At the end of weeks of fighting in Gaza, international condemnation for Israel’s conduct has been increasingly harsh with each passing day. With the toll of Palestinian casualties rising to nearly two thousand at press time, and with Israeli fatalities still only several dozen and most of them soldiers, the Jewish state faces fresh opprobrium from the press as well as even senior figures in the Obama administration as combat in the densely populated strip yields new horrors.
But Israel’s resolve remains remarkably cemented, its people self-assured, as I observed personally during the opening weeks of the fighting. In virtually every other conflict in which Israel has been engaged in the decades since it came into possession of the West Bank and Gaza as a result of the Six Day War, public opinion has faltered. This stands as an exception. A country whose politics are generally characterized by bitter ideological divisions and whose elections have almost never yielded a majority to any party suddenly finds itself more united now than at any point in recent memory.
The contrast between the Israeli mood and the growing chorus of condemnation across Europe and even in the American press is stark. In the media and on the streets filled with large and noisy pro-Palestinian demonstrations, critics of the Jewish state have excoriated it for the suffering in Gaza. Even in the United States—where support for Israel has remained relatively steady—many of those who claim to be its friends have bitterly and publicly admonished the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the bad publicity generated by pictures of young Palestenian casualties.
Israelis have often been quite sensitive to foreign criticism. They have turned on even popular governments in the past when allegations of Israeli complicity in the killing of Palestinians in the midst of war were broadcast. That’s what happened in 1982 when hundreds of thousands turned out to demonstrate against Menachem Begin’s government when it was accused of involvement in the massacre of Sabra and Shatilla in the First Lebanon War. But this time the rising Palestinian casualty count has had virtually no impact on Israeli resolve. Astonishingly, even after weeks of heavy losses for the army units operating in Gaza, polls have shown that nine out of ten Jewish Israelis enthusiastically endorse the war and their government’s conduct of it. Opposition leaders in the Knesset have backed the government, and even some of Netanyahu’s most prominent left-wing critics can be heard dismissing those same foreign detractors they had often cited in the past as proof of the prime minister’s incompetence.
Why? Some of the country’s detractors would argue that Israelis have grown self-satisfied and smug behind their security fences and army, and that they no longer care about the cost of the ongoing war for their foes. But that answer fails to take into account both the reality of the conflict that is rarely understood abroad and the nature of the threat to Israel. If Israel is demonstrating that it no longer gives a fig for the good opinion of the world, then it is not because it has stopped listening to its conscience. Rather it is because it thinks critics are either dead wrong about the facts or malicious or both.
To understand why this is so, one must not only unravel how this particular round of fighting began but also the events that preceded it in the last year as the United States pressed hard for negotiations to end the historic impasse between the two sides.
As far as most of the world is concerned, the current conflict began in June when terrorists believed to be of a Hamas cell in the West Bank city of Hebron kidnapped and killed three Jewish students hitchhiking home. The search for the trio transfixed Israel, a small nation where the crime was seen as a direct attack on the country’s children. Conversely, Palestinians celebrated the crime with a social media campaign mocking the victims’ plight and demonstrations in the streets aimed at obstructing the Israeli Defense Forces’ search for the kidnappers.
The victims had been almost immediately murdered by their captors, a fact that was not generally known for some time. The general expectation among Palestinians was that the students would turn out to be “three Shalits,” a reference to Gilad Shalit, the soldier kidnapped by Hamas terrorists and held from 2006 to 2011 before being ransomed by Israel in exchange for more than one thousand imprisoned Palestinian terrorists, including many guilty of egregious atrocities. But Hamas’s expectation of profiting from the crime was dashed when the Israeli government decided the students’ kidnapping was reason enough to re-arrest many of those freed in the Shalit deal.
Yet the next twists in the plot might well have forced Netanyahu to stand down. Violent protests in the West Bank led to the deaths of Palestinian demonstrators. Even worse, a group of Jewish soccer hooligans from the Jerusalem area decided to take personal revenge for the deaths of the three students and kidnapped and killed a Palestinian teenager in a gruesome fashion. The crime was widely condemned by the Israeli government and throughout the country. It also lessened the international sympathy that had been generated by the kidnapping of the students.
