Three weeks ago, I declared Israel's latest war to be "morally justified — and eminently stupid."
That was a mistake.
I still consider the bombing and invasion of the Gaza Strip to be strategically foolish. But I regret giving Israel a moral pass.
My reasoning was straightforward: a nation under attack is justified in defending itself. Hamas was firing missiles at Israeli cities from Gaza, and that called for a military response. No nation on Earth would fail to respond to such a provocation, and the response in every case would be morally justified.
If only it were so simple.
The problem is not just the absurdly lopsided death toll from the fighting (approximately 1,800 Palestinians to 69 Israelis). Or Israel's repeated bombing of schools and other locations housing refugees. Or its use of weapons that may be unsuitable for use in densely populated urban areas.
The bigger, more decisive problem is the broader moral context in which the killing is taking place — and the lies that the Israeli government and its American defenders have been telling to obscure that context.
Lie #1: "The settlements are just a distraction."
Like Jonathan Chait, whose moral evaluation of the Jewish state has been undergoing its own evolution in recent weeks, I was greatly impressed with Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon's account in The New Republic of the breakdown in the latest round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. And like Chait, I found especially striking (and disturbing) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to halt settlement construction in the West Bank during negotiations. That refusal led the Palestinian delegation to demand, instead, that Israel release a group of prisoners, including more than 100 murderers. To this Netanyahu agreed, though a miscommunication about the details with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry contributed to the ultimate collapse of the talks.
This is just the latest indication that the settlements are not the distraction the Netanyahu government and its American defenders insist they are. On the contrary, they are by this point the biggest obstacle to reaching a lasting and just peace (a two-state solution) in the region. Yes, even bigger than putative Palestinian hostility to the existence of a Jewish state in their midst.
How can that be? Because Israel's refusal to halt settlement construction in occupied territory, even during negotiations, demonstrates that a substantial, electorally powerful, and demographically growing bloc of Israeli citizens has no intention of ever leaving that territory. And by this point, 47 long years after Israel first occupied the West Bank, it's impossible to separate Palestinian fury about the prospect of interminable life under an Israeli boot heel from a more generalized rejection of Israel's existence.
Lie #2: "But we ended the occupation of Gaza!"
In response to the claim that Israel will never uproot Israeli citizens who currently make their home behind separation barriers, barbed wire, and armed checkpoints surrounded by impoverished and disenfranchised Palestinians, Jewish leaders in Israel and the U.S. usually respond by pointing to Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005, which included the forcible evacuation of 9,000 settlers, as evidence that they could and would do the same thing in the West Bank for the right deal. But that, too, is a lie.
Leaving aside the exponentially greater scale of West Bank settlements (as of a year ago there were 541,000 Israelis living in disputed territory) and the far more emotionally potent (biblically rooted) claims to land in the West Bank, there is the fact that Israel never really ended its occupation of Gaza. As Peter Beinart pointed out in a column for Ha'aretz (unfortunately behind a paywall):
[E]ven before the election of Hamas [in January 2006], Israel controlled whether Gazans could enter or exit the Strip (in conjunction with Egypt, which controlled the Rafah checkpoint in Gaza's south). Israel controlled the population registry through which Gazans were issued identification cards. Upon evacuating its settlers and soldiers from Gaza, Israel even created a security perimeter inside the Strip from which Gazans were barred from entry. (Unfortunately for Gazans, this perimeter included some of the Strip's best farmland.) [Haaretz]
Add in the naval blockage that has strangled the Strip since Hamas took power, and you begin to see that in August 2005 the Palestinians of Gaza went from living in a prison ruled from inside and outside to one ruled mostly from the outside — with periodic punitive bombings and invasions by the prison guards. Or as Beinart put it, "Israel — according to the United States government — has been occupying Gaza without interruption since 1967."
Lie #3: "All Israel wants is peace."
And that brings me to Israel's third and most decisive lie — or at best, cynical half-truth. As Noah Millman has pointed out in his blog at The American Conservative, the Israelis appear to be pursuing two objectives in Gaza — one military, the other political. The military goal is to eliminate Hamas' capacity to strike Israel with missiles. The political goal is to convince Palestinians in Gaza that resistance to Israeli occupation (as expressed in their support for Hamas) is futile.
Though the high rate of Palestinian casualties casts doubt on whether Israel's military aim can be achieved using proportionate force, that aim is at least potentially just.
The same cannot be said of the political goal, and not only because it's very likely to backfire by increasing popular support for Hamas. The political goal is morally despicable, because it seeks the spiritual defeat of the Gaza Palestinians, leaving them so demoralized that they will passively accept their fate as inmates in an Israeli prison, with no possibility of parole. (See Lies #1 and #2.)
This is in part what Netanyahu means when he speaks about restoring "peace" on Israel's southern border. And I'm afraid it threatens to render the entire war a moral travesty.
American friends of Israel and supporters of the Zionist project — I have always been both — need to stop believing and repeating lies conjured up to justify unjustifiable policies. The endless occupation and slow-motion expropriation of Palestinian land, punctuated by the periodic infliction of punishment by military assault when the prisoners resist their captivity, is taking Israel in a deeply disturbing direction.
Whitewashing Israeli injustices, changing the subject, and encouraging American Jews to rally uncritically around the Israeli flag — these simply aren't serious responses.