Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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The Sick Math of the Gaza War

by Elliott Abrams
July 11, 2014


Israeli prime minister Netanyahu is clearly reluctant to order a ground incursion into Gaza. This has disappointed some of his critics, who think it’s a sign of lack of courage, or of excessive wavering and hedging, or of thinking about domestic politics.

It is not; instead, it’s prudence. For one thing, Netanyahu knows he would be sending some Israeli soldiers to their deaths. But he also knows that in the sick math of the Gaza war, Israel would be blamed for “disproportionate” killing.

What that means is simple: too many Palestinians would die, and “not enough” Israelis–in the view of much of “world opinion.” You would read that calculation in the New York Times and see it on the BBC. In “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008, about 1000-1400 Palestinians died, and 13 Israelis. In “Operation Pillar of Defense” in 2012 it was something like 150 to 6. As of now, in the current conflict there are no Israeli deaths and about 100 Palestinian deaths. Here’s how Time Magazine started its story:

The death toll among Palestinians scrambling under a relentless Israeli air assault in the Gaza Strip passed 80 Thursday and edged close to 100 Friday, including at least 14 children….Meanwhile, the barrage of rockets Gaza militants launched toward Israeli cities failed to produce a significant casualty on the third day of Israel’s offensive Thursday….The Israeli military said it destroyed more buildings in the first 36 hours of the current campaign than in all of Pillar of Defense. More people are dying too: the 80 fatalities reported so far is, once again, more than half the reported death toll from the longer bombing two years earlier.

Time then discussed exactly this phenomenon: when what “world opinion” sees as “too many” Palestinians dying and the balance is “too great” in Israel’s favor–that is, too many Palestinians and not enough Israelis being killed–the calls for a cease-fire will escalate. Moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas will be the order of the day–except for those who elevate Hamas, since after all it is killing fewer people!

Netanyahu knows this, because Israel has lived through it in all its past wars with the Palestinians. So does Hamas know it, and Hamas is brutal and vicious enough to hide behind civilians and seek civilian deaths. After all, this was the central theory of the Goldstone report: that Israel was killing civilians and was morally culpable–guilty of war crimes.  No doubt we’ll see the same arguments made this time, especially if Israel goes in on the ground.

As I write, the Hamas rockets are still flying–unguided missiles aimed toward populated areas in the hope of killing civilians. How long Israel can put off a ground incursion is anyone’s guess. But if that happens, here’s something you can count on: the twisted moralists will be back, comparing the numbers of casualties on both sides and accusing Israel of war crimes for the “disproportionate” use of force.

Remember this: in the Second World War, the United States suffered 416,000 combat deaths, or about 0.32 percent of the population. Germany suffered 4-5 million combat deaths, or about 5 percent of the population. The death ratio was 10 to 1. Did that make the war unjust? Does that mean the United States inflicted “disproportionate” numbers of casualties? Unfortunately the Israelis know “world opinion” will never be on their side in these arguments. Let’s just hope the United States is.

UPDATE: UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay has already proved this analysis right, even before an Israeli ground incursion. She said this today:

For its part, the Government of Israel must take all possible measures to ensure full respect for the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack, during the conduct of hostilities, as required by international humanitarian law. In all circumstances, they must avoid targeting civilians. However, we have received deeply disturbing reports that many of the civilian casualties, including of children, occurred as a result of strikes on homes. Such reports raise serious doubt about whether the Israeli strikes have been in accordance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

So, she is already accusing Israel of breaking international humanitarian law and human rights law. Perhaps since Goldstone has retired, she is filling in.


Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by neville craig

    Sharon offloaded the financial millstone that is Gaza, and then proceeded to prevent its economic development (port/airport).

    Might Israeli leaders not have foreseen what would eventuate?
    About as short-sighted as the past management of inner Detroit.

