Israel has been in the news a lot lately. Prior to the recent open warfare with Hamas, there were three incidents involving the killing of teenaged Israelis. Two of those incidents have been discussed quite a bit.
The first of the three is not specifically relevant to Gaza per se. I bring it up for a different reason. It happened a few weeks ago at the Syrian border. Someone from the Syrian side fired a missile at a truck on the Israeli side, killing a thirteen year old boy and wounding his father and two others, all of whom had been hired to bring water to Israeli soldiers. Prime Minister Netanyahu phoned the family with condolences and sent an air strike into Syria to retaliate, destroying a brigade headquarters and killing an estimated ten soldiers. The Israelis hold Assad responsible for any fire that crosses the border into Israel, particularly when it is obviously deliberate, which this was.
The boy’s name was Mohammed Kataka. He and the wounded were from a local Israeli Arab village.
That the Israeli Prime Minister would think of Israeli Arabs as Israeli would not ordinarily be noteworthy, but in my online circles, I’ve heard a word thrown around a lot lately in reference to Israel. That word is Genocide. This action is not the action of a government looking to exterminate the Arab population under its control, which is in essence what the Genocide accusation is about. In actuality, there is no evidence that Israel is trying to exterminate the Arab population under its control, but I find myself having to talk about this periodically anyway, and this was a decent way to set that particular stage. More on Genocide later.
The second of the three incidents happened when three Jewish teenagers in a West Bank settlement were lured into a car driven by a couple of Hamas operatives. One of the teenagers called the police on his cellphone from the car. This apparently panicked the two operatives, who promptly shot the teenagers to death and dumped their bodies in a field.
In discussions of this event, I’ve heard it noted that Hamas did not claim credit for these murders. This is not surprising, because Hamas did not order the murders.
What Hamas ordered was the kidnapping.
The point behind the standing order to take advantage of kidnapping opportunities is to trade those kidnapped for Hamas operatives in Israeli prisons. Hamas has no reason to take credit for a botched kidnapping. However, if the teenagers had lived, there is no question as to whether Hamas would have taken credit. Without taking credit, they wouldn’t be able to arrange an exchange. So, though Hamas did not order the murders, there is no doubt that Hamas is responsible for the murders.
The Israeli government reacted to these murders, but they weren’t the only ones who did, which brings us to the third incident. The murders outraged a local group of soccer hooligans in Jerusalem who, as a result, went out to look for someone to kill in retaliation. (If you live in Europe, the previous sentence probably makes perfect sense to you.) Unfortunately, they found sixteen-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdeir, and they proceeded to murder him in a particularly gruesome fashion. Because they were part of a soccer fan club with a known record of violence, the Israeli police kept tabs on them, which is how arrests in the case were so quick.
I recently ran across an online allegation that the police subsequently released the three murderers into house arrest. In case you run into this allegation, it is not true: Six people were arrested, three of whom did not physically participate in the murder. The three who did not participate were released into house arrest while the three actual murderers remain in custody, of course.
As an unusual side note: the families of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the three Jewish teenagers killed in the botched kidnapping attempt, and of Muhammed Abu Khdeir have been in contact with each other because of their shared perspective and shared grief.
It is the second of these three incidents (because it involved Hamas) which, along with missiles fired from Gaza, led to Israel’s initiation of a bombing campaign in Gaza about a week ago.
When discussing Israel and the Palestinians, what normally comes up is the Settlements. These are on the West Bank. I am opposed to their existence. If this fighting were on the West Bank, at least some of my sympathies would be with the Palestinians. However, the violence we’re talking about has nothing to do with the Settlements. There are no Israeli settlements in Gaza; they were all unilaterally and forcibly withdrawn by the Israeli government years ago. Hamas has been firing missiles out of Gaza at civilian populations in Israel for many years. The result has been the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Hamas claims at times that the missiles are because of the blockade, but that is quite frankly putting the cart before the horse – the missiles are why the blockade exists.
