How can the children of Gaza be saved? The gruesome photos and mounting casualty estimates elicit a feeling of powerlessness. But in war, as in life, incentives matter, and creating the right incentives here can save Gazan lives.
In order to save the civilians caught in the conflict between Hamas and Israel, we must promote incentives to prevent the loss of innocent life, both for Hamas and Israel.
Hamas exploits the democratic world’s empathy to its tactical advantage; peace-loving people cannot tolerate the sight of dead children. Hamas sees a simple trade-off: it can sacrifice the lives of innocent Gazans in order to subject Israel to backlash. The more innocents die, the more severe the backlash. Hamas wins when the world community flatly recites casualty estimates and instinctively condemns Israel.
When Hamas is rewarded in this way, it has every incentive to continue endangering Gazan civilians by forcing them – often at gunpoint – into the line of fire. And it has. Hamas has turned hospitals into command centers and UNRWA schools into launch pads and armories.
As Israel’s surgical strike capabilities have become more sophisticated, Hamas’s tactics have become more brutal and transparent.
Israel’s attempts to warn civilians in the current conflict are myriad and well-documented.
The Israeli military drops paper leaflets and warning blasts in the vicinity of any building it targets. Israel even sends individual text message and phone call warnings to nearby civilians. These methods are innovative, if imperfect. But no Israeli technology can stop Hamas from ordering Gazan civilians back into a targeted building.
WHO IS to blame for the deaths of civilians when Israel uses multiple warning methods, including many unprecedented ones? Who is to blame when Hamas militants use ambulances for combat maneuvers, making it impossible for an honest soldier to tell the difference between a vehicle containing an injured child and one containing a terrorist with a rocket launcher? When a terrorist organization sacrifices the people on whose behalf it purports to fight in order to cast its enemy as a monster, the world must not reward it for doing so.
If we condemn Israel without asking these questions, we are complicit in the outcome. We should certainly hold militaries accountable for collateral damage.
But we must look to the precautions taken by those militaries to avoid civilian casualties rather than simply the number of casualties incurred. Condemning based on body count creates an incentive for terrorists to maximize carnage. Here, condemning Israel when it makes great effort to warn civilians encourages Hamas to further endanger those civilians.
Such condemnations also discourage militaries from using surgical strikes. Israel has expended considerable resources in its efforts to avoid civilian casualties. It would be far easier for an Israeli bomber to carpet-bomb a strategic target. If Hamas will ensure the casualties regardless of method, and Israel is to be condemned either way, why would it go to the trouble of using the scalpel in place of the hammer? The loss of innocent life in Gaza is tragic.
But this tragedy can be mitigated. To prevent these outcomes, the world must eliminate Hamas’s incentive to cause civilian casualties. Civilians should not be used as weapons of war.
If Hamas cannot trade innocent Gazan lives for condemnations of Israel, it will be forced to fight its wars with soldiers.
The problem may be complex, but the answer is simple: Hamas must be held responsible for its tactics. When innocent people are used as human shields, those who force them onto the battlefield are responsible.
The ultimate price of the world community’s condemnation of Israel is borne not by Israel or Hamas, but by innocent Gazans – a price that will rise if terrorists worldwide see Hamas rewarded for its brutality. The world community can either encourage or discourage terrorists from sacrificing human lives in service of political ends. For the sake of Gazan civilians, and all of us, we should choose the latter.