But Hamas decided that this was just the excuse it needed to intensify the conflict. Militants launched massive barrages of rockets at Israeli cities, forcing the Israelis to hit back with air strikes aimed at the launch sites and setting in motion the series of escalations and subsequent denunciations of Israeli conduct.
Hamas’s decision had little to do with any alleged grievances against Israel and everything to do with the Islamist group’s own predicament heading into the summer. Hamas has ruled Gaza as an independent Palestine in all but name since the coup with which it seized power from its Fatah rivals in 2007. But its hold on the strip was weakned in 2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt was overthrown by the military there. The new government rightly regarded Hamas as an ally of—if not the creature of—the Brotherhood, an organization that, after its year of misrule in Cairo, the military was determined to suppress. As a result of this, Egyptian leaders shut down the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt and heightened the isolation that had been imposed on the strip since the Hamas coup. That in turn created financial shortfalls for Hamas and made it more difficult for the organization to continue to import the weapons and building materials from abroad that it was using to fortify the small area under its control.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry had been pushing renewed peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Given the divide among the Palestinians, Kerry’s mission was given little chance of success and events proved the skeptics right. Hamas opposes Israel’s existence; its charter demands not only its foe’s obliteration but the slaughter, or at least the eviction, of Jews. So long as Hamas remained in control of Gaza, it was impossible for Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, to sign a treaty that would recognize Israel’s legitimacy, no matter where its borders were drawn. But Kerry, who had little patience with the Netanyahu government’s demands for both security guarantees and a commitment to end the conflict for all time, chose instead to blame his failure on Israel when Abbas refused to continue negotiating in April. Abbas, rather than suing for peace, then surprised Kerry by choosing to sign a unity pact between his Fatah party and Hamas.
The American government saw this as a sign of Hamas’s desperation and a chance for the Palestinian Authority to regain control of Gaza and moderate the Islamists’ intransigent attitude. But this naïve interpretation of events underestimated the resolve of the terrorist group to hold onto power as well as to outflank Abbas. The dynamic of Palestinian politics has always given a perverse advantage to the group depicting itself as the loudest voice in favor of violence against the Israelis. Kerry had predicted that the failure of his initiative would lead to a new round of violence, a self-fulfilling prophecy that earns him a share of the blame for the current conflagration. The failure of the peace talks as well as the blockade by Egypt gave Hamas an incentive to launch a new conflict that would both undercut their putative partner and might force the Egyptian government to loosen the isolation of Gaza.
Thus, although most of the international press is prone to blame Israel for any upswing in violence, it’s Hamas that sought this conflict. Just as important from the point of view of the Israeli public, which is inclined to see skeptically any knee-jerk impulse to launch an offensive against Gaza by their center-right government, Netanyahu was slow to order his troops to attack. When, after the West Bank kidnapping, Hamas began to fire missiles into Israel, Netanyahu showed himself reluctant to do anything more than order air strikes against Hamas launch sites. It was only when Hamas repeatedly refused cease-fires in which Israel offered “quiet for quiet” and it became clear that the border between Gaza and Israel was riddled with tunnels designed to facilitate terrorist attacks that the prime minister finally ordered the Israeli Defense Forces to launch a limited ground offensive.
From the start of the conflict the main point about the fighting as far as the international press has been concerned is the lopsided death tolls for the two sides. In the first month of fighting, Hamas launched more than three thousand missiles at Israeli cities in the hope that some might get through the country’s defenses and cause devastation. But thanks to the Iron Dome missile defense system—designed by Israel but developed as a joint U.S.-Israeli project—almost all of Hamas’s rockets were either intercepted or fell harmlessly into the sea or into empty fields. The Islamists were clearly outmatched. But their arsenal’s increased range—in previous conflicts only those parts of Israel adjacent to Gaza were hit—forced nearly two thirds of the Israeli population to take shelter amid wailing air sirens. This was something of a victory for Hamas. When one rocket fell harmlessly a few miles from Israel’s international airport, it was given an additional bonus in the form of a ruling from Federal Aviation Administration shutting down flights to Ben Gurion Airport by U.S. airlines. Though the ruling was soon reversed, it created havoc for travelers not booked on Israel’s El Al airline.
