“Terrorism” and the Gaza War

J.B. Sivanich

Since the Gaza war began Dec. 27, much has been put into differentiating between the “terrorist” ethics of the Palestinian group Hamas and those of the Israeli Army.
Many conservatives and moderates are trying to morally justify the 100 to 1 casualty ratio, saying that Israel has every right to do whatever is possible to protect itself as Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz did in his column titled “An Honorable Warrior.”
They are quick to point out, as New York Sen. Chuck Schumer did recently in a speech, Israel’s habit of airdropping leaflets and sending text messages to cell phones warning Gazans about upcoming attacks. Schumer asked, “What other country would do that?” though the U.S. did that in Vietnam and Fallujah and Russia did that in Chechnya.
There is much to admire in Israel’s concern for civilians, but the actual record of the Israeli military is far less spotless.
In the Lebanese War of 2006, Israel used cluster bombs, which are defined by their inaccuracy. The bombs are intended to cause as much damage as possible, though they are not prohibited in warfare.
The horrifying thing about this event was that 90 percent of the cluster bombs were fired within the last 72 hours of conflict, when the Israelis knew that a ceasefire was about to be reached.
The undetonated cluster bombs, which basically act as land mines, ended up killing more than 30 Lebanese after the war had ended.
Recently, there have been reports, though denied by the Israelis, of their use of white phosphorous by monitors from the group Human Rights Watch. White phosphorous is legal under international law as used as an obscurant to hide tank and artillery offensives, though used in urban settings it can be lethal to anyone in close enough proximity. Reports have already surfaced of people who have suffered extreme burning from its chemical compounds.
Another common method to highlight the difference between the sides in the recent conflict has been in the framing of the debate, clearly distinguishing which side is the victim.
When President-elect Obama visited Sderot, Israel in July of 2008, he said, “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”
It is a reasonable statement, but it could equally be said if one changed “Israelis” to “Palestinians” and removed “sending rockets,” inserting “humanitarian ‘abomination,'” as Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu called the blockade of Gaza in May of 2008, when he was sent on a United Nations fact-gathering mission.
During the blockade, which is still ongoing, half of all Palestinian families only ate one meal per day. After the election of Hamas — something more democratic than what happens in many pro-American countries in the region like Egypt and Saudi Arabia — supplies allowed into Gaza were cut to a quarter of what they were before the election.
Journalist Uri Avnery, who fought in Israel’s war of independence, wrote this about the blockade: “The blockade on land, on sea and in the air against a million and a half human beings is an act of war, as much as any dropping of bombs or launching of rockets. It paralyzes life in the Gaza Strip: eliminating most sources of employment, pushing hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation, stopping most hospitals from functioning, disrupting the supply of electricity and water.”
Not to draw an analogy, but to simply demonstrate the effects of blockades and other sanctions, University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner recently asked if the Iraq War was a humanitarian success, since the amount of people who died during the war was less than the amount of people who would have died under Saddam-ruled Iraq with U.N. sanctions still in place — the U.N. itself estimates that in the first nine years of the 13 years that they were in effect, 1990-1999, a million Iraqis had died due to sanctions.
The framing of the debate cannot disguise that the morality and rationality behind many of the West’s policies in the Middle East not as morally superior.
This is evidenced clearly in last Wednesday’s edition of The New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that Israel’s aims in this latest war were either to 1) eradicate Hamas or to 2) “educate” Hamas by “inflicting a heavy death toll on Hamas militants and heavy pain on the Gaza population.”
Friedman further explains his use of the word “education” by saying “the only long-term source of deterrence [in Lebanon in 2006] was to exact enough pain on the civilians – the families and employers of militants.”
Though Friedman does not overtly say killing civilians is permissible, his message is clear. Salon.com blogger and columnist Glenn Greenwald asks, “Isn’t Friedman’s ‘logic’ exactly the rationale used by Al Qaeda: We’re going to inflict ‘civilian pain’ on Americans so that they stop supporting their government’s domination of our land and so their government thinks twice about bombing more Muslim countries? It’s also exactly the same ‘logic’ that fuels the rockets from Hezbollah and Hamas into Israel.”
He goes on to note the U.S. State Department’s definition of terrorism outlined in a 2001 report: “The term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant (1) targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. … (1) For purposes of this definition, the term ‘noncombatant’ is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty.”
Renowned journalist Nir Rosen might have shown the hypocrisy of Israeli and American claims of “terrorism” best when he wrote, “When you drop bombs on populated areas knowing there will be some ‘collateral’ civilian damage, but accepting it as worth it, then it is deliberate. When you impose sanctions, as the U.S. did on Saddam-era Iraq, that kill hundreds of thousands, and then say their deaths were worth it, as secretary of state [Madeline] Albright did, then you are deliberately killing people for a political goal.”
Of course, Hamas firing rockets indiscriminatingly at Israeli citizens and their use of Gazan civilians as human shields are war crimes. It is hard to support a group whose grievances are so valid, when they have the aims and use the methods that Hamas does.
Too often “terrorism” is used as a normative term, something that happens to us by others but never something we take part in. The best way to wage a “war on terrorism” is to combat it in all of its manifestations, no matter the nationality or motivation of those who commit such acts. It is the only choice if we in the west really are the “honorable warriors” that we proclaim ourselves to be.