Dateline, December 8, 1941. Hostilities broke out between the naval forces of the Empire of Japan and the United States of America in Hawaii yesterday. European leaders bemoaned the “cycle of violence” and expressed their sincere hope that both sides demonstrate restraint in the coming days.
How about this?
April 16, 1861. Nations around the world expressed dismay at American President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to call for 75,000 Union volunteers in response to rockets being fired on Fort Sumter. Noting the lack of Union casualties at the fort, critics labeled the Union reaction to be a “disproportionate” response.
Consider Israel’s response to rocket fire in Gaza.
After the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization, began firing hundreds of rockets from Gaza into Israel. After several warnings, Israel announced Operation Protective Edge, a military operation with airstrikes aimed at eliminating the rockets. After continued rocket attacks by Hamas and the group’s failure to accept a cease fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday instructed the Israeli military to begin limited ground operations into the Gaza Strip.
World affairs can be complicated, but once in a while we are presented with a morally clear and unambiguous course of action. This was true in 1941 and 1861, and it is true today.
In the opening days after the operation, the western world has largely agreed. President Obama immediately condemned the rocket fire. Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Canada expressed their support for Israel’s right to self-defense.
Yet others see things differently. In Frankfurt, protesters compared Israel’s defensive actions to that of Nazi Germany. In Paris, an anti-Israel crowd laid siege to the Synagogue de la Roquette and shouted anti-Semitic slurs at the Jews inside. And no shortage of Western media including prominent U.S. commentators and newspapers have made this a story of Palestinian suffering at the hands of an aggressive and bellicose Israel. Even Israel’s acceptance and Hamas’ rejection of an Egyptian brokered cease fire is largely overlooked.
Palestinians have died in Gaza and some of them are civilians. Every life is sacred and should be mourned.
But as we grieve, we should not forget three things.
First, there has never been a war in history that has not had civilian casualties. Over 50,000 Confederate civilians died in the Civil War. Japanese civilian deaths in the Second World War are estimated to be over 350,000. More recently, the Kosovo air war in 1999 killed 500 civilians. This did not make these wars any less just.
Second, there is perhaps no nation from antiquity to today that has taken more measures to limit civilian deaths than Israel has taken during her operations. These tactics include phoning and texting targets and informing them before an airstrike so as to limit civilian casualties. As if this step was not enough, Israelis also fire a warning shot at the targeted building to demonstrate the need to leave. This tactic is called “knocking on the roof.”
Pause and consider that for a moment. Israel has implemented a multipronged policy of warning the same terrorists that fire rockets at Israeli civilian centers in order to spare terrorists’ families. This is to say nothing of the fact that during this conflict, Israel has supplied 70 percent of the power and energy in Gaza. Many of the makeshift rockets being fired into Israel are manufactured with power supplied by Israel. This type of conduct to an enemy combatant is unprecedented.
Third, Israel does this while facing an enemy that consciously puts its civilians in harm’s way in order to cynically exploit the propaganda value of their deaths. CNN has reported that Hamas has ordered North Gaza citizens to remain in their homes despite Israeli distributing leaflets directing residents to leave the area. Rockets are routinely stored in mosques, hospitals and homes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu perhaps said it best when he noted, “We use rockets to protect our civilians while Hamas uses civilians to protect their rockets.”
Just like 1941 or 1861, there is no moral haziness here. The reality could not be clearer. Those who cannot tell the difference between Israel’s actions and that of Hamas simply do not want to.
Daniel Elbaum is the Chicago-based Assistant Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee.