by W.D. Ehrhart
Yes, the surprise attack on Israel by Hamas on October 7th was unspeakably brutal, inhumane, merciless, without a shred of mitigation. War crimes were committed, crimes against humanity. There is no way to justify or excuse what happened that day to thousands of innocent civilians, some 1,200 murdered, another 240 kidnapped, countless others forever traumatized.
Meanwhile, between October 7th and the day I’m writing this (December 18th), NBC News reports almost 20,000 Palestinians killed by the Israeli military in response to October 7th, 70 per cent of them women and children. The Israeli military admits to accidentally killing three of the hostages it claims to be trying to free, and shooting to death two women who were taking refuge in a Catholic church.
All of these deaths may only be “collateral damage,” not deliberate acts of violence specifically directed at helpless civilians, but simply what happens when an army undertakes a major military assault against one of the most densely populated areas on the face of the planet.
But that does not make innocent Palestinians any less dead than innocent Israelis. And the grotesquely disproportionate ratio of dead Palestinian civilians to dead Israeli civilians occurs over and over again, decade after sad decade. In the most recent outbreak of violence a few years ago, for instance, Israeli forces kill 2,251 Palestinian men, women, and children, while Palestinians kill 71 Israelis, 67 of them soldiers.
What constitutes a war crime? When I was serving as a Marine infantryman in Vietnam, if I sighted in on a Vietnamese civilian threshing rice beside his house and shot him dead, I would have been committing a war crime. But if a jet fighter pilot had dropped a napalm bomb on that man’s house in response to a call for an airstrike against a sniper in the hamlet, killing the same man, the pilot would not have been charged with a crime. Indeed, the mission would have counted toward his next Air Medal. Yet either way, an innocent and unarmed man is dead.
Google “Destruction in Gaza,” and then click on “Images,” and see what you get. What you will see is destruction on a par with German and Japanese cities by the spring of 1945. Total destruction. Indiscriminate killing of the people who lived in those cities. No less a figure than General Curtis LeMay said after that war that if the Americans had lost, those responsible for the bombing would have been tried as war criminals.
Moreover, though I heard an Israeli spokesman say that Gazans are receiving airdropped leaflets telling them where they can find “safe areas,” neutral observers on the ground in Gaza are consistently reporting that in fact there are no “safe areas” in Gaza. Palestinians simply have nowhere to go to escape the destruction and death; they cannot hide, and few of them can leave. Over two million of them have been displaced, and according to independent observers, half of those are facing starvation.
I recently wrote about the Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha, who was arrested by the Israeli army, detained and beaten, but finally released. He and his immediately family have now managed to get to Egypt safely, but only because he has powerful supporters in the international literary community. His parents, siblings and their children are still in Gaza, along with tens of thousands of others because they have no prominent supporters able to advocate for them.
As I’ve written previously, the history of this part of the world is an intellectual minefield. I am not going to try to go back and argue that Israel has no right to be where it is, or that Palestinian claims are without foundation. Anyone who tries to “prove” that the land really belongs to the Jews, or really belongs to the Arabs, or maybe even belongs to the Canaanites, is going to open, or at least re-open, a debate that can never be won.
The simple fact is that the state of Israeli exists, has now a right to exist, and isn’t going to stop existing. Hamas and Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran may all wish for Israel to cease to be, but that ain’t gonna happen. It just isn’t. Not in my lifetime or any other time in the imaginable future. Israel is a fact.
But so are the Palestinians of Gaza. Unless Netanyahu and his minions really do manage to kill them all—which is just as unlikely as the destruction and removal of the nation of Israel—when all this current death and destruction finally come to an end, the Palestinians will still be there. And I can only wonder how many more recruits among young Palestinians the Israeli military has already generated in the past two months.
And to question Israeli military strategy in the current circumstances, or even Israeli policies toward Palestinians in general, is neither antisemitic nor anti-Jewish nor anti-Israeli. Both the immediate history of the Middle East, and world history in general, make it perfectly clear that there can never be a military solution to the conflicting claims of Israel and Palestine. There can only be a political solution, one that allows Israelis to live in safety and peace, and one that allows Palestinians to live with dignity and basic human rights. How many more wars, how many more deaths, how much more destruction must occur before that reality finally sinks in?
W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.