Analysis from Israel

Last week, I noted that Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza has cost the lives of more Israeli soldiers than remaining in Gaza would have. But no less significant is the fact that Israel’s pullout has cost the lives of far more Palestinians than remaining in Gaza would have.

Here, too, a comparison to the second intifada is instructive. According to B’Tselem’s statistics, 1,727 Palestinians were killed in Gaza between September 2000, when the intifada began, and the August 2005 pullout. Since then, the numbers have soared. Another 1,271 Palestinians were killed between the pullout and December 2008, when the first Israel-Hamas war in Gaza began; 1,391 were killed during that war, and 481 between then and the start of the current war. That’s 3,143 Palestinian fatalities in total, and Palestinians claim another 1,600 or so have been killed during this war. So even if you assume, which I do, that B’Tselem’s numbers are exaggerated (it tends to believe Palestinian reports far too uncritically), the trend is undeniable: Since the pullout, Israeli-Palestinian fighting has produced more than twice as many Palestinian fatalities as the peak years of the second intifada did.

Moreover, as in the case of Israeli fatalities, this increase represents a sharp contrast to the trend in the West Bank, which the Israel Defense Forces still control: There, Palestinian fatalities have fallen from 1,491 between September 2000 and August 2005 to 395 in the nine years since August 2005, meaning annual fatalities have fallen by more than 85 percent (they haven’t dropped to zero because neither has Palestinian terror; terror attacks still kill Israelis every year, but the level is dramatically lower than at the height of the intifada).

The question is why Palestinian fatalities in Gaza have risen so sharply. The anti-Israel crowd will doubtless cite this fact as “proof” that recent Israeli premiers are even more bloodthirsty than “the butcher of Beirut,” as they fondly dubbed Ariel Sharon, the prime minister during the second intifada. But anyone not convinced that Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu are simply monsters who like eating Palestinian children for breakfast will have to consider the obvious alternative: Palestinian casualties have soared because the IDF’s departure from Gaza allowed terrorist organizations to entrench their rockets, tunnels, and explosives among the civilian population in a way that simply wasn’t possible before.

In the current war, Palestinians have stored rockets in schools and launched them from hospitals and from amid civilian houses. They have built cross-border tunnels to attack Israel that pass under civilian houses and emerge straight into a mosque. They have booby-trapped civilian houses and even health clinics. In short, by embedding their war material among the civilian population, Hamas and other terrorist organizations have made it impossible for the IDF to target them without also hitting civilians.

This Hamas strategy increases Palestinian casualties in another way as well: by magnifying the impact of any Israeli strike. Precision bombs can sometimes take out a building without touching the ones next to it. But precision strikes don’t work when the building they hit is booby-trapped or serves as a rocket warehouse; in that case, secondary explosions will create a much broader swathe of destruction. And Israel has no way of knowing when a target has been booby-trapped; Hamas doesn’t provide it with maps.

Problems like this didn’t arise when the IDF still controlled Gaza, because it could take preventive action to keep Hamas from entrenching war material in civilian areas to begin with. And that’s precisely why counterterrorism operations in the IDF-controlled West Bank have produced vastly lower Palestinian casualties.

Hamas certainly isn’t going to abandon its “dead baby strategy” voluntarily; conducting operations from amid a civilian population so as to maximize civilian casualties has proven wildly successful in turning the world against Israel. The conclusion is thus inescapable: Should the IDF ever leave the West Bank, the pullout won’t just result in more dead Israelis. It will certainly result in more dead Palestinians as well.

Originally published in Commentary 

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Why the status quo is the least bad option for Palestinians

Even among people who recognize that Israeli-Palestinian peace is currently impossible, a growing number think that Israel must nevertheless quit the West Bank. Israel has a right to defend itself, their argument goes, but not by controlling another people for decades. Instead, it should withdraw to the “internationally recognized border” and protect itself from there, like other countries do.

Forget for a moment that the “internationally recognized border” is an arrant fiction. Forget as well that Israel remains in the West Bank precisely because defending itself from the 1949 armistice lines (the abovementioned fictional border) hasn’t worked very well in either the West Bank—from which Israel partially withdrew in the 1990s before returning the following decade—or the Gaza Strip.

That still leaves another uncomfortable fact: As long as genuine peace remains impossible, Israeli control of the West Bank, despite the undeniable hardships it causes Palestinians, remains the least bad alternative for the Palestinians themselves. As evidence, just compare the Israeli-controlled West Bank to Gaza, which has been free of both settlers and soldiers since August 2005. By almost any parameter, life in the former is far better.

Take, for instance, casualties. According to B’Tselem’s statistics, Israeli security forces killed 5,706 Palestinians in Gaza from September 2005 through August 2019. That’s almost eight times the 756 killed by Israeli security personnel and settlers combined in the West Bank during this period (no Gazans were killed by settlers since there are no settlers there).

Nor is this surprising. Israel’s control of the West Bank means that suspected terrorists can often be arrested rather than killed, though shootouts (with attendant collateral damage) do occur. But in Gaza, where Israel has no troops, it can’t arrest terrorists. Thus the only way to fight terror is through military action, which naturally produces many more casualties among both combatants and civilians.

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