Though Israelis faced the terror of constant attack from the air, few were injured, as both Iron Dome and the country’s excellent civil defense system, with shelters and safe rooms included in all new buildings, saved countless lives. That was not the case in Gaza, where Hamas fighters continued to conduct operations from civilian areas in the densely packed strip. They used schools and other facilities operated by the United Nations as operations centers or to store arms. Three times rockets and other armaments were found cached in UN facilities; in one case the UN officials helpfully turned over the rockets to Hamas.
The same was true of mosques and hospitals. Hamas’s military leadership sat out the war in the bunkers under Gaza City’s Shefa Hospital, dodging their own rockets, which in one instance fell short and hit the facility.
Every time Israeli air strikes or artillery fire aimed at terrorists fell on such places, hitting also sheltering civilians, the ensuing slaughter fueled the growing anger at the Jewish state. Compounding this problem was the oft-reported claim that, in contrast to the Israelis, Palestinians in Gaza had no bomb shelters to flee to when the shooting started. But this was not for lack of facilities in Gaza that could have been used to prevent injuries to civilians. Gaza is actually honeycombed with underground structures built by Hamas at enormous expense. But rather than sheltering the civilians who were being victimized by the war the Islamists started, the underground city protected Hamas fighters and their arsenal. These were indeed “bomb shelters,” in the unusual sense that they were shelters for bombs, not people.
Israel has been accused of waging “total war” against Palestinian civilians. But throughout the fighting, convoys of food and medicine and other essential materials passed each day from Israel into Gaza as they had before the fighting started. The only holdups in this flow of aid came from Hamas attacks on the border crossings. The same concrete that Israel had been allowing into Gaza in recent years to help rebuild damage done by recent conflicts was used to create an infrastructure of terror. Hamas dug dozens of tunnels, many of which extended for miles inside the strip in order to facilitate terrorist attacks across the border. The Israeli Defense Forces claimed to have found plans for a mass attack this year on Rosh Hashanah. Whatever the immediate goals of Hamas, the discovery of these tunnels raised alarms inside Israel, forcing Netanyahu to order more troops into the strip to clear the border area. The result was more intensive fighting and dozens of Israeli deaths along with far higher Palestinian casualties.
But as Israelis coped with the fact that their enemies had constructed this underground maze—a notion that struck most as somehow more horrifying than the daily assault from the air—all the international press seemed to focus on was the fact that many more Palestinians than Israelis were dying in this war.
All armies forced into asymmetrical warfare face a difficult problem when seeking to combat terrorists who use civilians as human shields. American troops encountered it in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where similar civilian casualties have provoked anger on the ground in spite of highly restrictive rules of engagement for troops, restrictions matched or even exceeded in their stringency by those placed on Israeli soldiers and airmen.
All that said, Israelis couldn’t help but notice that the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of their Jewish foes was somehow deemed more significant or egregious than the far greater casualties incurred in the Syrian civil war going on at the same time or any other of the far bloodier conflicts that simmered in the region. The horrors of war only seem to generate outrage when Israelis are involved, even though they are objectively speaking on the defensive. Nor were citizens of the Jewish state inclined to apologize for the fact that, thanks to Iron Dome, they were not dying in sufficient numbers to generate international sympathy.
Nor did it escape their notice that the battalions of foreign reporters who flooded tiny Gaza during the fighting and produced harrowing videos and pictures of Palestinian casualties never seemed able to find a single Hamas fighter out of the thousands of terrorist cadres operating there. The failure of foreign camera operators to snap a single picture of a rocket being launched in the strip during a time when hundreds were going up every day was also rightly considered proof that whether due to intimidation or self-censorship journalists were keen to avoid offending the rulers of Gaza. CNN’s denials of restrictions on its activities also conjured up memories of their similar statements about such operations in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before his overthrow. But there were no similar difficulties finding shots of dead Palestinian children, and the context of their plight—being caught in the crossfire between the Israelis and the Hamas gunmen sheltering in their midst—rarely came across. The picture the world was given of Gaza was merely of Israelis attacking as if their heavily armed foes didn’t exist.
