The current war between Hamas and Israel has, in one month, left 66 Israelis (plus one foreign worker) and nearly 2,000 Palestinians dead. This has caused many outside Israel to call the Israeli military operations a war crime because so many more Palestinians than Israelis have died. Israelis point out that this disproportionate outcome is fairly typical of all the Arab-Israeli wars since 1948 and made worse by the fact that Palestinians openly seek to maximize their civilian casualties. Hamas has openly called on its civilians to “embrace martyrdom” and volunteer to be human shields for Hamas.
The Israeli attitude is quite different. After its founding in 1948 Israeli strategy was based on the concept of “never again” (will there be a mass slaughter as happened in World War II when anti-Semitic Germans killed six million Jews.) But by returning to Israel (from whence most Jews had been expelled 1,900 years ago) the Jews had to contend with the Arabs, who backed the German World War II anti-Semitic policies (and still do) and were obsessed with ancient grievances with each other and many outside the region. It’s not just about Israel and the Jews. Since Israel came into existence over ten million Arabs have been killed by Arab soldiers or terrorists. Only 35,000 were killed by Israel, all in the course of protecting Israeli civilians from Arabs determined to wipe out Israel and all Jews.
There are over 400 million Arabs and only eight million Israelis (20 percent of them not even Jews). Despite far more numerous (in numbers of troops and modern weapons) military resources Arab armies were defeated time after time from 1948 to 1973 before Arabs realized that conventional war with tiny Israel was not going to work. These numerous battlefield defeats led to the development of an Arab passive-aggressive strategy that exploited Western media to slowly erode Western support for Israel. This seemed like a long shot back in the 1970s, but it was the only option Arabs had and despite growing criticism from within the Arab world, the “Israel must be destroyed at any cost” idea remained a bedrock of Arab foreign policy ever since. The new strategy considered dead Arab civilians killed by Israelis defending themselves to be the key to victory. Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon became the major practitioners of this cynical and callous strategy. The basic idea was to store the rockets and other weapons in residential areas and either convince (with years of propaganda, which continues to this day) that it is the duty of Arab (Palestinian or Lebanese) civilians to remain in their homes to be human shields for the rockets. Backing up the propaganda was threats of force against civilians who tried to flee. Many civilians do flee, but enough remain (often because they were encouraged to do so and sometimes via coercion) in the vicinity of the unlaunched rockets to provide dead bodies.
The Arabs knew that the dead civilians would be portrayed as innocent victims and make the Israelis look like the bad guys. Yet most people living in a Western democracy would react as the Israelis do if subjected to similar terrorist and rocket attacks. But this reality, the Arabs knew, would be buried under the more newsworthy (and profitable) coverage of the dead civilians. As the saying goes in mass media, “if it bleeds it leads.” Many Western journalists are not happy with this and understand that if their neighborhood were being hit by rockets they would demand that their government do something to stop it. But business is business and the “dead civilian” strategy works if the attacks are far away.
What gets missed in all this is the realities of politics in a democracy. Israelis have lived through five “peace deals” with Hamas and all five were exploited (and bragged about) by Hamas as mere ceasefires so the terrorist group could rearm and try again to destroy Israel, or at least kill some Israelis in another failed attempt. Israelis demand that their elected government do something to protect them. What is also forgotten is that Israel offered the Palestinians a peace deal in 2000, which was acceptable to most Palestinians (and still is) but was rejected by the Palestinian radicals and that led to another round of terrorism directed against Israel. This was defeated by 2005 and ever since then Palestinian radicals, especially Hamas, have been obsessed with destroying Israel or, in practical terms, doing some real damage against the Israelis.
The Palestinian “dead civilians” strategy has been no secret. Both Fatah (which runs the West Bank) and Hamas media have for years openly urged civilians to “embrace death” and convince their children to be suicidal terrorists. Children’s media follows the same line, but uses techniques found in Western children’s TV and books to persuade the kids to accept this culture of death. Israelis, especially those who speak and read Arabic, can see this propaganda every day on their TV.
The Palestinians don’t put the worst of this stuff on their English language websites and news shows but the extent of the hate is always there, just a translation away. The Palestinians have been relieved to discover that most Western media ignore this depraved propaganda and concentrate on easier-to-comprehend stuff like dead civilians. Hamas leaders also understand that victory for them in the short term is not the destruction of Israel but surviving Israeli retribution for Hamas rocket attacks on Israelis. This attitude is understood by most Israelis as well, which is why most (over 85 percent) Israelis still support the effort to destroy Hamas this time.
The first war with Hamas was in 2009 and lasted three weeks. The one in 2012 went on for eight days and did not involve the use of ground troops. This time both sides are determined to achieve something tangible. Hamas needs a win because it’s obsession with destroying Israel, despite the massive support from most of the Arab world, has failed again and again. In the process Hamas has angered the residents of Gaza and many Arab states that have long supported the Palestinians. If Hamas comes out of this war with little to show for it then all the financial and diplomatic “support” it is now enjoying will evaporate and soon Hamas will be replaced by some other ruler in Gaza.
Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007, two years after Israel relinquished control of Gaza as a good will gesture. Hamas defines itself as existing mainly to destroy Israel and drive all Jews out of the Middle East. Hamas began as a branch of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood and the continued presence of any Egyptian Islamic terrorists in Gaza has made Egypt increasingly hostile to Hamas. In fact, for the first time, most Egyptians are backing Israel in their fight with Hamas and Egyptian media openly encourage Israel to destroy Hamas completely. Egypt cooperates by sharing intelligence and sealing the Egyptian border with Gaza. But up until 2013 Egyptian officials tended to ignore the smuggling of weapons (especially rockets from Iran) into Gaza. This enabled Hamas to stockpile thousands of rockets, all in preparation for the final battle with Israel that will make Hamas the ruler of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. At least that’s the plan. For the current war Hamas is trying to keep the Israeli air attacks going for as long as possible. Hamas believes that the new Palestinian civilian deaths each day will increase world media and diplomatic pressure on Israel to make peace on Hamas terms and allow Hamas to declare victory (at least in Arab and Moslem eyes). Israel is determined to avoid this. Hamas is also hostile to any peace efforts put forward by Egypt, which Hamas considers an ally of Israel.
During the current war Hamas claims that most of the 1,900 dead Palestinians are civilians. Israel believes that at heat half of them are armed Hamas fighters and Israel has facts on its side. In the aftermath of the 2009 war Hamas lied regularly to exaggerate the nature and extent of their losses. For example, Palestinians claimed that the 22 day long 2009 War indiscriminately killed civilians. Hamas claimed that 1,434 Palestinians were killed. Hamas further claimed that only 235 were Hamas fighters, while another 239 were police officers, and 960 of the dead were civilians. Hamas admitted that most of the "civilians" were men, mostly of military age. They also claimed that 121 of the dead civilians were women and 288 were children (defined as anyone under 18). It goes downhill from there. The Arab world unites behind these lies, and encourages all other Moslem nations to join them. Many Western nations, seeing a cheap way to ingratiate themselves with the Moslem world, join in. One thing Hamas and Fatah agree on is that over half a century of failed Palestinian (and Arab) efforts to destroy Israel is not their fault. They insists that Arabs are victims of a conspiracy by Jews and the West, to sustain Israel and keep the Arabs down. This is the core of Palestinian propaganda on all their media, and now accepted by many leftist supporters in West. Just another conspiracy theory, but one with thousands of heavily armed believers, who will kill if they get an opportunity. And trying to defend yourself against this is called oppressing the Palestinians.
Hamas has long been a big believer in using civilians as human shields (often against their will). Israeli soldiers are not allowed to use civilians as human shields, even to protect Israeli soldiers from attacks by Palestinians. Hamas, on the other hand, encourages the use of human shields, and describes, in their training manuals, how best to do it. Lots of dead civilians are essential to Hamas success (in getting enough Western countries threatening Israel and forcing ceasefires and concessions). Much of what Hamas knows about using human shields it learned from Hezbollah up in Lebanon. There, Hezbollah has been using human shields for decades. Back in 2006 Israel released video, and other evidence, showing how Hezbollah used civilians as human shields during rocket attacks on Israel. Hezbollah's attitude in response to this was largely one of, "so what?"
Hamas also knows that it has lots of UN support. For years Hamas has pressured the UN to send officials who would cooperate and made life impossible for UN staff who did not do what Hamas wanted. Technically, this is against UN policy and the UN tries to at least appear to be playing it straight in situations like this. But reality is a different matter. Arab oil states have been throwing their money around for decades in the UN, to get nations to go along with meaningless resolutions condemning Israel. Money talks at the UN and there are many states willing to sell their support if the price is right.
Many of the Israeli missiles, smart bombs and shells seem random, especially when they hit civilians. But the Israelis do make efforts to avoid civilians. Israeli intelligence is constantly seeking out Hamas leadership and weapons, especially those about to be used. If indications (from aerial photos, electronic surveillance and interrogations) indicate a senior enough Hamas leader or specialist is in a place, the attack will be made, despite the presence of civilians. Hamas makes no secret of its use of civilian human shields to protect their most valuable assets (senior leaders and large weapons storage areas and other key assets). Since the intelligence effort depends on Hamas not knowing how or when the Israelis get their targeting information the Israelis will not comment on why a specific target it hit. This allows the media to jump all over a particularly newsworthy attack without fear of getting the story shot down by an even more newsworthy Israeli explanation. For purveyors of news it doesn’t get much better than this.