Human Shields, Krauthammer, and Bad Arguments for Operation Protective Edge

by Benjamin Studebaker

Since I last wrote about Operation Protective Edge, the conflict in the Gaza Strip has escalated, with Israel launching a ground invasion. I’ve discussed the conflict with many people, and there are a few key arguments I keep hearing in defense of the operation that do not stand up to scrutiny. My aim today is to expose them to said scrutiny.
First, let’s update ourselves on the fatality balance. Since the ground invasion began, Protective Edge has gotten more lethal on both sides:

Operation Protective Edge Fatalities

The UN estimates 1,373 Palestinian losses and Israel counts 65 losses of its own. The ratio of Palestinian fatalities to Israeli fatalities is about 21 to 1. This ratio was even more severely tilted against the Palestinians earlier in the conflict before Israel sent ground troops. While Hamas struggles to hit targets in Israel with its rockets, it has found it easier to kill Israelis when those Israelis are already inside Gaza. This raises an interesting point–more Israelis have been killed invading Gaza this past month than were killed in the previous 10 years of Palestinian rocket attacks:


Israel Rocket Fatalities vs Invasion Fatalities


For every Israeli who was killed by the rockets, 2.25 Israelis have been killed invading Gaza ostensibly to stop Israelis from being killed by rockets. From an Israeli point of view, the cure is worse than the disease. If Israel had not invaded Gaza and Hamas had continued to fire rockets at the pace and lethality it averaged over the previous decade (which is unlikely due to the Iron Dome missile defense system, which first came online in 2011), it would have taken Israel 22.5 years to lose as many people to rocket attacks as it has lost invading Gaza in the last month. It could be 2037, and Israel would have lost no more people than it has lost now.

This is what is so incomprehensible about Operation Protective Edge. Even from an Israeli perspective, it puts more Israelis into harm’s way than were in harm’s way in the first place. And yet I continue to run across bizarre arguments in its defense. These arguments are best encapsulated by a recent piece in the Washington Post by Charles Krauthammer entitled “Moral Clarity in Gaza.” Krauthammer’s argument goes something like this:

  1. In 2005, Israel evacuated its settlers and military forces from the Gaza strip, offering the Gazans an olive branch.
  2. In 2006, the Gazans responded by electing Hamas, rejecting Israel’s overture.
  3. Hamas then built rockets instead of building Gaza’s economy.
  4. Hamas’ rockets do not kill many Israelis, but this is not their purpose–their purpose is to draw Israeli counterfire.
  5. Hamas hides rockets in schools and hospitals to to force Israel to attack these locations, then fills them with civilians and children so as to make Israel look bad. It uses “human shields”.
  6. Therefore, the Israelis are the good guys and Hamas are the bad guys.

It is not necessary to dispute any of Krauthammer’s factual claims to see where the argument goes wrong. The argument pulls what is essentially a sleight of hand–it assumes that if Krauthammer can show that Hamas is a bad organization that this should translate into sympathy for the Israeli campaign. Yet it is very possible to believe both that Hamas is a bad organization and that Israel’s campaign in Gaza is both deeply wrong and hugely mistaken. Indeed, this is implied by Krauthammer’s own argumentation.

If it is true that Hamas’ strategy is to fire rockets ineffectively so as to goad the Israelis into launching a counterattack that will make Israel look bad internationally, the worst thing Israel can do in response to that strategy is exactly what it is doing–launching the counterattack. If it is Hamas’ goal to get Israel to kill Palestinians and Israel wants to thwart Hamas, it should do the opposite of what it is doing, it should refrain from killing Palestinians altogether.

Furthermore, if Israel observes that Hamas is putting rockets inside schools or hospitals so as to get Israel to bomb these targets, the smart thing for Israel to do would be to refuse to take the bait. When Israel learns that there are munitions located in a school, it knows that if it bombs that school, Palestinian children will be killed. When it decides to bomb the school anyway, it is consciously deciding that destroying the rockets is more important than preventing children from being killed. Given that over the past 10 years all the rockets in Palestine have only been able to kill 28 Israelis and Israel has already killed 1,373 Palestinians trying to destroy these rockets in the last two months alone, the message is clear that Israel places extremely low value on the lives of the Palestinians. That Hamas also does not value their lives does not excuse Israel. It still must make the choice either to bomb the target or not to bomb the target. According to the UN, only 179 militants have been killed by Israel, which means that most of the Palestinian deaths have been non-combat:

Palestinian Militant vs Non-Combat Fatalities


Hamas could hide a rocket under the bed of every kid in Palestine, it would still ultimately be an Israeli decision to bomb the bedrooms. Hamas is putting its people in danger, but only insofar as Israel chooses to cooperate by attacking these densely populated civilian areas.

From an Israeli point of view, the whole operation just doesn’t make sense. Israel loses more of its own people invading Gaza that it is likely to lose sustaining endemic rocketfire. If it is Hamas’ goal to get Israel to telegenically kill Palestinians, then Israel’s operation gives Hamas exactly what it wants.

None of this excuses Hamas, which has poorly served its people by using them as bait and wasting resources on rockets that bring Hamas no closer to an independent Palestinian state. Hamas could be improving Palestinian living standards, and instead it launches futile rocket attacks that result in Israel destroying precious Palestinian infrastructure. But Krauthammer and the others that attempt to offer support to Israel through the vilification of Hamas are both attacking a straw man and offering up a red herring. The straw man is that no reasonable person holds that Hamas is doing a good job of governing Gaza in the interests of the Gazan people in the first place. The red herring is that Hamas’ incompetence is not relevant to the question of whether or not what Israel is doing is an effective response to that incompetence.

Now, some supporters of Israel make the jump that because the Gazans voted for Hamas in 2006, the Gazans are ultimately responsible for what Hamas is and does, and therefore the Gazan population is not morally distinguishable from Hamas, that consequently no one should begrudge Israel its killing of the wider Palestinian population. No reasonable person could doubt that from the Gazan point of view, electing Hamas was extremely stupid. But let’s bear in mind that the median age in Gaza is 18. This means that well over half the population of Gaza could not even have voted in 2006. Recent polling prior to the beginning of the air strikes and the ground invasion revealed that most Gazans had come to support diplomatic engagement with Israel. 70% of Gazans believed Palestine should maintain the ceasefire, 57% of Gazans believed that Palestine should renounce violence altogether, 66% said Hamas was guilty of corruption, 88% wanted Fatah (the moderate faction in Palestine) to take over security in Gaza, and only 15% expressed support for Hamas’ leadership. What’s the quickest way to drive the new generation of Palestinians back into the arms of violent militants? Killing their friends and family members, which is precisely what Israel is doing.

No matter how you slice it, Operation Protective Edge is a strategic disaster for Israel. Not only does Protective Edge make Israel look bad on the world stage, it radicalizes the next generation of Palestinians and it even gets more Israelis killed than would otherwise be in harm’s way. It’s almost as if Israel were trying to run itself into the ground.