Ascribing Morality to Israel’s War
“Because I do it with one small ship, I am called a terrorist. You do it with a whole fleet and are called an emperor.” - A pirate in St. Augustine’s City of God
The events happening in Gaza right now have been labeled many things, from an ‘eruption of violence’, a ‘massacre of innocents’, to an all out ‘war to the bitter end’. As the carnage continues, politicians, protestors, and governments wage public battles of terminology in interviews, chants and speeches. Are Hamas fighters terrorists; does Israel target civilians; is Gaza still occupied; should Hamas be considered a non-state entity…? The questions could go on for pages. One might think that, at the end of the day, these words are meaningless. Certainly a young Gazan girl lying under the rubble of her former home is hardly going to care about whether she is considered acceptable collateral damage or an enemy combatant. However, within the battle for public opinion, which, whether we like it or not, is significant, it is these words that will color the picture of events on the ground for a disengaged and distracted western audience. And as the Palestinian Authority considers taking Israel to court for war crimes, these words will once again come to the forefront of the very arguments for and against Israel.
In the meantime, however, insanity rages on in Gaza. To date, the death toll has surpassed 670 Palestinians, more than 215 of whom were children. Despite this high number of civilian deaths, Israel maintains that it does not target civilians. It counterclaims that Hamas does - through past suicide bombings and the current indiscriminate launching of homemade projectiles into Israel. Here we come to the crux of Israel’s oft-quoted defense of its actions in Gaza: Israel’s actions are acts of war, while Hamas’s actions are acts of terror. Israel, because it is a state in possession of the (reportedly) fourth most well-trained army in the world, is practicing legally sanctioned killing. Hamas, on the other hand, is a non-state entity, a terrorist organization. When Israel engages in legally sanctioned killing, all resulting civilian deaths are regarded as acceptable ‘collateral damage’. As long as Israel mumbles a quick note of regret for the high number of civilian deaths, the killing can continue with the international community’s blessing. Save for the condemnation of some Arab governments and a few ’rogue’ nations such as Venezuela, most countries have only uttered lukewarm calls for an end to hostilities. Hence, one possible murky line of demarcation between a soldier and a terrorist emerges. Soldiers are trained to target enemy combatants, while terrorists deliberately target civilians. But could it be that simple?
The International Committee of the Red Cross, guardian of the Geneva Conventions, defines a combatant as a person "directly engaged in hostilities", but Israel has taken the liberty of expanding that definition further to suit its own purposes. As Israeli army spokesperson Benjamin Rutland told the BBC: "Our definition is that anyone who is involved with terrorism within Hamas is a valid target. This ranges from the strictly military institutions and includes the political institutions that provide the logistical funding and human resources for the terrorist arm." Despite Israel’s emphasis of Hamas as a terrorist organization, they have taken advantage of the fact that Hamas was democratically elected into government to target the civilian infrastructure, such as universities, police stations, utility plants and schools, claiming that these are institutions used by Hamas to wage terror on Israel. Using this very broad definition, backed by America’s blessing, Israel has carte blanche in what it does in Gaza and the West Bank. It feels no need to apologize for attacking a UNRWA school full of Palestinians looking for refuge from a near constant barrage of Israel air and ground attacks. Despite being given GPS coordinates by the UN so that Israel could avoid targeting it, Israel claimed that rockets were launched from the school’s playground, while Hamas ‘terrorists’ booby-trapped the building in full view of Palestinian civilians and UN workers still there. Forty-five Palestinian civilians died in that attack- all considered tragic but necessary deaths for Israel to win its war.
Turning to Hamas, referring to it as a non-state entity is to suggest that there is such a thing as a Palestinian state, which there is not. On the contrary, Gaza and the West Bank remain illegally occupied territory. Only, in Gaza, Israel has removed itself to the borders, controlling the territorial waters, the airspace, the land crossing, and restricting the entry of food, medicine, consumer goods, fuel, and relief supplies. Hamas, along with other factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Islamic Jihad, are all resisting that occupation. Nor does Hamas apologize for the fact that it has killed Israeli civilians. It considers Israeli targets within its reach as legitimate given the Palestinians' status as an occupied people. This does not justify the killing of civilians, but at least Hamas is upfront about itself. Having no super-army at its disposal, it engages in resistance by what means it can. Hamas, along with every other Palestinian faction and individual, has a very legitimate bone to pick with Israel: the occupation. So much death and destruction lies in its wake, especially for Palestinians; yet still Israel refuses to end it. Instead, Palestinians of every persuasion are left to watch as grown men cry in the streets over the bodies of their loved ones, slain in Israel’s latest stint of legally sanctioned killing, wondering what they did to deserve this.
Even looking beyond what is happening in Gaza at the moment, to say that Israel does not target civilians is blatantly absurd. The entire history of Israel's policies towards Palestine have been focused on collective punishment (also highly illegal under international law) of Palestinian civilians. The separation wall, the bulldozing of civilian homes, the illegal settlements, the closures, the restriction of movement, the arbitrary arrests, the systematic starvation of the population in Gaza – these tactics have been used as weapons against the entire Palestinian population. And do not forget the persistent hostility perpetrated by the Israeli army against unarmed Palestinian and international civilians that has gone on for decades.
What Israel is practicing is merely state-sponsored terrorism, as it hides behind terms such as collateral damage and terror. It might do well to look into its own not-so-distant past and remember that it was with the help of the likes of Irgun, Haganah, and the Stern Gang- all considered terrorist groups - that Israel achieved its statehood. Instead of being stigmatized as terrorists, they were absorbed into Israeli life. Irgun became the political predecessor to Israel’s right-wing Likud party, while Haganah became the foundation for the Israeli army.
It was Winston Churchill who correctly said that “History is written by the victors.” Israel came out the victor in 1948 and 1967. Since then, it has attempted to write and re-write history for the Palestinians, and will continue to make their lives miserable and humiliating as long as the occupation continues.
No matter what terms we use to describe the insanity happening in Gaza, observed even from as objective a point of view as possible (something very difficult to achieve under the circumstances), the difference between a Palestinian fighter and an Israeli soldier is hardly as black and white as many would like to believe. I read once that terrorism is used to describe acts by a group without the power to declare war. It is easy to assign morality to war when one does not have the ‘luxury’ of living through its devastation.