Justifying Israel’s Slaughter in Gaza

Mainstream U.S. politicians and press are engaged in their usual tolerance of Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza, hitting the usual talking points by condemning Hamas as “terrorist” and accepting the mass killings of civilians and children with a shrug, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar reflects.

By Paul R. Pillar

Applying a familiar label or phrase can be a substitute for good analysis, or for any analysis at all. The application activates a set of presumptions associated with the label or phrase while brushing aside any other relevant facts that may contradict those presumptions. The current conflict in Gaza has stimulated a surge in application of such rote phrases to one of the belligerents: Hamas.

Besides the familiar label of “terrorist group,” which ignores other dimensions of Hamas as well as ignoring who is applying most lethal force against civilians, there also is the catchphrase that Hamas is “dedicated to the destruction of Israel.” It is not just the Israeli government that keeps uttering that phrase, or even commentators seeking to justify Israel actions; one sees it in mainstream press in what are supposed to be objectively reported articles.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with his generals to discuss the offensive in Gaza. (Israeli government photo)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with his generals to discuss the offensive in Gaza. (Israeli government photo)

In assessing the validity of the phrase, let us set aside some related issues that also are very important in assessing what is going on today in the Gaza Strip. One concerns the origin of this conflagration, which began when the Netanyahu government seized upon a kidnapping and murder in the West Bank, blamed it (falsely, we now know) on Hamas, launched large-scale raids and arrests, including detentions that reneged on a previous agreement with Hamas, and applied lethal force both in the West Bank and along the Gaza Strip that killed at least nine Palestinians, all before Hamas fired a single rocket or sent a single fighter through a tunnel in this round of fighting.

A second concerns how the slaughter of innocent civilians has reached wholesale proportions far beyond what can be justified by even the most nefarious intentions imputed to the adversary or by excuses about difficulties of targeting in close quarters.

A third involves how given the misery that had already been inflicted on Gazans in their open-air prison, it would be astounding if many did not hold intensely hostile attitudes toward Israel; if somehow Hamas could be made to go away it would just open space for groups more radical and unyielding than it.

Hamas does not have anything close to a capability to destroy Israel, and never will. The imbalance of strength is so lopsided as to make any talk of destruction of Israel, which has one of the most able military forces in the world, ludicrous. This is reflected in the results of the current fighting, and especially in the killing of innocent civilians, which is supposedly the chief focus of worries about Hamas. Hamas is probably giving everything it has got to the military effort, but the latest tally of civilians killed is three in Israel and probably more than a thousand in the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, Hamas leaders are certainly smart enough to realize their group will never have anything close to a capability to destroy Israel, even if they wanted to do so. Remember, these are the same leaders who currently are being given much credit for cleverness with regard to use of the tunnels. Hamas is not dedicated to something it knows it could never do anyway.

Most important, Hamas now has a substantial track record that contradicts the catchphrase. A recent article by John Judis reviews some of the relevant history. Hamas has repeatedly made it clear it will accept a long-term (meaning decades) hudna or truce with Israel, and who knows how much can change in decades, especially if there were such an agreed-upon peace.

Hamas has repeatedly made it clear it would accept a comprehensive peace accord with Israel if approved by a majority of Palestinians in a referendum. In its recent pact with Fatah (destruction of that pact evidently being the main purpose of the Netanyahu government’s aggressive moves leading to the current fighting), Hamas agreed to surrender power to, and to support, a Palestinian government in which Hamas was given no portfolios and which explicitly accepts all the usual Western demands about recognizing Israel, adhering to all previous agreements, and adhering to non-violence.

If this is the record of a group dedicated to the destruction of Israel, then the term dedicated has some new and unknown meaning. Hamas certainly does have a longer term goal, more attractive to it; that goal is to wield power over Palestinians in a Palestinian state.

Reference keeps getting made to extreme language in a party’s charter (just as it was for years to the PLO’s charter) and to Hamas leaders not uttering explicitly some phrase such as “I recognize Israel’s right to exist.” Why should they, when Israel clearly does not recognize any right of Hamas to exist, and has given no hints that it ever would?

Rather than saying Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, it would be closer to the truth to say that Israel is dedicated to the destruction of Hamas, although even that statement is not entirely true, because the current Israeli government implicitly relies on Hamas to police the Gaza Strip and explicitly relies on it as a bugbear and excuse for not negotiating seriously about Palestinian statehood.

Acceptance of statehood on the other side is indeed the critical comparison. In contrast to Hamas making it clear it would accept a two-state solution, the current Israeli government has not. Some members of the ruling coalition have been explicit in rejecting it and talking about their objective of an Eretz Israel from sea to river.

Netanyahu, who in many respects is one of the most moderate members of his own coalition, has given lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state but more recently, and evidently more honestly, has talked about Israel continuing a military occupation of the West Bank permanently.

