03/22/2012 07:24 pm ET Updated May 22, 2012

To the Leftist Who Has No Problem With Rocket Fire on Israel

War again. Rockets again. Israel assassinates the commander of a radical Palestinian militia coalition in Gaza. In retaliation, gunners in the Strip fire rockets at cities across southern Israel. Israel launches a series of air strikes targeting the launch crews. More than 20 Palestinians are killed and scores injured. In Israel, questions are raised about the wisdom and the necessity of the assassination.

Sounds all too familiar. Not much new here, from the looks of it. Back pages, even in the Arab world.

In the hard left media, reports on the fighting are often more prominent, but they too have a tone of same-old. Especially when they gloss over or justify rocket attacks targeting civilians in southern Israel.

The attacks of "Israel's latest massacre in Gaza," said a headline by commentator Ali Abunimah posted at his Electronic Intifada,"have followed a typical pattern," with Palestinians responding with rockets of scant consequence, providing Israel a desired pretext for continued bombing of Gazans.

In fact, there has been much about the current fighting that has departed from the typical pattern. In an era of constraints spurred and modulated by the Goldstone Report, the carnage in Syria, Hamas friction with Assad and Iran, a new Egypt, the Iron Dome antimissile system and a host of other factors, both Israel and Hamas have made marked and largely successful efforts to limit civilian casualties on both sides of the border.

One thing that has not changed, however, is the way much of the hard left relates to the moral issues posed by Palestinian rocket attacks on Israelis.

A weekend Mondoweiss news account of Israeli air strikes, while acknowledging that most of the Gaza dead were Islamic Jihad fighters, notes as something of an afterthought, "Local resistance in Gaza retaliated and showered nearby Israeli settlements with homemade rockets."

In every account, the rockets are dismissed as little more than toothless, impromptu, life-affirming symbols of Palestinian refusal to surrender.

In recent years, Palestinian rocket fire has become a measure of whether progressives can be compassionate to, and respectful of the rights of, civilians on both sides, or whether their attitude is, at root, no more nuanced than Palestine Good, Zionist Entity Unredeemably Evil.

An opinion piece on Tuesday suggested that Israel intentionally brought on the rocket fire in order to give its Iron Dome a trial run. "What better way to test the system," asked Linda Heard in Arab News. "It's hard to believe that a state would put its own people at risk for a test-run, but that's exactly what Israel is doing," she wrote.

In an exchange of reader comments to the Mondoweiss piece, one respondent asks, "Is it relevant that for many months there have been persistent rocket attacks launched from Gaza against Israel?"

A reply comes from Mondoweiss Writer-at-Large Annie Robbins. "Yes, why shouldn't they respond to Israel's violent provocations? That is human nature."

It is also a war crime. In August 2009, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report condemning rocket strikes by Hamas and other Palestinian groups in Gaza. An HRW official said at the time that "rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians are unlawful and unjustifiable, and amount to war crimes."

Times like this, with rockets targeting civilian populations, I wonder what it means to call yourself a leftist. I believed, and still do, that to be on the left entails a certain universality of concern for the rights and safety and welfare of people, regardless of nationality, race, religion, culture or political outlook.

There is a current on the left that argues that no one, certainly no Israeli, should tell Palestinians how to respond, how to resist. That is so. Moreover, it is unfair and plain wrong to expect Palestinians to refrain from responding to attacks, such as the assassination that set off the current spate of violence.

At the same time, just as anyone -- Palestinians certainly included -- has the right to tell Israelis what they think is wrong about what they do, anyone -- Israelis included -- ought to be able to say what they believe about the moral issues involved in targeting non-combatants.

It is wrong to simply grant a moral pass to this response, to rocket fire on civilians, whether you write this off as self-defense --which, in practice, it is not -- or as human nature, or as inconsequential relative to Israeli aggression.

In his article, Ali Abunima waved away Palestinian shelling as little more than a tool for "Israel's tired hasbara [PR] refrain about rockets, rockets, rockets."

"Israeli propaganda insists that the attacks are about preventing 'terrorism' and stopping 'rockets,'" he wrote. Albuminah cited a 2007 HRW study, "Indiscriminate Fire," which showed, accurately, that Israel employs much more powerful weaponry against Palestinians and exacts much higher casualties. What he failed to include, was the report's conclusion that:

Both sides have shown disregard for civilian loss of life in violation of international humanitarian law (IHL): Palestinian armed groups have directed their rockets at Israeli towns...

The 10 Israeli civilians killed by Palestinian rocket attacks since mid-2004 range from 2 to 57 in age and include four children. The attacks also have inflicted property damage and created a pervasive climate of fear in affected Israeli communities.

Just one question.

When a leftist places quotation marks around the word rockets, when a leftist terms attacks on civilian populations a matter of human nature, when a leftist dismisses rockets as crude, homemade, and unguided, or blames Israelis for their use, when a leftist notes that rockets have killed "only 28" Israelis, or sniffs or jeers at the fact that one out of seven Israelis, one million in all, are currently in rocket range -- it may be time to ask, what it is, exactly, that's supposed to make a person a leftist?

Originally published on

Further discussion of this piece on Mondoweiss: Here and Here.