Related to my piece, “We Are All Living In Israel,” I received the following comment from a very bright and thoughtful reader of this blog:
Yikes and Wow! I have to call “horseshit” on you, Duane. Israel has not honored its commitment to allowing a Palestinian state. Ever. It continues to encroach on the ever-shrinking Palestinian territory. Much of the area in uninhabitable due to the devastation by Israeli bombing. More illegal Israeli settlements are being built in the West Bank with impunity for the right wing zealots who build them. The West doesn’t give a shit. Israel receives empty chidings, but nothing with teeth since Eisenhower. Is Hamas disgusting? Most certainly, but you just spent a number of paragraphs giving Israel the same free pass to butcher and destroy and suffocate Palestine as they brutally see fit — with no need for them to be honest brokers for peace or fairness. A plague on both their houses: Hamas and Likud. You surprise me, sir.
My response is lengthy, but this is a complicated subject:
Ah, my friend. You surprise me, too.
Is Hamas disgusting? Most certainly, but you just spent a number of paragraphs giving Israel the same free pass to butcher and destroy and suffocate Palestine as they brutally see fit — with no need for them to be honest brokers for peace or fairness.
What surprises me is your claim that I have given Israel a “free pass to butcher and destroy and suffocate Palestine as they brutally see fit.” I guess I should begin by asking you to specifically cite a sentence or a paragraph that led you to make that claim. Obviously, since you have read other things I have written, you must know I would never offer a free pass to anyone to do such things. So, I am a bit perplexed as to how you could say such a thing, especially given the nature of the moral argument being made in this piece.
In any case, I will respond this way:
The question I asked was: Should the Israelis be losing the current PR war with Hamas? In other words, do they deserve to be condemned over and above Hamas for what has been happening? And the answer, at least to me, is they shouldn’t be. That’s not to say (and I mentioned this) that the Israelis are historically blameless in this context. If you read Harris’ piece, you will notice that he mentioned “war crimes” on the part of the Israelis. I didn’t go that far because a war crime charge would require a whole legal argument I didn’t want to take the time to make. But I did write this:
Sure, there are bad actors in Israel. Sure, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Defense Forces have much to answer for. Sure, any solution to the problem between Jews and Arabs is not enhanced by killing civilians in Gaza. I have several times criticized Israeli actions regarding their dealings with Palestinians.
I said all that because I wanted to make clear that the Israelis (Israeli leadership and those who call themselves settlers, to be precise) have often behaved badly and the Palestinian people have suffered because of that behavior. The problem is that this piece wasn’t about this or that bad behavior on the part of the Israelis in times past. Most of us know that they have done things that deserve condemnation (just like Americans and Europeans), which I have written about (especially regarding the settlement issue). But this piece was about whether the Israelis, compared to Hamas, deserved our “larger” moral condemnation for their response to recent missile attacks. For the reasons I stated, I don’t think so. Here is more explanation:
Most Jews in Israel don’t want to turn Gaza or the West Bank into a Jewish state (which is where the settlement issue comes in; some Jews, with right-wing Jewish leadership in charge, have been, borrowing your word, encroaching on Palestinian lands, a situation that must be rolled back before any real peace is possible; right now 500,000 “settlers” live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem). And there is no charter guiding Israeli officials that explicitly or implicitly states that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank belong to the Jews and all Arabs should be removed. In fact, the Israelis could have, if they had wanted, kept all the land and forced all of the Palestinians to leave (they did, after all, occupy Gaza for 38 years). But they didn’t for reasons that support my claim: they share the same values as most Westerners, even if, like us, they don’t always live up to them.
In fact, a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution (even if Netanyahu doesn’t or thinks one is “impossible”), although a disturbing number of them (maybe a fourth) would tolerate an apartheid state. Call that the Israeli Tea Party. The fact remains that most Israelis aren’t religious radicals that see Palestinians as targets for destruction, even if the oppression of Arabs in Palestinian territory is itself a gross injustice (and, practically speaking, stupid) and a continual source of problems. I could list several actions by the Israelis that deserve our stern judgment, but none of them have at their base an open disdain for Western values (again, even if they often fall short, as in the rush to settle as much Arab land as possible).
