Setting the Record Straight on Israel and Hamas
The latest Hamas-triggered war with Israel is now in its second week.
The hope for an early end was dashed when an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire proposal was accepted by Israel, but was met by Hamas with a new barrage of rockets aimed at the Jewish state.
Israel is dealing with a situation that no other democratic country has had to face in recent years—though, with an armed-to-the-teeth and unpredictable North Korea right next door, Japan and South Korea may be in the best position to grasp Israel’s unenviable challenge.
Try to imagine that a neighbor of the United States has smuggled or assembled thousands of missiles with a range of hundreds of miles, and that neighbor has declared a goal of inflicting the greatest possible damage on our country, whose legitimacy it does not recognize.
What would our government do?
It could bury its head in the sand pretending the threat did not exist, until one day the first missile comes flying across the border.
It could attempt to show restraint, hoping this would set an example for the other side, unless, of course, the other side interprets our behavior as weakness and lack of political will.
It could respond “proportionately” to any attack by firing, say, one missile for each one sent our way, but that could lead to an interminable war and countless casualties.
It could follow the tempting prescription put forth by those calling for coexistence, as if every conflict has a negotiated settlement built in, and as if our adversary were not ideologically determined to destroy us.
Or it could conclude, as Israel has, that the adversary is determined at all costs to wage war, won’t change its outlook, and seeks to maximize murder and mayhem, and that this adversary must therefore be answered with a strong, unambiguous response.
It is important to recall that it did not have to be this way.
In 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew all settlers and soldiers from Gaza, giving this narrow strip of land its first chance in history, following previous occupations by the Egyptians, British, Ottomans, and others, to exercise sovereignty.
That could have become the springboard for a new start, perhaps the beginning of a Singapore on the Mediterranean.
But within two years, Hamas, categorized as a terrorist group by the U.S. and European Union, seized power. Rather than Gaza’s construction, the goal became Israel’s destruction. The Hamas Charter chillingly spells it all out. Building missiles became a national obsession. Where schools were built, too often education for “martyrdom” was the norm – and a special facility was set aside for an arms depot, just as in many hospitals and mosques.
Hamas simply does not play by the rules governing democratic societies. In that spirit, it does not try to protect civilians, but uses them for protection, as human shields for rocket launchers and other weapons systems.
All this can be difficult for some outside the region to grasp. It runs so contrary to how we live our daily lives, much less how, when necessary, we wage war as democratic nations.
But it is Israel’s reality. The geography cannot be changed. Hamas has been firmly entrenched in power for seven years right next door, in Gaza, its arsenal steadily growing in punch and reach.
This, then, is a time for moral clarity in the international community.
If the fundamental distinction between Israel and Hamas – between the fireman and the arsonist, between the democratic society and the despotic regime – cannot be recognized, then woe unto us.
If the stark fact that Hamas seeks to inflict maximum damage on Israel, while Israel’s only aim is attaining long-term quiet on its Gaza border, then our vision has failed us.
If Hamas’s indiscriminate firing of missiles with the hope of hitting any Israeli target, be it a kindergarten or a nursing home, does not stand in stark contrast to Israel’s warnings for civilians to evacuate certain planned targets in Gaza, then something essential is missing from an understanding of the conflict.
This is a time for full-throated support of Israel, the only democratic nation in the region and our most steadfast ally.
This is also a time for Washington to reconsider its regrettable decision to recognize the so-called Palestinian Authority-Hamas “unity” government. After all, that Hamas is the very same Hamas waging this war.
If peace based on two states for two peoples is ever to come—and I pray it will—then Israel’s neighbors must understand the country is strong and here to stay, that the U.S.-Israel relationship is unshakeable, and that only a decisive Palestinian leadership committed to peace, and not in league with Hamas, can help get us there.
David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). This article was originally published by The Boston Globe.