August 2014
This issue's contents Current issue Index Search


by Jonathan Wallace

There was a business concept popular some years ago, of "zero based budgeting", where you didn't merely take last year's budget and fidget with it, but reviewed all assumptions as if the company had been created just a minute ago. Bear with me as I try to do this with Israel and Gaza.

A Dead Child

I want to begin with my most important point. The photograph in the New York Times of the child lying dead on the beach in Gaza was unbearable. There are hundreds just like him in the present conflict, though not all left so photogenic by bullet or explosion. Do a Google Image search on “dead child Gaza” and you will see.

I am writing these words in my beautiful home in Amagansett, N.Y. I can see the Atlantic from one window and Napeague Harbor from the opposite one. At the closing at which I bought my home in 1997, imagine if the attorney had shown me something like the Times photograph and said “You will have much pleasure in your beautiful new house, but you must know something. In order to own and enjoy this house you are going to have to kill this child, and a few thousand like him, and possibly a few hundred thousand, and maybe, depending on how long you want to stay in your home, a few million”.

The person I want to be, who I hope I am, would have said: “I can’t go through with the closing if I have to be a child killer.” And I hope I would have said that without asking, “Under what circumstances? What will be my justifications and excuses?” Because, just as Thoreau eschewed any enterprise requiring new clothes, I want to stay out of the child-killing business, period.

You may answer, you can’t be a nation-state without killing, or harming children; remember the iconic photo of the napalmed, screaming Vietnamese girl. My answer: Then I will not found, support, justify a nation-state. I may have to live in one but I will do everything I can to oppose the killing of children by my nation-state.

I believe that if I had been sitting at a table in 1947, participating in a debate about whether to form Israel, I would have voted against, for these exact reasons: that, before you get into the minutiae of who did what to whom, and how horrible the adversary is, etc., too much bloodshed will result, and we will be made monstrous by it even if on (relatively) the moral high ground.

Speaking as a Jewish person, by the way, I found the belief with which I was raised, that we are good people, that we answer to a higher morality (one of great compassion) pretty persuasive. For some it is nothing, just exceptionalism, but it was meaningful to me--and completely inconsistent with Israel, as it inevitably is, Israel on the ground, in the details, in real time.

What is Gaza?

Here is a pretty good article about Gaza’s size and density. Gaza is about the physical size of Detroit and has about half the population density of New York City. It is blockaded and fenced off, and the vast bulk of its 1.8 million people can’t get in and out. It has no seaport, no airport, no way of entry except through Israel or Egypt. Israel provides electricity and allows in some other food, goods and services (except when it doesn’t). Many non-military products were traditionally smuggled through tunnels from Egypt, but the current Egyptian government has shut most of that down. Nonetheless, Gaza, with some UN and international aid, is expected to function as an independent economy, and make its own government pay-roll.

One repeated pitch I will make, which I already touched on in the prior section, is to look at the problem, Israeli/Palestinian relations as embodied or exemplified in Gaza, from a five thousand foot level before we get into any moral considerations such as human shields, terrorism, partner for peace, Israeli homeland, drive us into the sea, and so forth.

When Israel first "withdrew" from Gaza and the West Bank, I briefly believed the Israelis were seriously trying to make progress towards a two state solution. I no longer do. Opportunities to pursue peace have been squandered, for too many years even before Israel had Hamas as an excuse. Israel could have pursued a settlement more rapidly and honestly with the P.L.O., and Hamas never would have had its moment.

At a five thousand foot level, here is what I now think Gaza is. Imagine after the Harlem riots of 1964, which were spurred by the shooting of a young black man by police (same thing happening in Missouri fifty years later as I write), we had simply put electrified fences around Harlem, and declared it independent: you’re on your own. A fenced-off Harlem is still for all intents and purposes “occupied” by the United States, Morally, the fact that Israeli troops aren’t on the ground in Gaza every minute does not make it less occupied territory. In fact, its hard to see much of a distinction on a practical level between Gaza, the Warsaw ghetto or the fenced off New York City in the movie Escape from New York.

Gaza is a prison, a concentration camp created by Israel. The people inside sometimes shoot rockets out or dig tunnels. Israel responds by bombing, shelling and sending in troops.

