The death toll in Syria recently surpassed 170,000; in Gaza it topped 1,000. Although each of these individual deaths is a tragedy of infinite proportions, Israel’s supporters often ask why there is such disproportionate focus on the far fewer casualties in its war and so little, relatively speaking, on the much deadlier Syrian conflict?
An answer I often hear is, “We expect more of Israel; it’s supposed to be like us.”
We’re also alike in that during a dangerous conflict, we try to protect our civilians. Israel invested billions in civil defense and the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Apartments and malls in Israel feature sealed rooms to protect against chemical weapons and concrete-reinforced shelters to protect against missile and bomb blasts.
Hamas did not use its resources to protect Gazans. Instead of using 800,000 tons of concrete to build schools or bomb shelters, Hamas used it to build terror attack tunnels reaching to the Israeli side of the border — tunnels equipped with missiles, grenades, guns and syringes to drug kidnapped Israelis. According to Hamas, more than 160 Palestinian children died to build these terror-tunnels.
Instead of keeping their terror activities far from schools, hospitals and homes, that’s exactly where Hamas placed some of its missile launch sites, creating an acute moral dilemma. If a terrorist organization places missiles in a school or hospital, does it get a pass? Is it automatically entitled to keep firing missiles from that site because it’s off-limits to attack? Many Israeli pilots and commanders have aborted strikes when they see evidence of civilians, but sometimes civilians remain unseen or the threat is judged too great.
So in many ways Israel is a lot like us and Hamas quite different.
There is, however, at least one very important way in which Israel is different. Israel is the only western country that shares a border with a political entity dedicated to its destruction. (There is no doubt of Hamas’s objective, which its charter makes clear: “The so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement. For renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of the religion.”).
We in the U.S. have not faced that reality since the end of the Revolutionary War. Europe has not faced such a reality since World War II. It’s therefore hard to know exactly what people “like us” would do in that situation, but history provides some clues.
On that day that will live in infamy, 2,403 Americans were killed at Pearl Harbor. In just one subsequent U.S. bombing raid on Tokyo, an estimated 100,000 civilians were killed and more than a million were rendered homeless.
Vietnam is 7,000 miles from the U.S., but 100,000 to 200,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians were killed by U.S. bombing during that conflict, while Agent Orange, dropped by U.S. planes, resulted in 400,000 civilians killed or maimed and 500,000 children born with birth defects.
Of course, this may have been before our “better angels” took over and, like Israel, we stopped targeting civilians. But that doesn’t mean civilians stopped dying. More than 70 percent of the deaths in Iraq have been civilians and in Afghanistan 21,000 civilians have been killed.
As William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is hell.” That’s especially true for civilians who historically comprise 50-90 percent of the casualties. But when an enemy bombs Pearl Harbor or rains down thousands of missiles on your civilians, the choices are limited.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.