From The Times of London on January 3: “In recent days government troops, supported by helicopter gunships and fighter jets, had overrun rebel strongholds in clashes that left hundreds dead and wounded . . . Accurate casualty numbers are unobtainable because of a ban on the media entering the conflict zone . . . Civil rights activists believe that the Government’s military successes have come at an unacceptable human cost. An estimated 250,000 civilians were forced to flee their homes . . .”
Familiar rhetoric? Certainly, but it isn’t what you think. It’s a rare report on the ongoing and very bloody fight waged by the government of Sri Lanka against the Tamil Tigers, the most recalcitrant Asian terror group. An independent report filed online today said that the government in Colombo is “armed now with modern jets and unashamed to use the weapons regardless of the civilian casualties.”
Kilinochchi, Elephant Pass, Jaffna (not Jaffa), and in the next few days Mullaitivu have seen and will see an untold number of deaths of women and children as the Sri Lankan government attempts to decisively defeat this separatist terror group, which incidentally invented suicide bombings. Why don’t we know these names? Where is the international outcry? The UN resolution? The “Just stop now” from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon? The front-page coverage? The round-the-clock CNN and BBC stories displaying the bloody bodies of civilians? The burning of the Sri Lankan flag in Paris and Athens?
At this writing, Israel is in the third and likely final phase of its more modest military action in Gaza, and despite some critical voices, there is strong support within the country for what the army is trying to do. Some rockets continue to strike southern Israel, but they are far fewer than they were in December. Palestinian deaths mount, including civilians.
Criticize Israel all you like, but do understand what it is up against. Yesterday Hamas television played a tape of Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, who said: “‘Gaza will not break – our victory over the Zionists is near . . . Our fate is in the hands of Allah, so what power could the sons of Zion [have] against him? Allah will take his revenge on them.’ . . . Meanwhile Monday, other Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip declared victory to be ‘closer than ever.’” This is not new rhetoric; eliminating Israel is Hamas’s deeply religious founding vision.
Hamas, like Israel, has rejected the UN cease-fire resolution. Israel’s condition for cease-fire is that Hamas rockets against its civilians stop; Hamas’s condition is complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and complete reopening of the border crossings. In other words, in order for Hamas to cease firing, Israel has to invite its remnant army of vengeful terrorists into Israel proper, in large numbers, to wreak havoc at will as it did in the early years of the decade. Obviously this cannot happen.
Meanwhile, there is clear evidence that Hamas rocket batteries are situated in schools and that large caches of weapons are stored in mosques:
1. This January 8 video shows a Hamas group preparing to launch a rocket from a schoolyard, but destroyed by the IDF before the launch, as well as documenting Hamas firing during the daily cease-fire begun that day:
2. This video from before the war shows mortar shells being fired by Hamas from within a United Nations school compound, on October 29, 2007:
3. These videos document secondary explosions in bombed mosques, due to the delayed detonation of large weapons caches in the mosques:
Under international law, Israel is within its rights to attack such targets, provided that it takes appropriate care to avoid unnecessary civilian deaths. In fact, an official international report after the 2006 war in Lebanon praised Israel for dropping warning leaflets to protect civilian populations.
Is Israel taking such care now? Retired IDF General Yaacov Amidror, whom I talked with in England a couple of weeks ago, spoke on BBC World News yesterday. He described a recent action in which the IDF came upon a five-story apartment house where Hamas had placed a bunker in the basement.
Residents of the building were telephoned and told to leave. They did not. Time passed, and the IDF directed a small bomb at the roof of the building, damaging it in one area. The residents then got the message and evacuated the building. Finally the IDF attacked and destroyed the bunker.
As General Amidror put it, a military operation that could have taken five minutes took five hours. Look at the behavior of the American or British armies during World War II, or the actions of NATO in Afghanistan, and you will see nothing resembling this kind of care for civilian life. Multiplied by hundreds of operations, the result is a campaign that takes weeks instead of days.
Nevertheless, there have been hundreds of civilian deaths. Hamas, while expressing outrage over them, has done everything possible to maximize their number and is making clever use of them in its public relations efforts. Its goal has not changed: the elimination of Israel. It is not shy about stating this goal. It repeats it over and over again.