Before you even get to any moral considerations, this is not a model of governance which can last 1000 years. Kings and dictators from Alexander to Hitler would resolve such a problem by killing everyone within the fences. Jesus, Gandhi and Dr. King would say we must make the Gazans our partners, welcome them into our polity and find a way to live together. In the middle of the road, as the saying goes, there is nothing but roadkill.

“Human shields”

The “human shield” trope is a crock. Human shields are hostages or volunteers who are placed close to military targets to discourage bombing. There are no true human shields in Gaza. This is dishonest short hand for the fact that Hamas is resisting from within a dense urban area. They could decide not to resist, and all sign a letter to Israel saying, “Do with us what you will”. If they are going to fight back, they will be fighting from urban areas and civilians will die. Civilians also died when the World War II resistance fought back in various countries.

The “human shield” accusation as made by Israel and supporters is doubly disgraceful as Israel obviously is not bothered killing civilians but wants Hamas to be. In other words, Israel shifts the blame for its own killing of civilians to Hamas.

In searching back through my own writing about Israel, I found a 2002 piece I had forgotten about a New York Times report of Israeli soldiers shielding themselves behind random Palestinian civilians as they moved through the Jenin refugee camp. ""If the sniper sees his friend there, he won't shoot."


Some military actions have no justification, like the Allied bombing of civilian Dresden in World War II. War, even when targeting troops or military resources, is an analog activity often conducted in densely settled areas with limited visibility and information (the “fog of war”). Nations have always lied about war, denying guilt, disclaiming responsibility, or sometimes deceiving themselves about motives or prognoses.

Starting in the ‘90’s, and consistent with our ignorant vaunting of technology in other areas, the U.S. and other nations started promoting an idea that the killing now could be precisely targeted to avoid civilian deaths, There was briefly an idea that the U.S. had “smart bombs” which could stroll into a building, knock on the door of apartment 4E, ascertain that the man inside was a murderous terrorist, and then explode killing only him. In fact, there has never been any technology that precise. Israeli assassins have been known to kill the wrong person (an innocent waiter in revenge for the Munich massacre). An early U.S. drone strike on a tall, skinny man killed a scrap metal scavenger who had the misfortune to resemble bin Laden. Our drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan have never stopped killing civilians (which has probably largely contributed to the epidemic of “brown on green” murders, Afghan cops and soldiers killing U.S. and allied troops).

It should be evident at this point that Israel, however much or little it tried to limit or target its strikes in the past, has reached a point of exasperation or degeneration at which it is just randomly bombing and firing into Gaza, destroying homes, businesses, U.N. facilities, factories and children. Israel has several stock responses which are time-dishonored and have been heard, more or less, in most conflicts since history began: it wasn’t us; we are investigating the circumstances; we did it but its their fault.

“Partner for peace”

Rockets, tunnels, abductions of soldiers or attempts, and frightening Palestinian gloating about violence obscures the issues seen from five thousand feet. What is the end game? How do we get out of this? If we fenced off Harlem and bombed it from time to time, what precisely would it mean to claim we had no “partner for peace”?

To what extent do the Palestinians have a partner for peace on the Israeli side? In a 2000 article, I said that the Israeli right, led by Ariel Sharon, seemed to be settling down to a brutal realpolitik, with no further interest in a two state solution. Fourteen years later, the situation on the ground is even more violent, despairing, unbearable.

“A safe place for Jews”

I have heard my whole life that Israel is the Jewish homeland, that it can imaginably become the only safe place on earth for Jews, that it is somehow my home because if I ever went there, by their own rules they would have to take me in.

My whole life, in contrast, I have been aware of the degree to which Israel’s policies and actions have endangered me. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, before Al Qaeda became the principal threat, I was conscious that at any time I could be killed on sight as an American Jew on board a plane, in an airport, on a cruise ship or ferry. Too much of the world makes the assumption that as a Jew, I must support Israel, hate Arabs, and endorse violence. Personally I feel that my life would have been better, more secure, more diverse, calmer if Israel hadn’t been out there, bombing civilian populations every few years ostensibly in its own defense.

This is a good place to remind you that Israel and apartheid South Africa were close allies. Think about that.

I am appalled by and ashamed of Israel. This all didn’t happen by accident; too many bad and immoral decisions were made along the way, and the harvest of all those malicious and difficult seeds has not even yet begun.