Fault Lines Open As Civilian Deaths Mount

Jewish left voices concern over loss of life as polls show strong support for Israel.

07/23/14
Staff Writer
Photo Galleria: 
Thousands of pro-Israel supporters rallied Sunday in Times Square. Getty Images
Thousands of pro-Israel supporters rallied Sunday in Times Square. Getty Images

The divisions in the Jewish community over the war in Gaza broke into the open this week as the number of Israeli soldiers killed reached 27 by Tuesday night and the number of Palestinian deaths neared 600.

And as those fault lines were laid bare, it touched off a debate over the nature of “proportionality” in wartime.

As a wide swath of the Jewish community rallied behind Israel in its bid to take out Hamas’ tunnels, and as polls showed that Americans were solidly backing Israel in its ground incursion, groups on the Jewish left were expressing concern over the mounting Palestinian civilian deaths.

Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz-USA) late last week urged the international community to “push for an immediate cease-fire” in the Israel-Hamas fighting, and even pressed Israel to “unilaterally” suspend its military actions against Gaza. “The situation,” in which the casualties suffered among Palestinians greatly outnumber those of Israelis, “has become more dire,” stated a press release issued by the group.

J Street, the Washington-based “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization, posted a blog that “categorically oppose[s] calls for the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip as the goal of [Israel’s current] operation” and expressed “concern” about “the mounting civilian death toll” in Israel.

The group also pulled out of a community rally in support of Israel this week because the roster of speakers, organized by the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council, “did not include a pro-Israel, pro-peace perspective” and that “there was no voice for our concerns about the loss of human life on both sides.”

As the civilian casualties in Gaza have mounted, the issue of proportionality has increasingly entered the public discussion. In England, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the “Israeli response” to years of Hamas rocket fire from Hamas “appears to be deliberately disproportionate.”

The questions being asked in the media and in parts of the Jewish community: Is Israel “over-reacting” to Gaza-based attacks? Do one-sided casualty figures strengthen the David vs. Goliath imagery that has dominated part of the Middle East debate for years, with Palestinians pictured as a beleaguered underdog? Does the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system give Israel, as some critics of the Jewish state have alleged, an “unfair advantage?”

Some of these questions surfaced in the Gaza wars in 2009 and 2012, but they seem especially pointed this time around in the wake of Secretary of State John Kerry’s quip characterizing Israel’s Gaza mission as “a hell of a pinpoint operation.” In response to such concerns, Shoshana Bryen, senior policy director of the Jewish Policy Center, this week issued a position paper on “The Doctrine of Proportionality” that cited scholarly opinions of what proportionality in warfare means.

“Proportionality in international law is not about the equality of death or civilian suffering, or even about [equality of] firepower,” she quoted Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, as writing. “Proportionality weighs the necessity of a military action against suffering that the action might cause to enemy civilians in the vicinity.”

“Civilian casualties are much to be mourned, but what becomes clear — absent the propaganda element or a shaky notion of sportsmanship — is that Israel has the right and indeed the obligation to defend its people, has the right to ‘win’ the war of self-defense that it is fighting, and has taken account of the requirements of international law regarding ‘proportionality’ and ‘military necessity,’” Bryen wrote.

“The word [disproportionate] surfaces a lot,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “What would be a proportionate response to the thousands of missiles that have been fired at Israel in this year alone? Does [proportionate] mean that unless Israel suffers the same number of casualties as the Palestinians in Gaza, that [Israel’s military response] is wrong?”

Sympathy for people who are perceived as underdogs is inevitable, said Ephraim Sneh, former Knesset member and deputy minister of defense, in a conference Tuesday afternoon sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum and the JCC in Manhattan. “In a confrontation between a tank and an ambulance, the ambulance will win,” said Sneh, who now serves as chairman of S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netanya Academic College. In other words, a humanitarian cause will trump strength in the eyes of many observers.

“We have bad PR,” he said, adding that Israel has not adequately stressed the steps its soldiers take to avoid civilian casualties.

“We are the strongest military force between the Caspian Sea and Casablanca,” Sneh said. “We shall take advantage of all our technological advantage. It is a high price to pay.” In other words, Israel is able to inflict a large number of casualties in a confrontation.

Several of the Jewish critics of the IDF’s actions in Gaza have cited “disproportionality” as a reason.

Nathan Hersh, managing director of Partners for Progressive Israel, said his organization called on Israel to suspend its war on Hamas because “nothing can happen as long as people are dying. Force alone is not going to stop this conflict.”

But, said some Jewish spokesmen, the Jewish groups that have openly criticized Israeli actions in recent weeks are in a distinct minority.

“Their decibel level is much higher than their numerical [membership] level,” Harris said.

Americans for Peace Now, calling itself “horrified by the spiraling death-toll of the war,” “welcome[d] the Obama administration’s efforts to achieve an immediate cease-fire.” It called “continued fighting in … densely-populated [Gaza] a recipe for more bloodbaths such as the one we witnessed Sunday in Shuja’iyyah, a neighborhood East of Gaza City.”

And a dozen activists from the Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews Say No! organized a street-side rally Tuesday on Broadway outside the office building where American Friends of the IDF is based. Some participants carried signs that stated “No war in Palestine. Not in our name,” and others lay on the ground, covered by shroud-like sheets, impersonating Palestinian Arabs killed by the Israeli army. (JTA reported that nine of the protesters were arrested.)

