Israel's Morality and the World's Myopia

Israel's Morality and the World's Myopia

By Daniel Gordis

Israel's Morality and the World's Myopia

Any discussion of the manner in which Israel has conducted its armed conflict with the Palestinians over the past four years demands, first and foremost, clarity about the nature of the conflict and what is at stake. Israel is at war—not against "militants," or against those who would seek to "liberate" the Palestinian people. Israel is engaged in a war for her survival, against well-armed and increasingly well-trained, highly disciplined groups of terrorists, who are wholly up front about their agenda. Their agenda is not the liberation of the "territories" that were captured in June 1967 in a war that Israel did not want. Their agenda, as Hamas and Hizballah (among others) freely admit, is the eradication of the "Zionist entity" from what should be, in their minds, an exclusively Muslim Middle East.

This is not the Chechens against Russia. All the Chechens seek is independence. Were they granted that, there is every reason to expect that Chechen terrorism against Vladimir Putin's Russia would cease. The same is true with the Basques in Spain. But not with Israel. The only way that Israel could bring an end to the terrorists' attempt to destroy any semblance of normalcy for Israeli life would be to cease to exist. Israelis understand that, and they know full well that any other country fighting for its very existence would be enraged at being judged as Israel has been judged, particularly by Europe, in the last four years.

How this War Began

Israelis also remember when this war began—immediately after Ehud Barak called Yasir Arafat's bluff. Barak offered the Palestinian people the state and the independence they had always said their decades-long terrorist campaign had been designed to bring them. But in Barak's agreement, Israel would have continued to exist. And that, in the end, Arafat could not abide. So he, and a multiplicity of loosely aligned terrorist organizations that include, but is not limited to Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizballah, Fatah, Force 17, and the El-Aksa Martyrs' Brigade sought to bring Israel to its knees by terrifying an entire population into submission.

It is still said, ludicrously, that Arafat couldn't sign the Camp David package because Barak's deal was not good enough. The West Bank, according to some accounts, would have been divided into three cantons, with Israelis retaining control over passage from one to the other. Perhaps. The picture is unclear. But let us suppose that that claim is true, and that Arafat had genuinely wanted a deal. The most effective thing he could have done would have been to tell the tens of thousands of Palestinians who then had the right to enter Israel to sit on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway and on the highway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. He could have invited CNN, whose presence would have made it impossible for the IDF to use force to disperse the crowds. And Arafat could have put the map of Barak's proposal on the back page of the front section of the New York Times and showed the world why he could not sign. Israel would have been forced to concede, and the maps would have been altered.

No Peace in our Lifetime

But that was not Arafat's agenda. Thus, most Israelis now understand that there will not be peace. Not in our lifetimes, and probably not in the lifetimes of our children. There may be a cessation of hostilities—some years more violent and some years less—but we now know that to live here means to live and to raise our children in a permanent state of war. That sentence, that "fate," has created anguish, despair, sadness, and even hatred in Israeli society. And given that despair, and the offer that was rejected, what is striking is the restraint that Israel has exercised. Who else, knowing that no matter what else we may do, we will always be at war, would exercise such restraint?

In Israel, the Kahanist notion of transferring Palestinian populations out of the disputed territories is still considered racist and out of the question. Shutting off the water or electricity or phones of these populations for months on end, to force them to begin to exert pressure on the terrorists, has never been seriously suggested. Has Israel ever considered eradicating a town after it has knowingly harbored a suicide bomber who then killed dozens of innocent civilians? Nor has Israel chosen to fight the war exclusively from the skies, thus reducing the danger to its own troops. Would any other country, fighting for its life and knowing that the fight will never end, exhibit such moderation?

The World Ignores Israeli Restraint

The world, of course, ignores that restraint. It focuses not on American tactics in Afghanistan or Iraq, or the Russians' war against Chechnya, or the atrocities in the Sudan. Instead, it focuses on the mistakes that, admittedly, have been made by Israel. The conduct of a small minority of soldiers at roadblocks has been reprehensible (and judicial proceedings are under way against many of them). The commandeering of some Arab homes by troops is unquestionably distasteful, though sometimes probably unavoidable. Innocent Palestinians, including children, have been caught in the crossfire, and Israeli troops have sometimes been careless and, occasionally, malevolent. Israelis know that, and most are embarrassed by it.

