There is something like a genuine and proper moral equivalency that could be drawn from the proposition that the life of two-year-old Ahmad Mohammed Atallah al-Masri, one of six children killed when an Israeli missile landed near Beit Hanoun in Gaza this week, was no less precious than the life of 71-year-old Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, still very much undead and coping with the worst eruption of Israeli-Palestinian violence in at least seven years.
You could also say that the life of 16-year-old Nadine Awad, killed along with her father, Halil, when a Hamas rocket landed in the city of Lod on Tuesday night — they were Arabs, incidentally — should be remembered as a blessing, in the same way that the 19-year-old Yeshiva student Yehuda Guetta, murdered by Palestinian gunmen at a checkpoint in the West Bank last week, is remembered.
But there does come a point, no matter which side or slogan or analysis you favour in the agonies that are afflicting the peoples of the Holy Land at the moment, when moral equivalencies cannot be drawn and should not be attempted.
There does come a point … when moral equivalencies cannot be drawn
This is very much the case in contrasting and evaluating the Israel Defense Forces’ targeted bombing of Hamas operatives and infrastructure in Gaza against the war crimes committed with each and every one of the roughly 1,500 rockets Hamas and Islamic Jihad have launched in indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians since last weekend.
Dozens have been killed in a spiralling mayhem that is routinely situated beyond comprehension as a matter of Hamas behaving in a manner that is “unacceptable,” and Israel being in need of advice to exercise “restraint.” That was the tone United Nations Secretary-general Antonio Guterres set on Monday. It was also the tenor adopted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday when he told reporters: “There needs to be de-escalation immediately … We need to see a cessation of violence and attacks. The rocket attacks from Hamas are absolutely unacceptable. We are also gravely concerned about the settlements and the evictions of Palestinians.”
The problem is that no amount of Israeli “restraint” would have saved the life of Soumya Santhosh, a 31-year-old housemaid from Kerala, India, who was killed when one of the indiscriminately-fired Hamas rockets landed on a house in Ashkelon on Tuesday evening. At the moment of her death, Santhosh was talking with her husband back in India, in a video call.
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Israel and Hamas militants ratchet up the missile and rocket attacks
By “the settlements and evictions of Palestinians,” Trudeau was referring to what is widely described as the spark that ignited the conflagration, an affair the Israeli government has unhelpfully called a mere real-estate dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem. The standoff has been simmering for years, and an imminent Israeli Supreme Court decision served as the tinder in the lead-up to last weekend’s riots at the Old City’s Damascus Gate, which turned into a kind of siege of the Al Aqsa mosque. Hamas seized on the confrontation as a propaganda opportunity — the police action was a vile Jewish desecration of one of Islam’s holiest sites — and everything took off from there.
But as always, the conflation of proximate and ultimate causes has unnecessary muddled what should be a clearer understanding of the current Israeli-Palestinian confrontations.
The thuggish conduct of Hamas-inspired rock throwers at the Old City’s Damascus Gate was easily matched by the provocations of ultra-nationalist Lehava ruffians who had cultivated the habit of showing up in Sheikh Jarrah shouting “Death to Arabs” and other lurid slogans. And the imminent threat of evictions — lifted this week in the Supreme Court’s delay of its decision the case — involves four families who have relied on archival archeology going back to the Ottoman period to dispute pre-existing Jewish claims to their properties. They say they acquired their homes fair and square between 1948 and 1967, when Jordanian jurisdiction gave way to Israeli control after the Six-Day War.
And they may well be right, but the ultimate cause of this week’s eruptions can be more accurately situated in the power struggle between Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip, and Fatah, which more or less runs things in the Israeli-controlled but semi-autonomous West Bank. The Palestinian Authority was supposed to hold elections this month, but Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, called them off, fearful of losing East Jerusalem’s votes to Hamas supremo and terrorist kingpin Ismail Haniyeh, who has been directing this week’s rocket barrages from the safety of his posh digs in faraway Qatar.
All those rockets are Haniyeh’s way of establishing Hamas as the champion of Al Aqsa and the defender of Jerusalem as the capital of a future Islamic state and a holy cause of the world’s Muslims. Israel considers Jerusalem the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the Israeli state. But this is where it becomes impossible to draw moral equivalences, and why appeals to “both sides” fall flat on their face.
There is no equivalence between the IDF’s defensive targeting of the Hamas and its Qassam Brigades launch sites in Gaza and the Qassam rockets targeting Israeli civilians, but the more important thing to keep your eye on is the way Hamas embeds itself among Gaza’s civilians, effectively using the people it claims to represent as human shields.
It’s on this point that countries like Canada might make some use of themselves, at least in clarifying the incoherence that so routinely bubbles out of the public affairs departments of the liberal democracies’ foreign ministries. In a 52-page analysis and legislative proposal set to be released this week, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the Canadian Coalition Against Terror are proposing a Canadian law to respond to NATO’s appeals to give statutory force and effect to international prohibitions against using civilians as human shields.
Identified as a war crime in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and in explicit condemnations by the United Nations General Assembly and the UN Security Council, the use of civilian populations as human shields is a practice associated with the Islamic State, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, Iran-backed Houthi insurgents in Yemen, and Hamas — among others.
For whatever its faults, the IDF has made great strides in limiting civilian casualties in warfare, in its Iron Dome rocket defence systems and in its expertise in flooding Gaza neighbourhoods in the vicinity of Hamas targets with cellphone alerts, and hitting targets with rooftop warning blasts in advance of missile attacks.
But innocent people still end up getting killed, and it’s a “win-win” for Hamas when that happens. Hiding rocket-launch sites in civilian infrastructure inhibits military decision-makers’ efforts to target Hamas firepower, and civilian casualties serve as “asymmetrical” propaganda victories. Each Hamas rocket is a double war crime: launched at random human targets, from behind human shields.
Identifying the practice of committing acts of terror from behind human shields and adding that war crime to the roster of obscenities that demand international sanctions might not go very far in restraining gangsters like Ismail Haniyeh. But at least it would clarify something about the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian misery, and its ultimate causes.
Terry Glavin is an author and a journalist.