In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag's meditation on images depicting the atrocities of wartime, she cites Virginia Woolf's lacerating indictment of war, written in 1936 as the Spanish Civil War was unfolding. Woolf's polemic was a response to a lawyer who had engaged her on the issue of war.
She opened her argument by declaring that the lawyer as a man and she as a woman could not possibly see war in the same way. Woolf proposed reconciling the disparity by looking at some images of war together. "Let's see whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things," she wrote, for she believed, according to Sontag, "that the shock of the images could not fail but unite people of good will".
Many people around the world, looking at the same photographs together--of bloodied, broken, mangled bodies of civilians and children killed by Israeli forces in Gaza since December 27th--have felt the same things. And they have united in compassion for the Palestinian people.
No matter which side of the Israeli-Palestinian issue we stand on, we ought to feel empathy, and pain, and sorrow for the people killed in Gaza--not because we're pacifists, or weak, or pro-Palestine, or anti-Israel, or pro-terrorist, or anti-Semitic, but because they were unarmed civilians in a blockaded war zone, who had nowhere to run and no place to hide.
"One body can hold all the suffering the world can feel," wrote Graham Greene in The Quiet American, another polemic about war. Upon seeing the photographs from Gaza-- of babies with war wounds and third degree burns, children with missing body parts, screaming toddlers with blood pouring from their sides, tiny corpses turned blue in death, silent and still as no child ever ought to be--should the proper response from our government and leaders be the morally feeble talking point: "Hamas is to blame"?
According to the latest reports, more than 149 children have died in Gaza since Israel began its attacks on December 27th.
In Zeitoun, one of the poorest sections of Gaza, Masouda al-Samouni, 20, was preparing food for her baby when Israeli warplanes launched missiles in her neighborhood; one of them struck her house killing her baby, her husband, and her mother-in-law. "He died hungry," she said of her infant.
In Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, a missile killed three Palestinian children, aged 8-12, as they played on a street. One boy was decapitated; another had both his legs blown off. Madth Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor working in a Gaza hospital said, "These injuries are not survivable injuries."
Protection for civilians in wartime is a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law set in the Geneva Conventions of 1949--ironically, established as a response to the Holocaust--and in the treaty's Additional Protocols of 1977. Unarmed civilians not engaged in war must be spared and protected, and may not be attacked. In situations not covered by the specific laws of the Geneva Convention, civilians are protected by the fundamental principles of humanitarian law and human rights law.
In the face of international outrage over the killing of unarmed civilians, Israel defends itself by saying that Hamas is using children and civilians as human shields and hiding among civilians. If this is true, Israel and its military need do only one thing to inoculate itself from charges of wanton disregard for human life and war crimes: hold their fire until civilians have been cleared from the area.
There are lies we tell ourselves, delusions we adopt, just to get through each day with our political convictions intact. But our leaders unleash something close to immoral into the geopolitical incubator, when they and our allies embrace norms that they deem barbaric or monstrous--in other circumstances and when practiced by others.
If the killing of unarmed civilians by terrorist groups is wrong, Israel's killing of unarmed Palestinian civilians and our defense of Israel's conduct cannot be right. Hamas may be guilty but Israel is not innocent, and neither are we when our leaders defend the slaughter of innocents. The situational ethics our government chooses to practice in this matter can only come back to haunt us.
"Sooner or later one must choose a side if one is to remain human," Greene wrote in The Quiet American. Since December 27th, people of good will everywhere have stood in solidarity with the Palestinian people because they believe intuitively, emotionally, and intellectually in the preeminent rights of unarmed civilians and children in wartime. The Geneva Convention treaties, humanitarian law, and human rights laws are in place to remind governments of the same.