Israel's critics don't want any response
Over the past couple of days, as the debate over Israel’s military intervention in Gaza has raged, I’ve noticed the same phrase being repeated. It’s basically a variation on the following: “Yes, Israel has a right to defend itself. But the response must be proportionate. And what we’re seeing is anything but proportionate.”
Nick Clegg has joined this chorus, accusing Israel of imposing a "disproportionate form of collective punishment" on the Palestinian people. His words were echoed on Monday by the United Nations Relief and Works agency, which warned that “Maximum restraint must be exercised and measures of distinction, proportionality and precaution must be respected.” During Monday’s House of Commons debate, a succession of MPs rose to make a similar point.
And who can argue with it? Who would want to see a disproportionate response to a crisis such as this?
But if we are calling for “proportionality” from Israel, then I’d like to ask a question: what would a proportionate response actually look like? If everyone accepts the principle of Israel defending itself, how should that defence operate in practice?
One way Israel is able to defend itself from the ongoing Hamas missile strikes is, of course, to send in ground troops to locate and destroy them and the terrorists who operate them. But as we’ve seen, according to Israel’s critics, this represents a terrible escalation of the conflict.
An alternative is air strikes. But again, Israeli air strikes have resulted in global condemnation. Cruise missile strikes are also an option. But I can’t quite to imagine the Stop the War coalition issuing a press release welcoming Israel’s use of precision munitions in central Gaza.
What about a more surgical approach? Perhaps Israel could send in assassination teams to target the Hamas leadership and other key operatives? “Today the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon welcomed the news that Israeli hit squads had been deployed to the Palestinian territories. 'This represents a timely de-escalation of the conflict,' he said.”
What about no offensive action at all? What if Israel simply attempts to contain Hamas within Gaza? No, sorry, that won’t work, because then Israel will be accused of turning Gaza into “the world’s largest prison camp”. A blockade of Hamas? No, the world is demanding that the blockade be lifted. Targeted sanctions on the Palestinian authority? Are you being serious? That will just penalise innocent Palestinians. And anyway, the world should be standing in solidarity with them in their hour of need.
When people say Israel’s response to Hamas aggression must be “proportionate”, they don’t mean it. What they actually mean is that Israel shouldn’t respond at all.
Which is fine: everyone’s entitled to their view. But Israel’s critics should at least be honest about what they’re really proposing. And what they’re proposing is that while Israel has a right to defend itself in principle, it shouldn’t do so in practice. It should just turn the other cheek.
Which is why I’d like to ask those who claim that Israel’s response is disproportionate another question. What do you think the death toll would be if Hamas had Israel’s military capability – including its nuclear capability? Because I think in those circumstances we would see with horrifying clarity what a disproportionate use of military force really looks like.
I appreciate that many – if not a majority – of those criticising Israel do so from positions of morality, rather than ideology. But it is not enough to simply scream about what Israel shouldn’t be doing. As the rockets continue to rain down, people also need to explain precisely what they think Israel is entitled to do to protect itself.
“Withdraw from Gaza” is one frequently proffered solution. But Israel did withdraw from Gaza. They withdrew, demolished the settlements and forcibly evicted almost 10,000 Jewish settlers. Then Hamas moved in, started firing rockets and launching terrorist attacks.
“They should introduce an immediate ceasefire” is another demand. Israel did. And the rockets kept on coming.
“They should sit down and talk, like we did with the IRA in Northern Ireland.” Yes, we did sit down and talk. But before we sat down we asked the IRA to stop blowing things up first. And they agreed.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly has an epiphany. “My God,” he says to himself, “our critics are right. Our response is disproportionate.” So he goes on TV, and tells the Israeli people: “I have told our armed forces to disengage. The rockets will keep exploding. The kidnappings will keep happening. The suicide attacks will keep coming. But we will not lift a finger in response.”
How long do Israel’s critics think Netanyahu would remain Prime Minister of Israel in those circumstances? A week? An hour?
Like it or not, Israel is a sovereign, democratic state. Not only does it have the right to defend itself, its people expect it to defend itself. And when you’re sitting huddled in a bomb shelter, and then emerge to see the charred remnants of a Qassam rocket sticking out of the roof of your child’s school, I suspect it shapes your perception of what a “proportionate” response actually is.
So what is it that we want? Do we want the troops, the bombs, the cruise missiles, the drones, the artillery, the death squads, the blockades or the sanctions? Because if we say Israel has a right to defend itself, and mean it then, then we’re going to have stop handwringing and start choosing. And if we don’t, then we’re going to have to be honest and admit we don’t want Israel to defend itself at all.
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