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Some Moral Courage, Finally
It's time to take a clearer stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Moral courage, I always thought, would come later. Like when I’m middle aged and have to call up the local bully’s parents. I was wrong.
Sometime in high school I gave up discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In part it was because I learned more about its complexity, its nuance and history, and in part because I kept losing friends over endless debates that led nowhere. I studied History and Politics at university, which emphasized the importance of deep historical context when trying to understand complex issues. It also opened my eyes to how much goes on behind the political curtains that isn’t revealed till decades later. Lacking that deep texture, it felt futile to engage in conversations about the conflict.
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But having watched the events of the last month from the sidelines, it’s become obvious that continuing to hide behind the complexity of the situation is cowardice.
We’ve got to draw a line in the sand, even if it’s a bit scary. So here goes.
I believe it’s important not to mince words. There is a right and and a wrong here, and I believe that Israel is on the right side of history. I believe moral ambiguity in this situation (both-sides-ism) is an excuse for intellectual laziness. I believe it is imperative for the future of the West that Israel pursue an aggressive and immediate response to Hamas’ terror attack.
As a humanist, I believe the oppressed and downtrodden should be supported by those in a position to do so. So I hurt for the innocent Palestinians who are suffering. The images of bereaved mothers amid Gaza rubble are painful to watch. But I also believe that the blame for the suffering of innocent lives sits squarely with Hamas.
The Cause of Palestinian Suffering
It’s hard to deny that some years ago, and after many attempts, Israel gave up trying to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. Instead, it accepted low-intensity conflict and intermittent attacks on its civilians in exchange for using its military might and intermittent violence to keep Palestinians (mostly) in check. The core disagreement on the Israeli issue, as author Hussein Aboubakr Mansour points out, actually comes down to why Israel is doing this.
The leftist/progressive/TikTok-viral view is that Israel is a racist settler-colonialist state, whose goal is to oppress the Palestinians and keep their land. Israelis insist this military coercion is not their preference, but rather “a difficult choice forced on them by the corrupt, murderous Palestinian leadership, strong hatred, antisemitism, and, quite literally, an undying popular culture of terrorism indoctrinating every Palestinian since their childhood in textbooks, poetry, religion, arts, etc” as Mansour put it. That this is the only way to maintain the physical security of the Jewish citizens of Israel.
Mansour concludes that:
Israelis, in general, did not choose this, do not want this and hate the situation which was forced on them by the Palestinians… Most Palestinians do not and will not, as a matter of guide, accept the existence of Israel on any part of what they believe to be historical Wakanda and prefer continuous armed struggle rather than mutual recognition. On top of this, the historically corrupt, criminal, and irresponsible behavior of Palestinian leadership, which repeatedly prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state and preferred supporting terrorism, doesn't provide any political opportunities for the possibility of peace. These conditions have created a toxic popular Palestinian national culture that is militant and antisemitic and glorifies terrorism with constant outbursts of murderous violence by both Palestinian militants and civilians against Israeli civilians, women and children included.
History bears this out. Israel has offered Palestinians their own state on several occasions, and were rebuffed by their leaders every time. The best known instance was Camp David in 2000 when Ehud Barak, who defeated Netanyahu on a platform of peace, offered Arafat, the Palestinian leader, 96% of the land in the West Bank, 100% of Gaza, a clear path to statehood and control of Arab areas of East Jerusalem. It was most of what the Palestinians claimed they wanted but Arafat, feeling the pressure of the Arab world, walked away.
Barak’s unilateral withdrawal of troops from Southern Lebanon that same year not only failed to kickstart the peace process, but was celebrated by the Palestinians and Hezbollah as proof that violence works. Another generous offer came from PM Ehud Olmert in 2008, also summarily rejected by the Palestinian Authority.
It doesn’t mean the peace process is doomed, nor that Israel is anywhere near perfect, but it does indicate the Palestinian leadership has historically been the obstacle to a lasting solution. Something’s got to give.
The Crisis At Hand
A terrorist regime, whose stated objective is the destruction of all Jews, did that as best they could on October 7. They then retreated back to Gaza, 241 hostages in tow, and proceeded to hide (and fight from) behind every Palestinian civilian they could find. They shot rockets from schools, playgrounds, amusement parks and hospitals, as they’ve been doing for decades. The evidence is undeniable. Israel responded by bombing key Hamas infrastructure, which was intentionally built in civilian areas. And when Israel warned civilians to clear certain areas ahead of strikes, Hamas made it difficult for civilians to leave. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh put it best: “we love death like our enemies love life”.
On the contrary, Israelis have an extensive track record of going to extraordinary lengths to save the lives of people who would cheer to see them dead. What country at war proactively warns people they are about to bomb an area? (more on that later)
This points to a cruel arithmetic at work. Every innocent Palestinian death is — believe it or not — bad for Israel. Even if you believed Israeli leaders had zero ethical scruples, you have to believe they are pragmatic. And if they are pragmatic, they realize that more civilian casualties means more opposition from the international community, more global protests, more safety concerns for Israelis around the world, and ultimately less funding for the IDF.
The other side of the arithmetic is that every innocent Palestinian death is good for Hamas, which has shown through its actions, that it doesn’t give two shits about the Palestinian people but is more than willing to use civilian casualties in its propaganda campaign.
The Perils of the Ceasefire Path
Many protestors around the world are calling for a ceasefire. Sounds reasonable… Except let’s play that out. Israel agrees to a ceasefire and acquiesces to Hamas’ asinine demands. Upside: fewer Palestinians die in the short term. Downside: Hamas considers the tactic of murdering and abducting Jews an indisputable success. They would violate this ceasefire like the dozens of others they’ve violated since coming to power and repeat October 7 “again and again”, just like their leader promised they would on TV last week.
Beyond that, Hezbollah, watching from across the Lebanese border, is emboldened and undertakes its own campaigns of slaughter up north. More Israelis die. Other enemies of the West, like ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab are similarly empowered, and not just against Israel, but the entire heretic Western world (clearly stated in threats again the US, the UK, France, etc).
Palestinians suffer too: they end up living under a regime that routinely punishes opposition with murder, that siphons aid money meant for infrastructure toward rockets and personal wealth, that forces children to work to the death to dig its extensive tunnels, that oppresses women, and that more broadly, in every sense, is the enemy of liberal democratic values that allow societies to flourish. Not to mention a regime that will never accept any peace deal on the table, as its charter makes abundantly clear. Lastly, if Hamas continues its attacks, the tit-for-tat will continue, which will likely lead to more Palestinian deaths over the long term.
What are the Alternatives?
Path 1 (the current path): unleash Israeli military might in the air and ground to finally eliminate Hamas. The short term result: lots of deaths on the Israeli side and many more on the Palestinian side, including many civilians. The long term result: a change of regime, a chance at peace.
But the power vaccum! How would Israel guarantee a peaceful regime came to power and maintained it? What if an even worse organization usurped power as soon as Israel left? Look at Afghanistan!
First, it’s hard to conceive of a much worse organization for both Israel and the Palestinians than Hamas. Second, there’s historical precedent for this. The victory of Iraqi and US forces over ISIS in Mosul in 2017 precipitated the decline of radicalism in the area. The ousting of Idi Amin and his cruel regime in Uganda by Tanzanian forces, the US-led removal of Noriega in Panama, the elimination of the leadership of the Shining Path, a violent rebel group in Peru are all evidence that the destruction of violent organizations can pave the path to peace. None of these were magic bullets — in fact they sometimes led to more instability in the short-term, but were essential to long term peace in the region. To argue against the aggressive and immediate elimination of Hamas is like refusing to operate on a tumor because the recovery will be painful.
Path 2: Pursue small scale, tactical attacks on Hamas leaders with minimal collateral damage. This sounds good in theory, but is not realistic. Hamas has an extensive network of underground tunnels. Many Hamas leaders have escaped abroad. And the leaders that remain are rarely alone, often intentionally surrounded with civilians. Based on the cruel arithmetic I outlined, this would have been Israel’s preferred option, if it were possible — especially given it risks fewer Israeli lives too.
Path 3: Reduce aerial attacks and focus heavily on guerilla combat in Gaza, with the goal of minimizing the civilian casualties incurred in aerial bombings. This kind of warfare is prolonged and is almost never, by itself, successful for the invading force. It would be a move with a low probability of success, a certainty of a sky high Israeli death toll, and a high likelihood of a protracted conflict with high casualties on both sides, including civilians given Gaza’s density.
There are other flavors within Path 3: variations where Israel sacrifices way more of its soldiers and puts more of its civilians at risk of Hamas attacks in the hope of reducing the impact on Palestinian civilians and improving its image in the world. Not only do these options involve a country choosing to send to the death more of its own citizens in a pursuit which may or may not end up in more deaths on both sides and is less likely to succeed, but I posit it wouldn’t really change much about global opinion (I’ll save that for another time).
What About the Civilian Deaths?
I believe a military operation to eliminate Hamas is the only long term path to peace. Which is not an easy belief to hold alongside my belief that civilian deaths are tragic. But the deaths of civilians is the sad reality of any conflict. And if we hold Israel to a high ethical bar, which we should, we should judge it not based on whether civilians die, but at what rate compared to enemy fighters. This is where data matters more than rhetoric. If we compare that ratio to historical averages across other conflicts, we can actually contextualize Israel’s military activity, rather than instinctively condemn it based on the tragic footage emerging from Gaza.
