Actions and Intentions in Gaza

People tell us what they mean by what they do. Actions of a certain consistency are the infallible clue to the motives that drive them. A sincerely meant declaration may sometimes prove false, but that is a rare phenomenon; generally, over time, the "exceptional" lie is found to be no exception, and what we took for an accident proves to be a regular trait of character. When we discover that the contradiction between word and deed is incorrigible, in someone we have to deal with, the reason is always that person's wish to deceive; though this may include a wish to deceive himself. The work of an analyst of human conduct, a novelist or a psychologist or a historian, lies simply in recognizing the presence of a pattern. How do the actions hang together?

The same holds true for countries. One must ask, What explains the pattern of the conduct? If someone said today, "The United States is at war with Islam," it might be an uphill argument to respond that this is not really the American intention, that we have waged war in a small number of Muslim countries compared with the number in which we have not waged war, and so on. Still, the proposition that we are not at war with Islam could be defended rationally. By contrast, if someone were to assert that "The guiding purpose of the US in the Middle East since 2002 has been to bring democracy to the region," that proposition would be impossible to defend. Too many of our actions refute it. The actions do hang together, and they suggest a different description of our purpose. Surely that purpose has been to exhibit the power of American arms in the region -- "force projection." Our encouragement of democracy has been erratic, compromised, discontinuous, and subject to very frequent deflection by tactical considerations on our side; whereas from Bush to Obama, from the siege of Fallujah to the drone killings in the borderlands of Pakistan, the commitment to force projection has never waned.

Suppose we compare in a similar spirit the Israeli government's description of its aims in Gaza and the actions and effects of the past 25 days. To perceive the relevant pattern, we should recall some figures from Israel's earlier Gaza offensive of December 2008 and January 2009. In that previous mission by the Israel Defense Forces, approximately 1300 residents of Gaza were killed, more than half of them civilians. Thirteen Israelis were killed. The contrast of the numbers needs to be looked at slowly; it affords a clue to the last few weeks. The Palestinian dead in Gaza during July and August 2014 are now more than 1600 (It is hard to tell because so many lie buried under the rubble.) Of the Palestinian dead, approximately 80 percent have been civilians. On the Israeli side, this time, 64 soldiers have died, and three civilians.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, and other members of his government have said that the purpose of the IDF reconnaissance, bombing, and shelling of Gaza is to destroy the sites from which missiles are launched at Israel and to close the tunnels built by Hamas to launch ground attacks on Israeli settlements and army outposts. A constant consideration by Israel, he has often added, is to inflict no unnecessary injury on civilians in Gaza. Netanyahu's primary aim undoubtedly is to protect the people of Israel and to destroy the source of the threat to Israeli civilians. As he has said, no country could be expected to endure such attacks without stopping the attackers. The additional claim put forward by the Israeli government -- that the missile sorties from Gaza were unprovoked and bear no relation to the violent raids and mass arrests of Palestinians in preceding days -- should not be allowed to pass without skepticism, but provocation does not affect the right of Israel to stop the attacks.

What, then, of the killing of Palestinian civilians by the IDF? In Netanyahu's account, all of the deaths of unarmed Palestinians have been accidental. These dead include, let it be remembered, hundreds of women and children, killed in schools, in markets, in shelters, in crowded streets, and in house after house in whole blocks of apartments. You do not kill unarmed people in such numbers, and you do not kill women and children on such a scale, when the constantly considered aim of your forces is not to inflict unnecessary injury on civilians. Conversely, when you take the most scrupulous measures to avoid the killing of innocents, it does not turn out that the vast majority of the people you have killed are innocents.

Because the pattern admits of no misunderstanding, we should withdraw credence from Netanyahu's profession of his secondary aim: the great care taken against harm to civilians. The facts suggest, rather, a tacit condoning of retaliation against any Palestinian who comes into view. The Netanyahu government has permitted such killing to recur, and at the same time has denied that it is happening. "I'm 60," says the Gazan human rights lawyer Raji Sourani:

I lived all my entire life in this part of the world, and I'm working in this field for the last 40 years. I attended the last wars, in 2008, 2009 and 2012. I can assure you one thing: Yes, war crimes happened, and entire families have been erased -- Samouni, Daya, and others. Houses were destroyed. Civilian targets were targeted. And we documented that. But the scale never, ever was on this level ... We never, ever have had entire areas, like Shejaiya, like Khuzaa, like Zanaa, like Beit Hanoun, like Beit Lahia, razed. Doesn't exist anymore. Hundreds of bombs, weighing one ton, dropped on the heads of the people while they are there.

