Israel is criticized because of the disproportionate casualty figures which are usually significantly higher on the Palestinian side. But from a military standpoint there is no symmetry. Israel is far more powerful. Israel goes to unprecedented lengths to avoid non-combatant casualties in a very complicated, densely populated region

Yavne, Israel: It’s 2.30 a.m. 17 May. My wife and I have just gotten to sleep. Kind of a twitchy sleep, not what you’d call deep and peaceful. We live in the small Israeli town of Yavne, just east of the Mediterranean coast and about 29 miles, or 47 kilometres from the border with Gaza. Easy rocket range. You begin to twitch after about a week of random bombardment in anticipation of the incoming missiles which can strike anywhere, at any time. Often a strange sound of any sort will jerk you, fully tensed, out of sleep; was that an air raid siren, a distant explosions? But when the real thing comes there is no doubt—the familiar, utterly urgent high pitched wail of the siren fills the town, seems to overcome the peace of the night and pull you up physically, as often as five or six times between sundown and dawn. Malka and I are pretty nimble for our ages (she’s 67, I’m 70) but while running down the stairs to the basement we take a care not to fall and break our necks. In the current round of fighting this has happened several times, not far from here, with fatal results. Once in the basement we crouch in what we reckon to be the safest corner and wait. It’s not a long wait. Generally from the first sound of the siren to the arrival of the rockets from Gaza It’s about a 75 seconds. Sometimes less. That may not sound like much, but we live a life of bomb shelter luxury and we know it. Residents of the towns and farms in the Gaza border area are much closer than us to the source of the fire—they have between 10 and 15 seconds to take cover. Add to the equation the oft-forgotten fact that not everyone is 20 years old. There are old people, sick people, little kids and babies. People famously help each other during the scramble for cover, but inevitably not everyone makes it. Once under cover during and between the blasts the text messages take off and fly faster and thicker than the rockets—how are the kids, friends, neighbours, is everyone protected and safe? What’s happening in the next town over? Our cat tries to play the hero but always wanders—seeming nonchalantly, but I’m not fooled—down to the basement with us by the second or third explosion.

Hamas has significantly improved its capabilities since the last round of fighting; Only 75 seconds, sometimes far less, and the crack of the first aerial explosions splits the night air. The closer interceptions shake the house to its foundations and rattle the windows. Most of the Gazan—it would probably be more accurate to say Iranian—missiles are intercepted by the incredible Iron Dome defence system, but successfully destroying the target in mid-air does not mean the danger is past. Fragments, some large, nasty and deadly proceed to rain down, falling more or less exactly where they want to. So you don’t leave cover immediately after the echo from the last explosion has died away. Of course, despite the almost insane technological capabilities of Iron Dome, some rockets get through and the results are often heart breaking. Over the weekend a five-year-old child playing in his family shelter was hit by rocket fragments. It’s hard to look at the photo in the papers, so after the accidental first glance I don’t. A sweet little 5-year-old, looking out at the world with serious, somewhat wary yet trusting and now dead eyes.

Why Is This Happening?

All of the above is, of course, nothing more than human interest, so I hope it was interesting. But in order to gain a real understanding of the conflict it’s necessary to dig deep and unearth the underlying causes of the dispute. Why is this happening? Again. What do the sides want?

Take a deep breath and concentrate; some detail and history are unavoidable at this stage. Hamas opened fire exactly a week ago on the day Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day—a day commemorating the victorious battle to re-unite the divided city during the 6-Day War in 1967. To be fair, it must be said that in the days preceding the first rockets they had broadcast numerous warnings of dire consequences should Israel fail to satisfy a number of conditions.

