Israel’s critics hold it responsible for the fate of those whom Hamas is using as human shields.
There is not much that is simple about the Arab–Israeli conflict, but there is one thing that is certain: The question of how many Palestinian women and children are going to die in Gaza is not going to be decided by the Israelis — it is going to be decided by Hamas.
The Jews mean to live, Hamas means to exterminate them, and there will be war until Hamas and its allies either weary of it or win it and the last Israeli Jew is dead or exiled. It is Hamas, not the Israelis, that stashes rockets and soldiers in schools and hospitals, but it is the Israelis the world expects to take account of that situation. Every creature on this Earth, from ant to gazelle, is entitled to — expected to — defend its life to the last: The Israeli Jews, practically alone among the world’s living things, are expected to make allowances for the well-being of those who are trying to exterminate them. No one lectures the antelope on restraint when the jackals come, but the Jews in the Jewish state are in the world’s judgment not entitled to what is granted every fish and insect as a matter of course.
That is one bit of strangeness, but there are a great many strange little assumptions that worm their way into our language, and our thought, when it comes to the Arab–Israeli conflict. Once a week or so, somebody will publicize a chart purporting to show the shrinkage of “Arab land” in what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories — as though Arabs did not hail from Arabia, as though they popped up out of the ground around Jerusalem like crocus blossoms. As though those Arab lands hadn’t been Turkish lands, Roman lands, Macedonian lands, Jewish lands.
As though this situation just dropped out of the sky.
Israel, as a Jewish state, is a relatively new country, having been established in 1948. But the idea of Palestine as a particular polity, much less an Arab polity, is a relatively new one, too, only 28 years older. Until the day before yesterday, the word “Palestinian” referred to Jews living in their ancestral homeland. During Roman rule, Palestine was considered a part of Syria: The prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate, was subordinate to the legate of Syria, Palestine being a not especially notable outpost. (It is perhaps for this reason that no physical evidence of Pilate’s existence was unearthed until 1961.) That situation obtained for centuries; as late as the 19th century, the idea of an Arab Palestine distinct from Syria was a novel one, and one expressed in Ottoman administrative practice rather than in anything resembling a state as the term is understood. The notion of a Palestinian Arab nation dates to only a few decades before the establishment of the modern state of Israel.
The notion dates to 1920; the Palestinian Arab state as a reality never existed. The incompatible concepts of statehood obtaining in the West and in the Arab world until quite recently are in some ways the root of the dispute, as indeed they were with the early Americans’ relationships with the Indian tribes and various colonial powers’ experience in Africa. But somehow, in the modern mind, the idea that Israel sits upon what is, was, and shall always be “Arab land” is fixed.
The story of humankind is that peoples move around and bump into each other, and the results are often unpleasant. Somebody wins, somebody loses, and, after some period of time, whatever temporary situation endures comes to be considered normal. No one complains that the Celts occupied Ireland and subsumed the identities preceding them. The British came to control Palestine through war, true — and Saladin, what was he? An olive trader?
Israel’s critics often charge its defenders with intentionally conflating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. One wonders, though, what kind of analysis holds that the Israelis are uniquely responsible for the fate of those whom Hamas is using as human shields, while Hamas cannot be held to the same standard. The answer is: an analysis predicated on the unspoken belief that the Jewish people in the Jewish state are under a unique obligation to lay down and die.
But they do not appear ready to lay down and die. And so one thing is certain: The question of how many Palestinian women and children are going to die in Gaza is not going to be decided by the Israelis — it is going to be decided by Hamas.