Thursday, January 1, 2009

Chatting with Charlie about Gaza

My pastor recently posted a thoughtful response to the ongoing violence in Gaza. I started to post my own thoughts on his blog, but I realized that they were more complicated and extensive than I could easily put into a simple response. So I'm going to post them here, and then link to them from his site.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tough problem for a Christian to think through. Whether you accept the "just war" theory (which I think I do), or advocate strict pacifism, it's difficult to know how to respond to a situation in which each side has been responsible for so many unconscionable acts of violence and oppression. Certainly no honest Christian can side entirely and unequivocally with one side or the other. (And I should state up front that Christians who believe whatever Israel does is right, simply because it is Israel, have badly and baldly misunderstood the Bible. Certainly neither Isaiah, Jeremiah nor Ezekiel held such views – let alone Jesus.) Israel has done many horrible things in their conflict with the Palestinians. To take the most obvious example, its continued settlement building in the West Bank is unconscionable, indefensible, brutal and stupid. Similarly, while Israel is well within its rights to build a wall around the West Bank, it has no such right to build a wall inside the West Bank.

Nevertheless, although neither side is without fault, I do think that it's important to understand as much of the situation as accurately as possible; and in that light, I take issue with how my pastor characterized the situation in Gaza. Or to put it another way, I agree with almost everything he says about how a Christian should respond to the situation in Gaza; but I disagree with his understanding of what that situation actually is.

Charlie wrote:

What happened? In the ongoing struggle for control between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Israel cut Gaza off from the world's trade. They refused to allow none but the slimmest of food supplies into Gaza. After months of fruitless talks, Hamas began last week to fire Qassam rockets into Israel to force them to allow countries to recontinue trade with the 2 million people living in Gaza.

It seems clear to me that the conflict in Gaza is specifically not about who controls Gaza: it's about who controls everything else. Israel made it plain that this was the case when it withdrew its army from Gaza in 2005, and forced its settlers – sometimes at gunpoint – to follow. If Hamas (or even Fatah) had taken the opportunity to apply its considerable ingenuity and collective intelligence to building a Palestinian state, instead of continuing its futile and insane war against Israel, we would have a very different situation right now. However, since the Israeli withdrawal, Hamas and its allies have fired over 5000 rockets and mortar shells at Israel (over 3000 just in 2008), and the rocket attacks continued apace even during the six month "truce". Nor is it quite true that Israel didn't open the border during the truce: they opened it repeatedly, only to shut it again after Hamas continued to lob rockets at Israeli civilians. Moreover, even when the border crossings were open, Hamas used them to launch suicide attacks against the Israeli border guards.

These rockets are nothing like Israeli or US rockets. The Israeli Ministry of Defense views these as "more a psychological than physical threat." Called a Qassam, they are 5 to 90 lb handmade affairs powered by sugar and fertilizer with TNT in the top and no guidance system. But of course they can be lethal. 15 people have been killed by the 5000+ that have been fired since 2001.

Charlie is very right that the rockets which form the backbone of Hamas' arsenal are pale and primitive things in comparison with the guided munitions that arm Israel's F16's. But it's also important to distinguish between the primitive Qassams Hamas has been using over the last few years, and the Grad rockets that they've been using more recently. These are not homemade rockets, but are rather versions of the military-grade Katyushas that Hezbollah used with dramatic effect against Israeli civilians in the 2006 Lebanon war. These Grad rockets were manufactured in China, and were smuggled into the Gaza strip during the cease fire with the help of Iran and Syria. They carry much larger warheads, with a much greater range. It's true that they are virtually worthless as a military weapon: their single purpose is to kill as many civilians as possible. Their warheads, for instance, are packed with ball bearings to maximize civilian casualties, and nearly a million Israeli civilians now live under the threat and reality of rocket bombardment.

Last week Hamas resumed firing these rockets. Before there were any injuries of Israelis, Israel began a devastating attack on the Palestinians. They bombed Gaza City from highly precise fighter jets. After two days one Israeli was killed by the Palestinian rockets and 300 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli Air Force. Those included men, women, children, and infants. Also another 600 Palestinians were burned and injured.

The disproportionate response of the Israelis outrages me. The Israelis say they are killing Palestinians to protect Israelis from the rockets. Yet in one weekend the Israelis killed 20 times more Palestinians than the Palestinians did Israelis in seven years of rocket attacks! Whatever happened to the command for retributive restraint? "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," says the Lord in Exodus. What we see in Gaza is unrestrained revenge.