So how does that bear out? If we look at a few notable wars, we will find a range of what’s “normal”. The US army’s track record in Afghanistan is on the low end, at about 30% civilians killed, the rest being enemy fighters. The US war with ISIS fell in a similar range. Vietnam was at 50% but many other conflicts fall well above the 1:1 ratio. The Korean War and WWII saw 2 to 3 civilians killed for every 1 combatant as did as the Iraq war. NATOs military activity in Yugoslavia killed 4 for every combatant while the Persian Gulf War had a staggering 87% civilian casualty rate. I am excluding countries like Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and many African countries whose ratios are off the charts.
Now let’s look at Israel. Luckily, there’s a dedicated wikipedia section dissecting this ratio for conflicts since 2000 (with more scrutiny than any other conflict on that page, including WWII). It cites a variety of different sources to show that Israel is usually on the lower range, from 1:1 to 1:30, depending on the conflict. Publicly available information on the current conflict doesn’t distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths. Some speculate it is roughly at 1:1, which is on the lower end of global conflicts. Others claim that they are higher than past Israeli conflicts but lower than comparable ones, like the US attack on Mosul, which had double the casualties (but practically none of the outrage). And this despite fighting militants who use civilians as shields, fight exclusively in high density areas, and use key civilian infrastructure, like the Shifa hospital, as command centers and rocket launching cites.
The world’s obsession with Israel’s track record here is particularly jarring given what’s going on elsewhere in the world. I won’t go into the anti-Zionism vs. anti-Semitism debate but there is no doubt a double standard when we scrutinize Israel, to the detriment of the 150,000 Yemenis killed at the hands of the Saudis so far (where a Saudi blockade-led famine is in full swing), the 600,000 killed in the Tigray region of Ethiopia (including thousands of slaughtered babies), to say nothing of Russia and Assad in Syria, where the civilian death toll has now exceeded 300,000. Where is the global outrage? Where are the protests?
That all said, could Israel do more to reduce civilian casualties on this path? Perhaps. Israel is operating within the usual constraints of war while fighting an organization that is actively complicit in the deaths of its own people. And still, Israel goes out of its way to reduce civilian casualties. It drops leaflets before bombing anything (having dropped 1.5 million such leaflets so far). It makes phone calls and sends warning text messages. It drops Roof Knockers, non lethal projectiles that make a loud bang to let civilians know they are near a military target that will get bombed. They use Smart Bombs, which are guided bombs that are designed to have smaller explosion radii. It has a legal process to review the cost-benefit analysis of strikes that risk civilian lives. If anything, the weight of evidence suggests Israel is doing more than any other country in its position would reasonably be expected to do.
As Twitter user eigenrobot concludes: “eyeballing [the casualty data] I think I would overall prefer to be a civilian in Gaza today to being a civilian in practically any other conflict in which my side is losing in history”.
This Doesn’t Let Israel Off the Hook
Though the mission of eliminating Hamas is the right one, Israel must be held to high standards in how it goes about it. Most importantly, it must:
Maintain a high ethical bar on civilian casualties. While the fog of war is real, it is in Israel’s long-term interests as a liberal democratic state to investigate any unjustifiable attacks on civilian targets and it is on its supporters to keep it accountable when it drops below its standards.
Set a clear goal and define a post-Hamas plan. Israel has started sharing its vision recently, like having “overall security responsibility” for Gaza (perhaps modeled after the Area B in the West Bank), but it needs much more texture and detail to be believable.
Bring Netanyahu to justice. While this moment in history has given Bibi a temporary reprieve, the intelligence fuck up on Oct 7 should sit heavily on his conscience. He must be held accountable, along with other key leaders that allowed it to happen.
Stop building settlements. The minimal benefit — tiny parcels of additional land, doesn’t seem to be worth the high cost — taking a peaceful long term solution off the table.
Is this rock bottom for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Maybe. Things could certainly get worse, as the escalations with Hezbollah in South Lebanon remind us. But it also feels like a turning point of some sort.
I am hopeful that Israel is able to eliminate Hamas, for its own sake and for the sake of the Palestinian people. And I am hopeful, too, that a peaceful, two-state solution will come about sooner or later. I just wish it’d come soon.
About Me and My Substack: my name is Gil. I work in healthcare technology and love to write, do karate, and ride around New York on a little black skateboard. I write optimistic takes on things we usually worry about like social media, climate change, and mental health.
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