The international response to Israel’s defensive actions against terrorism is disturbingly familiar, and it is galvanizing the Israeli public against making further compromises to their security for the sake of peace.
Each iteration of this experience feels like déjà vu all over again, driving yet another nail into the coffin of Israeli/Palestinian peace as global condemnation of Israel becomes increasingly disconnected from realistic expectations of how a sovereign nation should handle terrorist rockets raining down on its cities.
With no better solution to offer Israel for the protection of its population, international opinion becomes increasingly irrelevant to Israel’s government and alienates moderate Israelis who would support political and territorial concessions to the Palestinians – but not at the cost of their personal safety.
The latest moral outrage over Israel is that its actions are “disproportionate.” The exact number of dead Israeli children required to justify Israel’s self-defense has yet to be clearly spelled out. Never mind that in Kosovo, NATO killed around 500 civilians while not a single member of NATO’s forces was killed in combat. Never mind that the coalition against Iraq killed over 100,000 civilians, in Afghanistan over 20,000, while “only” a few thousand coalition casualties were recorded.
That the Gaza war, one of many raging in the world today, has yielded one of the lowest rates of civilian casualties, and showcased some of the most valiant efforts in the history of modern warfare to protect the other side’s innocents, seems to matter not one whit to Israel’s critics.
War is a messy, awful thing. But the very existence of international humanitarian law (IHL) – the rules of war – shows that we understand that innocents will die in a war zone. IHL attempts to regulate the behavior of combatants.
Israel scrupulously abides by the laws of war. Its non-state terrorist enemy, Hamas, was yesterday found to have actually printed a combat manual explaining how to actively exploit Israel’s “weakness” – the fact that it minimizes civilian casualties.
Israel cannot, and should not, apologize for having invested heavily in civil defense and its successful “Iron Dome” missile defense system – both of which have minimized Israeli civilian losses. Israel’s response would not be more “proportional” if more Israelis had died – that is too facile and too literal, and it is to misunderstand the concept of proportionality in war.
Israelis have watched the hypocritical international reaction and have concluded that Israel’s very real security concerns are not taken seriously. Israel has a right to defend itself, we are told, but apparently this is a right that exists only in theory, not in practice.
We are repeatedly told that Hamas’s missiles are “crude,” though the latest versions are long-range and deadly. The subtext here is that violent acts against Jews don’t really count – even though children in southern Israel are living under a decade-long trauma of mortars and missiles hitting their homes, schools and playgrounds.
Although, under the laws of war, hospitals and schools lose their protected status if they are used for military attacks, we find ourselves castigated again and again for defending ourselves from rocket attacks in or near hospitals and schools. This, despite the fact that even Al Jazeera openly reports that this is precisely what is happening.
It is this hypocrisy that discourages Israel’s liberals from trusting outside promises when it comes to peace negotiations. When every security measure taken is vilified, the likelihood of Israel making the necessary concessions to bring about a sovereign Palestinian state becomes more distant.
Consider the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, during which right-wingers warned that Gaza would turn into a launching pad for rockets against Israeli cities. Israel’s left, and the international community, regarded the idea as preposterous.
That laughable idea has become reality. And now that rockets are raining down on Tel Aviv, in central Israel, and beyond, and Israel’s response has been condemned almost universally worldwide, liberals and moderates in Israel who have previously pressed for a West Bank withdrawal have become far more cautious.
What indication has the international community given that they can be trusted to guarantee Israel’s security in a West Bank withdrawal, which would require an even greater leap of faith than the Gaza withdrawal?
That their lives and security matter so little to the global community sends a message to Israelis who support an end to the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. Hamas and its fellow travellers have made it quite clear that it is not sovereignty next to Israel that they seek but rather to supplant Israel in the entire territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. “Palestine will be free / from the river to the sea” goes the familiar protest chant in cities around the world.
Trotting out the same tropes against Israel each time it steps up to defend itself makes it much less likely that Israel will be prepared to make the risky concessions the world demands in order to get to a peace deal. Only when Israel feels it can defend itself – with the backing of the international community – will the negotiating table feel more like a safe space to take a step forward than a suicidal precipice.
Hilik Bar is Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Secretary-General of the Israeli Labor party, and chair of the Knesset Caucus to Resolve the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Deputy Speaker Bar’s foreign media advisor is @GabrielSassoon.