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As the crisis intensifies, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has canceled a trip to Russia and is consulting with top security officials. As always, Israeli decision-making in such situations is particularly difficult. If it were just a military matter, Israel is clearly superior militarily to Hamas, as was evident two years ago in Operation Cast Lead. Hamas has built up its capacities since then, but so has Israel.
But Israel also has to face diplomatic issues if and when it decides to defend itself. Put differently, it has to face what passes for Western (and UN) “moralism.” Seemingly, at a time when the U.S., Britain, France, Italy, and Canada have gone into combat in Libya, it shouldn’t be hard to grasp that Israel—which lives amid the Arab Middle East all year round—has to fight sometimes too.
But it isn’t that simple, and it wasn’t during Operation Cast Lead. As Palestinian civilian casualties—inevitable as Hamas ensconced itself in mosques, schools, and hospitals—flashed across U.S. and European TV screens, Israel came under mounting Western and UN pressure to halt the fighting and leave Hamas standing, and eventually it caved to it.
Meanwhile Hamas has rebuilt, and the results in Israel are already bloody. Will it be different this time if and when Israel hits Hamas hard again?
It would not be a safe bet. Israelis could hardly be encouraged by the world reaction to the Itamar massacre—indifferent at best, dehumanizing the victims as “settlers” at worst. This despite the fact that the victims—when terrorists broke into a home in the Samarian community of Itamar two weeks ago—were a mother and father and their 11-year-old, 3-year-old, and 3-month-old children, all stabbed to death, the grisly photos disseminated by the Israeli government in what turned out to be a futile measure.
Added to the basic disposition to keep Israel on a very short leash militarily—no matter how severe the hypocrisy, especially on the part of Western powers that also find themselves fighting in the Middle East and even kill civilians as collateral damage when they do—is that, unlike Operation Cast Lead in the waning days of the Bush presidency, another president now sits in Washington. As many have pointed out, President Barack Obama seems to waffle on almost all other Middle East issues but to come out swinging only when condemning Israel for building housing in places he thinks no Israelis should live. Again, it makes Israeli decision-making about possible military measures all the more difficult.
In sum, while Israeli civilian casualties of terror no longer seem to register, unintended Palestinian civilian casualties—should Israel mount another offensive in Gaza—are sure to kick up a storm. Somehow, the laudable Western ethos of trying to avoid civilian casualties gets twisted—particularly in Israel’s case—into something self-defeating and self-destructive: the purpose of war no longer being to protect one’s own population, but to protect the other side’s population, even if it means forfeiting any lasting, solid achievements in the war.
As the old Jewish maxim has it: “If I am not for myself, who will be?” Translated into today’s terms: if I am under terrorist assault, am I allowed to defend myself?
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