After the recent war in Gaza, Israel has endured a firestorm of criticism worldwide over the deaths and injuries of Palestinian civilians. Yet some of the toughest criticism has come from within. There has been a vigorous debate in Israel on whether the Israeli armed forces committed atrocities during the three-week operation, whether enough effort was made to protect noncombatants, and whether religious zealots who see Palestinians as enemies in a holy war have gained too much influence in the military.
This self-questioning is an important process essential to a democratic society. But it also highlights the rather appalling double standard in the world’s response.
The very question of whether similar soul-searching is being done by Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization that is also the elected leadership of Gaza, would be darkly funny. Hamas and its supporters have shown no sign of questioning their flagrant disregard for the life and limb of Palestinian civilians, let alone Israeli ones — and while many civilians in Gaza are angry at Hamas for putting them in harm’s way, a robust public debate of these tactics is hardly imaginable.
As for holy-war zealotry, it is explicit in the Hamas charter, which quotes a statement attributed to Muhammad: “The hour of judgment will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them.” This is taught to children in Hamas-run schools in Gaza. Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who wants the United States to be open to talks with Hamas, thinks this charter shouldn’t be taken too seriously because surely they don’t really mean it, and besides, some Israelis oppose Palestinian statehood too.
For all its flaws, Israel remains a remarkably open society despite decades of existence in a near-constant state of war. This is demonstrated by one remarkable aspect of the current controversy in the armed forces.
Some of the reports of the Israeli war crimes against Palestinian civilians, and of instigations of atrocities by fanatical rabbis serving with the Israel Defense Forces, came from taped conversations in an Israeli pre-military academy. This academy is run by one Dany Zamir, who publicized these allegations (later dismissed as based on hearsay). Zamir is a former officer in the Israeli military who served a brief prison term in 1990 for refusing to follow orders to protect settlers who laid wreaths at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. In an essay published in a 2004 book about Israel’s conscientious objectors, Zamir described the Israeli state as “anti-democratic” and asserted that collaboration with it was “illegitimate, unjust and immoral.”
Can one imagine a man who publicly voiced such sentiments about Hamas heading a preparatory military school — or, for that matter, surviving very long — in Hamas-controlled territory?
Brig. Gen. Eli Shermeister, the head of the Israeli military’s education corps, has told The New York Times, “The question is, did we do all we could do to avoid hitting civilians? My answer is yes.” Was this invariably true? Probably not; in a war zone filled with civilians, such unwavering commitment to avoiding civilian casualties would be superhuman. And, regardless of where one allocates the blame, the human suffering in Gaza is heart-wrenching.
Nonetheless, when the United Nations and international human rights organizations claim that some Israeli soldiers have used Palestinian civilians as human shields, one cannot help noticing the lack of outrage over the fact that Hamas does the same thing systematically. Not, perhaps, in the literal sense of forcing a young boy to walk ahead of its fighters, but in the pervasive sense of hiding its fighters among noncombatants and its military posts behind hospitals and schools. And when the Israeli military is condemned for delaying ambulances transporting the wounded, one cannot help wondering why the condemnation does not include terrorists who turn ambulances into targets by routinely using them for cover.
It’s not just with regard to Hamas that the double standard operates. No one proposed to make Russia a pariah among nations for its brutal disregard for civilian lives during two wars in Chechnya, in the mid-1990s and the early 2000s; the criticism of Russia’s actions was nothing compared to the relentless flagellation of Israel in the European media. One might add that it is unimaginable that much of the Israeli public would hail as a hero a soldier convicted of the savage murder of a teenage Palestinian girl. Yet this is exactly what happened with Russian Col. Yuri Budanov, who raped and strangled 18-year-old Chechen Ella Kungayeva.
In the latest news, leaders affiliated with the Palestinian Authority and the “moderate” party Fatah have shut down a youth orchestra in the Jenin refugee camp and banned its conductor, Israeli Arab Wafa Younes, from the camp after she took the children to perform for a group of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Imagine the indignation if Israeli authorities had taken such action toward an Israeli youth orchestra that played for Palestinian refugees. In this case, though, don’t hold your breath for the hue and cry.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe. She is the author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.”