Hamas gunman 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The fog of war is hardly new. But sometimes, in wars that involve Israel, it is not just the battlefield that becomes murky, but what the war is about. No matter how much the simple facts of this current conflict are ignored or willfully obscured, however, they must not be forgotten: Israel is fighting to stop the bombardment of its cities.
This is obvious to Israelis, but people watching elsewhere might have trouble discovering this. An Associated Press report on Saturday, for example, was headlined: "33 Palestinians killed in clashes." Only 23 paragraphs into the story was the reader informed that "Israel evacuated its troops and settlers from Gaza in late 2005, but militants proceeded to fire rockets from the abandoned territory. Militants raised the stakes significantly by firing Iranian-made rockets into Ashkelon, a coastal city of 120,000 people."
Also on Saturday, UNICEF cited UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's concern at civilian deaths in both Gaza and southern Israel, but in its own words mentioned only children in Gaza. "Children constitute more than half the population of Gaza and are bearing the brunt of the crisis. They are already suffering severely from a series of restrictions, including the blockade on most goods imposed since June 2007." To our knowledge, UNICEF, has never shown specific concern for the children of Sderot, who have borne the brunt of some 2,500 rockets that have hit their environs over past years, over 150 in the last few days alone.
Secretary Ban's February 27 statement was slightly better in that it "condemned" Hamas for "acts of terrorism" against Israel, but it also "condemned" Israel for "the killing of four Palestinian children, including an infant." The picture painted is that Israel is equally, or perhaps more, guilty of violating international law and morality than is Hamas. Nor is the UN, notoriously biased against Israel, the only party that seems to share this basic perspective. Even US Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, while backing "Israel's right to defend itself," urged Israel to act with "caution and proportionality" in a February 21 briefing. The EU Parliament was even less circumspect, claiming that the "policy of isolation of the Gaza Strip has failed at both the political and humanitarian level. The civilian population should be exempt from any military action and any collective punishment."
Why are we griping about what seems to be a standard Israeli image problem when we are already in a limited war that is poised to deepen into something much worse? The reason is that whether a full blown war is necessary and what its results would be are powerfully affected by the stance of the international community. In a very real sense, the lives of Israelis and Palestinians hang on the positions of countries that may sincerely want peace, but are now repeating mistakes that will likely feed an escalation of the war.
Whether the war escalates, after all, is largely in the hands of Hamas. It is Hamas that has stepped up the rocketing of Sderot, and added attacks against Ashkelon, a city that is six times more populous. Why is Hamas doing this?
Hamas has calculated that, since it does not care about and indeed cynically exploits the suffering of its own people, it has nothing to lose. The more it escalates, the more likely it will compel Israel to respond with greater force, the more Israel will be blamed for the inevitable collateral damage from its operations, and the more pressure there will be to negotiate with Hamas and reduce its isolation. In other words, the more Hamas attacks Israel, the better its chances for international acceptance.
Accordingly, if the international community, particularly the US, truly wants to prevent further escalation, it must break this cycle. Instead of looking for ways to "pay" Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to return to talks with Israel, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice must impose concrete costs on Hamas's aggression. This means greatly increasing the pressure on Egypt to stop the weapons flow into Gaza, and supporting Israel's right to respond with the necessary means, as any other state would, in order to defeat those responsible for the unprovoked terrorist attacks against her cities.
To the US, such a course of action may seem unwarranted in that it risks censure by Europe and trouble in the UN. The alternative, however, is encouraging a deepening war that will cost many lives, handing victories to militant Islamists, and even more surely burying the process that the US is trying to revive.