I disagree with Charlie that Israel launched this most recent offensive out of a desire for revenge. I think Israel did launch its 2006 war against Hezbollah out of a desire for revenge, but the results of that war made it clear to everyone in the IDF and in the Israeli government that revenge is a singularly inadequate motivation for all-out war. Nor does Israel think that it can actually eliminate Hamas' ability to fire rockets into civilian populations: this also was made clear during the Second Lebanon War. What Israel intends to achieve against Hamas is the one thing it actually did achieve against Hezbollah. Israel wants to make Hamas suffer so badly that they will not just agree to another cease fire, and but will actually hold to its terms once it's in place. That's what eventually happened in Lebanon, and it's what Israel wants to happen in Gaza. It's not a Christian means or a particularly merciful end, but it's a practical means and a livable end, and it needs to be understood (or even condemned) as such, not as a blanket desire for revenge. Hamas knew that Israel would respond when they escalated their rocket attacks, and Israel knew that Hamas knew this; Israel's hope is that Hamas underestimated how strongly and effectively Israel would respond, and overestimated the support they would receive from the international community. (Even the Egyptian foreign minister has recently acknowledged that Hamas "served Israel the opportunity on a golden platter to hit Gaza".)

This leaves open the question about whether Israel's response has been proportionate; and that's more difficult to answer. My pastor is very right when he points out that Israel has killed far more civilians than Hamas has, and I'm genuinely grieved at the death of these innocents. I can't imagine the grief and rage of the parents who've lost their children in Israeli air strikes. Nevertheless, there's a genuine and widely held moral distinction between killing non-combatants accidentally when going after legitimate military targets, and killing civilians intentionally. Clearly, Israel is doing its best to avoid civilian casualties: as just one example, it's been reported that prior to the first attack, the IDF actually telephoned thousands of Palestinians who lived near targeted areas, warning them to move out of homes or neighborhoods which were serving as Hamas military sites. The most recent information I've been able to find is that of the nearly 400 Gazans killed in the fighting, nearly 300 of them wore Hamas uniforms. In contrast, there is a great deal of evidence that Hamas cynically uses mosques to store weapons, and launches its mortars from schoolyards, specifically to maximize Palestinian civilian casualties. If Hamas had Israel's weaponry, it seems highly likely to me that they would direct that firepower into the heart of Tel Aviv residential neighborhoods; and if anyone has evidence otherwise that I've overlooked, I would like to see it.

Another way to look at it: if Mexico were foolish enough to launch 5000 rockets from Tijuana into San Diego, or if Nepal were to launch them into China, or Venezuela into Colombia, the aggrieved nation would certainly respond, and in a similarly "disproportionate" fashion. Israel's initiation of this war may not be justified by the highest Christian standards – standards no actual country has ever lived up to, certainly not the US – but I can't imagine any nation in the history of the world not responding to Hamas' blatant, repeated and foolish provocations. Perhaps Israel should legitimately be condemned for doing in this war what any nation does in any war: but we should be clear that we are equally rejecting all nations and all warfare, Britain in 1940 as much as Israel in 2008.

But the issue goes deeper than the comparatively simple matter of who violated the truce most egregiously or whose tactics are the most reprehensible. It's almost universally acknowledged that a two-state solution (going back in its rough outlines at least as far as 1947) is the only just and legitimate solution to the ongoing crisis. No other resolution short of genocide is conceivable, and no organization or ideology, Arab or Israeli, can be taken seriously if it refuses to acknowledge that both Jews and Palestinians have a right to a homeland. The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are together working fitfully towards this solution; the difficulty, as always, is in the details. In contrast, Hamas has had numerous opportunities to renounce its stated goal of the destruction of Israel, and has consistently refused to do so. In other words, while the Palestinians have many legitimate claims against Israel, Hamas can't be taken seriously, or treated as other than a terrorist organization, until it acknowledges as a matter of justice that Israel has a right to exist, and as a matter of practical politics that Israel will in fact continue to do so. Until this happens, Hamas is fighting, not for anything noble, and certainly not for freedom, but for a horrible and terrible lie. (In all fairness, it's clear there are any number of Jewish settlers who are also fighting for a lie, and who need to be treated in precisely the same way.)

All that said – and it was probably said at more length than it needed to be – I agree with Charlie about the appropriate response a Christian should have to the situation in Gaza. We should grieve the loss of life, and must always reject the temptation to dehumanize even those we are convinced are in the wrong. We need to discern injustice and identify evil whether it is done by "our" side or by the "other". And in our work and prayer for peace and justice, we must finally remember that final reconciliation can come only from the Prince of Peace.

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