With news of the latest cease-fire between Israel and Gaza just announced (on Sunday), residents on both sides will now seek to return to their routines. Most Israelis thankfully no longer have to dash to the bomb shelter. Meanwhile, the families of the 64 fallen soldiers and three civilians will have to grapple with the devastating loss of their beloved. May they be comforted among the mourners of Zion.
When one flips the lens and looks at the other side of the border, it is a gruesome spectacle. The loss of life is exponentially greater, approaching 1900, including hundreds or more of civilians—elderly, women, and children, none of whom were armed combatants. One thinks particularly of the children who died, children who were born without hate or prejudice, and who represented the hope for a better future. Their deaths remain the most searing image of this war.
In addition, aerial shots of Gaza show mass destruction of city blocks, neighborhoods, factories, schools, and hospitals. Estimates are that it will require between $4-6 billion to reconstruct that which was destroyed in Gaza. While mindful of the unacceptable threats of rocket fire on Israel, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued this judgment: “The massive death and destruction in Gaza have shocked and shamed the world.”
It is hard not to be stunned by the scale of damage. It becomes even more stunning when we recall that Israel inflicted massive damage on Gaza in a previous military operation, the twenty-two day long Cast Lead from late 2008/early 2009. In that conflict, Human Rights Watch estimated that 700 of the 1200-1400 Palestinian deaths were civilian, whereas three Israeli civilians died. In addition, an estimated 2700 buildings in Gaza were destroyed, along with 600-700 factories, 24 mosques, and 34 health facilities, totaling some $2 billion in losses. (Though smaller in scale, the 2012 IDF Operation “Pillar of Defense” featured similarly disparate numbers of casualties and property
This balance of destruction is not limited to the Gazan theater. In the summer of 2006, Israel responded to an attack by Hezbollah from Lebanon on an IDF outpost that left 3 soldiers died and 2 captured with a coordinated air, ground, and sea attack. Hezbollah responded, in turn, with a huge barrage of rockets that paralyzed much of northern Israel. Here the balance of death figures was tipped heavily to the Arab side, though not as much as in Gaza: estimates are that between 850 and 1200 Lebanese died and 167 Israelis (of whom 46 were civilians). The cost to Lebanon from Israel’s attacks to its infrastructure was estimated at $5 billion, while the war also proved costly to Israel (in terms of slowed economic growth and tourism).
What this brief review reveals is not the saintly behavior of Hamas or Hezbollah. Both are committed, in name and deed, to killing civilians and making life for Israel as miserable as possible. Accordingly, Israel, it must be said for the umpteenth time, has the right to defend itself. That said, when we see each conflict not in isolation but as part of a series, the cumulative effects are striking. Israel uses its huge military and technological superiority not only to defend itself, but to inflict massive damage on its foes.Whether this results intentionally from the “Dahiya” military doctrine articulated by IDF General Gadi Eizenkrot after the Second Lebanon War—the doctrine allegedly calls for the IDF to wreak heavy damage on civilian areas and infrastructure in order to weaken resistance--is unclear. Many will debate and disagree over whether Israel exceeded the criterion of proportionality that is a foundation of warfare according to international law. Many will also debate whether the IDF deliberately targeted civilians or did all within its power to prevent harm to them. Whatever the case may be, the tragic fact is that when an army possessed of the kind of power that Israel has engages in war, there will be extensive “collateral damage,” the hideous phrase to describe the death of innocents who are not direct combatants. Especially in a conflict in which the other side operates proximate to or in the midst of civilians—and in which there is no clear winner in the early days—the boundary between combatant and civilian becomes, over time, more and more blurred. The resulting desensitization to the loss of life—not only in this conflict, but in 2008-09, and again in Lebanon in 2006—leads to costs that may be, as Ban Ki-moon suggests, too much to bear. I will focus on three sets of costs in ascending order of significance.
The reputational costs to Israel are enormous. Israel is no longer the plucky little country caught in a sea of powerful and hostile neighbors (a scenario that was not exactly accurate even in 1948). It is now the Goliath of the region, possessed of the most powerful military force and sophisticated arsenal. The kind of massive damage it can and does deliver serves only to promote the image of an indifferent bully. This is exactly how Israel’s Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors regard it, as do a growing number of Western countries, many of whom once counted themselves as close friends of Israel.
In parallel, the political costs are significant and growing. While Israel still can count on the strong support of the United States, notwithstanding the tensions between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, Europe has begun to grow weary of the scale of Israeli military activity. For example, French President Francois Hollande, hardly an enemy, referred to Israeli-inflicted deaths in Gaza as a “massacre.” More generally, European corporations and governments are ever more willing to impose sanctions on the Israeli-controlled West Bank, believing that the occupation must now be fought with more compelling means. Time is not on Israel’s side, assuming that it takes no steps to end the occupation and continues to respond to local threats with the kind of massive response that it has over the past eight years.
Finally, the moral and humanitarian costs are gigantic. Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated that Israel “regrets every civilian casualty” that was suffered in Gaza. But statements such as this always come after the damage has been done--too little and too late. If there were ever a time to remind ourselves of the famous Mishnaic teaching (Sanhedrin 4:9) that the loss of a single life is equivalent to the loss of the entire world, it is now. One hears regrettably few Jewish leaders, especially rabbis, reminding us of this core teaching right now. Where are the calls in our community to provide aid not only to our brothers and sisters in Israel, but also humanitarian relief and economic development funds to the civilian population in Gaza? We must be cognizant that one side in this conflict is absorbing a disproportionately large number of fatalities, each of which represents a human life. The other side, Israel, which may well be acting on its legitimate right of defense, is causing the vast bulk of the deaths.
But it is no longer enough to claim the right to self-defense and then cast blame on the other side for instigating the war. Basic human decency won’t permit it, given how skewed the balance of destruction is. Meanwhile, international support for Israel will continue to recede, as charges of massacres, war crimes, and even genocide gain. To watch from the sidelines is to abdicate responsibility. In this sense, Jewish Journal columnist Shmuel Rosner, writing in the New York Times last week, gets it exactly wrong when he says: “If all Jews are a family, it would be natural for Israelis to expect the unconditional love of their non-Israeli Jewish kin.” The family metaphor is right, but surely not Rosner’s plea for Diaspora Jewish silence. Yes, we Jews constitute a family. But when a family member is ill or in trouble, it is our obligation to call attention to this and seek remediation. Should we fail to do so, we too shall be guilty of a huge moral failing. And should we fail to insist on alternatives to the destructive cyclical wars in which Israel has been engaged—for example, lifting the blockade on Gaza or encouraging a national unity government in Palestine—we will be abetting Israel’s own political suicide.
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA.