As I write this column, Israel’s military has called up reservists and has prepared tanks and artillery units for a possible land assault into Gaza. This follows a weekend in which the same military dropped hundreds of tons of bombs on Gaza, killing or wounding hundreds of Hamas militants; dozens of civilians also are among those killed or wounded.
In many ways, the Israeli attacks on Gaza are an explosively quick endgame to a policy of collective punishment of Palestinians living in Gaza that’s been going on for some time now. In retaliation for rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza, Israel has imposed a devastating blockade on Gaza. Because of the blockade, Palestinian children in Gaza suffer from chronic malnutrition. A lack of access to medicine and medical care has led to a rash of otherwise preventable deaths among Gaza’s most vulnerable populations. Now, in the waning days of 2008, Israeli bombs have accelerated what already was happening: the death of innocent Palestinians in an act of collective punishment for the sins of a few terrorists.
Outside of Washington D.C. (and—ahem!—Oahu) most of the world’s leaders have been correct to point out that, while the Palestinians must put an end to the rocket and mortar attacks on Southern Israel, the Israeli response to these attacks has been grossly disproportionate. Reasonable voices have called on both sides to cease hostility.
Amen to that.
Unfortunately, unlike their counterparts around the world, most American politicians, journalists, and religious leaders have yet to denounce the attacks on Gaza. Most of our leaders would rather blame the Palestinians for provoking Israel’s fury than question Israel’s massive use of force.
There’s no question that Palestinian provocations are morally indefensible, but it’s worth asking if the sins of a few people are ever so heinous that it is moral for an entire population to suffer in punishment for those sins. For most Americans the answer is an hesitant: “it depends.” Before condemning the use of collective punishment we want to know who is doing the punishing and which populations are suffering collectively.
“It depends” is the wrong answer. Collective punishment is the currency of terrorism. In the twisted logic of terrorism, for example, my children are legitimate targets of violence because they are Americans, citizens of a nation whose government has—in the judgment of terrorists—committed any number of atrocities around the globe. Just about every rational and peaceable human being agrees that such logic is bankrupt of even the slightest trace of morality, and we condemn terrorism—just as we should—whenever and wherever it occurs.
But in defiance of common sense and unguided by any cogent moral vision I’m aware of, a significant number of otherwise rational Americans are unable to apply a similar moral analysis to the actions of Israel’s military. We will—with passionate eloquence—condemn Palestinian terrorists for the murder of civilians who are victims of rockets fired into southern Israel, but too many of us then retreat into approving silence when Israel first starves, and then drops bombs on, innocent Palestinians who are no more responsible for the actions of their leaders than are the Israeli citizens who suffer from Palestinian terrorism.
There are no easy answers or simple solutions to the crisis in Gaza, but there are lots of immoral answers and short-sighted solutions, among them is collective punishment. Coming up with alternatives to collective punishment of Gazan Palestinians will require the world’s most creative and compassionate minds. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza gives Americans—whose tax dollars underwrite the bombardment of innocents in Gaza—the opportunity to gather unto ourselves the moral vision and the courage to denounce the immorality of collective punishment. It is a chance our collective soul can ill-afford to waste.