Other witnesses have said the same. There are whole streets and sections of towns in Gaza that look as if they had become free-fire zones for Israeli soldiers.

"Free-fire zone" was an unwritten concept of American combat in Vietnam. (One of the returning soldiers to expose the fact and explain its meaning was John Kerry.) Americans who have read that history know that the killing of women and children on such a scale does not happen by accident. It happens when soldiers who are angry at the loss of comrades have been shown, by unwritten orders or by a leeway that amounts to permission, that they are free to decide "in the heat" whom they want to kill, and that those whom they target need not be armed or anywhere close to anyone armed. Naval shelling that kills four children playing on a beach can be classified as one of the mysteries of war. The response of the IDF to similar incidents in 2008-2009, "We will investigate," is seldom heard these days. The response is now, "We have no record of that."

If Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have overstated their care for Gaza civilians, they have understated their larger aim. Again, the observation arises from the actions the IDF are ordered to execute. Perhaps even more than it aims to destroy Hamas, the Netanyahu government hopes by this offensive to crush the will to resist and the desire for independence among Palestinians. But political resistance is the greatest enemy. Terrorist resistance is less unwelcome -- it feeds Israeli militarism, supplies new reasons-of-state to support emergency action, and gives plausibility to successive appeals for American planes, helicopters, drones, and missiles. The nature of the offensive makes sense in this light and no other. Reduce them to an abject condition, by the irresistible force of the attack, so that they realize anything is better than what they have to suffer now. The long-term aim was suggested in words as well as deeds by Netanyahu when, in July, he altered his stance on the acceptability of a Palestinian state. He now concedes nothing but the right of the Palestinians to be endowed with separate spaces within a larger geographical entity supervised by Israel; but, according to the new iteration, there will never be such a thing as a sovereign Palestine. This change was reported with relief by one of his admirers, in an article entitled "Netanyahu Finally Speaks his Mind." The offensive of July and August is the action properly suited to accompany that state of mind.

But the words come from the head of the Likud party, whose platform never allowed for a Palestinian nation. What is new is that such sentiments are uttered freely by an Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu's fearlessness, on this point, is the plainest sign we have had that the present campaign means to mark the resoluteness of Israel's blockade of Gaza by land, sea, and air, and the endlessness of its occupation of the West Bank. His confidence has become so swollen that his words at last do correspond to his actions. Two other signs have been his defiance of the US president and state department -- a defiance expressed in language that is barely diplomatic -- and his open contempt for the United Nations. The number of UN schools serving as shelters that have been hit and the thinness of the Israeli justifications are such that a UN worker may with reason feel as imperiled in Gaza today as a Palestinian civilian.

Somebody once said Benjamin Netanyahu was an American politician who happens to be the head of a foreign state. The characterization is apt not only because of his fluent mastery of American English and his intuitive grasp of part of the American soul -- the part most fully expressed in the Mexican War of 1846-1848 -- but also in view of Netanyahu's extraordinary interventions in American politics in the Obama years: his back-to-back speeches opposing the president, delivered to Congress and AIPAC in May 2011, and his all-but-partisan hospitality to a phalanx of anti-Obama billionaires during Mitt Romney's campaign stop in Jerusalem in July 2012. We have been seeing another such intervention in July and August 2014. Netanyahu, from the first, deplored Obama's willingness to negotiate for an independent state with the Palestinian unity government (comprising the Palestinian Authority and Hamas) which was formed on June 2. Ten days later, the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank gave the Israeli government a legitimate cause for a response of some kind. In the same stroke, it offered an opportunity to break up the Palestinian unity government on the path of the retaliation.

If the Gaza offensive was carefully timed in a local sense, it also comes at a critical moment in US politics, just three months before the midterm elections, a time when even a president less cautious than Obama would take care how he shocked the predispositions of Jewish donors and the "swing voters" whose antagonism could lose him the Senate. Coincidentally, on July 17 the Senate by unanimous consent passed a resolution in support of Israel backed by AIPAC. The resolution makes no mention of Palestinian deaths.

There are many ways, after all, of mismatching words and actions, but the way the Senate chose is particularly craven: to subscribe your name to a pledge in someone else's words, concerning a catastrophic event you have not taken the trouble to learn about. With the exception of a few courageous journalists, the American view of Gaza -- the posture of looking away with pity and calling it "heartbreaking" as if the wild disparity of deaths did not exist -- has been an abortion of moral responsibility. It testifies to a poverty of leadership and civic conscience almost as desperate as that of the Israelis and the Palestinians half a world away.