Last week, Elis in Israel or those recently visiting that country argued on the pages of this paper that Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip is legitimate and that we are dealing here with a just war.
On Wednesday, Lee Hiromoto ’06 expressed his pride in wearing the uniform of the Israeli army, his adopted country, and by fighting for Israel “working to build a peaceful, stable Middle East.” Hiromoto articulated his view that Israel’s recent operations are in self-defense against “brutal aggression directed deliberately against innocent Israeli civilians.” A day later Elana Kagan ’10 was quoted in an article arguing that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is not caused by Israel but by Hamas’ shooting from civilian locations. Israel’s efforts to limit civilian casualties, said Kagan, have been totally lost in what she portrays as a pro-Palestinian news media.
When on Sunday, after three weeks of combat, the fighting finally came to an end, this most recent war in the Middle East had taken the lives of 13 Israelis and over 1,200 Palestinians. These figures — one of them almost 100 times bigger than the other — should give us cause for thought.
Gaza is a densely populated urban area, more dense even than the Bronx or Manhattan. It is a mistake to believe there are any non-civilian locations in Gaza. After years of air strikes by the Israeli air force, Hamas would not dare to have official barracks away from residential areas for fear they would be destroyed — even way before these recent attacks.
Every large-scale attack on Hamas in Gaza necessarily brings with it such a great amount of collateral damage — meaning the death of innocent civilians — that many military leaders, including those in the United States Army, would not be prepared to go down that road. During the last three weeks Israel hit U.N. schools and U.N. aid compounds, at times apologizing for what it called a “grave mistake.” Such apologies suggest that these “mistakes” are avoidable. They are not. Deciding to attack Hamas on such a large scale as Israel did this month implies the decision to take the lives of this many innocent civilians.
Whoever argues for the legitimacy of the recent Israeli war efforts should keep in mind that there is no military solution for the current problems in the Middle East. Israel’s military hegemony is useless against Hamas in Gaza. In fact, we should doubt that Israel has achieved any strategic goals in this last campaign. Just as in its 2006 war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah, there are many deaths and much destruction but very few results. It appears that strategic goals are not what Israel was truly after.
Faced with an Obama presidency, the hawks in the Israeli leadership seem to have seized one last opportunity to create an atmosphere that creates new obstacles for a negotiated truce. Everybody knows that a two-state solution offers the only long-term perspective for Israel and the Palestinians. The hardliners in Israel, however, fear that prospect and are trying to avoid a workable long-term settlement with the Palestinians. Such a solution requires major concessions on such issues as the settlements on the West Bank and Jerusalem. While the hawks’ policy has worked for the past eight years, they know that Israel will from now on come under much more pressure to negotiate.
I believe, however, that Israel’s only true interest can lie in a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians that, yes, includes Hamas. Israel’s current policy to stall negotiation even by employing brute force and the willingness to accept many civilian casualties on its enemies’ side is not all too different from what Hamas does. Not only is it immoral, it is also the wrong way for the Middle East.
Frank Griffel is professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies, where this semester he is teaching the course “Islam Today, Jihad and Fundamentalism.”