So far, after about a week of bombing, there have been somewhat fewer than two hundred deaths in Gaza as of this writing. No Israelis have been killed by missiles.
There are two reasons no Israelis have been killed by missiles. One is the Iron Dome missile defense system. The other is that Israelis are warned by sirens in time to make it to bomb shelters. Lest you think this is not a big deal, within the past week, more than two thirds of the population of Israel, by which I mean of the entire country, have had to seek shelter in bomb shelters. Clearly, Israel cannot allow this to continue.
There is a third reason that does not apply: Hamas missiles have absolutely been aimed at civilian populations. It’s not for lack of trying that Hamas missiles have not killed any Israelis directly. (One woman died of a heart attack while running for a bomb shelter.)
The Israelis are trying to accomplish two goals:
1. Kill people who are actively involved in attempts to kill Israelis.
2. Destroy missiles.
Hamas is trying to launch missiles for as long as they can and keep as much of their capacity as possible when some sort of ceasefire goes into effect.
Hamas operates on a Human Shield model of warfare. How this works is: Missile launching sites are hidden in populated areas, typically at the exits to hardened tunnels. So, they’re next to schools, hospitals, in residences, etc. This not only makes them difficult to find, it means retaliating against the launch sites is likely to kill civilians. And, of course, combatants are hidden among civilians as much as possible.
What’s to stop the Israelis from going until they destroy all the missiles?
Even if we leave the humanitarian aspect completely out of the equation (which I don’t think is fair to the Israelis): The more civilians they kill, the more public pressure builds on them to stop, which leaves Hamas with capacity. This means the incentives of conventional warfare are turned on their heads: It is in the interest of the Israelis to minimize Gazan civilian casualties so they can continue eliminating missiles (and combatants), while it is in the interest of Hamas to maximize their own civilian casualties such that public pressure forces the Israelis to stop before they’ve destroyed a significant amount of Hamas’ capacity.
There is a blatant example of this dynamic at work. The Israelis have leafleted the areas in the North of Gaza where they intend to bomb launching sites, warning civilians to evacuate the area. Hamas has advised their civilians to stay put in spite of the dangers, which is clearly not in the interest of the civilians themselves. The civilians, not being suicidally inclined, have headed South in large numbers.
Not only is it helpful for Hamas to have a lot of civilian casualties, it is helpful for those civilian casualties to be as publicized and emphasized as possible. If children are killed, distribute their names and ages everywhere to maximize their public impact. Accuse the Israelis of Genocide because it implies both that there are larger numbers of dead than there are and that the goal of the Israelis is to maximize civilian casualties.
Let’s examine what has actually happened in this case. As of this writing, the bombing has been going on for about a week and the Gazans have suffered somewhat fewer than two hundred deaths. To examine the proposition that the Israelis are trying to maximize the number of civilian dead (which Genocide would certainly entail), let’s look at the logistics:
Gaza is about eighteen miles long and contains well over a million people – in other words, tiny and crowded. In the way of air defenses, Hamas has little to none. The Israelis are some of the best military pilots on the planet, and they are based contiguous to Gaza. If the Israelis wanted to kill a lot of Palestinians in Gaza, they could have bombed three apartment buildings at random and killed more than two hundred civilians in the first ten minutes of their campaign. And yet, the number is still below two hundred (last I heard) and it’s been a week. So far, as of the numbers I know (which are probably low by now), Israel has hit over twelve hundred targets. Mathematically, that means the vast majority of their aerial attacks must have resulted in zero deaths, because the number of deaths is less than one sixth the number of targets hit. Given that we know some bombs resulted in multiple deaths, the majority of aerial attacks resulting in zero deaths is even larger than one might assume. That’s not how you conduct genocide.
There’s a whole lot of rhetoric flying around now about this conflict. Be careful what you believe, and be careful you take into account who wants what and why.