As the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip nears the end of its second week, two things are clear: first, that it will come to some sort of internationally brokered end; and second, that it will end thus because there is no other end that Israel will countenance. This is not to say that there is no other end Israel wants, but it cannot have what it wants — Hamas will neither be destroyed nor neutered — and so the question of the end is a question of what it may have. For all the vitriol the Jewish state receives every time it attacks those who attack it — be it a Vatican hierarch invoking the Holocaust(!), or the United Nations harrumphing about the sanctity of its property — the ground truth is that Israel lacks the bloody-mindedness to end things as it might, and as its enemies certainly would.
To illustrate this, we must look to the terrible numbers from the field of battle — or rather, the alleyways and gutted apartment blocks wherein Hamas chooses to fight. For all the grief and horror at the deaths of “civilians” in Gaza (and the word must be in quotes, not because there are none, but because apart from the young they are so tremendously difficult to definitively identify), the cold fact is that the IDF has done an admirable job of safeguarding the lives of the Gazan population. If, after nearly two weeks of modern war, only a few hundred out of just under 1.5 million, in a region with an average density of over ten thousand persons per square mile, are dead — and if the number of dead includes combatants — this is nothing short of extraordinary. To state this is not to belittle or dismiss the very real and legitimate horror of the dead, nor the grief that their loved ones endure. A keening mother in Gaza is comforted by the assiduousness of the IDF no more than the grieving mother in Colorado is soothed by America’s historically low casualties in Iraq. In acknowledging the commendably few deaths in Gaza, we must also acknowledge the lonely black pit of loss that renders the death of one indistinguishable from the end of the world.
The careful restraint of Israel at war is not a regrettable thing, except in the realm of amoral power politics: indeed, it is a signal reason we of the non-Jewish, non-Israeli world ought to prefer Israel to its neighbors in sentiment and policy. However much the Muslim population of Israel and Palestine might resent its fate under Jewish rule, it nonetheless enjoys a better existence than Jewish populations under Muslim rule — which is to say, it has a meaningful existence to speak of. Again, this is not to ignore the baleful realities of that existence, which is, after all, rife with petty humiliations ranging from the insensate bureaucracy of movement controls to the banal abuse of fanatic Zionists. Yet if the Xhosa have not exterminated the Afrikaners, nor the Southern blacks the Southern whites, why demand or expect less of the Palestinians? Are they not, to borrow a phrase, men and brothers? Why, then, the peculiar degradation of culture and impulse that compels a relentless violence? The notion, so fondly adhered to by so many, that both sides in this war are moral equals, or at least equally morally degraded, is a fiction that rests upon an invincible ignorance of history.
There are a thousand illustrative anecdotes to call upon, but one suffices: that of the Israeli conquest of Jerusalem’s center in 1967. For the preceding twenty years of Muslim rule, Jews were barred from their holy sites therein, and the majority of the Jewish graves in the millennia-old cemetery on the Mount of Olives were destroyed or paved over. By contrast, when the Israeli infantry drove the Jordanians from the medieval warren of the Old City, the conquering General Uzi Narkiss refused a clerical plea to reclaim the Muslim Dome of the Rock — and Moshe Dayan ordered its administration handed to the Muslim Waqf. To imagine that Israel’s enemies would treat it as well is to indulge in fantasy. We have little data on the fate of Jews and Jewish sites in Muslim hands after 1967, but what have seen — notably in the 2000 ransacking of Joseph’s Tomb — justifies no hope.
If we prefer Israel, then, it falls to us to ensure that its deficiencies in the amoral realm of power politics are not fatal. The long-term survival of the Jewish state is a factor neither of righteousness nor morality, except inasmuch as that survival is righteous or moral. We may forgive Israelis for believing this, but we ourselves need not. Rather, it befits Americans to enable Israel to survive and flourish without subsuming its behavior to those imperatives. Precisely because we do not wish for Israel to conclude, as it rationally might, that its survival depends upon the end of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim habitation of old Palestine, we should conduct our policy now with an eye toward precluding that conclusion.
This is easier said than done, and it may not be do-able at all, but it has the virtue of being the moral course. We can do our best to make the coming ersatz peace something more than it will be; we can foster economic development for the great masses of idle Palestinian labor; we can cooperate in the strangling of fanatic movements like Hamas; and we can demand more of Palestine than it demands of itself.
The ultimate success of these efforts, though, is out of our hands. In the end, the Palestinian polity is the creation of Palestinians. This is simultaneously as it should be, and the most dreadful portent for the future. Yielding the great dream — of the end of Zionism, of the destruction of the Jews, of the ravaging of their holy places — makes sense only in the definitive demonstration of its unattainability. The enemies of Israel are unpersuaded, having seen the Zionist state yield mile upon mile in the past decade, having seen Israel lose a war in Lebanon, having compared the raw facts of demographics, and having seen the world weary of this Jewish statelet and its inconvenient struggles. They rightly believe they will be a majority in time. They rightly believe their material weakness is not perpetual. They rightly believe that Israel wants to stop playing this game: and so they play to win it.