The world must understand Israel’s motives

This is a republication of an original article written by Merav Levkowitz, Alexander Olesker, and Ariell Zimran in the Georgetown Voice on Thursday, February 5, 2009.

In the aftermath of the recent Israeli operation in Gaza, much of the world has an opinion, but few care to understand why Israel was forced to go to war in the first place.

For the past eight years, civilians in southern Israel have faced a near-constant barrage of rockets and mortar shells. These rockets are constructed from irrigation, sewage, or water pipes, either dug up at the expense of Gaza’s infrastructure or simply stolen from Israel. Their propellant is primarily gasoline, sent to Gaza from Israel as part of humanitarian aid shipments.

Though they are homemade, the weapons are not lacking in lethality—one of these rockets can destroy a house and kill its occupants. In the town of Sderot, where rocket attacks have been a daily occurrence, three-quarters of children are afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the city has literally gone underground to seek shelter.

In 2005, Israel, in a domestically controversial and painful move, unilaterally pulled its citizens out of Gaza, making its commitment to peace clear. Israel was willing to take this risk in hopes that Gaza would become the model of a peaceful, independent Palestinian state. But the rocket attacks only intensified. Rather than reciprocating with a peaceful gesture, Hamas took advantage of the power vacuum to increase its offensive capabilities; the rockets themselves became more technologically advanced, with some increasing in range and others of Soviet origin being imported from factories in Iran, putting one million people in harm’s way.

Despite the six-month ceasefire, the end of which brought about the beginning of this current conflict, there was no point at which Hamas actually ceased firing. The case is similar with the ceasefire that ended the recent fighting—within 14 minutes, Hamas militants were preparing to fire on Israel, and the barrage of rockets has not ceased since. Hamas has made it clear by its actions that it has no desire to achieve peace. Rather, its goal is to annihilate Israel and its citizens.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza, as in any other war zone, is indeed dire and unacceptable. Gaza remains in the grasp of Hamas, whose leaders live comfortably in Damascus or hide in tunnels deep under the Strip, urging their people to continue to seek martyrdom while they themselves avoid the fray. Unlike Israel—which invests heavily in civil defense, such as bomb shelters and interceptor systems—Hamas focuses its efforts on creating an offensive infrastructure and shelter for its leaders, neglecting the masses.

Such is the difference between the goals of Israel and Hamas in this operation: Israel seeks to defend its citizens, while Hamas aims to wreak havoc with little regard for civilian life on either side.

This disregard for civilians is also a cause of the lopsided casualty figures sustained by Palestinians when compared to Israelis. Although most of these figures come from the undeniably biased Gaza Health Ministry—a branch of Hamas—and are parroted by the media without regard for its source, the fact remains that Israel sustained far fewer casualties due to the measures it took to protect its civilians. Palestinian civilians were beneficiaries of Israel’s strong sense of morality in that the Israel Defense Forces took pains to avoid civilian casualties whenever possible.

Israel, in the spirit of a true democracy, has undertaken investigations into accusations of misconduct by its troops. Bolstered by a free press, a liberal and critical population, and a tradition of documenting and investigating military action, these claims will surely receive the fair and just consideration that they deserve.

On the other hand, there has been virtually no international pressure to hold Hamas accountable for its illegal and immoral tactics. There can be no doubt that booby-trapping civilian homes or using mosques, schools, and hospitals as arms depots—to say nothing of intentionally aiming rockets at civilians—are war crimes.

Many critics of the war have argued that Israel could have achieved its goals diplomatically instead of by force of arms. It is naïve to assume that negotiation with Hamas was viable, as Hamas rejects, in its very charter, living side-by-side with a Jewish state. Hamas simply is not a partner for peace.

It is time for Palestinians in Gaza to look to their compatriots in the West Bank, who have benefited from a flourishing economy and relative calm. They must realize the choice that confronts them: to continue to live under Hamas’s iron fist in a perpetual state of war or to support Fatah, which provides progressive leadership that is willing to compromise and work with Israel for peace.