In assessing barriers to a complete peace settlement, let alone to a truce to end the current hostilities, one question to ask is: which side’s ambitions, or dedication to objectives, is the larger impediment? A second question is: which matters more, words (even if they are either empty promises to the other side, or high-flown rhetoric to one’s own side) or deeds?

It will be hard enough to obtain even a short-term ceasing of the ongoing bloodshed, without feeding the fire with familiar but false phrases about who supposedly is dedicated to the destruction of whom. One of the main reasons it is hard is that Israel appears dedicated to giving Hamas no reason to stop fighting.

Part of the background to this problem, which Nathan Thrall summarizes in a new article, is the last Hamas-Israeli ceasefire agreement in November 2012, which Hamas did its best to observe but Israel did not. Violent acts in the first few months after the agreement, including gunfire at farmers and fishermen, were almost all committed by Israel, which also did not fulfill a commitment to end the blockade of Gaza and to initiate indirect talks with Hamas about implementation of the agreement.

As Thrall observes, “The lesson for Hamas was clear. Even if an agreement was brokered by the US and Egypt, Israel could still fail to honor it.”

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.)

14 comments for “Justifying Israel’s Slaughter in Gaza

  1. John Cage
    August 6, 2014 at 07:10

    “all before Hamas fired a single rocket or sent a single fighter through a tunnel in this round of fighting.”
    This is where I stopped reading. I mean, what the hell?!? Hamas has been firing rockets non-stop for years. Perhaps not in the intensity it’s doing in the recent conflict, but really… Just for the fun of it, check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_rocket_attacks_on_Israel
    The kidnapping & murder of those children (aswell as Hamas’ response to this, which wasn’t “how horrible, let’s help catch the bastards who did this”) was the final straw… Why o why is it so hard to find a fairly and balanced written story, which does NOT omit facts?!?

    • KHawk
      August 8, 2014 at 14:35

      Your decision to only see the rockets as the origin of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is the willful omission of a half century worth of facts.

  2. Aaron
    August 4, 2014 at 16:39

    Hey Morton,

    The Hasbara you resort to has already been disproven by history and facts, and on all points, Israel is totally wrong.

    What you call “the right to self-defense” is actually defending the right to colonize stolen Palestinian land, brutalize and mass murder those who resist against illegal Israeli occupation. That’s your notion of self-defense.

    Nobody in the world, except for delusional Israel supporters, believe the “justifications” to slaughter innocent civilians.

    Believe me, I have close relatives who think exactly like you, and it’s beyond my comprehension.

  3. John J
    August 4, 2014 at 15:44

    Morton Kurzweil, Israel kept secret the fact that the three teenage settlers in the West bank were killed (one’s phone was on to the police, 8 shots were heard and a groan) making out they invaded Gaza to find them. That ploy was blown. Also Israeli officials have quietly noted that Hamas leadership was not involved. Then Israel makes out that Hamas blew the cease fire by attacking Israeli soldiers near Rafah. The trouble is the time recorded for two tweets by Hamas Qassam show that it was over by 7 AM (last tweet was at 7:34). The Cease fire was to start at 8 AM. And why after the cease fire was agreed to, did Israel move its forces further in at 2 AM in the morning?
    Israel is trying to pull the wool over our eyes and the press is mostly in their hand.
    Hamas leadership had edged towards peace with Israel, they are not politically savvy and never expected to win the last Gaza election, but over time they changed and matured. The last thing Israel wants is a unified Palestinian people and will go to any lengths to divide them. They once used Hamas to undermine Arafat and the peace initiative with Rabin, and now all people there are paying the price especially Palestinians.
    You treat people fairly they will be fair with you. You steal their land, treat them as second class (as are Israeli Arabs too), deny them the freedoms all people deserve, disavow international law, in time you are going to pay for it. Hence the title of Alan Hart’s book series, “Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews.” I think you should read it. Learn to live freely and not be brainwashed by Zionist zealots. Some disallowed Jews to enter western countries when the Nazis did their wickedness, just to force the poor Jews to seek asylum in Palestine (create their dream, Greater Israel) or worse, unable to get away. I wouldn’t put my faith in them.
    How many people have to die for a whim?

  4. Morton Kurzweil
    August 4, 2014 at 11:51

    When or where does self defense require justification?
    Stop firing rockets into Israel. Stop building tunnels into Israel for terrorist attacks.
    Stop using the lives of civilians as shields for launching rockets.
    Stop using schools, mosques, and schools to store munitions.
    Stop justifying attacks as defense when the intent is to annihilate the Jewish population in every state under the control of Islamic terrorists.

    • F. G. Sanford
      August 4, 2014 at 12:30

      Stop stealing land. Stop blockading, starving and torturing. Stop discriminating, stop arbitrary detention and restriction of movement. Stop denying equal rights and political freedom. Stop committing genocide.

