Below, find two intelligent articles on the current confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. With mounting civilian casualties, Israel has come under increasing criticism for its forceful military incursion into Gaza. At the same time, Israeli supporters point out that Israel has been subjected to constant rocket attacks by militants in Gaza, often positioning those armaments near urban areas, schools, and hospitals. There is no simple solution to this continuing confrontation, but Paul Heinbecker and Jeff Saperstein, both participants in the National Security Forum, offer contrasting but reasonable perspectives on the issue.
Time to Side with the Arab Regimes and Deliver Hamas a Death Blow
– By Jeff Saperstein
At a time when America’s key Arab allies are distancing themselves from Hamas and isolating that terrorist organization, one must ask: “Why is the US Secretary of State endorsing an ill-conceived Qatar proposal that does not demand a mechanism for Egyptian/Palestinian border administration , nor a requirement for Hamas demilitarization? And one that seems to undercut the Egyptian Ceasefire proposal supported by the Arab League?” Indeed, the United States seems to be ignoring a unique and most opportune united Arab initiative condemning the Hamas terrorists. Secretary of State John Kerry seems to be ignoring the Egyptian initiative, backed by the entire Arab League and specifically endorsed by the Saudis, for a ceasefire in place.
As Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer writes, this is a most opportune time to isolate and possibly eliminate Hamas. Egypt has cut off aid to the group and blockaded Gaza; Fatah, the leadership in the Palestinian Authority, does not support Hamas, which is also opposed by the Saudis, the Gulf States, and Jordan. One has to wonder why the U.S. is not supporting and nurturing this emerging bloc of conservative Arab states intent on destroying Islamic radicalism.
The core issue in Gaza is this: What should be the Rules of Engagement between Democracies and Islamic Jihadists?
Let’s briefly review the key factors in the Israel-Hamas struggle. Israel has conducted over 3500 pinpointed attacks by land, sea and air. There have been many casualties, but keep in mind that the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, run by Hamas, reports the casualty numbers. They do not explain who is a civilian and who is a militant, so there is no independent verification, although the majority of the “civilian casualties” as published are combat aged men.
Many Hamas fighters do not wear military uniforms. But let’s presume that the total number is correct. Then either the Israelis are incredibly poor shots to be deliberately creating humanitarian violations (three bombs for each death) or they are trying to target rocket launchers and tunnels deliberately built within mosques, schools, and hospitals.
Hamas initiated this conflict, not for the goal of imposing a calamitous defeat on Israel. That is not going to happen. Instead, the purpose of the rocket attacks, which are usually based in hospitals or congested urban areas, is to provoke Israel into launching counter-attacks there. Hamas seems to consider that the more civilians that die, the better. That drives world opinion against Israel.
Israel has a warning system for Gaza civilians to evacuate areas about to be attacked, while Hamas encourages their people to stay to maximize casualties for propaganda.
Do you really want the rules of engagement for fighting asymmetrical wars against Islamic Radicals to be determined by the UN Human Rights Committee (a travesty in hypocrisy), or by demonstrators in European Capitals? There may come a time when the West will have to take on ISIS, Al Nusra, Al Qaeda and other groups who will embed themselves among civilian populations while they attack us.
And consider this: the cement and iron allowed into Gaza for supposed civilian construction was used instead to build the attack tunnels. Hamas knows how to build civil defense to protect its citizens. Instead the whole Hamas leadership is holed up under the Shifa hospital and other hidden bunkers, while their population is left undefended as human shields.
The tunnels under Israeli communities within the Green Line are a very sobering realization for the Israelis; they are used to kidnap or kill Israeli soldiers and civilians. Israel has been able to thwart the devastation intended for it by good civil defense measures, technology and better planning and execution. Should they apologize for not allowing their population to die in greater numbers to achieve “proportionality”?
Do we see the Gaza War as a continuum or an isolated Israeli adventure? Would we really want to raise the bar so high that no Democracy could fight a war because of absurd double standards? I have no doubt the US military will be studying how Israel fought this war and learn how to improve our capacity to fight and win.
The distinction is no longer Arabs and Jews, or Israelis and Palestinians. The Egyptians, Jordanians, the Palestinian Authority and even the Saudis are united in the understanding that from this disaster Hamas must not be allowed to rearm, and that Egypt and the PA must be empowered to administer the Gaza strip. Only then can borders be opened, rebuilding and investment be accomplished, and the Gaza population given some hope that the next hundreds of millions of dollars given to their leadership will be spent for the benefit of their people and not to build thousands of tunnels and rockets to destroy Israel.
So here is the core issue. Will the forces of order (forget American Democracy in the Arab Middle East in the immediate term) or disorder prevail after this conflict? Will the US, EU, Canada and others make a concerted effort to help provide the necessary conditions for a true cessation of hostilities, rather than a time out for Hamas to be rearmed and refinanced by Iran and out of step Arab regimes?
I think it is in the U.S. interest to side with Israel, and with the conservative Arab regimes, to deal Hamas a death blow.
Jeff Saperstein is a teacher, author and business consultant, and the Bridges To Israel Chair at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Ca. He has led several media/marketing and technology professional groups on in depth information missions to Israel.
Israel and Gaza: With rights come responsibilities
– By Paul Heinbecker
“Canada believes that Israel has every right to defend itself, by itself, from such belligerent acts of terrorism” (Foreign Minister John Baird, July 8).
True, and accepted by most of the international community, with a caveat: with rights come responsibilities.
