07/31/2014 09:53 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2014

The Meaning of Terror

SAID KHATIB via Getty Images

Imagine that you are a parent (as I am) and that your children are caught in a war zone, facing the prospect of death or maiming at any moment. What do you do? The answer is obvious: you remove your children from the war zone as quickly as is humanly possible.

This is why wars generate masses of refugees; the horrific civil war in Syria, to take but one example, created in 2012 alone over 700,000 refugees, scattered among Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and other countries.

But if you are a parent in Gaza, where hundreds of children have died in the current conflict and over 2,000 have been injured, you have absolutely nowhere to go, with the borders sealed by Israel and Egypt and escape by sea or air impossible. You are trapped and unable to carry out the most elemental responsibility of parenthood: to protect your child. This is the true meaning of terror.

You have tried, of course, to do what parents do: to keep your child as safe as circumstances permit. But the task has proved impossible. You have rushed your family to sites such as the United Nations schools officially designated as safe havens, but they have been repeatedly attacked. The United Nations has reported at least six such attacks over the past two weeks, and many children have died as a result. There is nothing on earth you want more than to protect your children from harm, but you have nowhere to hide.

Israelis, too, feel a sense of terror. They are frightened of the Hamas rockets now capable of reaching two-thirds of Israel's population and they are terrified of the tunnels that now reach into Israel proper. The situation, however, is not the same as in Gaza; Israelis have an expensive "Iron Dome" that intercepts many of the rockets launched by Hamas, an elaborate warning system, and an extensive system of shelters. But the most fundamental difference is that Israelis who find the situation too dangerous can leave with their children and take them out of the country. This is what makes the situation truly asymmetrical, and it compounds what is a great human tragedy for both sides.

The world has become accustomed to fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, and there has been a cumulative desensitization to the human suffering caused by the current conflict. The magnitude of the humanitarian disaster now unfolding is immense. Gaza has fewer than 1.8 million inhabitants, and over 1,400 of them are now dead. Were a similar catastrophe to occur in the United States, a nation of 316 million people, the equivalent number of deaths would be over 240,000. This is more than double the total number of deaths -- 101,890 -- suffered in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Or, to put it another way, in number of deaths per capita, it is 9/11 80 times over.

The response of the international community reveals a growing sentiment that Israel has lost its moral bearings. Ban Ki-moon, the normally mild-mannered UN Secretary General, described the recent attacks on a school in Gaza being used to shelter families desperately attempting to find a safe haven as "outrageous and unjustifiable," adding that "Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children." And Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the UN agency for Palestine refugees, described the attack as "an affront to all of us" and "a serious violation of international law by Israeli forces." "Today," Krähenbühl declared, "the world stands disgraced."

For Israel, this is a moment of reckoning. Though its actions may succeed for a time in tamping down the military threat posed by Hamas, they further inflame the underlying conflict. In an article published on July 28, a former Israeli air force officer noted that in July 2002, a bomb in Gaza that killed the head of the military wing of Hamas aroused great moral outrage in Israel because it also resulted in 14 civilian deaths; now such attacks are routine and accepted with little public expression of dissent. This may well be explained by a recent poll conducted by Tel Aviv University, where just 4 percent of Jewish Israelis believe that excessive force has been used by the Israeli Defense Forces during the current assault on Gaza.

Faced with the unending possibility of attack, Israel is understandably concerned about its security. But its actions in the current conflict suggest that in the end its greatest threat may be to its soul.