Israel’s Gaza war: five asymmetries

Menachem Kellner
14 January 2009

I was at home in Haifa reading Freeman J Dyson's autobiography, Disturbing the Universe, last night and came across a passage which disturbed me mightily. Dyson had worked in a research capacity for Britain's Bomber Command during the second world war and came to the realisation that "a good cause can become bad if we fight it with means that are indiscriminately murderous." In the end, he thought that German fighter-pilots defending German homes were morally superior to British bomber-crews trying to bomb those homes.

Menachem Kellner is professor of Jewish history and thought at Haifa University, Israel
That made me sit up, as I support Israel's current attack on Gaza and wondered if perhaps the means we had adopted had sullied the country's ends. In the end, I decided that they had not and that in my judgment Israel had to continue the bombing. Let me explain why.

The reason lies in five asymmetries. The first asymmetry has to do with ends: Israel wants to live in peace next to a thriving Palestine while Hamas wants to destroy Israel. The aim of Operation Cast Lead is not the destruction of Gaza, but of Hamas's ability to threaten Israel. To that end, Israel must see to it that the tunnels between Rafah, Egypt, and Rafah, Gaza are interdicted and remain closed.

Egyptian collusion or incompetence, or both, has allowed Hamas to smuggle a host of arms into Egypt, and from Egypt into Gaza: Iranian and Russian rockets in the hundreds (if not thousands), RPG's, machine-guns, anti-aircraft guns, and tons of explosives.

The second asymmetry has to do with means. Israel seeks to avoid civilian casualties while being fully aware that they cannot be avoided if the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are to defend their people; but huge efforts are made to minimise these (among other things, by warning Gazans in advance of attacks that will endanger them). Hamas, on the other hand, has indiscriminately fired thousands of rockets at towns and cities in Israel since the withdrawal from the Gaza strip in August 2005.

Providentially, few Israelis have been killed by these rockets, but a million people have been and continue to be terrorised by them. When you have an enemy who uses children as shields, either the children get hurt or the enemy wins. This is an asymmetrical zero-sum game between Israel and Hamas: if they win, Israel is destroyed; if Israel wins, Gazans - albeit at tragic expense - are freed from the thuggish terrorism of Hamas, and people in the south of Israel can live without the constant threat of rockets.

The third asymmetry here might best be understood by using Google Earth to view Gaza. Look at the Israel side of the (aptly named) "green line": intensive agriculture. Look at the Gaza side (and nearby Egypt): desert. When I think of Israel, I think of birth, of building, of literally turning the desert green. When I think of Hamas I think of death, of destruction, of turning thriving farms in Gush Katif into launching-pads for rockets. I am not being simply prejudiced here: these are objective realities. Hamas might have devoted its energies to turning Gaza into the Singapore or Hong Kong of the Mediterranean. Google Earth reveals the nihilism at its heart.

The fourth asymmetry, a moral one, is here. Hamas and its supporters celebrate the death of Israeli children; Israeli TV, radio, and newspapers are full of expressions of anguish over the civilian toll in Gaza. I would be embarrassed were such not the case.

The fifth and final asymmetry is related to the TV reporting of the conflict by international news outlets. To watch these from inside Israel is often a bizarre experience. The reporters have a set narrative and pre-determined terms ("cycle of violence", "disproportionate Israeli response", "occupied Gaza", and the like) which rarely let uncomfortable facts get in the way - for example, that Israel treats wounded Palestinians in Barzilay hospital in rocket-torn Ashkelon, while Egyptian forces have fired on Palestinians trying to get out of Gaza.

The media asymmetry is also reflected in much of the international press. It blames the suffering of Gazans (which I do not for a moment belittle) on Israel even though dozens of trucks containing aid supplies are sent from Israel into Gaza every day, while the Egyptians receive little criticism for their own restrictive policy. It criticises Israel when Hamas too rejects out of hand United Nations calls for a ceasefire. The kind of lazy conformism that entraps influential media, and which combines knee-jerk endorsement of Palestinian positions with equally unthinking condemnation of Israeli, bears a share of responsibility for every mangled body in Gaza.

Men, women, and children of Gaza, many of whom have nothing to do with Hamas, and through no fault of their own, are victims in this battle, and that is surely tragic. To allow Hamas to continue in its indiscriminately murderous way would be no less tragic.

Also by Menachem Kellner in openDemocracy:

Among openDemocracy's articles on Israel's conflicts:


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