The Absence of Soul Searching in Israel over the Gaza War

Published on Haaretz

The United Nations might have minimal credibility in Israel, but that should not exempt us from asking ourselves tough questions about the high death toll in Gaza.

The one thing that will not result from the UN report on last summer’s Gaza war will be national soul-searching in Israel.

You will hear angry tirades and endless justifications, and mostly the familiar drumbeat that the United Nations is a den of vipers that unfairly and systematically judges Israel by standards that it applies to no other nation. Which of course, it does.

Receive my latest articles by email
Subscribe to my newsletter

Here’s how most Israelis think about the most recent war in Gaza: We can not bend our minds around other people’s obtuseness – Hamas consciously and deliberately murders civilian men, women and children of all ages, while we seek only to defend ourselves. We will not apologize for having better weapons – we did not always have them – although we will shed a tear for the many hundreds of civilians they made us kill. It’s sad but it’s their fault, and their fault alone.

Since the messenger, the United Nations, has no credibility in Israel, the content of the report is almost beside the point, and the bias or fairness of the commission’s chairperson is irrelevant. If the UN tries to hold up a mirror to our actions, we will not look, just as we refused to cooperate with their investigation. (Hamas also refused.)

The report’s call to ship both Israeli and Hamas leaders off to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes deliberations gives the game away. They want us in the docks to answer charges ignored in other contexts across the globe, while we know that it is impossible to commit war crimes against terrorists.

Would it have mattered if the report had been published by someone else?

It’s doubtful. The beauty of the Netanyahu worldview – that everyone is against Israel – is that it comes with the freedom of never having to engage with issues. External criticism by definition comes from enemies. Self-examination is conflated and confounded with self-flagellation, or in the case of leftist critics from within, with treason. Rather than engaging with any critique, the government compels critics to spend all their time defending their legitimacy in speaking out.

So it’s difficult to hear the criticisms through the noise of our own self-righteous breast-beating. Since I find the report flawed and incomplete, it is with some anxiety that I would like to engage one of its points: the scale of the killing.

Most Israelis determined that because Hamas started hostilities by firing rockets indiscriminately at our civilians, and refused to stop firing, then all the blame falls upon the Palestinians. We had far greater firepower than Hamas and we opted to use it often, although not as often as we could have, and not indiscriminately. If the world does not understand our behavior, let them try to live under ongoing mortar and rocket attack.

Most Israelis decided that the principle of proportionality does not apply to us, since Hamas continued attacking Israeli civilians even when we showed them that we were not going to restrain ourselves. Proportionality does seem a bizarre idea in wartime. Other than preventing mutual assured destruction, who holds back? Did not the US try to bomb Iraq back to the Stone Age? And what about Russia, or Assad, or ISIS?

But if the casualty figures do not disturb us, do not make us tremble, then something is wrong. So here is the one thing I would ask other Israelis to think about: We killed massive numbers of Palestinians, including whole families and large parts of many families, and the skyrocketing death toll did not make us change our tactics.

Was this justified?

If we were trying to send a message that Jews are not willing to be victimized any longer and are not afraid to kill, did we need to keep sending that message all summer?

Once we saw that our efforts to warn civilians in advance did not prevent the startling death tolls, that they were either ineffective or insufficient, why did not we change course?

Was every one of our bombs and missiles critical, every Palestinian victim necessary to our war aims?

What did our leaders believe we would gain from killing so many civilians? Were we trying to wear down the palestinians into submission? Did we believe this would be the quickest way to end the conflict?

The global support we garnered during the first week of the war evaporated as the casualties mounted. What made our leaders believe that we would never be required to answer for all those deaths?

You will find little public debate of these issues in Israel because Israel feels besieged, both because we have no shortage of enemies, and because our leaders thrive on their “us against the world” paradigm. Only our victimization – which is genuine but not exclusive – may be recognized.

The Jewish tradition of tokhekha – roughly, rebuke or constructive criticism – will have an impact only if the listener is open to hearing it. Israeli society is not there yet. I suspect we never will be, because the next round of battle will likely deliver reams of new grievances and another UN report before we pause to reconsider the morality of our actions last summer.

Receive my latest articles by email
Subscribe to my newsletter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s