Monday, January 19, 2009

The War of Words

Children are dying, and you probably don't care. In fact, you may be cheering on their killers.

That's pretty much the gist of what Mark Shea wrote last week about the Israel/Palestine situation; I'm not linking to any one particular piece, if for no other reason than that I thought the language employed in some of the combox discussion strayed way beyond the bounds of civility. Of course, given news of a cease-fire I'm a bit late to the discussion, but principles may always be discussed, even if events are over:
Israeli forces were pulling out of the Gaza Strip yesterday following a tentative truce with Hamas which allowed Palestinians to take stock of the devastating three-week war.

But with a defiant Hamas vowing to fight on if the withdrawal was not completed before next week, it was unclear how long the peace would last, even as world leaders continued to look for a long-term solution. [...]

Israel and Hamas separately declared ceasefires on Sunday, to the relief of Western powers which, while publicly sympathetic to the Jewish state's security concerns, were alarmed by the mounting humanitarian toll.

Palestinians emerged from hiding, horrified by the killing of more than 1,300 fellow Gazans and the widespread destruction of homes and government infrastructure.

Gaza medical officials said the Palestinian death toll included at least 700 civilians. Israel, which accused Hamas of endangering non-combatants by operating in densely populated areas, said hundreds of gunmen were among the dead. Hamas' armed wing challenged the figure, saying it lost 48 fighters.

Ten Israeli soldiers were killed and three Israeli civilians were hit by rockets, Israel said.

But the one-sided nature of the casualty toll did not stop Gaza-based Hamas administration head Ismail Haniyeh claiming a 'popular victory' against Israel.

'The enemy has failed to achieve its goals,' he said in a speech.

I think it should be said from the beginning that commenting on events in the Middle East is fraught with peril. Few of us are immersed in the sort of historical/political study that makes these conflicts really intelligible, and it's easy to oversimplify or impose Christian (or post-Christian) values on communities who have never operated by these principles--some of whom are still fighting wars begun before Abraham was called by God. So I'm going to try to avoid making absolute, sweeping statements about this.

But I do think that there are several different issues here. One is whether Israel is allowed to defend itself against people who have vowed to drive its people into the sea; a second is whether Israel's response has been disproportionate.

I think the answers are yes, and yes. But I'm an American civilian who has never traveled anywhere near the Middle East and have no definitive knowledge of the situation on the ground--just like most Americans who comment on it.

A lot of us, though, tend to confuse these two issues, and assume that criticizing Israel for a disproportionate response means we really think that Israel ought to stop fighting back against Hamas, and simply accept a certain number of civilian casualties each year both from rocket attacks and from the always-popular terrorist strikes against school buses and pizza parlors.

And that's not true. Israel, a sovereign nation, does have the right to protect its people and its borders, just like every other nation. And Israel is not forbidden to use force in doing so; in fact, given Hamas' bloodthirsty nature and vocal hatred for "the enemy" it might be argued that force is the only sane option at this point.

The thing is, it's not at all wrong to debate these matters, to look at the Church's just war teachings, to listen to what the Holy Father says about Israel and Palestine, to pray for peace, and to do other things which encourage both sides to lay down their arms and end the violence. But it is a bit wrong to characterize one's opponents in these debates as heartless supporters of the killing of children, and it is also a bit wrong to characterize one's opponents as heartless supporters of terrorists who want to wipe Israel off of the map. If we, who are Christian, can't set an example of amicable discourse in just talking about the Israel/Palestine situation, how can we expect those whose traditions are more of the "eye for an eye" sort to stop lobbing rockets at each other long enough to foster any sort of respect, or find any common ground?

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

I'm sorry, I live in NYC and if terrorists were launching rockets into my neighborhood from New Jersey I would feel we had an absolute right to retaliate. Israel is surrounded by hostile nations who want only to eradicate it. They have the right to defend themselves imo and if Hamas used hospitals and schools to launch rockets then the culpability for those innocent lives is theirs.