  • Posted by Cc

    Oddly it’s the human rights activists defend Hamas, and not Israel. This point of course has been raised before but is worth repeating: Israel is the only MENA country that respects the universal declaration of human rights within its borders. I’d be curious to hear Jack Donnelly’s opinion.

  • Posted by Dan

    It’s time Jews, Jewish diplomats, and Israelis stop having the same old nightmares. All of Abrams’ calculations are founded on old self-perpetuating analyses that periodically visits the same thing to Israel. For anyone claiming to be interested in the well-being of Israel, this form of thinking should be trashed. A new Jewish DNA is needed if we are ever going to get past Abrams’ sick “unsustainable” narrative. Maybe this time Netanyahu will break the spell – maybe not. But one thing I know for sure, nothing new will ever emerge from anyone who eats his meals at the CFR cafeteria. Abrams should get off the carousel, but I doubt he has it in him.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    To E. Abrams, Re: Sick Math.

    Somewhere in Gaza right now, there is probably a thoughtful and politically conscious Hamas leader who has read this interesting exposition upon the public relations problems that Israel faces in its struggle with a defeated enemy. That man, well spoken in English, has probably chuckled in grim satisfaction, and said to himself: “Mr. Abrams: I see you get the point. And I am pleased to note that you think Netanyahu has, as well. To him, body counts for which Israel is responsible are a very troubling problem. Too bad. If this makes him uncomfortable, perhaps he should stop ordering them. As for us: the math looks quite sound, and adds up to our satisfaction.”

    You must admit, given what you have said and what you presume to know about world opinion, that this is highly probable, for in fact, this is just how things are. By your analysis, you have supplied the proof: the closer the Israeli government gets to killing its way to a battlefield victory over Hamas, the further it gets from winning the war of public relations. And that matters, a lot.

    Stripped of its pejorative commentary, such as references to “twisted moralists”, this is about all your essay says. As it happens, that is enough, for it is important and quite on point. The problem is, that you are not happy about it. It shows, and consequently impairs the value of your very expert analysis.

    Your readership would be better served by a strictly objective and non-partisan approach to this subject. That is, after all, what the Council on Foreign Relations is sworn to promote.

    In furtherance of that mission, consider what impact your words might have, were you to withdraw this piece, revise, and resubmit under the following title:

    “Victory Snatched from the Jaws of Defeat: In Complete and Utter Desperation, Hamas lays a Trap for Israel, and Israel Obligingly Falls In.”

    It is, after all, just a matter of how you look at things. As they themselves see it, and it seems, you do, as well, the Netanyahu government has just given Hamas another twenty year lease on life.

    Respectfully and regretfully yours,

    Tyler P. Harwell

  • Posted by EMT

    What a comparison!
    No matter what Israel does to defend its very existence, it can be sure that the world opinion will be against it. No one looks back at what triggered this recent struggle. There was quiet in Israel until Kerry started going back and forth and threatening Israel of dire consequences if it would not pick-up negotiations with the PA and lately with the artificial construction of a PA-Hamas alliance. Negotiating with Hamas even through Abbas cannot be expected from Israel, just as the US would not negotiate with Bin-Laden, or today with the ISIS. I believe that Israel has the right to do whatever it takes to defend its existence and the lives of its people.

  • Posted by Stephen Rieck

    The point in discussing the “imbalance” is not to raise the death count on one side, but to lower it on the other. A powerful nation should be able to pursue threats to it’s security while minimizing unneeded casualties.

    Instead of WW2, we should make comparisons with America’s current use of drone warfare. Every step should be taken to ensure that the only casualties are the targets themselves. There needs to be accountability with any civilian death, as well as associated adjustments to strategy and tactics. Of course, due to the secrecy surrounding the drone program, it is impossible to say whether we actually do this or just pay lip service to it.

  • Posted by Annabelle

    Wow I find it pretty disappointed to find such an obviously biased analysis on CFR’s blog. Way to damage your credibility, at least as it concerns Israel/Palestine. Very disappointing.

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