By Harry Storm
“How Israel is supposed to defend itself?” is a question that is never answered.
It has become a maxim among Israelis and Jews who support Israel worldwide that the Western world exalts murdered Jews, but Jews who fight back, not so much. The reaction to the recent events in southern Israel and Gaza supports this idea to a T.
When the gruesome details of the Hamas attack that left 1,400 Israelis dead, thousands more injured and more than 200 taken hostage emerged, Jewish optimists believed that Israel’s stated aim of destroying Hamas with a forceful response would be understood, even welcomed.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Israel has been subjected to the same old rinse and repeat as in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021, all the times Hamas sent thousands of rockets indiscriminately into Israel. In response to those attacks, which resulted in relatively few deaths due to Israel’s Iron Dome and the poor quality of the mostly home-made rockets (which were almost as likely to explode in Gaza as in Israel), Israel had just a few days to bomb suspected Hamas targets. After that, the calls for humanitarian intervention and accusations of war crimes were such that even staunch allies like the United States felt pressured to restrain Israel from continuing to do what ought to have been done.
But the events of Oct. 7 were supposed to be a watershed. At last, the eyes of doubters would be opened. After the worst attack on Jews since the holocaust, and the barbaric nature of the attacks, Israel’s right to self-defence would no longer be subject to qualifications, such as “Israel has the right to defend itself, but…….” – the buts including references to “restraint,” “proportionality,” “international law,” “innocent Palestinians” and “war crimes/crimes against humanity.” Hamas would be exposed for the death cult it is. The world, or the Western world at least, would finally see it has been coddling, if not supporting outright, a nihilistic death cult, not a resistance movement.
Fat chance. This optimistic scenario lasted only until the Israeli response began. At which point, precisely the same “buts” were trotted out, by officials from the same countries, perhaps even more quickly than before, if only because it was clear the response by Israel would justifiably be much more severe. Almost overnight, the same governments that had figuratively wept for the massacred Jews were warning Israel not to commit a humanitarian catastrophe.
But it’s noteworthy that the warnings from heads of state and governments, most of whom continue to insist that “Israel has the right to defend itself,” never explain just how Israel is supposed to do that. Perhaps that is because they can’t, given that Israel is defending itself against an armed organization that doesn’t put forward an army Israel could do battle with, but rather murders innocent civilians and then slinks back into the territory it governs and embeds itself within the civilian population, using them as human shields and purposely placing its military installations inside or next to schools, mosques, hospitals, and buildings housing foreign journalists.
How to defeat such an enemy conclusively while also operating with restraint and proportionality is never even broached, let alone explained. Nor do we hear how Israel can preserve ‘innocent Palestinian lives” when Hamas cynically uses those lives as human shields and when military assets, such as rocket launchers, are placed next to places where civilians congregate..
Let’s be real. NATO bombing in Serbia killed more than 2,000 civilians. The attack on Libya killed more than 1,300. The war in Afghanistan resulted in several thousand civilian deaths. The U.S. led invasion and occupation in Iraq resulted in more than 200,000 civilian deaths, a significant proportion attributable to U.S. and U.K. forces. The Syrian civil war resulted in more than 200,000 civilian casualties, including 30,000 children. The nine-month battle to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State killed around 10,000 civilians.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine last year has taken the lives of 3,400 civilians, including some massacred, raped and mutilated Hamas-style. The Russian war in Chechnya claimed the lives of between 50,000 and 250,000 civilians. In none of these conflicts were the calls for restraint anywhere near as constant or as shrill as Israel is now facing, including from its allies. Calls for proportionality were non-existent. And in none of those wars were the countries waging them existentially threatened or directly attacked, as is the case for Israel.
But this matters little to governments, whose kind and sympathetic words about the massacred Jews were soon replaced with warnings about a ‘humanitarian crisis” in Gaza. Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who initially reacted to the events of Oct 7 by stating that “Canada unequivocally and in the strongest possible terms condemns these terror attacks perpetrated by Hamas. We stand with Israel, we affirm Israel’s right to defend itself,” with the pious qualification that any action Israel took should be “in accordance with international law,” which signaled that the support for Israel would be qualified.
And a few days later, as surely as the sun rises, it was. After an explosion next to a hospital in Gaza, Trudeau appeared to accept at face value information about the explosion provided by Hamas (officially the Gaza Health Ministry), called the news coming out of Gaza “horrific and absolutely unacceptable” (which clearly put the blame on Israel) and stated that “”International humanitarian and international law needs to be respected in this, and in all cases,” adding in French, “there are rules around wars, and it is not acceptable.”
Subsequently the Trudeau government would not trust Israeli and U.S. findings that determined that the explosion was due to a misfired missile that originated in Gaza, and instituted a separate probe by the Canadian Armed Forces. To add insult to injury, when the results of that investigation agreed with the U.S. findings, the public was informed at 10:30 pm on a Saturday night (a good time to bury news the government isn’t happy to release). So much for “standing with Israel.” Canadian journalist Terry Glavin likened Trudeau’s behaviour to that of “an excitable teenaged Tiktok influencer rather than the leader of a G7 country,” and he’s right.
But Trudeau shouldn’t be singled out. Echoing Trudeau, shortly after the explosion France’s president Emmanuel Macron said that “nothing can justify striking a hospital. Nothing can justify targeting civilians,” remarks that were clearly aimed at Israel, and based only on information provided by Hamas, despite their being no evidence at the time that Israel targeted the hospital or even that the hospital was hit. (Macron is scheduled to visit Israel in the coming days to commiserate about the Jews killed by Hamas. Whether or he counsels “restraint” is open to speculation.)
Similarly, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is also scheduled to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, tweeted several days ago that “Europe supports Israel’s right to defend itself against the Hamas terror, exercised proportionately and in compliance with the humanitarian law of war. The need to protect innocent civilians is self-evident.” What isn’t at all “self-evident” is how Israel is supposed to do this without doing anything at all.
None of the leaders above have indicated what Israel’s right to self-defence actually means in practical terms. Even U.S. President Joe Biden, whose response to the Hamas attack has otherwise been surprisingly robust, felt the need to caution Israel about “the humanity of innocent Palestinians” and counselled restraint, without providing an alternative that qualifies as self-defense and at the same time protects civilians in Gaza.
When I try to think of a conflict since 1900 that was waged with restraint or proportionality, or even in accordance with international law, I draw a blank. It seems these concerns are mostly reserved for Israel when it retaliates for being attacked by rockets or having its citizens slaughtered.
It’s very nice that the Western world now cares so much about Jews murdered in the Holocaust and on Oct 7. But support for the muscular response required so Israel can protect itself from further murderous attacks would be much more appreciated.