarm bells for everyone interested in fighting terrorism worldwide. Terrorists have committed themselves to the deliberate and indiscriminate destruction of innocent lives. If they can justifiably be shielded from violent counterattack by their exploitation of the civilians around them — a rule that is not part of the Geneva Conventions — then the moral and legal order of cause and effect has been turned upside down. Such a result would have grave implications for the efforts of many societies, including our own, to combat serious threats to peace and security and engage in legitimate self-defense.
If we are to fight terrorism effectively, we must move beyond the perspective of the armchair general. Rather, we must be able to differentiate between attack and counterattack, aggression and self-defense, deliberate targeting of civilians and aiming at murderers. Only when Palestinian terrorist groups are held responsible for the current conflict can the Israeli and Palestininan peoples begin to pursue their mutual interest in peace.
Rachel Bayefsky is a sophomore in Morse College. Harry Etra is a sophomore in Davenport College. They are co-presidents of the Yale Friends of Israel.