By Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho

An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind.

Mahatma Gandhi

The single most distinctive aspect of warfare in the 20th Century was the huge increase in civilian causalities, primarily because of the introduction of aerial bombardment. The fire-bombing of Dresden cost 60,000 lives, and more than twice as many Japanese lost their lives to conventional bombing (500,000) than to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima (220,000). The greatest sacrifice in World War II, however, was borne by the Soviet Union, which suffered an estimated 18 million civilian deaths. The U.S. prosecution of the war in Vietnam left 4 million civilians dead, and we now know, thanks to Deborah Nelson’s The War Behind Me, that the massacre at My Lai was the rule not the exception.

The War on Terror has claimed a great number of civilian lives as well, September 11, 2001, being the single worst day. Claiming that Saddam Hussein was a sponsor of terror, U.S. invaded Iraq and may have caused the deaths of 1 million Iraqi civilians and produced 4-5 million refugees. There were indeed great horrors under Saddam’s rule, but there were no suicide bombers and Sunnis and Shias were not killing each other.

With its well-honed military machine, the U.S. can win any open battle with its enemies, but why do the Iraqis still hate us and why is the war in Afghanistan going so poorly?  The answer is tired but true: these problems require political, not military, solutions.

Since its founding in 1948, Israel has also won every battle, even though it is now widely believed that it lost, at least politically, the 2006 war in Lebanon. The Lebanese Shi’ia of Hezbollah are actually stronger than ever—politically as well as militarily—and the Israelis want to make sure that the same does not happen with the Sunni Hamas in the current Gaza War.  After 21 days of bombing, shelling, and ground assault, Hamas has been weakened but it is not defeated.  There are between 15,000-20,000 Hamas fighters, and only about 550 have been killed. Furthermore, 15-20 rockets are still being launched into Southern Israel every day.

The U.S. and Israel are both partially responsible for the creation of the terrorist monsters named Hamas and Al Qaeda.  Israeli intelligence initially channeled funds to radically religious Hamas to discredit the secular Yasser Arafat. The CIA financed jihadists in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union only to have them turn on us later.  While Iran funds Hezbollah, over 50 percent of Hamas’ finances come from our ally Saudi Arabia.

There is worldwide condemnation of Israel’s bombing and shelling in Gaza, one of the densest populations in the world. Civilian deaths are over 600 and about 2,500 have been wounded. Thirteen medical workers have killed and doctors report that 40 percent of the wounded are women and children. The Al-Quds hospital was set on fire, presumably with artillery shells containing white phosphorous, the offensive use of which is banned by international law. White phosphorous not only incinerates buildings but it also burns human flesh to the bone.

The Israelis are being charged with killing a UN driver and attacking four UN schools where Palestinians were seeking refuge. Even though the GPS coordinates for UN buildings have been given to the Israelis, UN headquarters in Gaza was shelled repeatedly on January 15, and a UN food warehouse burned to the ground. UN officials reject categorically the Israeli claim that Hamas fighters have been shooting from their buildings.

It is very rare that the Red Cross says anything publicly, but it released a strong statement about not being able to evacuate wounded Palestinians for four days. The Red Cross declared “that in this instance the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded.” In this instance the Israeli army relocated over 110 people in one house.  Later, for some unknown reason, an Israeli tank attacked the house, and even though the people made their presence known, the shelling continued and 30 were killed. 

The Israeli military has dropped leaflets on their targets warning residents that they should leave, but with the borders closed they have no place to go. If they do evacuate to another area, they frequently find that that it is also under attack.  The civilians have been described as “fish in a barrel” and “the meat in the sandwich,” and one doctor said the attack on Gaza was “bombing 1.5 million people in a cage.”

UN agencies and human rights groups demand that Israel pay more attention to “distinction and proportionality,” that is distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants and using the right amount of force.  But Jonathan Figel of Israel’s International Institute for Counter Terrorism said that this is not a police action; rather, the goal is to “fight and fight cruel; this is a war, not another pinpoint operation.”

When Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that “there is no humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip,” she was obviously not helping Israel’s already badly tarnished image in the world.  Also unfortunate is this comment by Army Chief of Staff Moshe Yallon: “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”  The Israeli Interior Minister has said that it is necessary to “break the will of the Palestinians.” Although it does not justify it, these statements put Hamas’ goal to solve the Palestinian problem by jihad into better perspective.

Some say that the Palestinians have no excuse because they voted for a Hamas majority in 2006, and they allow Hamas fighters to hide in their houses, schools, and mosques. Hamas won, not because people supported their religious views, but because they were tired of the corrupt Fatah government. Blaming all Palestinians for this war is as absurd as blaming all those who voted for Bush for his incompetence.

