From the Community | Gaza: The war of the words

Dec. 8, 2023, 5:29 a.m.

On Oct. 7, Hamas blew up sections of the border fence around the Gaza Strip. Its fighters entered nearby Israeli towns and farming villages with written orders to kill every civilian they could find — men, women, children and even babies — except for some to be captured as bargaining chips. They did as instructed, killing over 1,200 and taking over 240 hostage. The dead were later found raped, tortured, butchered and sometimes beheaded.

Caught by surprise, Israelis quickly regrouped, halting the rampage and clearing the invaders from their territory. They rescued survivors and brought medical care to the many gravely wounded. Israel then launched a counterattack, first with bombing, and then, after careful preparation, with a ground assault.

This conflict has brought a battle of words and slogans to Stanford and to campuses across the country. Most blame not the aggressor, Hamas, but its victim, Israel. President Richard Saller and his counterparts elsewhere have issued multiple statements and calls for dialogue, to little effect. Here I discuss examples in which the meaning of legal terms are twisted for emotional impact, and shouted chants replace civil discourse.

Prominently, signs on campus have called Israel’s actions “genocide,” a word I see as a hand grenade tossed as an inversion of the Holocaust. When Nazi Germany killed fully one third of all the Jews in the world, the word “genocide” was invented to describe this evil, an attempt to intentionally destroy an entire group of people. Israel, on the other hand, wants to kill Hamas’ fighters, and the killing of soldiers in an enemy army is expected and permitted in war. Israel is not trying to kill everyone in Gaza but to free its hostages and remove Hamas from power.

Protesters at Stanford deny Israel’s right to exist within any borders at all, calling its creation “settler-colonialism.” This concept may properly describe the English landing at Plymouth Rock. However, when applied to Israel, it is a loaded term that sweeps aside 3,200 years of Jewish history in which an indigenous people have re-established their ancient homeland after the invasions of successive empires, including one 1,400 years ago that brought Arabic and Islam from the Arabian Peninsula. Israelis’ and Palestinians’ long-standing claims to the land can be reconciled only by co-existence, but the chants we hear at demonstrations, including at Stanford, leave little room for that. “From the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea, Palestine will be free” translates to “it’s all ours” — no Israel, no Jews. How? “Globalize the intifada” provides an answer — violence, against Israelis and against Jews everywhere.

This assault of loaded words continues with accusations of Israeli “war crimes.” The laws of war include the rule of “proportionality,” which states that the legality of a military action depends on the balance between its objective and its means and consequences. Under prior law and the Rome Statute that governs the International Criminal Court, a “war crime” includes “intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects … which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.”

Causing civilian deaths is not itself a war crime, nor does proportionality require that deaths on both sides must be roughly equal. Critics denounce Israel’s response as “disproportionate” and therefore a “war crime.” But to determine the validity of these accusations we must closely examine whether Israel has properly delineated what is “proportionate” from what is “excessive.”

Consider the battlefield. Hamas intentionally sited command centers, arms factories and weapons depots in crowded civilian areas. Many line their 300-mile network of tunnels, with fighters descending through access shafts hidden in homes and hospitals. Rockets are launched outside mosques and schools. A Hamas headquarters is being uncovered in tunnels under Al Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest. Hamas chose these strategic locations to protect itself behind human shields (which is itself a war crime). To achieve “military advantage” from attacking its hidden enemy while reducing “incidental loss of civilian life or injury to civilians,” Israel warned civilians to evacuate. 

Even so, there have been many deaths, as the critics properly point out. Hamas sources claim that Israel has killed about 16,000, without distinguishing civilians from combatants. By Israel’s estimate, the deaths include 5,000 or more Hamas fighters (over 30% of the total). Compare this to other urban battles, where combatants typically constitute only 10% of the dead. Of course, the dead care little for statistics. But once an attacker starts a war, the defender may do only what is necessary and proportionate to end the threat. In this ugly context, Israel has satisfied the test of proportionality and has undermined the protesters’ accusation of war crimes. 

Next, consider the demonstrators’ call for “an immediate ceasefire.” This slogan also makes fine emotional rhetoric but lacks critical context. The slogan overlooks the ceasefire that was already in effect on Oct. 6. Even as it was signed last May, Hamas was deep into planning this meticulous attack. That ceasefire was only a hudna, a temporary truce, to be broken when convenient.

Moreover, Hamas still holds over 130 hostages, and it is unlikely that Israel will get them back alive without military pressure. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar even threatened that Oct. 7 was “a rehearsal” for future attacks. This pattern has recurred every few years in a loop, like some bloody version of “Groundhog Day.” How could another ceasefire break this loop?

Israel now says the war will continue until all hostages are freed and Hamas is removed from its misrule of Gaza. Perhaps new, responsible leadership, under international supervision, will at last support the people of Gaza. Perhaps the Israeli government’s scandalous neglect of security before the attack will lead to an investigation, a new election and a new Israeli government too. The parties might then grope toward the dim light of co-existence, glinting in the distance at the end of this tunnel.

Finally, here at Stanford, loud rhetoric that offers more heat than light coarsens debate on campus. After this war, perhaps we will stop shouting offensive slogans and return to learning from one another through reasoned and informed dialogue.

Alan Fisher is a lead scientist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

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