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Eye on the News

James Kirchick
Downplaying Hamas
The persistence of rationalizing terrorism against Israel
18 February 2009

Whenever Israel responds to terrorist attacks, it can rely on international bureaucrats, liberal politicians, and humanitarian aid groups to criticize the Jewish state for its “disproportionate” response. The reaction to Operation Cast Lead—launched in late December after three years of incessant rocket attacks on Israeli population centers—has been even harsher than the reaction to Israel’s response to the Second Intifada of the early 2000s. Back then, Palestinian terrorism’s preferred method was dispatching suicide bombers to buses and cafés. The carnage these attacks wrought, visible almost daily, made Israel’s case for self-defense more reasonable in the eyes of Americans who had recently witnessed the immolation of 3,000 of their own countrymen.

When Israel erected a security fence and imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip following its withdrawal from the territory in 2005, Palestinian terrorists had to find other means of killing Jews. Hamas chose crude rockets, which, while occasionally injuring and even killing Israeli civilians, were not nearly as lethal as men detonating themselves in crowded shopping malls. Because of this supposed asymmetry in the metrics of the decades-old Arab-Israel conflict, commentators from around the world have declared Israel’s response to Hamas’s provocations “disproportionate.” Yet the attempt to downplay the significance of Hamas terrorism and the expectation that Israel not respond militarily obscure the real suffering of individual Israelis, as well as the strategic cost to Israel of unanswered aggression.

In order to make the “disproportionate” argument, Israel’s critics must first minimize the threat that Israel responded to in the first place. “Before proceeding, let me state that the Gaza rocket attacks are human rights crimes, and Israel has the right to defend itself,” Mother Jones writer David Corn wrote—before proceeding to explain why Israel didn’t have a right to defend itself: “But that does not mean that in retaliation for about a dozen deaths caused by the rockets from 2004 on, the Israeli Defense Force ought to blow up schools and hospitals in Gaza and kill scores of civilians.” Note how casually Corn dismisses the cold-blooded and unprovoked murder of 12 innocent people, as if they were expendable in the greater quest for a nonexistent “peace process” with a terrorist organization constitutionally committed to Israel’s destruction. Note, too, that Corn neglects to mention that the Israeli military takes great pains to avoid civilian casualties. Israel does so not only on moral grounds, but because it understands that too many people like Corn eagerly await the next opportunity to hold it to an outrageous double standard.

Lamenting the greater number of Palestinian civilian casualties (due almost entirely to the Hamas practice of placing its weaponry and soldiers in hospitals and schools, and to its use of women and children as human shields) is a perennial tactic of Israel’s critics. The logic of their position dictates that Israel should wait until some critical mass of its own civilians is killed before eventually fighting back. But over the past several weeks, the critics have developed a new piece of rhetoric: the Hamas actions that provoked Israel were merely a nuisance. Writing in The American Prospect, Dana Goldstein described Hamas’s “rocket fire” as “rag-tag,” making the militants who delivered some 7,000 rockets over a period of just over three years sound like the Little Rascals. Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress made that comparison even more explicit, recounting an anecdote in which a “kid” had thrown a rock at him while he was riding his bike around Washington, D.C. The punk missed. “I suppose if he’d hit me in just the right way I could have been knocked down and injured,” Yglesias acknowledged. But even if Yglesias had been hit, “obviously it wouldn’t have been right for me to stop, get off my bike, pull a bazooka out of my bag, and blow the houses from which the rock emanated to smithereens while shouting ‘self-defense!’ and ‘double-effect!’”

Analogies are perilous instruments. Despite Yglesias’s insistence that he wasn’t making an analogy, his comparison, if you will, is preposterous. As Reason’s Michael Moynihan pointed out, for Yglesias’s rough-neighborhood allegory to approximate the reality of what was happening with Hamas and Israel, there would have to be hundreds of kids throwing dozens of rocks and causing actual damage—not just the terror that comes from being the possible victim of a hurled stone, but death, maiming, damage to property, and trauma (a recent study found that most of the children aged 4 to 18 in Sderot—the Israeli town most affected by Hamas’s rocket attacks—suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome). For Yglesias, however, it seems that a terrorist organization’s launching rockets into sovereign territory just isn’t that big a deal and that the Israelis ought to suck it up.

Such minimization of Israeli suffering abounds. A Guardian news report referred to the rocket attacks as a “manageable irritant.” Pat Buchanan compared Gaza with a concentration camp and waved off “these little rockets that didn’t kill anybody” (he’s wrong, of course). Writing in Canada’s National Post, Jeet Heer described Hamas as “a raggedy half-starved guerrilla force whose homemade missiles are usually as dangerous as firecrackers.” And missing in all of these analyses is mention of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal whom Hamas kidnapped in 2006 and whose captivity it has rubbed in the face of the Israeli public ever since.

For their “disproportionate” argument to make sense, Israel’s detractors have had to minimize, to an almost comical extent, what its citizens have had to endure over the past three years. They portray a bona fide war crime—the deliberate firing of rockets into civilian areas—as a minor irritant no more threatening or bothersome than black ice or a loud neighbor. But does one really expect that Pat Buchanan would sit still even if his neighbors, say, played rap music at all hours of the night? If Matthew Yglesias’s neighbors began firing bullets—sporadically and imprecisely—into his “flophouse,” wouldn’t he, a proud supporter of the Second Amendment, have the right to draw his own weapon and fire back in self-defense?

These may be “irritating” questions for those who criticize, from the comfort of their keyboards thousands of miles away, the actions of a beleaguered democracy under siege from terrorists—terrorists suborned, in turn, by a theocratic regime building a nuclear capacity with the express aim of wiping that democracy from the face of the earth. But they are hardly as irritating as Hamas’s war crimes, or the pedants who excuse them.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.

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