columnIsrael at War

Hamas weaponizes sympathy for civilians they help kill

Suffering in Gaza is real, though the false victimhood narrative gives Hamas benefits and deflects attention from saving the hostages and defeating the terrorists.

Palestinians look for survivors after an Israeli airstrike in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on Oct. 16, 2023. Photo by Atia Mohammed/Flash90.
Palestinians look for survivors after an Israeli airstrike in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on Oct. 16, 2023. Photo by Atia Mohammed/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It’s a difficult balancing act, but most of the talking heads and pundits are managing to pull it off. Unlike the hard left, most liberals and Democrats have not abandoned sanity and embraced the open antisemitism that has been expressed at rallies for “Palestine,” in which Hamas is not just supported but justified. To the contrary, at least for the moment, the old bipartisan consensus in favor of Israel seems to have re-emerged since the unspeakable terrorist atrocities on Oct. 7. The vast majority of Democrats and almost all Republicans are solidly backing Israel’s right to defend itself and condemning Hamas, even as many of them also speak of their concerns about Palestinian suffering.

But only a week after the slaughter of men, women and children in the Jewish communities along the Gaza border and at a music concert attended by young adults—and with Israel still sifting through the wreckage, finding bodies of the slain and tortured victims of these atrocities, and preparing to bury some 1,400 people—the conversation about the conflict is shifting. To no one’s surprise, the headlines are now all about a “humanitarian crisis” and not a hostage crisis, even though the fate of the estimated 150 people, including 14 Americans, kidnapped by Hamas is still unknown. The suffering of Palestinians—President Joe Biden has been at pains to try and differentiate from the terror group, stating that “the vast majority of them have nothing to do with Hamas”—has become the world’s top concern.

Callousness about deaths in Gaza is wrong. So, too, are overwrought expressions of rage about terrorist crimes that lead to talk about wiping out the Palestinians or turning a place where so many people live into a parking lot.

However, Biden is wildly overstating his case about the level of support Hamas can count on. More important than that, the seemingly irresistible impulse on the part of Western politicians to deny that Hamas represents Palestinian aspirations is linked to a wave of sympathy for the Palestinians that is bound to influence administration policy as the war continues.

Though its statements of support continue to be exemplary, reports of administration pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to turn back on the flow of water and even electricity to Gaza so as to ameliorate the situation for civilians there is concerning. While the plight of those behind Hamas lines is, no doubt, difficult, the idea that Israel should make such gestures, in return for nothing from the Palestinians, and most particularly on the question of the hostages, is outrageous. That’s especially true when it is remembered that there are American citizens among those taken captive by the terrorists. While it is always expected that Israel must play by its enemies’ rules, the notion that American lives should be sacrificed in order to make gestures to ease Palestinian suffering makes all this even more appalling.

Once Israeli ground operations inside Gaza commence, the debate will shift even more away from the Jewish victims. At that point, understanding the distinction between concern about Palestinian suffering and commentary aimed at undermining or halting efforts by the Israel Defense Forces to take out Hamas will be more important than ever. And the longer this crisis goes on—and this is only the beginning of what may prove to be a protracted struggle—the line between those two realities is growing increasingly blurry. It is likely that the bipartisan consensus backing Israel won’t survive long once images from Gaza can be used to create a groundswell of anger about the impact of the war on Palestinian civilians.

The primary goal of many of those complaining about the IDF is to delegitimize any response aimed at stopping, let alone deposing, the Hamas regime that governs Gaza as an independent Palestinian state in all but name. The moment the first IDF unit crosses into Gaza, calls for a ceasefire will escalate, as will coverage of the impact of the operation on Palestinian civilians. No matter how careful Israelis will be about trying not to harm them, Israeli soldiers will still be demonized in the international media. Nor will those wringing their hands about dead Palestinians care about how much that caution will likely cost the IDF in terms of its own soldiers who will be killed and wounded because of their refusal to fire indiscriminately into areas—as many armies would do—where the terrorists are using civilians as human shields.

What is most infuriating about this discussion is the way most of the corporate liberal media takes it as a given that the number of Palestinian casualties means that Israel is routinely violating human rights or acting illegally. As non-Israeli military experts have attested, the IDF is the most moral in the world when it comes to going to extraordinary lengths to avoid harming civilians. Indeed, in 2014, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, not only praised the IDF’s restraint during fighting with Hamas that year but sent a Pentagon team to Israel so it could learn how better to avoid hurting civilians.

Nothing to do with Hamas?

Still, it doesn’t really matter what the Israelis do or don’t do. Hamas is responsible for all deaths on both sides because of its decision to start the war not just by attacking Israel, but by deliberately sending people to commit unspeakable atrocities against civilians, many of them families.

As much as Hamas is trying to get civilians killed in order to undermine foreign support for Israel, Biden’s argument about most Palestinians having “nothing to do with them” is also flat-out wrong.

Hamas has governed Gaza for 16 years and though there has been some grumbling, the tyrannical Islamist rule the terrorist organization imposed has for the most part gone unchallenged by those living there. The unfortunate truth about the political culture of the Palestinians is that it valorizes terrorism and treats those who shed Jewish blood as gaining legitimacy for doing so. Hamas won an election in Gaza in 2006 and most observers believe that it would again defeat Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Party if he ever held another one in Judea and Samaria. Few would dispute that Hamas’s unabashed calls for Israel’s destruction and terrorism—clearly spelled out in its own charter—are more popular than Fatah’s position. Its slightly more equivocal rejection of peace under any circumstances and financial support for terror, which is balanced by its reliance on Israeli security cooperation, are aimed at keeping Abbas alive and in power.

This is much like President George W. Bush’s reflexive use of the phrase about Islam being a “religion of peace,” which had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda’s Islamism, that he repeated endlessly after the 9/11 attacks. Biden and liberal pundits are desperate to separate the Palestinian people from Hamas. That argument would be stronger if Palestinians didn’t routinely take to the streets to celebrate terror attacks against Israel, passing out candy to children and hoisting them on their shoulders, weapons in hand. The cheers for the Hamas murderers when they returned in triumph to Gaza on Oct. 7, where they displayed their captives and the corpses of some of the Jews they had slain, only ended once Israel’s airstrikes against the terrorists commenced.

Once you acknowledge the truth about Palestinian politics, then you are forced to accept the conclusion that there is no solution to the conflict and that Israel has no choice but to persevere until there is a sea change in their neighbor’s political culture. Since the only chance of that is a total Israeli military victory over Hamas opposed by the West, there is nothing that will force Palestinians to admit that their century-long war against Zionism is over.

The destruction caused by Hamas terrorists who overran Kibbutz Be’eri, near Israel’s southern border with the Gaza Strip, Oct. 14, 2023. Photo by Omer Fichman/Flash90.

A narrative of victimization

It’s just as important to point out that the Palestinian narrative about the victimization of the people of Gaza by Israel is also false.

Gaza is poor and densely populated. But its problems are entirely the fault of the Palestinians, not Israel. Had the Palestinians ever opted for peace or compromise at any point in the last 75 years—let alone not allowing themselves to be ruled by Islamist terrorists—Gaza wouldn’t be mired in poverty or isolated, and they would have achieved internationally recognized statehood long ago. If the Palestinians used the billions in Western aid they receive on bettering the lives of people there rather than on building up a military infrastructure, Gaza also wouldn’t be an economic basket case or have to worry about the IDF.

The narrative about Palestinian victimization is a way to deflect attention away from the refusal of either Fatah or Hamas to make peace, as well as to create a false moral equivalence between Israel and the terrorists; between those who commit atrocities and those who seek to stop them. That rejectionism is so integral to their national identity that few Palestinians seem able to imagine life without it.

We should mourn the deaths of any Gaza civilians, though not those of the many terrorists who will pay the ultimate price for their crimes. But using concerns about those who will be killed because of Hamas’s actions to undermine support for Israel shouldn’t be confused with a concern for human rights or the welfare of the Palestinian people in general.

The only way to solve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is to get rid of Hamas and convince the Palestinians to give up their sick fantasies about Israel’s extinction. It was those demented dreams that—rather than any justified resentment against Zionism—motivated the thugs who committed so many atrocities in the name of “Palestine.”

The complaints about Palestinian casualties, which are regrettable, should be directed at the authors of all the horrors that were unleashed on both Jews and Arabs on Oct. 7, including the hostages of multiple nationalities that languish somewhere in the Gaza Strip. Point to Hamas and its numerous Palestinian adherents, not Israel.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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