But that the terrorist organizations have chosen to use civilian neighborhoods as their bases is rarely mentioned. No one has dared accuse Israelis of "eye-for-eye" tactics, blowing up buses or wedding halls or restaurants, for such an accusation would be ridiculous. When terrorists fled into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Israeli troops surrounded the church, but didn't storm it. Compare this to the Americans' treatment of mosques in Najaf or Falluja, when their patience with Moqtada Al-Sadr ran out, or what we know would have been the case had Jews been hiding in a church or a synagogue and it had been Palestinians pursuing them. All of this escapes the critical eye of a watchful West.

So, too, does the IDF's consistent determination to do better. The unsuccessful attempt in September 2002 to kill the Hamas chief, Ahmad Yassin, which Yossi Klein Halevi discussed in his piece in this series, had a history. Israel used a half-ton bomb because it acknowledged that in its killing of Hamas chief Salah Shehade two months earlier, it had erred. Then, the IDF chose a one-ton bomb, which did kill Shehade, but which also killed fourteen bystanders, including children. The reaction in Israel was swift, and visceral. Israelis were ashamed and appalled. When Yassin escaped two months later, whatever disappointment was felt that he survived was vastly exceeded by a certain pride that we'd learned, that we had not made the same mistake again, and that despite our desire to kill Yassin, we'd placed the value of innocent life first and foremost. We also noted that the world took no notice of this changed tactic.

In April 2002, when Israel pursued terrorists into the casbah in Jenin, we did so on the ground, in door-to-door fighting, to avoid causing unnecessary collateral casualties. Fourteen of our soldiers were killed in one day. But the world—instead of pointing to the difference between Israel's handling of the battle and what would have happened anywhere else—accused Israel of a massacre. European papers reported the massacre as fact, not as allegation. Kofi Annan, when asked about Israel's denials, responded, "Can Israel be right and the whole world wrong?" But when a UN investigation proved that there had been no massacre, and that Israel had been right, did Annan apologize? Not a word. Did European papers print retractions? By and large, they did not

Myopia about the Separation Fence

The myopia of the world's judgment of Israel's morality is most obvious with regard to the separation fence currently under construction. As the Israeli political right correctly understands, the fence is a de facto way of ceding land. If the fence were built, and if it worked, there would be no need for Israeli forces to cross and to be a presence in the daily lives of Palestinians. It would, of course, also dramatically cut down on terror. But the world, buying wholesale into a Palestinian disinformation campaign designed to make the building of the fence impossible, refers to the "apartheid fence," rather than to the attacks that led to its construction or the diminution in Israeli military presence that it heralds.

Why, incidentally, do the Palestinians oppose the fence? Because the fence would effectively end much of the conflict (although the Kassam rocket attacks do portend that even the fence will not be a complete solution). And, as we know, the end of the conflict is the last thing that the Palestinians want.

The fence has, unquestionably, caused hardship for Palestinians. Some of that is inevitable, given the way in which the two populations are intermingled across the West Bank and around East Jerusalem. And some of the route was ill planned. But compare the ruling of the International Court of Justice at The Hague with that of the Israeli Supreme Court. The ICJ demanded that Israel remove the wall in its entirety. Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the fence was legitimate in principle, and it agreed with the army that its purpose had been security, not an attempt to steal Palestinian land. But still the court demanded that part of the fence be moved to address the hardships it imposed on the Palestinian population.

The court of international opinion, however, seems not to have noticed the extraordinary phenomenon of the Supreme Court of a country at war ruling in favor of the population seeking to destroy it. Outside observers wrote that "even the Israeli Supreme Court argued that the fence is immoral." But the point was precisely the opposite. Even under conditions of war, conditions that are unlikely to end any time soon, Israel's democratic apparatus continues to function, even to the point of protecting the interests of those waging war on the country in which the court sits. Here, too, Israel placed the interests of innocent (or not-so-innocent) civilians ahead of its own security interests. And this, too, the world has ignored.