Despite daily images in the media of Palestinian funerals and damaged homes in Gaza, Israel has retained the backing of American politicians and the U.S. public — both the Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously passed non-binding resolutions that support Israel’s right to defend itself and a CNN poll found that 57 percent of Americans call Israeli actions against Hamas “justified.” (See story on page 14.)

Even comedian Bill Maher, on the HBO Real Time program, listed what he called “8 Rock Solid Points in Defense of Israel,” including, “The Palestinians do not have the moral high ground.”

“I think there is remarkable unity” behind Israel, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He spoke of a “marginalization of those groups who have been critical of Israel and cannot find it in their hearts, even at this time, to express unreserved solidarity.”

Most Jewish organizations have issued recent statements of support for Israel. The Anti-Defamation League: “No government in the world would allows its citizens to be subjected to constant rocket attacks.” The American Jewish Committee: “Israelis of all ages are in an absolutely intolerable situation, with only 15 seconds to reach a shelter for safety and security from the ceaseless, indiscriminate, round-the-clock Hamas attacks.” The National Jewish Democratic Council and the Republican Jewish Coalition issued similar supportive statements.

But Thane Rosenbaum, novelist and director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at the NYU Law School, said he is not surprised that Jewish critics of Israel, largely from politically left-wing, intellectual backgrounds, have strengthened their criticism during Israel’s current fighting.

“It is the way of the intellectual that the idea is more important than anything else,” he said. In this case, that idea is “an asymmetrical bargaining position … in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians” that leaves Palestinians in a weaker position. Rosenbaum called this “community of Jewish intellectuals … fully invested in being critical of Israeli policies. I would expect them to double down” in their criticism of Israel.

“I would be very surprised,” he added, “that any intellectual in the far left camp would look at the last three weeks [of daily Hamas rocket attacks] and say, ‘This is my time to support Israel.’”

steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

07/28/2014 - 04:09

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Anyone supporting the enemies of Israel is "proportionally" evil, just like the enemy.

"Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz-USA) ... urged the international community to 'push for an immediate cease-fire' in the Israel-Hamas fighting, and even pressed Israel to 'unilaterally' suspend its military actions against Gaza."

May these leftists Jewish anti-semites get to experience first hand Hamas rockets threatening their families. A unilateral suspension -- instead of the Egyptian proposal -- would allow Hamas to reorganize its efforts to kill Jews (and anyone else in its way.) The tunnels have to be found and destroyed, likewise the rocket launchers.

"''The situation,' in which the casualties suffered among Palestinians greatly outnumber those of Israelis, 'has become more dire,' stated a press release issued by the group."

The people of Gaza have Hamas to thank for that. Anyone who supports Hamas has blood on their hands. And would our leftists be happier if the deaths were more "proportionately" distributed, that is, happier if even more Israelis died defending their country?

May Israel prevail over the terrorists, terrorist supporters, and certain feckless Western leaders (Obama, etc.)!

Of course the govt of Israel has not just the right but the obligation to protect its citizens against rocket attack. The question is -- By what means?
The Netanyahu govt could have decided to negotiate with the new Palestinian govt of national unity, which was supported by Hamas but had no Hamas political people in its Cabinet and had committed itself to continuing recognition of and peaceful negotiation with Israel, as in the Palestinian Authority's commitment. (The US had encouraged the new govt, much to Netanyahu’s dismay.)

Then the Netanyahu response to the kidnapping/ murders on the West Bank by a rogue offshoot of Hamas could have been very different — not smashing the Hamas infrastructure on the West Bank, and not assassinating a Hamas leader in Gaza -- and the two-year cease-fire would have held.
Just one problem: That policy would have led to a two-state peace. N was and is not ready to go there.
In one sentence: Peace would have been the best defense against rockets.
But the Israeli government's rejection of this approach does not let Hamas off the ethical hook. I also think that random rocket attacks aimed at civilians by the Hamas government of Gaza are unjustifiable. I believe that given the enormous preponderance of power in the hands of the Government of Israel and given its continuing and expanding the Occupation and continuing the blockade of Gaza, its responsibility is much greater. But that does not mean Hamas has no responsibility and should not be rebuked.
Other means of resistance -- nonviolent means --were available to Hamas. Thousands of businesses in the West Bank and in areas of Israel where mostly citizens of Palestinian culture live, have closed in nonviolent protest of the bombing and invasion. Hamas could have urged that, could have mobilized thousands of Palestinians to do sit-downs at the Gaza border, etc. Shalom, salaam --

"Are you pro-Palestinian, or are you really just anti-Israel?" Massacres in Syria are being all but ignored. The story here: http://jonathanmessing.com/2014/07/22/massacre-in-yarmouk/

Considering what is happening in Iraq, Syria Afghanistan etc. where militants are killing, maiming, destroying everything in its path, Israel has to take drastic action now. The militants ultimate goal is to destroy Israel and create another hell on earth as they are currently doing in Iraq.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Polin, was a strong proponent of using overwhelming military force to achieve a decisive victory. Generals throughout history believed a similar principle. Common sense suggests that if the national interest is important enough to go to war over, it is important enough to win. Young soldiers shouldn't be asked to risk their lives to achieve a draw/stalemate. Military strategists throughout history and common sense suggest that the best, smartest, most moral strategy today for the IDF is to continue the ground operation in Gaza until it is complete. That is the strategy that will save lives. No one knows how long it will take. There is no good reason to put an arbitrary time on the cessation of the war. It will be over when it is over. Leftists, intellectuals, Jews, whatever, who argue for proportionality of force in wartime are morally wrong and psychologically damaged. The facts are: war is hell; it is never nice; people always die.

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