If you noticed that the American press — electronic and print — struggled to maintain a semblance of balance in reporting the war between Israel and Gaza, chalk it up to the complexity of the conflict. Moral ambiguity is always a tough one. This was a confrontation marked by stunningly bad leadership on both sides — the same leadership that now intends to sit down for peace talks in Cairo.
Let’s start with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza. Before it began its rocket barrages into Israel last month, Hamas popularity among Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants had plummeted. Unemployment — much of it induced by Israeli and Egyptian blockades of the borders — was hovering at around 50%; Hamas couldn’t pay its 40,000 government workers their salaries; it had lost its main political patrons in Egypt and Syria. Things had gotten so bad that it even agreed to form a new government with its arch-rival Fatah, the party that controls the West Bank.
Cue the rockets.
For those of you living in tornado-prone areas, think of how your heart races when you hear a siren sound during storm season. Or any siren, for that matter. Now multiply that feeling by 100 or so — and you’ll get a sense of what it was like to be in Israel on the receiving end of those missiles. On July 10, for instance, Hamas launched 197 rockets at Israel; 162 rockets on July 17; 141 rockets on July 30; in just the last 45 minutes preceding the start of Tuesday’s ceasefire, Hamas fired 13 rockets at Israel. By the time the ceasefire took hold, Hamas had shot nearly 3,000 rockets and mortars into Israel. Miraculously, only three civilians were killed, mostly because of Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system and the prevalence of bomb shelters throughout the country, both public and private. (Another 64 Israeli soldiers died in the ensuing battles.)
Hamas embarked on its deadly fireworks campaign knowing full well that it would invite a lethal response. How could the Israeli government not hit back? And here’s where the cynical use of war as a tactic is most appalling: hide your fighters and weaponry among the civilian population — in schools, mosques, near hospitals — and you’ve set the scene for a disaster. And disaster it was when Israel’s armed forces let loose. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza killed more than 1,800 people, over 70% of them civilians; injured an estimated 9,800; laid waste to entire neighborhoods; destroyed an already meager infrastructure in a direly impoverished territory. A United Nations official said that the war had had a “catastrophic and tragic impact” on Gaza’s children and that reconstruction would cost billions of dollars.
War, by its very nature, is indiscriminate. This is not to diminish Israel’s culpability for the deaths and horrific destruction wrought. But you only have to look at the results of the unmanned drones that the U.S. has used against terrorists to debunk the myth of “precision” or “pin-point” bombing. The Council on Foreign Relations figures that of the 3,400 or so people we’ve killed over the last 10 years in such strikes, at least 12% were innocent bystanders. (“Collateral damage,” in Pentagon-speak, that bland, actuarial-esque term intended to sanitize the unintended and tragic consequences of such actions.) This, when we were targeting only one or two people and not responding in real time to attacks.
Politicians have used war to divert attention from their own failings since the inception of the city-state. Among the most blatant demonstrations I witnessed as a journalist occurred in Argentina in 1982, when the despised ruling military junta invaded the Falkland Islands. One minute there were almost a million people out in the streets of Buenos Aires, calling for the heads of the generals — and the next thing you knew, the country had invaded the Malvinas (as the Falklands are known in Spanish): a clump of wind-whipped rocks in the South Atlantic, inhabited by about 1,800 English-speaking farmers and 600,000 sheep, which Argentina has been claiming ever since the British occupied them in 1833. This flagrant appeal to nationalism worked — that is, until the British arrived to retake the islands, and young Argentine soldiers began returning home in body bags by the hundreds.
Obviously, this is an extreme example. Hamas — and the Palestinians as a whole — have desperately real and legitimate grievances against Israel (which I’ll get to below). But the concept of employing war as a tactic is the same. And what of the 32 elaborately constructed tunnels, running from Gaza deep into Israeli territory, that Israel’s forces found and destroyed? In all likelihood, they would have been used to devastating effect to launch terror attacks inside Israel. What if Hamas had instead funneled the resources and ingenuity and energy used to create those tunnels into bettering life in Gaza? (Or at least diverted some of the cement to build bomb shelters for its people.)
And yet, and yet. None of this happened in a vacuum. The past several years have brought little but despair for Palestinians: continued Israeli intransigence on curtailing settlements in the occupied West Bank; a peace process, so assiduously pursued by Secretary of State John Kerry, that fell apart earlier this year. The people of Gaza suffered continuous fuel shortages, daily electrical outages, failing sanitation systems and water treatment plants, a collapsing economy. In the absence of hope, the Hamas strikes against Israel seemed like a bold gesture to some Gazans.
The magnificent Israeli writer and peace activist, David Grossman, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed:
… I ask the leaders of my own country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessors: How could you have wasted the years since the last conflict without initiating dialogue, without even making the slightest gesture toward dialogue with Hamas, without attempting to change our explosive reality? Why, for these past few years, has Israel avoided judicious negotiations with the moderate and more conversable sectors of the Palestinian people — an act that could also have served to pressure Hamas? Why have you ignored, for 12 years, the Arab League initiative that could have enlisted moderate Arab states with the power to impose, perhaps, a compromise on Hamas?
(Grossman speaks with tragic authority; his son, a tank commander, was killed in 2006 in Lebanon in the waning days of the war between Israel and Hezbollah.)
So there you have it: a month-long war, whose inevitability was created by the leaders of one side and set in motion by leaders of the other. And these are the same people who are now going to talk peace.
Where, oh where, are the Nelson Mandelas of the Middle East?