On January 4, Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan said on CNN that they would continue to attack “the southern part of what they call Israel.” Another spokesman vowed “attacks on Zionist interests everywhere.” In case you are in doubt about what that means: Synagogues, Jewish community centers, Hillel houses, Jewish tour groups, Jewish day schools, religious services, peaceful demonstrations, lectures. Everywhere.
At the dinner, during the Limmud conference in Warwick, I sat with General Amidror and two other Israelis, a distinguished journalist and a government advisor, both more dovish than the general. At his retirement, he was head of Israel’s military colleges, and he is writing his second book on long-term strategy.
His English is not perfect. He has a big gray beard now, and wears glasses and a small knit kippa. The war had been going on for a few days, and like the vast majority of Israelis, he accepted the need for it. I asked him about the long-term future.
He said quietly, “My mother, who is 91, was a member of the Irgun,” the radical group that fought against the British occupation during the 1940s. “Her son became a two-star general in the IDF. Her grandson is a full colonel in the special forces. And her great-grandson is about to enter the army in an elite combat unit. At one point ten of her descendants were in the army at the same time. If you ask her what will happen, she will tell you: It will continue. We will always have to fight.”
I actually don’t think that they will “always” have to fight, but they will have to fight for some time. They fought to establish the Jewish state, and at tremendous cost they won. They fought to preserve it, and they won. They achieved peace with Jordan and a “cold” but very effective peace with Egypt, now their ally against Hamas terror. They fought to a standoff in Lebanon, and their northern border, like their borders with Egypt and Jordan, is quiet. By all reports and against all odds they are inching ever closer to peace with Syria.
The Gaza war will not go on much longer. Cracks are appearing in the Israeli government’s unity, even within the security cabinet, even among the top three leaders, Olmert, Livni, and Barak. Tony Blair, the French, and the Egyptians are circumventing the rhetoric and behind the scenes may soon achieve a cease-fire. Will the result have been worth it?
Ari Shavit, a leading journalist in Israel who supports an early cease-fire, said on BBC news on January 2 that in the Middle East, “Nothing is what meets the eye. In closed rooms, many, many moderate Arab leaders, including moderate Palestinian leaders, actually are happy, and they actually encouraged the Israeli operation, because Hamas is not only a threat to Israel, it’s a threat to moderate Egypt, it’s a threat to moderate Jordan, and it’s definitely a threat to the moderate Palestinians…
“There is a silent coalition of the moderates—Israelis, Arabs, Palestinians—who understand that extremism, Fascist-like organizations like the Hamas, who oppress women, who persecute homosexuals, who persecute Christians, who do not let a free Palestinian society emerge—this is a threat to all of us in the region and therefore the moderates want a constructive, positive Palestine to evolve out of this tragedy we are witnessing right now.”
Can this happen? I believe it can. Does Hamas have to be crushed, in will if not in body, in order for it to happen? I believe it does. Can Israel accomplish this? We will soon see. But whatever the outcome, the innocent people of Gaza will have paid an exceedingly high price.
Think of them. Pray for them. But also, in the next few days, spare a thought or a prayer for the women and children of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, who are dying without a glance from a world whose outrage is completely focused on Israel and Gaza. The fight against terror is costly in human terms in any part of the world, but it is often unavoidable and it sometimes in the end leads to a better life.
The pain of so much loss of life can’t be erased, but this moderate view deserves to be heard by everyone concerned. It’s worth circulating.
Indeed i have been watching Sri Lanka as well – and encouraging my students to do so, for some of the reasons you suggest, but also for another. Sri Lanka is a particular tragedy, as they had their Oslo moment some few years ago – but then Sri Lanka governmental politics prevented the agreement from being implemented. Since then, the LTT have split, and the plight of the Muslim community has become more salient – both factors which may make an agreement even more difficult.
But they are now engaging in what i call the usual ‘one last push’ military strategy. I call it the usual as it came and went with varying intensity during the war in ireland, as it has in Sri lanka. I sat in many campaign rooms with the military, when they were convinced that THIS time their military strategy would end the IRA, or the LTT. But it never did, and it was only when they acknowledged that they could not win by their military strengths that full attention was given to a political agreements. Also that their campaigns just increased the number of martyrs for the cause – there was a direct and noticeable correlation between the grave side mournings and the new recruits, and long term security needs were sacrificed for short term security – or political – needs, as they were in sri lanka, and continue to be…
Don’t let theleft-liberal atmosphere in the USA get to you. Those preening moralists who now speak nobly of disproportionate Israeli responses were nowhere to be seen during the years when rockets fell daily on civilians in Sderot. Now they cry crocodile tears for the Palestinians, whose suffering we regret, but whose leaders place their weapons right i their midst, hoping for – and getting – propaganda points.
To withdraw now from Gaza wld be pointless, just another repeat of the Hizbullla war: Israeli withdrew, UN "peacekeepers" came in, Hizbullah re-armed to the teeth. Ditto of what will happen in Gaza if the withdrawal lobby wins once again. And then two years hence, another war, and yet another, and yet another. As your mother used to say, Enough already! Israel needs to stay the course. There may be no solutions to this mess, but withdrawal is the worst solution of all..
We are fine, and hoping that our friends abroad stay the course with us, and not fall prey to the easy solutions tossed at us from afar.
I pray that we not fall prey.
(The writer was Atlanta’s leading Orthodox rabbi for four decades, and has lived in Jerusalem for many years.)
I am delighted to see your moderate response. I too feel Israel is well within its right to defend herself from the extremism of Hamas. I have seldom been more in favor of a military operation as I am of this one, the loss of civilian life notwithstanding, which is boviously deplorable. There is a time for diplomacy and gentle rapprochement and then there is a time for stregth. This is one such time. There is no room for weakness and my feeling is that Israel will have the wisdom and courage to finish the job. Thank goodness for your views and those of Dershowitz today in the JP.
thank you for all of your posts, especially this one. as always you give a sound and articulate reading to the situation. I hope you don’t mind if i borrow some of your ideas for my talk tomorrow at shul.
Thanks, Mel, for sponsoring this terrific forum. It’s even tolerable to see the misguided lefties and unrealistic pacifists have their say, as the unassailable moral position of Israel in this engagement recalibrates even the leftward anchors to the center. I suppose that is progress, since it exposes the true antiSemites (Though I have never been one to throw that charge around, particularly at those I disagree with politically, there can be little other reason for undervaluing Jewish life and overvaluing Palestinian life, while devaluing life in Africa [anyone see the cholera numbers?], Sri Lanka [anyone see the WSJ piece clarifying that there IS a military solution to terrorism], etc). I’d be happy to entertain another rationale for the double-standard the Jews seem to enjoy.
Hope for future blogs: the biological and historical context. No one has influenced my view of human nature more than you, Mel, and though it may not always comport with your ultra-compassionate politics, I would suggest a review of some of these themes:
1. the biology of human nature, esp male aggressive behavior, and esp in the context of societies with many young men;
2. sociopathy (though only 1-2% of the population, able to have a broad influence in non-democratic societies);
3. religious fundamentalism;
4. recent history (the World Wars) and distant history (the utter brutality of everyday existence for millennia).
The ultimate theme: evil– real evil– is never too far away in societies dominated by the powerful few. Freedom from their tyranny has a cost, and we must be unflinching and brutal if necessary (and only to the extent necessary) in protecting what we hold dear. Anyone remember Normandy?
A reminder to those pacifists, from Orwell:
"Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf."
Thank you for this contribution. I have actually written about several of the subjects you mention on my other website, http://www.melvinkonner.com.
On why terrorism (such as that in India) may not be “unnatural”:
On males and their violent tendencies:
On the outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia:
And on the disproportionate role of sociopathy:
Obviously you know me well.
The Orwell quote is powerful. It reminds me of the play "A Few Good Men," in which the female protagonist, a JAG lawyer, says something like this: "Somewhere there is a wall, and someone is standing on that wall, watching. And the reason I am able to sleep at night is that he is willing to spend the night awake on that wall."
Anyone who thinks he or she will be able to sleep at night without that soldier standing on that wall does not know the first thing about human nature.