This morning’s bomb attack on a bus in Tel Aviv – for which Hamas’ military branch has claimed credit – drives home the fundamental moral distinction between Israel and Hamas in their ongoing war in Gaza.
For many of Israel’s critics, the death (or wounding) of civilians in Gaza is prima facie evidence of Israel’s evil and a war crime. Mind you, those critics were notably quiet in response to repeated Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel over the past 4 years or, to the extent they do condemn such attacks, their condemnations are sotto voce and rather late in the day. But today’s events underscore the false equivalence between Israel and Hamas.
Here we have an attack targeting a civilian bus. That’s a war crime. Period. There is no plausible basis for suggesting that the bus was in any way a legitimate military target or that attacking it would assist Hamas in achieving its legitimate war aims (assuming Hamas does have legitimate aims beyond killing Israelis – let’s assume they do for the purposes of this discussion), nor can Hamas argue that it made any effort to minimize civilian casualties. Causing civilian casualties was the sole purpose for this attack. There’s no way around that truth.
Similarly, the rocket attacks on Israel serve no obvious military purposes. The weapons are too crude to be be aimed at military targets – they’re launched for the purpose of terrorizing, and with luck, killing, Israeli civilians. Again, that truth is indisputable.
In contrast, no fair-minded critic of Israel (although Israel has no shortage of unfair-minded critics) would suggest that Israeli attacks in Gaza are targeted at civilians. According to the IDF, roughly two-thirds of the people killed have been Hamas militants and, while Palestinian accounts vary (and given the practice of Hamas militants of not wearing uniforms, should be taken with a grain of salt), on their accounts between a third and half of the casualties have been Hamas militants (it’s worth noting, at this point, that it is far from clear that all those casualties were caused by Israel – there are confirmed reports of Palestinians having been killed by Hamas rockets which landed in Gaza).
More to the point, though, given the massive number of bombing raids and artillery strikes launched by Israel over the last week, the total number of deaths – roughly 140 at this time – is too small to be consistent with an effort on the part of the IDF to kill civilians (unless we believe, contrary to all evidence, that the IDF is the most profoundly incompetent military in the world – even then, the profoundly incompetent Syrian Army has had no trouble killing tens of thousands of civilians over the past year). Indeed, the (relatively) low number of civilian casualties is consistent with Israel’s claim that it makes every effort to minimize civilian casualties (particularly in light of Hamas’ – illegal –practice of hiding amongst Palestinian civilians when launching attacks on Israel).
Mind you, that Hamas targets civilians and Israel doesn’t is likely to be small comfort to the families of those killed or injured. For the victims, each death or injury is a tragedy, regardless of the motives of the killer. But not every tragedy is a crime. Both legally and morally, intent matters. Recognizing the tragedies of both Israeli and Palestinian victims, doesn’t take away from the very different moral (and legal) standing of their Israeli and Palestinian killers.