Further deepening the disillusion among Israelis about international opinion was the nature of many of the protests being conducted against them abroad. In Europe, the mass demonstrations conducted by those who sympathize with the Palestinian cause were tainted by anti-Semitic slogans and signs. One such protest turned into a violent siege of a Paris synagogue. Similar incidents were reported elsewhere in Europe. Even in the United States, where polls showed a majority of Americans still supporting Israel, such anti-Semitic outbursts in the form of offensive placards were seen at demonstrations across the nation. The rising tide of anti-Semitism whose existence in Europe even the State Department has acknowledged seemed to be finding a foothold among Palestinian sympathizers on campuses as well as cities across this country.
For many of Israel’s critics, this new round of violence is fresh proof that the “occupation” that enraged Palestinians has to end. But what Israelis—even those most committed to the peace process—understand is that Hamas’s activities have had nothing to do with the diplomatic stalemate over the future of the West Bank that had stymied Kerry. When Hamas spokesmen noted their group’s “resistance” to the occupation, they were not referring to controversial West Bank settlements, but rather to the cities inside pre-1967 Israel, such as Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem at which their rockets were aimed. Though the Obama administration seems fixated on the idea of using the fighting to revive Kerry’s talks, even Israeli left-wingers who despise the settlers have acknowledged that Hamas’s decision to launch a war had tabled the two-state solution for the foreseeable future.
After all, Israel had withdrawn every last soldier and settler from Gaza in 2005 only to see it transformed into a hub of terrorism rather than the incubator of Palestinian development that many hoped it would become. The creation of a terrorist state there stands as a permanent obstacle to peace, since Israelis rightly fear that any withdrawal in the West Bank would simply mean, as Netanyahu put it, “twenty more Gazas” adjacent to Israeli population centers.
But rather than encouraging Israel to take out the Hamas terrorists who were effectively holding more than a million Palestinians hostage to their ideological commitments, the United States has spent most of the war either criticizing the Israelis’ tactics or trying to broker cease-fires that would not only leave Hamas in place but give them political concessions that would strengthen them at Abbas’s expense.
This is not merely situational irony. It is a testament to a worldview, one that Israelis believe has given short shrift to their dilemma in this war, as well as their hopes for peace. As much as they regret the loss of life in Gaza, Israelis are flummoxed at the notion that rather than have their army act against what is undoubtedly a weaker force, they should be content with sitting back and absorbing daily barrages of rockets that send them scurrying to shelters or live with the sinister threat of terrorists tunneling into their country. It should be remembered that when Islamists attacked Americans on September 11, the U.S. sent its armed forces to the other side of the world to wipe out terrorist bases and to eliminate the masterminds of that atrocity. The mainstream American left did not object. Yet Israelis are expected to allow murderous fanatics with similar designs to operate with virtual impunity next door lest they err and kill civilians behind whom the Isalmists take shelter. Israelis see this as not so much a double standard but as an indicator of the anti-Semitism and support for Israel’s eradication that seems to characterize many of the protests generated by the war.
Coupled with five years of tension with an Obama administration that seems determined to pick counterproductive fights with Netanyahu at every opportunity, this war has, more so than any previous conflict, bred in Israelis a contempt for world opinion and even the views of their American ally. Grateful as they are for American military aid (especially the funding for Iron Dome), they have come to question the sincerity of those who claim to be their friends and support their right of self-defense but scream bloody murder every time it is exercised even in circumstances in which Hamas has been the instigator.
At a time when international opinion seems to be tilting against the Jewish state and when even American supporters worry that it is losing support, Israelis appear to have lost interest in the advice of those who ask them for restraint. The contrast between the hypocritical criticism to which they have been subjected and the constant frightening specter of tunnels and air raids—and all this after decades of seeking the moral high ground in the public relations war with the Palestinians—seems to have bred a contempt for moralizing foreigners even among left-wingers. Saddened as they might be about the suffering on the other side of the conflict, they have come to the conclusion that the safety of their families takes precedence over the applause of an indifferent world.