  5. Joecbart
    August 3, 2014 at 20:50

    Never Again?

    The Nazi Project/State (1933 – 1945): Terrorism; Land Confiscation; Ethnic Cleansing; Occupation; Concentration Camps; Indiscriminate Slaughter; Genocide.

    Zionist Project/State (1948 – Ongoing): Terrorism; Land Confiscation; Ethnic Cleansing; Occupation; Concentration Camps; Indiscriminate Slaughter; Genocide.

  6. JWalters
    August 3, 2014 at 20:09

    Thanks for this thoughtful analysis, so far beyond the sound-bit “analyses” flooding the mainstream media. I’ve noticed that Israel’s apologists typically don’t address points raised by their opponents, they merely repeat themselves, so there is no actual discussion.

    One of their frequent claims is that the Palestinians were offered a state in 1948. They don’t address the fact that the offer was a gunpoint Mafia offer.

  7. F. G. Sanford
    August 3, 2014 at 16:28

    Military organizations employ a myriad of incentives and rewards to maintain enthusiasm, esprit de corps, unit cohesion and mission accomplishment. Not the least of these are award citations which may be conferred upon completion of a tour of duty for meritorious service in a particular operational endeavor, for enhancement of unit readiness and morale, for preservation and maintenance of equipment and materiel, or for implementation of improved training or tactics. Some campaigns may foster awards merely for participation based on the inherent hazards or arduous nature of the assignment. Others are conferred for specific acts of inspirational leadership, selfless service, bravery or significant disregard for personal safety in conduct of mission essential tasks. The award process is initiated with a nomination letter specifying the recommended award, the specific accomplishments or achievements, and a proposed narrative appropriate to the magnitude or prestige of the accomplishment to be rewarded. It is a formal process which must be approved by the chain of command, and in some cases, a board must convene to approve, elevate or downgrade the proposed citation. I can’t help but wonder what the citations for the campaign in Gaza might sound like?

    “For conspicuous chutzpah and meshugener intrepidity while hopelessly outnumbered by Palestinian teenagers, Sergeant Schwartzman steadfastly shlepped his tank through a hail of rocks and empty bottles hurled with an intensity dedicated to the destruction of his very right to exist. Oblivious to facts on the ground and with complete disregard for his own tukas, Sergeant Schwartzman valiantly braved the hostile mamzers, stayed the course and navigated streets rendered nearly impassable by enemy countermeasures. Despite broken sewers, shattered water mains and collapsing structures hastily erected as decoys by enemy forces, he persisted against insurmountable odds. Schvitzing profusely and nearly overcome by the relentless kvetshing of his noodgie crew, Sergeant Schwartzman ultimately arrived at the UN Refugee Shelter where his howitzer successfully obliterated emergency rations, medical supplies and hospital beds. These actions significantly degraded the enemy’s ability to deploy human shields against further humanitarian intervention. Sergeant Schwartzman’s selfless service and gallantry reflected great credit upon himself, the IDF and The Nation of Israel. He is hereby awarded The Nation’s highest honor.”

  8. Hillary
    August 3, 2014 at 16:03

    “We must use terror, assassination, intimidation, land confiscation, and the cutting of all social services to rid the Galilee of its Arab population.” –
    David Ben-Gurion, a.k.a. David Grün (1886-1973), Israeli Prime Minister (1948-53, 1955-63) revered by Israelis as “Father of the Nation”

    Henry Siegman, Leading Voice of U.S. Jewry, on Gaza: “A Slaughter of Innocents”


  9. jaycee
    August 3, 2014 at 15:50

    A peculiar rage or frenzy is animating the Israelis this time, borne of – in my opinion – a deep-seated frustration that the Palestinians are still there. The two-state concept is no longer tenable due to deep-seated resistance within an influential segment of Israeli society, but their dream of a Greater Israel is blocked by the simple presence of the occupied people who will not leave. The apartheid state has come into focus now, previously blurred by the assumption of an eventual negotiation of borders, and the international resistance will grow much as it did against South Africa in the 1980s. Truth and Reconciliation awaits.

  10. Yaj
    August 3, 2014 at 15:32

    “Indict/impeach potus” because Obama did what here?

    • Larry
      August 3, 2014 at 23:35

      I think what that first commenter meant by impeach potus is that Obama is responsible for Israel’s destruction of Gazans because he did not put on his superhero costume and spin the Earth backwards in time to prevent Israel’s bloody overkill.

  11. Dfnslblty
    August 3, 2014 at 12:57

    The Hamas-affiliated Al-Qassam Brigades said that “there has not been any Israeli soldier in eastern Rafah for the past 20 days. But as soon as the ceasefire was announced, Israeli movement in the area began at around 2:00 a.m. (They moved) 2.5 kilometers into eastern Rafah.”

    Mr Pillar is right on!
    Indict/impeach potus.
    Stop The Illegal And Immoral Wars!

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