The Imbalanced Slaughter in Gaza

Much of the world is horrified at Israel’s latest slaughter of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip but the continued power of the Israeli Lobby over Official Washington has silenced any protests against the imbalanced infliction of death, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar observes.

By Paul R. Pillar

The score, as of late Friday, in the contest being waged in the Gaza Strip and Israel was 114-0, with the side in the lead continuing to run up the score. This is not some nightmare of a Brazilian soccer fan, but instead the deaths of men, women and children, more than three-quarters of them civilians, according to the United Nations humanitarian affairs office. All of them are Palestinians in the Gaza Strip; so far in this match no Palestinian rockets have killed any Israelis.

The term asymmetric warfare is commonly used, of course, but to refer to different techniques for inflicting violence for political purposes. What is going on now in Gaza is highly asymmetric in terms of the amount of death, injury, destruction and overall misery being inflicted by one side on the other.

The Gaza Strip is a tightly cordoned-off area of only 139 square miles where some 1.6 million Palestinians are essentially trapped.

The Gaza Strip is a tightly cordoned-off area of only 139 square miles where some 1.6 million Palestinians are essentially trapped.

Perhaps the usual use of the term asymmetric warfare has contributed to warping our ability to evaluate what has been going on in this conflict. There is a tendency to think of death inflicted overtly by an F-16, at least if it is operated by someone labeled an ally, as somehow more legitimate than whatever a clandestinely deployed rocket can inflict.

We have curious habits in how we regard symmetry and asymmetry in armed conflicts and especially the unending series of conflagrations between Israel and Palestinians. In contrast to the assumed asymmetry about the legitimacy of different ways of inflicting violence, in other respects we speak as if there is perfect symmetry. It has become de rigueur to criticize excesses on both sides, which of course there have been, and to appeal for reasonableness on both sides, which of course there should be.

In major, glaring respects, however, this conflict is highly asymmetric, and not only in one side’s physical ability to inflict far greater destruction on the other side. The larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one in which the far more powerful actor is occupying (in the case of the West Bank) or strangling (in the case of the Gaza Strip) the other side.

It is also a conflict in which for many years now, one side and its Arab backers have repeatedly indicated their willingness to make a complete peace as long as this side can have its own state on the small part of Palestine left after Israel’s war of independence, while the other side, through its actions on the ground as well as statements of its leaders, indicates its intention to hold on to all the land it has captured through force of arms, save perhaps for some carefully controlled bantustans.

Speaking in symmetrical terms carries a sense, even if a false sense, of fairness and equanimity, and of getting beyond squabbles and trying to achieve peace and stability. Parents exhibit this tendency when they tell squabbling children that they don’t care who started the argument and instead just want both kids to behave. One can sympathize with Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats who have tried to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if they feel the same way as parents.

But who started a fight does matter in how we should judge it and react to it, especially if it is a fight in which scores of innocent people are getting killed. Any careful and objective review of events leading up to the current conflagration (the timeline compiled by John Judis is one of the best) leads to the inescapable conclusion that this war is being fought because the government of Benjamin Netanyahu chose to launch it, capitalizing on grief over the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers to strike another blow against Hamas and even more so against its most recent unity agreement with Fatah, as well as providing another excuse for occupying the West Bank indefinitely.

The conclusion is supported not only by the sequence of events but also by Netanyahu’s immediate blaming of Hamas for the crime without — still — providing any evidence; all indications are that the perpetrators of the kidnapping were rogue actors who may have had their own reasons to try to subvert the unity deal.

The conclusion also is supported by the Israeli government’s extraordinary tactic of not informing the Israeli public or even the families of the victims when it knew the teenagers were dead — all the better to try to justify the government’s wholesale actions in the West Bank in which several Palestinians were killed and, in what amounts to a reneging on a previous prisoner exchange deal reached with Hamas, hundreds more have been incarcerated.

By contrast, before all this started Hamas was giving no indication that it was looking for an armed conflict. Besides reaching the unity deal under which it would support Mahmoud Abbas’s negotiating approach toward resolving the conflict with Israel, Hamas was observing a cease-fire. Until the Israeli government’s forceful moves after the kidnapping/murders last month, Hamas had not fired any rockets into Israel since that cease-fire was reached in November 2012, despite several earlier Israeli provocations that Hamas considered to be violations of the cease-fire. Hamas even tried to restrain other groups from firing rockets after Israel had begun its wholesale incarcerations in the West Bank.

This is not, of course, the version of events that one hears from the Israeli government, and thus from most American politicians, and that is thus heard by most of the American public. According to this other version, the Israeli onslaught followed, and is only a response to, Palestinian rocket fire. This discrepancy between beliefs and facts gets to other major asymmetries, which involve the role the Israeli government plays, and no Palestinian entity does, in American politics.

American habits in perceiving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dull not only American policy judgment but also Americans’ moral sense. The Netanyahu government’s wreaking of death and destruction today in the Gaza Strip is condemnable. It is wrong, in multiple senses of the word, for the U.S. House of Representatives to endorse that infliction of death and destruction, as it did on Friday.

Pretending to be fair by treating something as symmetrical when it is not impairs the ability to distinguish right from wrong, of which there is plenty of both in the world.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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11 comments on “The Imbalanced Slaughter in Gaza

  1. Josh Sparks on said:

    The number of people killed in the Israel/ Gaza fighting seems very small compared to other current conflicts. In the Ukraine, the death toll stands at over 1000 … about 10 times larger than Gaza. In Iraq, the fighting between Sunni and Shiites has left tens of thousands of citizens dead. Over 255 Sunnis prisoners were found killed yesterday, apparently shot by retreating Iraqi army troops. How about a UN security council resolution seeking an end to these conflicts where most deaths are occurring: in Iraq, in Syria and in Ukraine. These people also matter.

