Analysis from Israel

A review of a comedy of manners set in England in the 1920s wouldn’t seem the obvious place to look to understand why the average Westerner really has no business trying to tell Israelis how to run their country. But two sentences in this New York Times book review encapsulate the problem perfectly: “Historical details, which abound, are often fascinating. (Who knew that beards interfere with gas masks?)”

I’m sure most New York Times readers don’t know that. But virtually every adult Israeli does, other than a few recent immigrants. That’s because almost every adult Israeli either has a gas mask or did at one time (mine still lives in my closet), and many of us have actually worn them. They were distributed nationwide before the 1991 Gulf War, out of fear that Saddam Hussein would put chemical warheads on the missiles he launched at Israel during the war. Israel, incidentally, was one of only two countries Saddam launched missiles at, even though it wasn’t one of the 39 countries actually waging war on Iraq at the time.

Since then, Israel has run several nationwide campaigns to get people to exchange their old gas masks for new ones. That gas masks have an expiration date is another fascinating “historical” detail most Westerners probably don’t know (the campaigns ended a few years ago, after the implosion of both Iraq and Syria reduced the risk of a chemical attack). Israel also passed a law requiring every new house to include a bomb shelter capable of doubling as a sealed room, since ordinary bomb shelters offer no protection against chemical attacks (yet another little-known “historical” detail). That’s one of many factors contributing to the country’s sky-high housing costs, but not one Israelis complain about. In-house bomb shelters are even more necessary today, given the thousands of rockets launched at Israel by both Hezbollah and Hamas over the last 10 to 15 years.

Even Israelis who were children in 1991 undoubtedly remember being woken by sirens in the middle of the night, rushing to makeshift sealed rooms (heavy-duty plastic wrap, tape and damp towels), putting on their masks and sitting for hours waiting for the all-clear. The adults also remember being unable to fall asleep at night while awaiting that siren. The chronic sleep deprivation experienced by people under missile bombardment is another little-known historical detail (somehow, it never seems to interest human rights organizations as much as the sleep deprivation of captured terrorists during interrogations).

As for beards, this being Israel, a public battle raged for months in 1990-91 over whether Haredi men, who normally don’t shave for religious reasons, should be given special, more expensive masks that can accommodate beards, or whether they could reasonably be expected to shave, given that in Jewish law, saving a life trumps most other religious precepts. There was even a high-profile court case by a secular bearded man charging discrimination because Haredim got the special masks while he did not (he won).

Of course, there’s no reason why reviewer Susan Coll or any other Westerner should know any of these “historical details.” Thankfully, no Western country has faced the threat of bombardment with chemical warheads, or even conventional rockets, in more than 70 years. The problem is that so many Westerners who share her ignorance feel fully qualified to tell Israel what it should do, despite not knowing the most basic facts about the security challenges it faces.

If you don’t even know that beards interfere with gas masks, something every Israeli has been forced by hard necessity to learn, or if you see that fact as nothing but a “fascinating historical detail,” what makes you qualified to give advice to a country whose security challenges are so clearly outside your knowledge and experience? What makes you qualified to decide how Israel should cope with the hundreds of thousands of missiles pointed at it? What makes you qualified to insist that withdrawing from the West Bank doesn’t pose a serious risk, or that bombing rocket storehouses in Gaza causes disproportionate harm?

Most people wouldn’t dream of proposing solutions to, say, the mystery of dark matter unless they were experts in cutting-edge astrophysics. Yet hundreds of thousands of people worldwide see no problem with propounding solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite not knowing even elementary facts.

It would be nice if some of those people would evince a little more humility. But as long as they don’t, they really shouldn’t be surprised that Israeli voters keep rejecting their prescriptions.

Originally published in Commentary on March 22, 2017

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ISIS Borrows a Tactic from Hamas

The U.S. Army recently announced that it has horrifying video footage of Islamic State fighters herding Iraqi civilians into buildings in Mosul. The plan was not to use them as human shields–that is, to announce their presence in the hope of deterring American airstrikes. Rather, ISIS was deliberately trying to ensure that American troops killed them, by “smuggling civilians into buildings, so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack,” an army spokesman said at a briefing for Pentagon reporters. The motive, he explained, was hope that massive civilian casualties would produce such an outcry that the U.S. would halt airstrikes altogether.

There’s an important point to this story which the spokesman neglected to mention: This tactic is borrowed directly from Hamas. And it was borrowed because the world’s response to successive Hamas-Israel wars convinced ISIS that creating massive civilian casualties among residents of its own territory is an effective strategy. Admittedly, Hamas hasn’t yet been caught on video actually herding civilians into buildings before launching attacks from them. But there’s plenty of evidence that Hamas prevented civilians from leaving areas whence it was launching rockets or other attacks at Israel, thereby deliberately exposing them to retaliatory strikes.

During the 2014 Gaza war, for instance, the Israel Defense Forces warned civilians to evacuate the town of Beit Lahiya before launching air strikes at Hamas positions. But according to Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, who based himself on interviews with Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas gunmen showed up and warned that anyone who left the town would be treated as a collaborator. Since Hamas executes collaborators, that was equivalent to saying that anyone who tried to leave would be killed on the spot. Thus, faced with the alternative of certain death at Hamas’s hands, most Beit Lahiya residents understandably opted to stay and take their chances with the IDF.

There’s also plenty of evidence that Hamas deliberately launched attacks from buildings where it knew civilians were present. Just last month, for instance, I wrote about a case during the 2009 Gaza war in which Hamas directed sniper fire at Israeli troops from the third floor of a well-known doctor’s home, thereby forcing the soldiers to choose between becoming sitting ducks or shooting back and risking civilian casualties. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, Hamas was also storing explosives in the house (using civilian buildings as arms caches or wiring them with explosives is standard practice for Hamas). Consequently, when the soldiers fired at the Hamas position, an unexpectedly large explosion ensued, killing three of the doctor’s daughters and one of his nieces.

In short, Hamas repeatedly used tactics aimed at maximizing the number of civilian casualties on its own side. Yet instead of blaming Hamas for this, the world largely blamed Israel. Mass demonstrations were held throughout the West condemning Israel; there were no mass demonstrations condemning Hamas. Journalists and “human rights” organizations issued endless reports blaming Israel for the civilian casualties while ignoring or downplaying Hamas’s role in them. Western leaders repeatedly demanded that Israel show “restraint” and accused it of using disproportionate force. Israel, not Hamas, became the subject of a complaint to the International Criminal Court.

Hamas thereby succeeded in putting Israel in a lose-lose situation. Either it could let Hamas launch thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians with impunity, or it could strike back at the price of global opprobrium.

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