By Jacob Derin
This week, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict boiled over again, escalating into the familiar pattern of tit-for-tat retaliation between Hamas rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes. The spark was lit by a real estate dispute between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in East Jerusalem, subsequent protests at the al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City and the Israeli response.
Aside from these basic facts, there is almost nothing else the two sides can agree on. As powerful political forces clash once again in the Middle East’s most intractable conflict, the only winners will be those in power.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been feeling the pressure levied by a series of close elections. His ruling coalition grows ever more unstable as a criminal trial against him is underway on charges of corruption and abusing his position. At the same time, Netanyahu represents a hawkish, right-wing coalition in Israeli politics fueled by any sign of Palestinian aggression. This latest flare-up may well represent a reversal of his political fortunes.
So, it should come as no surprise that Netanyahu is less than eager to calm the situation down, promising to use an “iron fist” to crush protests raging across Israel. The phrase recalls Itzhak Rabin’s infamous “Iron Fist Policy” during the First Intifada, a fact of which Netanyahu is almost certainly not ignorant.
But, to really understand Israel’s response to thousands of Hamas rockets launched indiscriminately against heavily populated areas, it’s imperative to understand some basic history of the IDF.
For the first few decades of its existence, it fought near-constant wars of annihilation against a series of avowedly genocidal neighbors. The cultural memory of that runs deep in Israel, a nation founded in the ashes of the Holocaust. Much of the so-called “occupied territory” was captured during these self-defensive wars of annihilation.
But the political and military situation is very different now. Israel has reconciled with some of its neighbors. It enjoys the support of the United States. The IDF has become one of the most technologically sophisticated and battle-hardened militaries on the planet.
In short, Hamas can’t win a conventional war with Israel. But it doesn’t have to. Hamas has a vested interest in maximizing civilian casualties because every photograph of a destroyed apartment building and dead, unarmed people are a propaganda victory for them. This explains their well-documented strategy of launching rockets from densely populated areas to provoke an Israeli military response that kills civilians.
What are the ethics of retaliating against an enemy that uses civilians as human shields?
It’s easy enough to say that Israel could simply do nothing, that its advanced missile defense systems are sufficient protection without defensive aggression. But Hamas’ firepower, even while severely outmatched by its Israeli counterpart, is far from impotent. Five Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed so far by Hamas rocket fire, and at least 100 have been injured. That’s to say nothing of the terror inspired by constant air raid sirens and calls to take shelter.
How much restraint is a country supposed to exercise when its people are being killed, wounded and menaced en masse by a hostile foreign force?
Suppose the United States were in a similar position and were facing a government that had no qualms about shooting rockets at New York, Los Angeles and Chicago from hospitals and schools. Would we expect the federal government to do nothing?
Of course, the exchange of fire is just the ugliest symptom of the world’s hardest diplomatic question: the two-state solution.
As an American Jew, I have always had a series of conflicting moral intuitions about Israel and its relationship to Palestine. On the one hand, I’m acutely aware of the history of violence against and efforts to destroy the Jewish people. When I read the section of the Hamas Charter which states, “The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him,’” I take it at its word.
Yet, the political system in the West Bank is clearly untenable. The Israeli military conducts operations there which in peacetime directly run counter to the principles of liberal democracy: indefinite detention, searches without probable cause, etc. The strict control of the area leads to the impoverishment of its population and could hardly do otherwise.
The most obvious answer is a two-state solution, but Gaza was not exactly a good case study on that front.
As this week has made clear, Israel is still contending with the consequences of allowing Gaza to become a sovereign territory. The West Bank would almost certainly follow suit, making these flare-ups of the conflict that much deadlier and now along two fronts.
Even though a sovereign West Bank may well constitute an existential threat to Israel, Israel can’t continue to operate this way. A two-state solution is the morally necessary outcome.
However, as leaders on both sides, empowered by this most recent outbreak of violence, become more and more hawkish and aggressive, the prospects of such a solution become even bleaker.
And in the end, it will be the millions caught between them who will suffer the consequences.
Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.
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