A central responsibility, in fact a legal obligation of any belligerent in conflict, is to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets. Indiscriminate military action is prohibited, as is the deliberate targeting of civilians (Hamas’s indiscriminate rocketing of Israel communities is prima facie a war crime). International law acknowledges that civilian casualties might occur when military targets are attacked, but it requires warring parties to minimize injury and death among civilians. Complexity gives no dispensation from this principle, nor does the unlawful behaviour of the other side. Further, neither side can pre-emptively absolve itself of moral and legal responsibility.
Further, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the statutory guardian of international humanitarian law, “if an attack is expected to cause ‘collateral civilian damages’ that are excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, it must be cancelled or suspended” (ICRC–“International law on the conduct of hostilities: overview”).
The Israeli government thus has the right of self-defence under international law but its exercise of that right must itself comport with international law. The Israeli forces, with their vastly superior technology and firepower have a special responsibility when selecting targets in Gaza.
Gaza is a densely populated narrow strip of land of about 10 by 50 kilometers. It is penned in by closed Israeli and Egyptian borders and an Israeli blockade at sea. Unlike refugees fleeing e.g., Syria, Gazans have nowhere to go. Even before the current round of war, Gaza was described by British Prime Minister Cameron, as an open-air “prison camp”. It has no airport, the Israelis impose extremely tight restrictions on travel abroad and they have sharply curtailed imports and exports. Gaza is also dirt poor, with 40 percent of the population unemployed and 80 percent receiving some form of food aid. As observed by Yuval Diskin former head of Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet “When people lose hope for an improvement of their situation, they radicalize… The Gaza Strip is the best example of that.”
By August 5, 1,814 Palestinians had been killed (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). At least 1,312 were civilians, just over 72 per cent of the total death toll;. 408 children had been killed. The injured totalled more than 9,536. Numerous hospitals, clinics and medical centres have been damaged by shelling, as have UN facilities sheltering civilians. Sixty-seven Israelis have been killed, including two civilians. According to the Israeli forces’ statistics, more than 11,000 unguided rockets have been fired into Israel since Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip in 2005.
The Israeli government states its military forces are acquitting their responsibilities fully, even admirably. Independent human rights groups disagree. Human Rights Watch is accusing Israel of numerous “unlawful acts” and “violations of the laws of war.” Amnesty International has alleged Israeli forces “flagrantly disregard civilian life and property”. B’Tselem and nine other Israeli Human Rights organizations wrote to the Israeli Attorney General to say Israeli military strikes “raise serious concern of severe violations of international humanitarian law.”
In understanding this tragic conflict, the larger context matters. Israel has occupied the Palestinian lands of the West Bank since 1967 (longer than the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe); it has formally annexed Jerusalem; and it has transferred 550,000 Israeli settlers into settlements in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, all of which violates international law and vitiates peace negotiations. Israel has continued building settlements to the point of derailing the most recent U.S.-sponsored round of negotiations, according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry himself. Mr. Kerry called the Israeli announcement in April this year of its decision to build 700 more settlement units as “the poof moment,” the precipitating event that ended the negotiations.
Philip Gordon, the White House Coordinator for the Middle East, recently asked “How will Israel have peace if it’s unwilling to delineate a border, end the occupation, and allow for Palestinian sovereignty, security and dignity?”
If the two warring sides and their supporters abroad do not take this context into account, they can content themselves with conscience-easing narratives and avoid confronting uncomfortable realities. Some, including the Canadian government, see the issue simply as a democracy confronting a terrorist group and doing what has to be done. It has said little about restraint, international law or Palestinian rights. Others, notably Mr. Diskin, and former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, think that the Israeli government is making a very serious mistake in conducting a war of choice.
Periodically “cutting the grass” in Gaza – the grotesque euphemistic term for periodic bloody invasions – produces more extremists. Further, each round of this conflict has seen Hamas (and Hezbollah) go up the technology curve to the point that all of Israel is now within range of rocket fire. Rather than launching a campaign against the Palestinian national unity government when Hamas agreed to back it, the Israeli government could and should have tried to work with it. At least they should have tested whether the new Palestinian national unity government could have been the negotiating partner whose absence Tel Aviv previously claimed to lament.
Ottawa, where all foreign policy decisions are made with an eye to their possible impact on 2015 federal election, but which are nevertheless proclaimed to be principled, has turned a blind eye to the rapidly increasing casualties. Ottawa decision-makers are apparently content to see the issue as being essentially black and white. According to the Prime Minister, “Canada is unequivocally behind Israel.” According to the Foreign Minister, “responsibility rests solely with Hamas and its allies” (a defence that got short shrift when President Vladimir Putin used it to try to shift blame for the downing of MH17). The Liberals and some all-purpose pundits have aligned themselves with this view. The assumption seems to be simply that in Israeli-Palestinian confrontations Israel is automatically right and the Palestinians are automatically wrong, international law notwithstanding.
When UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay observed that “Israel, Hamas, and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza have been down this road before, and it has led only to death, destruction, distrust and a painful prolongation of the conflict“ and she “appealed to all sides to abide by their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” Mr. Baird accused her of creating moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas. The irony is that Ottawa’s moral absolutism does not take anyone closer to a resolution of the conflict or Canada any closer to an effective foreign policy. Instead of repeating its apparently unconditional support for Israel, Ottawa should be promoting compliance with international law, working with others to interrupt the mad cycle of violence in Gaza and reminding all concerned of their legal and moral obligation to protect civilians. Innocent people are dying in droves.
Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s last ambassador to serve on the United Nations Security Council, is a former chief foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. He is currently with Laurier University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont. An earlier version of this op-ed originally appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.