Editor’s Note: Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and distinguished fellow at NYU School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The High Cost of Free Speech: Rethinking the First Amendment,” in addition to other nonfiction and fiction titles. The views expressed here are solely the author’s.
Despite a culture of innovation that has mastered high-tech and even produced a Wonder Woman, Israel is not often the envy of other nations. It is a perpetual target — especially when it comes to its own self-defense.
Take, for example, the situation over the past two months in Gaza. Ongoing confrontations known as the March of Return have featured tens of thousands of Palestinians, encouraged by Hamas – a terrorist group that rejects Israel’s right to exist – to gather at the border, storm the fence and infiltrate Israel. Some kept their distance, but many hurled Molotov cocktails, rolled burning tires, and set flaming kites aloft. The most active participants were Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives detonating bombs and firing weapons.
Israel responded, in many cases, with lethal force, resulting in 62 dead over the past several days, 53 of whom were members of Hamas, according to reports in the Times of Israel, also quoting a Hamas official who spoke to the Palestinian Baladna news outlet. There were no Israeli casualties.
Welcome to the Promised Land of Dreadful Optics, where Hamas employs a deliberate strategy of inciting a disproportionate loss of Palestinian life in a bid to garner sympathy and demonize Israel. Hamas knows how to make those numbers work in its favor. By emboldening Gazans to place themselves directly in the line of fire and embedding terrorists among civilians. Hamas baits Israel and then waits for the world’s outrage. In this twisted morality play without morals, the March of Return is no peaceful protest. Such a charitable description unfairly demonizes Israel and romanticizes Palestinians.
The disproportionate Palestinian body count in the last six weeks has indeed generated global condemnation, even among nations that agree that Israel has the right to defend itself. Israel has faced such scrutiny before in Gaza, from which it withdrew in 2005. Over the years the narrative has gone like this: Hamas instigates a fight, usually with rocket fire or kidnappings, but more recently with this surge of border assaults, resulting in Israeli reprisal. The targets are terrorists, but civilians are unavoidably fired upon (there is a limit to how much precision can be expected even from snipers shooting to kill terrorists who happen to be standing beside teenagers). Hamas exploits a willing population prepared to sacrifice their children to a civilian death strategy. They know that Western nations will recoil at the sight of dead children. If only Gazans felt the same way.
But what is a proportionate response? It doesn’t require an even ratio of casualties. Intention matters, too. Yes, more Palestinians have died in these clashes, but disproportion doesn’t tell the full story. It’s not for a lack of Hamas’ trying to kill Israelis that Israeli lives have been relatively spared. The outrage ought to be directed at Hamas for imperiling its own people, actions that in any other context would constitute a war crime. Instead, the world points an accusatory finger at Israel even though arguably no other country has ever confronted such a perverse moral dilemma and demonic endgame.
Hamas has launched thousands of rockets since 2005. Very few have caused damage, due to its abysmal aim and Israel’s magical Iron Dome, an aerial defense system that has destroyed incoming missiles before they ever get a chance to land. Hamas’ charter calls for the annihilation of Israel. Palestinians chanting “From the river to the sea,” a phrase routinely invoked at anti-Israel rallies, amounts to a genocidal ditty that dreams not of a two-state solution but a Final Solution. For their part, Palestinians from the West Bank have been attempting to kill as many Israelis as possible through intifadas, stabbings and car-rammings. Both groups just haven’t been proficient enough to offset the death toll when Israel responds to Palestinian aggression with lethal force.
The imbalance in statistical death makes for ominous headlines, but it doesn’t violate international law.
These are entirely new rules of engagement. The nations who stand in judgment have no idea how they would respond to enemy combatants not wearing uniforms, blended within the population and not fighting on defined battlegrounds. This is more a public relations battle than a military one, a sadistic game of Palestinian roulette, where dead Gazans serve a greater purpose than dead Israelis.
Disproportion may infuriate political leaders like Bernie Sanders and Theresa May, but Hamas plays this numbers game as if devised by legendary military strategist Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” Hadashot, an Israeli network that also broadcasts in Gaza, featured a video of Palestinian children happily stating that they are finally going home and that dying at the border will guarantee them a place in paradise.
In its dealings with Hamas and other terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Israel serves as the canary in the coal mine of fourth-generation warfare, where the distinctions between combatants and civilians are entirely blurred. There are no conventional armies. The rules of armed combat are up for grabs in the chaos of moral compromise. What’s more, civilians protected under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 bear little resemblance to Gazans who are not trapped in a war zone by an occupying force, but many of whom are voluntary participants in the way Hamas wages war against Israel.
Gazans were given clear instructions in these weekly calls to rage. Hamas’ military leader, Yahya Sinwar, proclaimed, according to the Times of Israel, the people of Gaza “will eat the livers of those besieging.”
These were not peaceful gatherings, and Americans, at least, should know better than to judge them as if they were. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a protest movement that rejected violence and never glorified death. And yet, some headlines are treating Gaza like a Middle Eastern Selma. King, who is memorialized with a forest in Israel, would be surprised that we now somehow couldn’t tell the difference.