Imagine your next-door neighbor — with whom you have had a long and bloody feud — pulling out a gun and shooting into your windows, from his own living room, which is densely packed with women and children. In fact, he’s holding his daughter on his lap as he tries to target your own kids. He claims he will not stop until your family is dead. Police are unavailable. What should you do?
One option is to do nothing, or little. You try this for a while. After all, your neighbor is poor and traumatized, there is a sad and complicated history between you, and you bear some of the blame.
But finally, as one shot hits your child’s bedroom, you decide that enough is enough. You pull out your far superior gun. You attempt a surgical strike: aim at the shooter’s head and try to spare the innocents.
In an abstract sense, this is what Israel is doing right now.
But there is nothing surgical about the blood and agony that have engulfed Gaza in the last week. Try as Israel might to target militants alone, civilian bodies are being pulled from the rubble because, like our metaphorical gunman’s home, militants and civilians inhabit the same urban space in the Gaza Strip.
Gaza City and Rafah are crowded and poor — and, more than ever before, they double as army camps. Fighters train next to schools, and rockets are stored in the basements of apartment buildings. According to recent reports, Hamas’ senior officials are currently hiding in hospitals. Over a million Palestinians, unable to flee to either Egypt or Israel, have for years been ruled by a military junta that prioritizes the killing of Israelis, across the international border, at all costs.
Of course, civilians have always been in the line of fire and conquest, from Troy to Berlin. But no regime has ever used its citizens so deliberately as tools to arouse world sympathy, as hostages to modern sensitivities. While theories of just war instruct us not to hurt non-combatants, Hamas and its military arm have made a conscious decision, banking on global humanitarian concerns, to ensure that Israel hits as many civilians as possible.
Even if Israel’s current war against Gaza is a just war — which is suggested by its attempts at limited and “measured” retaliation after eight years of Hamas rockets followed its unilateral retreat from Gaza — it is therefore a very dirty war, too. There is a sad zero-sum game between Palestinian suffering and Israeli sovereignty, security and normal life.
Most Israelis — even those hoping to see, in their lifetime, an independent and prosperous Palestine — agree that the attack on Hamas was necessary. Many others would not like to see the Israeli army launch a ground invasion into Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rightly allowed convoys of food and medicine into Gaza during the fighting, and Israeli hospitals are treating several injured Gazan citizens.
Not unreasonably, Israel wants an internationally guaranteed and monitored ceasefire agreement that would put a total stop to Hamas assaults against its territory. But, as world opinion awakens from its holiday slumber, it is likely to turn against Israel. After all, Israel is the strong guy, the former occupying power, the better shooter. Its bombardment of Gaza is not “proportional.”
Indeed, there is no symmetry of suffering on the two sides of the border. Gazans are worse off than Israelis in every conceivable way. But does that mean that Israel should let them keep shooting at it? Or should Israel respond “proportionally” by firing 10 to 80 rockets indiscriminately at Gazan homes and schools, every day for the next few years?