The first condition involved a cessation of the court ordered eviction of eight Arab families from the overwhelmingly Arab east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The houses in question were part of a small Jewish community built during the 1870s at the time of Turkish rule. The Jews were driven out by force, some murdered by local Arabs during the first half of the 20th century, after which Palestinians simply moved in and appropriated the properties for themselves. The eviction notices represent the culmination of a series of battles fought out in the Israeli courts over the course of over 50 years, beginning shortly after the reunification of the city in 1967. The Israeli courts, surprising perhaps to those unfamiliar with our legal system, are more often than not sympathetic to Arab plaintiffs in legal proceedings against Jews. However, as TV detectives are so fond of saying, this really was an open and shut case. The Jews presented full, verified documentation of purchase and ownership, whereas the Arabs had not a scrap of paper to anchor their claims to the properties. Despite all this there was no desire to expel the Arab families and a compromise was offered; the squatters would be given protected tenant status in perpetuity in exchange for payment of a fair rent to the Jewish owners. No rent was ever paid and the Arab residents refused all additional compromise solutions. There followed several additional decades of court proceedings which culminated in summer 2020 with the issue of eviction orders. Not all that complicated, and not at all unjust. Still, the western press has dumbed down the story to a narrative involving rapacious, powerful Israeli colonialists persecuting and cruelly oppressing the noble and long-suffering indigenous people—the Palestinians. Physically throwing helpless families from the homes they had lived in since time immemorial. It plucks the heartstrings, resonates with self-perceived victims everywhere and plays well on CNN and the New York Times.

The second condition involved a demand that the Israeli authorities and particularly the police evacuate the Temple Mount in the heart of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. The demand came after several days of continually escalating violence on the part of Arab rioters. The violence, which was sparked by the decision of Mahmood Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, to cancel yet again the scheduled PA elections, ostensibly because of the Israeli refusal to allow the terrorist organization Hamas to participate. This was regarded as a mortal blow to Palestinian democracy and an insufferable insult to Palestinian pride. Mr Abbas will now be forced to enter the 17th year of his 4-year term as President. To be clear, the demand for the evacuation of the Temple Mount is akin to a demand that India remove all government presence, including the police, from New Delhi.

On Jerusalem Day the first air raid sirens sounded and rockets in their hundreds began targeting Israeli towns and cities.

But the official pretexts for the attacks don’t seem to hold water. Why then the assault, the missiles, the latest round which at this point has already claimed many lives, in the “cycle of violence”—a misleading catch phrase so beloved of much of the western media, since it seems to infer a non-existent symmetry of blame. To resolve this question it would be helpful to review the recent history of Gaza and to reference the founding document, the Constitution as it were of Hamas.

Recent History of Gaza

At the conclusion of Israel’s war of independence in 1949, the Egyptian army, which had tried and failed to destroy the Jewish state, remained in occupation of the Gaza strip. Throughout the next two decades the strip was used as a training depot and jumping off point for numerous terrorist incursions into Israel. It is worth noting that from 1949 until 1967 the territories of Judea and Samaria, more commonly but erroneously known as the “West Bank” and East Jerusalem, were also occupied, by the Jordanian Arab Legion. At no point in time did it occur to anyone—not the Jordanians, the Egyptians nor even the Palestinians themselves to establish a Palestinian state. Of course, this could have been done easily, with the stroke of a pen, at any time. Israel would have had no say in the matter. The Egyptian army was booted out in 1967 and Israel took over. A string of 21 small but flourishing agricultural communities were established; communities which continued to thrive until 2005 when Israel decided unilaterally to withdraw entirely from Gaza and leave it to the local Arabs. The settlements were dismantled and about 10,000 Israeli civilians were forced to leave their homes. The action was absolutely gut-wrenching for Israelis, but many considered it a worthwhile sacrifice, a chance for Palestinian Arabs to show what they could do with their own territory and a goodwill gesture which would help create a solid foundation for peace. Agricultural installations, hothouses and irrigation facilities were left intact as a gift to the Palestinians. The strip was originally governed by the Palestinian Authority, which was soon expelled and replaced in 2007 by the Islamic Hamas movement after a short but brutal civil war. Since 2005, there has been no hint of an Israeli presence in Gaza. No civilians. No military. Nothing. Put simply, since that time Gaza has been an independent Palestinian state. Small, but meeting the criteria of statehood: a clearly defined territory and border, a permanent population, a government with the capacity to enter into relations with other states. And in this context it should be borne in mind that Muslim Arabs already have 22 other independent states in the Middle East alone, with a combined landmass equal to that of the continental United States. Israel’s reward was not long in coming—the Palestinians in Gaza have responded thus far with approximately 25,000 missiles, rockets and mortar shells aimed nearly exclusively at civilian population centres.

