Analysis from Israel

Over the past two months, Amnesty International has quietly confirmed nearly all of Israel’s main claims about Hamas’s conduct during last summer’s war in Gaza. Yet the organization still lacks the intellectual honesty to admit that its findings about Hamas completely undercut its main allegations against Israel – made vociferously both at the time and in a series of reports last fall and winter.

Amnesty turned its attention to Hamas only after months of reporting on alleged Israeli crimes. First came a March report on Hamas’s rocket fire, then one this week on its extrajudicial killings of alleged collaborators. Each undercuts a key claim against Israel.

The most interesting finding in the March report was that Hamas’s rockets killed more civilians in Gaza than they did in Israel. Altogether, Amnesty said, the rockets killed six Israeli civilians and “at least” 13 Palestinian civilians. Where did the latter figure come from? From a single misfired rocket that killed 13 civilians in the Al-Shati refugee camp. In other words, Amnesty didn’t bother checking to see whether other Hamas rockets also killed civilians; it simply cited the one case it couldn’t possibly ignore, because it was reported in real time by a foreign journalist at the scene.

But according to Israel Defense Forces figures, roughly 550 rockets and mortars fired at Israel fell short and landed in Gaza, including 119 that hit urban areas. And it defies belief to think those other 549 rockets and mortars produced no casualties.

After all, unlike Israel, Gaza has no civil defense system whatsoever. A 2014 study found that Israel’s civil defense measures reduced casualties from the rocket fire on sparsely populated southern Israel by a whopping 86%. But Gaza has no Iron Dome to intercept missiles, no warning sirens to alert civilians to incoming rockets, and no bomb shelters for civilians to run to even if they were warned. Thus in densely populated Gaza, with no civil defense measures, those misfired rockets would almost certainly have killed at least dozens, and quite possibly hundreds, of civilians.

One of the main claims against Israel made by Amnesty and other human rights groups is that it caused excessive civilian casualties. Most such groups simply parrot the UN claim (which came straight from Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry) that 67% of the 2,200 casualties were civilians; Israel has consistently said the civilian-to-combatant kill ratio was roughly 1:1. While there are many reasons to think the Israeli figure is closer to the truth, even the UN/Palestinian ratio of 2:1 would be drastically lower than the international norm of 3:1.

But once you acknowledge that some portion of those civilian casualties was actually caused by misfired Hamas rockets rather than Israeli strikes, then the claim of excessive civilian casualties becomes even more untenable. Indeed, it means the civilian-to-combatant fatality ratio from Israeli strikes was likely even below 1:1.

Then there’s Amnesty’s report this week on Hamas’s extrajudicial executions. Its most interesting finding, as Elhanan Miller reported in the Times of Israel, is that “Hamas used abandoned sections of Gaza’s main hospital, Shifa, ‘to detain, interrogate, torture and otherwise ill-treat suspects, even as other parts of the hospital continued to function as a medical center.’”

That goes to the heart of the other main allegation against Israel made by Amnesty and its fellows: that Israel repeatedly targeted civilian buildings rather than sticking to military targets. Israel countered that these “civilian” buildings doubled as military facilities – weapons storehouses, command and control centers, etc. – and were, therefore, legitimate military targets, but human rights groups pooh-poohed that claim.

Now, however, Amnesty has admitted that Hamas used Gaza’s main hospital as a detention, interrogation and torture center. And if Hamas was misusing a hospital in this way, it defies belief to think it wasn’t similarly misusing other civilian buildings for military purposes. Once you admit that Hamas did so once, there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t do so again. And, in that case, the allegation that Israel wantonly attacked civilian structures also collapses.

Thus in its reports on Hamas, Amnesty has effectively demolished its two main allegations against Israel. And if it had a shred of honor and decency left, it would admit it. But, needless to say, I’m not holding my breath.

Originally published in Commentary on May 28, 2015

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In today’s world, Orthodox and Conservative Jews should be natural allies

Jewish tradition holds that the Second Temple was destroyed by baseless hatred. Since we’re currently in the annual three-week mourning period for the destruction of both Temples, which culminates in the holiday of Tisha B’Av, it’s a good time to consider a particularly counterproductive bit of baseless hatred: that between the Orthodox and Conservative movements.

Orthodox Jews tend to view Conservative and Reform Jewry as indistinguishable, lumping them both together as “non-Orthodox.” But in reality, there’s a yawning gap between them. The Conservative movement officially maintains that Jews must follow halachah (traditional Jewish law), including by observing Shabbat, kashrut, the Jewish holidays and so forth. The Reform movement rejects the very idea of binding halachah. Thus on the fundamental issue that has preserved the Jewish people for millennia—the binding nature of halachah—the Conservatives are formally on the Orthodox side of the divide.

Admittedly, most Conservative Jews don’t practice what their movement preaches, so one could legitimately ask what value this formal commitment to halachah has if most of its members ignore it. Moreover, this failure to produce and sustain observant communities has led many Jews raised in committed Conservative homes to switch to Orthodoxy (I’m one of them), and if the most observant continue leaving, I wonder how long even a formal commitment to halachah will survive.

But right now, the Conservative movement still contains a traditionalist faction that’s committed to observing halachah as the movement defines it. And because of this commitment, traditionalist Conservatives have far more in common with Orthodoxy than Reform.

Granted, Conservative interpretations of halachah diverge from Orthodox ones in nontrivial ways. But that strikes me as a less serious problem, because radically divergent interpretations of halachah have been common throughout Jewish history.

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