Now, look at Hamas, to which this comparison was made. You said the organization is “most certainly” disgusting. Then you move right on. I find people on your side do that a lot. They readily admit how awful Hamas is just before they begin a long list of Israeli atrocities. Usually the criticism is in the form of (as John Judis wrote) “There is no moral justification for Hamas firing rockets against Israeli cities, but…” They tend to ignore the depth of depravity, most of it buttressed by fundamentalist Islamic nonsense, that characterizes Hamas’ long-term strategy. Let’s begin with its charter or “covenant,” made “In the Name of the Most Merciful Allah.” In its preamble it says:
Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.
I could stop there and my moral point about Hamas would be made, in terms of any comparison with Israeli retaliation. The Jews have no such guiding document that uses obliteration of Arabs or Muslims as its main principle. Their response to Hamas is based on the principle of self defense, whatever you think of the proportionality of the response. But I won’t stop with the charter’s preamble. Look at Article Eight, defining the slogan of Hamas:
Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Koran its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.
“Death for the sake of Allah” isn’t just a noble thing to these people. It is “the loftiest” of Hamas’ wishes. I find that disturbing and there is nothing comparable on the other side. Nothing. Absorbing this kind of thinking is what leads Hamas leaders to get women and children to die in Israeli strikes so as to bring condemnation on the Israelis from world players. That’s what Harris meant by the Jews being “brutalized” by the process, “largely due to the character of their enemies.” It isn’t a pretty thing to admit, but your enemies can drive you to some pretty questionable things, like attacking Hamas targets among civilians, which is part of Hamas’ strategy to win hearts and minds. But such Israeli actions, questionable as they might be, are not on the same moral plane as putting the women and children there to be killed in the first place, or encouraging them to get killed or blow themselves up in the name of Allah. That is what Harris (and I) are trying to say. Yes, the Israelis have done things that no nation should be proud of, but when you are living beside a group of people who officially will your national destruction, and who send suicide bombers into your cities to kill innocents, and who indiscriminately fire missiles at your citizens, then you have a right to respond. We can make moral judgments about the proportion of the response, but that judgment ought to include a thorough understanding of the nature of the enemy the Jews are facing.
And I guess that is where we differ. I can’t get passed the explicit objective of Hamas and other radical Islamic groups and the immoral means they are willing to employ to achieve it. There is nothing morally comparable to it on the Israeli side. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal told Charlie Rose the other day:
We are not fanatics. We are not fundamentalists. We do not actually fight the Jews because they are Jews, per se. We do not fight any other races. We fight the occupiers.
The problem is that they are fanatics and fundamentalists. Their actions prove it. Their founding document proves it. And, as far as Hamas is concerned, the Jews have no rights at all to “occupy” any part of Palestine. In other words, just as Hamas’ charter states, an Israeli state is impossible to tolerate.
It took me a long time to come to the position I have. Over the years I have read thoughtful pieces on both sides of this moral debate and I admit that when I published this piece I knew it would provoke some to react the way you did. But I want everyone to understand that when we consider what is happening between Israel and Hamas, we are finally left with a “yes, but…” response to the position of both sides. I finally came down where I did because I imagined myself both in the shoes of an average Palestinian, living in a land literally choked off from the rest of the world, and an average Israeli citizen, living in a city that has sustained missile and suicide bomber attacks.
I think I can understand why some Palestinians might resort to violence in the face of the oppression they experience. But I can never understand why a group of people, fighting for a tiny slice of real estate, think that it is okay, in the name of Allah or any other “merciful” being, to kill innocents and have innocents killed to achieve a goal they will never—never ever—achieve. I would hope that, as a Palestinian, I would not only be smarter than that, but more moral than that.
So, as far as the moral case over the recent Israeli response is concerned, I come down on the side of the Israelis (at least as of early this morning; I am willing to admit things could get worse and my future opinion could change), even though, as an average Israeli citizen, I might understand that my government has not always comported itself well in relations with the Palestinians, and I might admit that actions like allowing Jews to settle in Arab lands is a roadblock to peace, as is the harshness of the blockade of Gaza. Because when I look at that Hamas charter and its calling for the obliteration of Israel, when I realize that these terrorists are truly willing to sacrifice innocents on both sides in the name of an Iron Age deity, I realize that it would be immoral not to act, immoral not to fight back, immoral not to defend the citizenry as if the very existence of the nation depended on it.
Because ultimately it does.