During his press conference yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was once again asked whether Israel had acted with enough care in responding to the attacks by Hamas (h/t to Scott Johnson of Powerlineblog.com).
“Do you feel your actions, Israel’s actions, were proportionate?,” he was asked. “And were you using the appropriate precision weapons, even if Hamas is using [innocent Palestinians] as human shields?”
Prime Minister Netanyahu gives an exquisite response, pointing out that Israel has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties while Hamas has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure civilian casualties. And Mr. Netanyahu then posed a question to the journalist. What would you do in a similar situation, in which your nation was being attacked by 3,500 rockets and your territory was being infiltrated by terrorist death squads?
Which got me to thinking about how Israel has acted versus how other nations, including admirable nations, have acted during wartime. And so I went back and read an account from World War II which is worth considering in the context of how Israel has conducted itself in its war with Hamas.
This story comes from the BBC on February 14, 1945:
British and US bombers have dropped hundreds of thousands of explosives on the German city of Dresden… Last night, 800 RAF Bomber Command planes let loose 650,000 incendiaries and 8,000lb of high explosives and hundreds of 4,000lb bombs in two waves of attack. They faced very little anti-aircraft fire.
As soon as one part of the city was alight, the bombers went for another until the whole of Dresden was ablaze.
“There were fires everywhere with a terrific concentration in the centre of the city,” said one Pathfinder pilot.
The contemporary BBC, in putting the firebombing of Dresden in context, said this:
The attack was authorised by British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, known as “Bomber Harris” for his enthusiastic support of the area bombing strategy. The idea was to target large urban areas to whittle away at German public morale, cut off relief supplies to the eastern front and give support to the approaching Soviet armies.
On the evening of February 13, 1945, a series of Allied firebombing raids begins against the German city of Dresden, reducing the “Florence of the Elbe” to rubble and flames, and killing as many as 135,000 people. It was the single most destructive bombing of the war—including Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and all the more horrendous because little, if anything, was accomplished strategically, since the Germans were already on the verge of surrender… More than 3,400 tons of explosives were dropped on the city by 800 American and British aircraft. The firestorm created by the two days of bombing set the city burning for many more days, littering the streets with charred corpses, including many children.
My point in raising this isn’t to condemn Great Britain (or the United States) for what it did in Dresden, though the morality of firebombing Dresden is certainly fair to debate. My point, rather, is that in war, terrible things happen. In war, innocent people die. In war, victorious nations–even the most humane nations–make mistakes. Civilian casualties happen in every conflict; and in the history of war, atrocities by the victorious side are the norm. Of course they shouldn’t be excused; but neither should we judge wartime acts without any understanding of the circumstances of the time, at a safe distance, writing from a keyboard when the main hassle of the day is rush hour traffic. The morality of war is a terribly complicated matter to sort through.
What is so unusual when it comes to Israel is that by historical standards it has conducted itself in its conflict with Hamas (to say nothing of past conflicts) with remarkable care and decency. I’m not sure there are many parallels to it. (America’s conduct in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been similar, I think, to the care taken by Israel in Gaza.) Israel could have decimated Gaza and Hamas within hours, causing far more civilian deaths. It chose a far more humane, and historically rare, option. For much of the world and much of the Western media, then, to judge Israel harshly for how it’s acted in not only wrong; it is historically ignorant and morally obtuse.
The way Israel has handled itself in this conflict is a model for other nations to follow; and the fact that Israel is on the receiving end of venomous attacks is evidence of dark and ugly impulses that need to be named.