Staying Strong in Israel’s War against Hamas

This is a speech that I delivered at the Silicon Valley Solidarity Gathering for Israel on July 22, 2014.

The Jewish State of Israel distinguishes itself among the family of nations to the extent that it is governed by middot, the positive attributes of our Jewish tradition.  When we make decisions, as individuals and as a nation, that embody the values of our ancient faith, we bring light into the world.  Unfortunately, the world is not always ready to be enlightened.

In Pirkei Avot, we read Eizehu gibbor?  Hakovesh its yitzro.  Who is strong?  One who conquers one’s inclinations.  Usually, we use this teaching to emphasize that true strength is not about physical might, but rather the ability to control our passions.  While Israel has indeed demonstrated its physical prowess in the present war, we are strong in the fullest sense when we remain focused on our goals while maintaining our values.

When we see how our brave soldiers have comported themselves these last three weeks, we can only be proud of their strength, both in their success on the battlefield, and in maintaing their humanity while pursuing the military goals.

What are those goals?  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated it clearly in an interview this past Saturday night: “…restoring quiet to Israel’s citizens for a prolonged period while inflicting a significant blow on the infrastructures of Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza,”

Specifically, that means eliminating the thousands of rockets and other weapons and destroying the network of tunnels that Hamas uses to transport arms and personnel.

But there is an ethical principle at play as well: to minimize civilian casualties – on both sides of the border.

While voices around the world shout about the massacre of innocent civilians, pointing to the discrepancy between Israeli and Palestinian deaths like a scorecard at a sports game, the truth is quite the opposite.  In every war, sadly, civilians are killed.  Did you know that, because of the IDF’s preoccupation with protecting innocents for decades, the ratio of civilians to militants killed has been lower by far than in any other conflict around the world.

How does Israel protect civilians?  On the Israeli side of the border: by building reinforced bomb shelters, by operating an incredibly sophisticated early warning system so that Israelis have time to find cover before the rockets fall, and by developing, with the United States, the Iron Dome, which has prevented most rockets from landing in populated areas with a remarkable 90% success rate.

Because every life is treasured as an olam kattan, a small world, we are committed to doing absolutely everything to keeping our people safe.  We see this in the outpouring of heartfelt emotion and loss whenever there is a death or injury.

But what is truly remarkable is the way that Israel has gone out of its way, at the expense of military success, to protect the people of Gaza.  The IDF calls cell phones and drops leaflets to warn civilians in advance before destroying a target.  Then it launches a small projectile to “knock” the roof of a building as a warning to get out before the real missile is launched.  Did you know that Israel has been providing Gaza with humanitarian supplies while the fighting is taking place, and that the IDF has set up a field hospital on the border to care for wounded Palestinians?

These life-saving acts are unique to the IDF.  No military force in history has gone to such measures to protect the civilians of its military opponent.

Let us not be so condescending as to expect the other side to be grateful.  After all, there have been more than 600 Palestinian deaths in the last few weeks, many of whom are innocent civilians.  I would expect them to blame Israel.  How could they not?

But who is really responsible for the suffering in Gaza?

Hamas deliberately places its rocket launchers and weapons in locations like schools, hospitals, private homes, mosques, and even UN facilities.  When Israel tells civilians to flee so they will not be harmed, Hamas orders them to stay, to serve as human shields.

So far in this war, there have been two calls for temporary cease-fires for humanitarian purposes.  Israel accepted both of them right away and stopped fighting.  Hamas used those temporary lulls to immediately launch more than 70 rockets against Israeli civilians.

Hamas has used many tons of concrete that Israel has allowed into the Gaza Strip not for the construction of buildings and infrastructure that will improve lives, but for underground tunnels to carry on its relentless pursuit of death.  Hamas commanders are now using those tunnels to hide, safe from attack.  But are the underground bunkers made available to civilians?  No.  They are left above ground to fend for themselves.

What does Hamas want?  Death.  The death of Israeli civilians, and the death of Palestinian civilians.  Because they know how those images are perceived around the world.

In 1969, Golda Meir said, “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”  What a perverse reality!

This is not a war that any of us want.  But while it continues, we pray for the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel’s Defense Forces.  We pray for the millions of Israelis living under the constant fear of terror from above.  And we pray for all those who suffer in Gaza.  We mourn the deaths of the young soldiers who have been killed defending the Jewish people.  We mourn for the civilians, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Muslim, who have died.  Our hearts go out to their families.

And we pray for both kinds of strength for Israel’s leaders, its soldiers, its people, and Jews everywhere: the strength to be victorious, and the strength to maintain our humanity in the face of chaos.

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