That leaves the Hamas Charter, the foundational, defining document of the government of Gaza, to dispel the fog, clear the historical air and provide answers. It does this very well. The document was first published in 1988 and amended in 2017. Inspired by and infused with Islamic tenets and principles, the charter rejects absolutely the right of Israel to exist within any borders at all and calls unequivocally for the end of the Jewish state. Israel is described as “racist, aggressive, colonial and expansionist project based on seizing the properties of others”. Jihad for the liberation of all of Palestine is described as a duty and honour for all people of the Islamic Ummah (nation), while Israel and its people are demonized and dehumanized as the foremost threat to the peace and stability of mankind and the world. Particularly disturbing, among a number of disturbing declarations, is article 25 of the charter: “Resisting the occupation with all means and methods is a legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws and by international norms and laws. At the heart of these lies armed resistance, which is regarded as the strategic choice for protecting the principles and the rights of the Palestinian people”. Clearly, this provides justification and a heavenly mandate for terrorism and murder by any and all means in order to obtain the ultimate objective—the total elimination and destruction of Israel.

So there we have it. The reason for over 3,500 rockets fired at Israel during the course of a week, and Israeli retaliation inside Gaza. One could of course argue that the Israeli civilians who are regularly targeted constitute a legitimate, armed military objective; there are knives and other deadly weapons in most Israeli kitchens, not to mention kebab skewers. But in truth none of that seems to matter to Hamas, which is an implacably hostile, religiously motivated movement dedicated to one thing alone—the extermination of the Jewish state. Still, Israel is powerful, with a thriving, innovative economy and a dedicated, well-trained military. It’s hard to credit that Hamas leaders believe they could defeat us on their own. However, unlike previous rounds of violence, this time there were ominous rumblings from other fronts—missiles fired from Syria, an incursion from Lebanon and of course rioting, arson, bloodshed and general mayhem on the part of Muslim Arabs inside Israel itself. That seems to be part of the plan.

No Symmetry

A final point for now: Israel is hotly criticized because of the disproportionate casualty figures which are usually significantly higher on the Palestinian side. The truth is that from a military standpoint there is no symmetry. Israel is far more powerful. I often wonder if western news commentators would be placated if their sense of proportion and justice would be satisfied if we killed some of our own, just to even up the numbers a bit. But the fact is that Israel goes to unprecedented lengths to avoid non-combatant casualties in a very complicated, densely populated region. Everyone has seen the dramatic footage of the multi-storey Gaza buildings blasted from the air and collapsing in massive clouds of dust and smoke. What is not usually made clear is that in situations like this, residents are clearly warned well in advance. Usually more than an hour to evacuate is given. Civilians and non-combatants can clear out and save their lives—but so can the terrorists. It’s a price we pay.

What will Israel do? I’m just a citizen, not privy to the innermost councils of government, so I don’t really know. I do have faith in our army, and that faith tells me that eventually, if the other side does not get the message that we don’t intend to lie down and die, if the attacks go on, if the rockets keep coming, we will beat them into submission.

Gary Littwin, 70, was born in the US and grew up in the Midwest, in Kansas City. He came to Israel when he was 19. Did military service in the Paratroopers and went on to get a degree in international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is married to Malka and they have three grown kids. They currently reside in the town of Yavne, which is located near the Mediterranean coast about 25 km south of Tel-Aviv. He and his wife are retired and he is working part time as a licensed tour guide with English speaking tourists from all over the world.