The gap between civilians and militants was clear at the Al-Shifa Hospital on January 8.  The rooms were filled with badly injured and dying patients. A Hamas fighter came in and demanded to be treated ahead of the civilians. A New York Times reporter tried to make him aware of what his fanaticism had done to his people, but all he could say, while flashing an “incandescent smile,” was that they would die as martyrs just as he would.

Just as insensitive as those who blame all Palestinians are those who dismiss the 32 Israeli dead in seven years of rocket attacks as 15 fewer than the average killed each month on Israel’s highways last year. Israelis still have memories from the Gulf War, when the entire nation wore gas masks awaiting what they thought would be chemically laden Scud missiles from Iraq. The warheads carried conventional explosives, but it was just as terrifying then as it is now, but thanks to a radar warning system and bomb shelters, causalities have been minimal.

Religious extremists are found on both sides of this tragic confrontation. Hamas leader Nizzar Rayyan claims that “Israel is an impossibility.  It is an offense against God.” Referring to divinely sanctioned slaughter in the Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Mordeccai Eliyahu declared that all Palestinians are responsible for the actions of the militants. “If they don’t stop [the rockets] after we kill 100, then we must kill 1,000. . . If they still don’t stop we must kill 100,000, even a million” (Jerusalem Post 5/30/07). The good rabbi needs to be reminded that the Geneva Conventions prohibit collective punishment of civilian populations.

We should also remind ourselves that there were terrorists and terrorist weapons in Israel’s past. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, both Nobel Peace winners, met for negotiations in a hotel that Begin and his guerillas, then fighting against the British, once blew up.  Homemade mortars, affectionately named Davidikas, did more than anything to force Palestinians to leave their homes in 1948.

Over 80 percent of the residents of Gaza are refugees, 60 years removed from the ancestral homes in present day Israel. Some of the elders still have keys to the original locks on those residences. In 1978 I met a Christian Palestinian in Denmark and for the first time I learned what it meant to be stateless. Israelis have a right to be safe in their homes, but the Palestinians also have a right to return to the land and houses that were theirs long before the state of Israel was founded.

The Bush administration has been totally inept in its handling of the Palestinian issue. The invasion of Iraq has alienated millions of moderate Muslims, and Bush’s nonchalance and tactlessness has also hurt America’s reputation in this area. Especially outrageous is this confession to King Abdullah of Jordan: “I’m sick of the Palestine-Israeli issue.” (The Economist, 8/23/08, p. 73).

Bush’s naïve ideas about democracy and pushing for elections when people are not ready for them have had disastrous results. Early elections in Iraq led to the rule of a corrupt Shiite majority and a deadly civil war. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders wanted to postpone the 2006 elections in which Hamas was the big winner, but Bush insisted that they go ahead.  Bush congratulated Palestinian voters for rejecting the “old guard” Fatah, which is now cooperating with Israel in the West Bank.

The Bush administration has now joined Israel in refusing to recognize Hamas’ legislative mandate and has supported Israel’s brutal blockade of Gaza, which has led to the malnourishment of 75 percent of its children. The tunnels have not only been dug for the transport of weapons, but also for basic supplies for survival.  The June 2007 ceasefire agreement, which reduced the number of rockets to 20 over four months, required that Israel send 700 trucks per day into Gaza, but only about 140 on average crossed the check points.

The best indication of American lack of leverage, other than supplying Israel with weapons, is the fact that Egypt is the broker between the warring parties.  There is no love lost between Egypt and Hamas, because the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, assassinated Anwar Sadat. Egypt has been strongly criticized for supporting the Gazan blockade and not coming to the aid of the distressed civilians there.

Just as the bombing of Lebanon did not force the Lebanese to disown Hezbollah, so, too, even if Gaza is completely leveled, the Palestinians will not give up their support for Hamas. In fact, Fatah may lose credibility because they are now perceived as giving insufficient support to their brothers and sisters in Gaza.  The police in the West Bank, trained with U.S. support, have been praised for the way in which they have kept the daily Palestinian protests against Israel peaceful.

Let’s hope that Thomas Friedman is right in his column in the New York Times (Jan. 14). He believes that Hezbollah is not opening a second front from Lebanon because they, and the thousands of other Lebanese who let them know about, suffered greatly from Israel’s fury in 2006. Friedman believes that a chastened Hamas will be deterred in the same way.

In his article in The Huffington Post (Jan. 5), Marty Kaplan, a supporter of the Israeli cause, is not so optimistic.  He sees a tragic parallel in the story of Samson, who in his blind rage, “eyeless in Gaza,” destroys not only Israel’s enemies but also himself, a symbol of Israel’s might.  Gandhi was absolutely right: military powers that continue to take an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.

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