Imagine you are the Prime Minister of Israel or the President of the United States, or the Chief-of-Staff of either Army. Your soldiers are fighting a just war to try to prevent rockets from hitting your civilians or tunnels from being used to murder and kidnap your people. Your enemy, knowing that you wish to prevent casualties among their civilians, purposely shoots at your soldiers from civilian areas. Your soldiers, caught in the midst of an ongoing fire fight, basically have two choices: one, fire back and try to stop the enemy from killing you, while trying to avoid or minimize civilian casualties; or two, lay down your arms, because you don’t want to endanger civilians, and accept the risk that your soldiers may be killed.
The United Nations, and much of the rest of the world—sitting in the safety of peaceful areas—have condemned Israel for allowing its soldiers to try to stop the attacks on them while also trying to minimize civilian casualties. “You can do more,” the White House has insisted.
But what more could Israel do, that would not endanger its own civilians and soldiers? Would President Obama like to be the one who has to call the parents of an American soldier and explain to them that their son was killed because he, the Commander in Chief, had ordered the soldier not to fire back at enemy mortars that were being fired at him from behind human shields?
Israel is doing precisely what every other western democracy would do if confronted with the situation Israel now faces. Colonel Richard Kemp—a British expert on this kind of warfare—has said: that Israel it is doing it more carefully and with more concern for civilian life that any other country. The Israeli military devotes considerable resources to trying to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties, while Hamas devotes its resources to trying to maximize both Israeli and Palestinian civilians.
It is worth remembering what the United States and Great Britain did during the Second World War. After German rockets were fired at London, Winston Churchill ordered the carpet bombing of Dresden, deliberately intending to kill as many civilians—men, women and children—as possible in order to weaken the morale of his enemy. The United States firebombed Tokyo killing 100,000 people and then dropped two nuclear bombs killing many more. The United States has also killed many civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo, as has Great Britain and other members of NATO. In none of these wars did western armies take the precautions and give the warnings that Israel has undertaken.
It is unseemly and hypocritical for the western world to castigate Israel for doing exactly what it would do and has done when faced with comparable or even less serious threats.
In Israel, these moral issues are debated endlessly, among philosophers, in the media, within the military, by politicians and by the general public. There are no easy answers, except to those sitting the safety of Washington DC, Turtle Bay, London and Paris. For Israelis, the questions are real, involving life and death decisions. How should the democratic nation balance the lives of its own civilians and soldiers against risks to the lives of enemy civilians? Those who condemn Israel in simplistic terms should try to address some of these more nuanced questions. A reasonable moralist might answer these questions differently than Israel and other democracies have, but Israel’s answers are well within the rules of engagement employed by the United States, NATO and even the United Nations.
President Obama has recognized the difficulties faced by Israel in protecting its citizens from rockets and terror tunnels that are deliberately placed in hospitals, United Nations facilities, mosques and civilian homes. There is a considerable amount of open spaces in the Gaza Strip. Just look at population density maps rather than listening to the misstatement repeatedly parroted by the media: namely that the Gaza Strip is the most densely populated area on earth. It’s not even close. There are cities within the Strip that are densely populated, but there are other areas—some of them quite large—in the Gaza Strip that are relatively sparsely populated. If Hamas were to fire its rockets from, and placed their terror tunnels in these open areas, there would be few civilian casualties. But it is part of Hamas’ strategy to place these lethal weapons in densely populated areas, precisely in order to maximize Palestinian civilian casualties.
Israeli soldiers and civilians should not have to pay the price for this cruel, unlawful and barbaric tactic.