Israel's Vigorous Debate about its Conduct of the War

This democratic ethos of Israeli society points to yet another unique dimension of the conflict. In what could not be a more radical difference between Israel and the Palestinian Authority waging war on it, Israel is a country in which a vigorous and open debate about how to balance the needs for security with Jewish humanitarian values continues. Despite my own belief that, in all, our conduct of the war has been restrained, not every Israeli agrees. Some Israeli young men have refused to serve over the Green Line, and recently, several had their military service cut short, with no serious repercussions. A much publicized group of pilots announced that they would no longer fly certain missions that they considered morally problematic. Driving Israel's highways, one can often see protesters holding signs that say "hayalim amitzim lo maftzitzim," or "Brave Pilots Don't Bomb." Whether or not one agrees, we have a right to take pride in a democracy in which such issues are openly debated, where freedom of the press reigns, where the Talmudic tradition of virtually unlimited debate on issues of morality continues.

Where are the Palestinians arguing in their streets for a cessation to the bombings, to the Kassam rockets, to the shootings, so that their lives can be restored to normal? On the security fence, one sees hundreds of instances of graffiti accusing Israel of apartheid-like policies, demanding that the fence be removed. But where are the graffiti calling for an end to the terror that brought the fence in the first place? Or the graffiti that note that, if only Arafat had continued to negotiate, none of this would have happened? That voice, sadly, is not heard.

At this writing, Ariel Sharon is leading an attempt to have Israel withdraw from the Gaza Strip and a handful of settlements on the West Bank. And what has been the reaction from Gaza? A barrage of Kassam rocket fire that has killed Israeli children and consumed entire Israeli towns with fear, all designed to make the pullout impossible. Because pulling out of Gaza would show the world that Israel is not interested in holding on to these territories forever, something the Palestinians are desperate for the world not to see. Because pulling out of Gaza would give Israel a more manageable line of defense, which the Palestinians do not want. And because pulling out of Gaza would force the Gazans to recognize that their poverty and their suffering are not the products of Israeli policy, but predated Israel's conquest of the land in 1967 and will follow it as well.

How did Israel seek to counter the Kassam barrages? By Operation "Days of Penitance" in October 2004—again on the ground, again with casualties—and not from the air, which would have been safer, but which would have undoubtedly caused much more collateral damage.

Despite the many complexities of the Israeli-Arab conflict in general, and of the current conflict with the Palestinians in particular, certain basic facts are clear: Israel tried to create a Palestinian state. When that offer was met with a war of terror, Israel tried to build a fence that would keep the terrorists on one side and its soldiers on the other. When the fence was treated as an "apartheid fence," Israel tried to pull out of Gaza, which the Palestinians are now seeking to make impossible. The world calls Israel racist, but the only population that Sharon is considering moving is the Jewish population in Gaza, not the villages that openly harbor the terrorists who seek to kill our children. And all this unfolds within the context of a democratic society that—in keeping with thousands of years of Jewish tradition—passionately argues whether our responses have been too draconian, or insufficiently considerate of the Palestinians (some complicit and some not), who have sadly been caught in the crossfire of a tragedy unleashed by their own leaders.

Israel's Moral Campaign against Terror

Yossi Klein Halevi argues that Israel's victory in this war on terror may some day be seen as one of the greatest victories of Jewish history. That may well be true. But Israel's conduct of this war will also be seen, I suspect, as one of the most moral campaigns against terror, a sickening phenomenon that is likely to grip the Western world to an ever greater extent over the next few years.

Unfortunately, Israel is often a barometer of what the Western world will next face. When Israel destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor in June 1981, condemnation was virtually universal. Today, the Western world knows that Israel may have saved the world from disaster. The same is true with the battle against Islamic terror. As the battle spreads, and as Westerners in Britain, France, Spain, and the United States experience ever more terror firsthand, the world will come to admire the restraint and fortitude with which Israel has fought for her life. Ultimately, I believe, Israel's conduct of this war—with all its warts—will be a model toward which much of the currently critical world will one day aspire.

Dr. Daniel Gordis ( is vice president of the Mandel Foundation-Israel and director of its Jerusalem Fellows program. He is the author of several books, including Home to Stay: One American Family's Chronicle of Miracles and Struggles in Contemporary Israel (Three Rivers Press, 2003). His "dispatches" on life in Israel have been widely reprinted in a variety of publications, including the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children.

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