Who Benefits? Thoughts on the Civilian Death Toll in Gaza

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    I would like to make just one point about the Israeli-Hamas conflict. It is difficult, I recognize, to isolate a single point, because people have such strong feelings on one side or the other that they tend to color judgments on all the relevant issues. But it’s worth a try.

    The single point I want to address is this: are we to believe that the Israelis are making a strenuous effort, given their military objectives, to minimize civilian deaths in Gaza? The Israelis claim that they are. Some others have called that into question.

    To me, the answer seems clear on the face of it once one asks the question: Who benefits? Who advances toward their goals as a result of the civilian casualties?

    Clearly, it is not the Israelis. Before the ground assault began, discussions of the potential costs to Israel focused on the international opprobrium and isolation that would likely punish Israel for the civilian deaths resulting from military operations in the densely-populated Gaza Strip. The carnage of civilians does nothing to achieve any Israeli purpose, while it does much to increase the political price of the military operation.

    On the other side, what is costly to Israel is correspondingly beneficial to Hamas. The greater the international pressure on and isolation of Israel – exacerbated by these civilian deaths – the stronger the position of Hamas vis-à-vis their Israeli foe. Hamas can hope for no military gains against the far mightier IDF, but it can hope for a stronger hand in negotiations now and in achieving its long-term goal of the elimination of Israel from the region.

    All of which is reflected in Hamas’ position in the cease-fire negotiations. Although Israel agreed to a proposed cease-fire, Hamas has rejected it. And it is Hamas, not Israel, that is insisting on political concessions as a condition of a cease-fire. The inference to be drawn, it seems, is that Hamas believes can gain something from the continuation of the current hostilities, with its mounting Palestinian death toll.

    So, regardless of whether one believes that Israel has a right to exist, or that any of the parties are interested in achieving the long-sought “two-state solution,” or that this military incursion is justified or wise, to this one question the answer seems clear. Israel has every reason – for purely self-interested motives, whether supplemented by compassionate humanitarian concerns or not – to minimize civilian casualties. And for Hamas, it is the civilian casualties, and the international response to them, that are the chief means by which it can gain from this latest episode in this long-running, sad story from the Middle East.