Thinking About Gaza
The Jewish Week (An edited version of this statement appeared in The Jewish Week, March 19, 2008, under the title: Preparing U.S. Jews for an Assault on Gaza)
A few weeks ago, I sat with a Jewish delegation that met with some important Protestant leaders here in the United States. The conversation quickly turned to events in Gaza. In a perfunctory sentence or two, our Protestant colleagues said that of course they condemned the rocket fire directed at Israeli cities, but in their view the real problem was the suffering of the Palestinian population in Gaza and the wildly disproportionate nature of Israel’s response to Palestinians attacks.
Deeply pained and angry, what I said was this: You are absolutely right. Israel’s response has been wildly disproportionate because it has been far more restrained than what would be expected from any other civilized, democratic government.
Did they understand that since 2001, more than 7000 rockets had been fired from Gaza at civilian targets in Israel? Did they realize that a “proportionate” response would involve 7000 Israeli rockets fired at civilians in Gaza? Did they appreciate that the relatively small number of civilian casualties in Israel resulted not from the humanitarian intentions of Hamas but from the crudeness of their weapons, and that those weapons were now improving? Did they know that the traumatized children of Sderot lived in constant fear? On what basis, I asked, did they expect Israel to tolerate these attacks? And what would their congregants be saying if their churches in Michigan had been subjected to 7 years of hostile fire from across the Canadian border? Would church leaders be calling for “restraint” from the American government in these circumstances? And did they really expect that any American president would show such restraint?
What followed, of course, was the suggestion that the “occupation” was responsible for the rocket fire. I replied: Excuse me, but Prime Minister Sharon pulled out of every inch of Gaza in 2005, and his successor was elected on a platform calling for unilateral withdrawal from most of the remaining territories. And yet there has not been a single day of quiet following that withdrawal. Indeed, rocket strikes significantly increased after it was completed.
Yes, I assured them, I shared their concern for Palestinian suffering in Gaza. But the simple fact is that if terror and rocket fire were to come to an end in Gaza, the suffering of her people would end as well.
There was nothing surprising in these exchanges, but they reminded me of how much North American Jews have yet to do to educate their fellow citizens about Israel’s current plight. And there is some urgency in this task because I have little doubt that Israel’s restraint will soon come to end.
During my recent visit to Jerusalem, I met with Israel’s Prime Minister and more than a dozen Knesset members from across the political spectrum. Virtually all of Israel’s political leaders are reluctant to escalate the military conflict with Hamas; they fear the uncertain results of such an escalation, as well as heavy casualties on both sides. Nonetheless, from most of those to whom I spoke, what I heard was that there would soon be no alternative to a more aggressive military posture.
The reason for this is simply that the attacks on Sderot threaten Israel’s very existence. Once again, most of the world has found a way to take an utterly intolerable situation – nearly daily attacks on Israeli civilian centers – and turn it into something that is both tolerated and even routine. And as the accuracy of the rockets increases along with the Iranian role in supplying Hamas forces, the circle of cities under attack has begun to expand. It is only a matter of time before Hamas cells in the West Bank begin firing rockets as well. The result is that it is now possible to imagine a scenario under which Israel would cease to be a viable state without ever losing a war.
As a result, there is a strong likelihood that in the months ahead, Israel will move against Hamas forces in Gaza. With or without an invasion, her army will likely target all of Hamas’ military installations, institutions and leaders. Since for years Hamas fighters have hidden themselves in civilian centers such as schools and hospitals, Palestinian civilian casualties are certain to grow. But Israel will almost surely decide that it can no longer protect Palestinian civilians at the cost of sacrificing the wellbeing of her own.
This is not a welcome scenario. It would be preferable by far if international diplomacy could arrange a ceasefire that would end the rocket fire without allowing Hamas to build up her forces for future attacks. But chances for such a diplomatic resolution are small, and Israel must prepare for the worst.
Of course, if war does come, Israel will not get a free pass. Targeted military operations that tragically result in civilian deaths are one thing. But indiscriminate artillery barrages in civilian areas – which some Israeli ministers have called for – are another matter. Israel has always resisted pressure to resort to such tactics, and it must continue to do so now.
And Israel must also continue to support American diplomatic efforts to advance what is left of the peace process. President Bush hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough this calendar year, and while he is unlikely to succeed, when it comes to matters of the Jewish state he has earned, by word and deed, the trust of Israel and the North American Jewish community. Surely, as he pursues this diplomatic course, he is entitled to the goodwill and cooperation of Israel’s government.
In that regard, we should keep in mind that an Israeli attack on Gaza is certain to unleash a barrage of international criticism. American support will be essential if Israel’s military is to have the time it needs to complete its mission. For that reason, current tension between Israel and the American government over Israel’s settlement policy is a potential disaster. An unpopular President who is being asked to take the heat for support of an unpopular Israeli military operation is entitled to some consideration from Israel’s leaders. Whatever the differences, Israel needs to get its settlement policies in line with American expectations and to do so now.
With all this said, the responsibilities of North American Jews are clear. A centrist Israeli government has done everything within its power to escape a military confrontation. Nonetheless, confronted by challenges to its sovereignty, by expanding attacks on its civilian population, and by the unrelenting hatred of an anti-Semitic, religiously fanatic regime, it is moving toward the military action in Gaza that it had desperately hoped to avoid. Let us remember, then, that the Jewish state came into being for just such a time as this, when Jewish lives are in danger and no one but a Jewish army will come to their rescue. And let us remember too that our task now is to support Israel in her time of need, to make her case to our fellow citizens, and to do all that we can to rally the Jewish people and good people everywhere to her side.