Sorting through the propaganda war.
The main outrage now, in the fourth day (Friday) of Operation Protective Edge, as Israel calls it, is the rising number of killings of Palestinian civilians by Israeli airstrikes, mainly as a result of attacks on residential buildings where militants live or are thought to live.
Haaretz reported that the Palestinian Health Ministry said that of the 86 Gazans killed by Wednesday night, most were children (22), women (15) and the elderly (12). And that didn’t count the five members, at least, of the Ghaneem family in Rafah who were killed when their four-story building, home to some 30 people, was hit overnight.
As usual, the propaganda war between Israel and the Palestinians over civilian casualties goes like this: Palestinians accuse Israel of deliberately targeting civilians, while Israel blames the deaths and injuries on Hamas and other militant groups for using the civilian population as “human shields.”
But the Palestinians’ accusation against Israel is false, while the Israeli claim against the Palestinians is partly false, partly true, but basically misleading. The main reason for the high number of Palestinian civilian casualties, obviously, is that an incredibly powerful air force is bombing the hell out of one of the most crowded, vulnerable places in the world – and the fault for that lies with Israel, whose punitive, often lethal blockade of Gaza, together with its military occupation of the West Bank, invites Palestinians to fight back. As in all its wars with the Palestinians since 1967, Israel is the aggressor in Operation Protective Edge.
But while the Israeli Air Force’s assault guarantees that a high proportion of civilians in Gaza are going to get killed and maimed, that’s not because of the air force’s efforts in this respect, but despite them. TIME Magazine’s Karl Vick wrote on Thursday:
Compared with any other military, [Israel’s] armed forces take exceptional care to avoid civilian casualties. If a house is going to be bombed, a call is placed to it announcing this fact, and explicitly warning civilians to get out. A pilot might also drop a “door-knocker” on the roof — a nonlethal sound bomb also intended to announce an impending attack. The real bomb that’s then loosed on the target is often a munition, sometimes quite small, specifically selected to contain damage to the target and spare the neighbors.
The problem is not that the Israeli army is unusually brutal, as armies go; if anything, the opposite is the case. The problem – in Gaza and the West Bank, now and before – is that the IDF is a colonial army, which is an inherently brutal role, one that other armies were ordered by their governments to give up decades ago.
About Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other armed groups using Gazan civilians as “human shields.” This Israeli claim is based on the fact that Gazan militants live among the civilian population and keep much of their weaponry in the neighborhoods. But this is hypocrisy; every guerrilla army that fights on its own turf against an incomparably stronger enemy fights from among the civilian population. The pre-1948 Irgun and Lehi guerrillas would kill the British, then “melt back” into the Jewish neighborhoods. In Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan, there are civilian public buildings – including schools – with plaques at the entrance telling how they housed weapons caches and training camps for the Irgun, Lehi or Haganah. Up through Israel’s War of Independence, the kibbutzim were military outposts as much as they were civilian settlements.
But in another regard, the charge that Hamas uses Gazan civilians as human shields is absolutely true, and Hamas deserves loud condemnation for it. Karl Vick in Time:
Israel’s military says Hamas is promoting civilian deaths in Gaza, not only by operating from private homes but through posters and slogans actually urging people to cluster around targets as human shields. In one instance Tuesday, by numerous accounts local residents ran toward a building that had just received a phoned warning it was about to be bombed, apparently counting on their presence to protect. And it might have worked: an Israeli military spokesman said an effort was made to divert the incoming missile, but it was too late.
Haaretz reported on Thursday that the Gaza Interior Ministry – run, of course, by Hamas – sent out text messages to Gazan residents calling on them to disregard Israeli warnings to evacuate their homes ahead of the airstrikes. “The aim of the [warnings] is to scare civilians, and civilians must act responsibly and not follow misleading Israeli instructions,” the message read.
This is vile; families are told by their leaders to stay put in their homes when they know they are about to be bombed by F-16s? It’s something like this that tells you no matter how much Hamas may be on the receiving end of Israel’s manhandling of Gaza, and no matter how much it may be the weaker side, it is not any reasonable person’s idea of the “good guy” in this or any other circumstance.
And yet. Hamas’ terrible abuse of Gaza’s civilians in this way is not entirely divorced from (though it is much worse than) the way Israeli society used to consider it shameful for civilians to leave their homes under rocket attack. Good Israelis were supposed to say, defiantly, “This is my home and no terrorist is going to run me out.” As late as the 1991 Gulf War, when many Tel Aviv residents rode out the Scuds at their parents’ homes out of town instead of trusting the plastic sheeting and tape on their windows to protect them from harm, they were widely accused of cowardice. Things have changed since then; the “I” has overtaken the “we” in the Israeli mentality. But through the 1980s, which saw thousands of Lebanese rockets fall on northern Israeli towns, it was considered an Israeli adult’s patriotic duty (though not that of the children, who were sent to safety if possible) to sit at home, helpless, risking his or her life against incoming rockets, for the sake of national morale.
So Israelis should not act that uncomprehending and self-righteous about Hamas’ conscription of defenseless civilians for the cause. And if Gazans are still pretty much stuck in the “we,” not “I,” mentality, Israel bears much of the blame.
But again, it is a great deal worse to pressure people into sitting still for almost certain death or serious injury than it is when such a fate is possible but not very likely. Hamas should be denounced for telling civilians to disregard the Israeli warnings to evacuate their homes. This directive is no doubt driving up Gaza’s civilian death and injury toll, and makes Hamas’ leaders the last people on earth to complain about it. If there’s any ray of hope in this ghastly matter, it’s that the Gazan Interior Ministry’s text message to ignore Israel’s warnings may indicate that a lot of Gazan families have been doing the right thing and running for their lives.