  2. Edward Brynes on said:

    “Until the Israeli government’s forceful moves after the kidnapping/murders last month, Hamas had not fired any rockets into Israel since that cease-fire was reached in November 2012 … ” Rockets WERE fired, as can be learned from the Shabak website. Hamas is responsible for what goes on in its territory.

    • mikschiff@t-online.de on said:

      Wow, the Israeli Secret Service Shin Bet (Shabak, in your intimate parlance) that that Hamas did. Very impressive evidence. Wouldn’t it be better to ask what the Israeli human rights organizations had/have to say?

  3. Ahem on said:

    “Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can…… Everything we don’t grab will go to them.” Ariel Sharon, 1998

    “We’ll make a pastrami sandwich of them. We’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlement, in-between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlement, right across the West Bank, so that in 25 years time, neither the United Nations, nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.” Ariel Sharon, 1973 to Winston Churchill III

    These quotes are cited by info-maps:

    http://www.australiansfor palestine.com
    http://www.friendsof palestine.org.au
    http://www.womenfor palestine.com

    Maybe we need to do the simple thing, which is identifying the name “Palestine” on the map. Simply referring to the “Gaza Strip” and the “West Bank” as areas for Palestinians is not enough. When the UN ceded the land to the Israelis in 1947, the map clearly showed “Palestine” and “Israel”. At some point after the Israeli revolution in 1948, the name of “Palestine” disappeared from the map of the area, which has had the result of giving a false visual and psychological representation of reality.

    • John J on said:

      The partition really wasn’t legal because it only passed in the General Assembly, not the Security Council. Also it needs Palestinians to recognize the fact. Arafat did recognize the State of Israel with the Oslo accords, but Israeli persistence in building Jews only roads and larger settlements in the West Bank showed Palestinians it was no deal. Arafat had a lot of faith in Rabin at the time, but a Jewish settler took Rabin out and harder heads replaced him.

  4. Roberto22 on said:

    And if it is true, as some observers believe, that the abduction and murder of the three Israeli youths was a false flag operation, for creating a casus belli?

  5. Joe Tedesky on said:

    Most Americans I know have no idea of what’s happening to the Palestinians. The average American just believes this has been going on for thousands of years. The right claims Hamas uses their people as human shields (never mine the heavy Israeli weapons). Some on the left seem afraid their stepping on someone’s equal rights, and life goes on.

    I only hope that the internet news is getting out there. Certainly our wonderful MSM isn’t telling the whole story, as should be expected. Sadly, this lack of knowledge will lead to more military aid being given to Israel. Ask any American about the USS Liberty. Most people I ask have no idea of what I am talking about, and the Liberty attack took place back in sixty seven…what’s that all about? They don’t know!

  6. Miriam on said:

    Not only do most Americans not know about periodic full on military assaults on the encaged population of Gaza by Israeli occupiers….but have no comprehension on the VAST difference between Gaza and Israel as US msm continues to disseminate endless barrages of dehumanization of Khaaamas. The neglected backstory that Hamas was introduced to counter the leftist secular liberation movement of Palestine decades ago to eventually become the (only) well known well publicized ‘candidate’ across Gaza in 2006 which then was elected….(since IDF did such a thorough job of BLOCKING/PREVENTING ANY alternative candidates to campaign in Gaza during that period, such as Dr Barghouthi who was seized and arrested when he tried to campaign there….
    Once Hamas successfully gained political control of the Strip they then were bombarded with typical zionist focused Hasbara hate campaign across the world whilst US under Bush trained and armed Fatah security forces to ‘overthrow’ the duly elected Hamas.
    Every other year since Israel has operated a campaign to savage Hamas and to break the will of Gazans thru terrorist military campaigns, sanctions, blockade (act of war) food/medical/product shortages in Gaza…inflicting suffering, deprivation, malnutrition and worse on the population which lives in the largest open prison in the world…6 x 22 miles encaged 1.7 million 80% of whom are under 18 years of age.
    If that doesn’t make everyone’s blood boil, what would?
    Yet US MSM in the past week –both Diane Sawyer of ABC, and a second news jockey for NBC Bizarrely reported apocalyptic footage of GAZA post IAF strikes by telling viewers they were seeing Israelis NOT Palestinians !!!
    …there was a huge outcry against ABC’s erroneous ‘report’ but far fewer who caught the NBC ‘mistakes’ (lies).
    Someone wryly noted :
    “If it weren’t for war, Americans couldn’t find ANY country on a map”….
    Thanks to MA$$IVE and continuous Hasbara machine most Americans do not know about the Enormous Suffering of Gaza because of US highly paid $atrap I$rael & machiavellian ‘news’ tales.

  7. Mark Phelan on said:

    palestine has no military. how can anyone murdered their not be a civilian?

  8. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    How would the response be if rockets were fired into any state bordering Mexico by fanatics demanding legalization of Mexican citizens? The terrorists using noncombatants as cover to rain rockets on Israel are supported by foreign governments. Enough money has been spent on arms and propaganda to provide those in Gaza and the West Bank with health care, education and jobs to make a free state an example to the Arab world, something feared by every autocratic Muslin nation following the seventh century tribal disintegration into internecine war.
    Read the Qur’an and find out who the prophets were and what murder means. There is no martyrdom in killing or being killed in the name of Allah. Allah needs no defense from men of limited understanding.