At 2am on Tuesday, the IDF carried out simultaneous strikes in Gaza targeting senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders, killing all three intended targets. The operation—named Shield and Arrow—came one week after PIJ had fired over 100 rockets at Israel in response to the death of a jailed PIJ leader following his hunger strike. Also killed during the initial stage of the Israeli operation were ten other Palestinians, including four women and four children. As of this writing, Israelis living in southern Israel are headed to bomb shelters and Palestinians in Gaza are gearing up for more airstrikes, with both sides all too familiar with the usual routine of a few days of Israeli missiles, PIJ (and perhaps Hamas) rockets, casualties and property damage, and then a ceasefire brokered by some combination of the U.S., Egypt, and the U.N.
Also all too familiar are the communications efforts coming from both sides and their supporters in the bid to win the battle of public opinion and generate sympathy. For Israelis, the key facts are that PIJ is a terrorist group—designated as such not only by Israel but by the U.S.—purposely operating among civilians, supported and in some measure controlled by Iran, and that Israel has every right to defend itself from terrorism at the place and time of its choosing. PIJ has not only recently shot rockets at Israel, but has orchestrated attacks on Israelis originating from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and unlike Hamas, does not factor in variables such as needing to maintain governance and stability in Gaza and is thus not responsive to Israeli carrots. The inevitable deaths of civilians when Israel goes after terrorist leaders in Gaza is tragic, but for Israel the focus should be on how much care Israel takes to carry out precise, surgical strikes that limit the collateral damage as much as possible in one of the most population-dense places on Earth. Going after PIJ chiefs who are actively engaged in planning and executing attacks on Israelis is entirely justified.
For Palestinians, the key facts are that Palestinian civilians are now dead, and that more Palestinian civilian deaths at the hands of the IDF are almost certain if the fighting lasts beyond a day. The IDF attacked apartment buildings in the middle of the night when families were guaranteed to be there, and it did so after agreeing to a ceasefire with PIJ one week earlier and despite the fact that no Israelis were killed by PIJ rockets during the most recent volley. Israel and Egypt control movement in and out of Gaza and most Palestinians are stuck there whether they like it or not, living at the whims not only of an Israeli government that is neither concerned for nor accountable to them but at the whims of armed terrorist groups that they have no mechanism for dislodging. For Palestinians, the focus should be on the fact that Israel routinely kills Palestinian civilians in order to establish what it refers to as deterrence, irrespective of the fact that Israelis are largely safe from rudimentary rocket fire coming from Gaza due to superior technology and infrastructure.
There are all sorts of interesting analyses I could now do here, from breaking down the way in which Israel counts on the presence of a more moderate group and a more extremist group in both the West Bank and Gaza in order to keep the more moderate group (in this case and as absurdly as it may sound, Hamas) out of the fighting, to the possible political calculations motivating the scope and timing of the Israeli operation in light of the squabbling between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his recalcitrant National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. There is also a wider angle to this in light of Hamas’ interests in broadening its base of support among other regional actors, and Israel’s timing coming after a relatively quiet Ramadan but ahead of the potential flashpoint around Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) next week.
But I will leave all of those for another time, in favor of a plea for everyone to rethink their approach to the latest Gaza escalation. Both sides here are right. PIJ is a terrorist group, and the three men who the IDF killed spent their waking hours figuring out how to kill Israelis. PIJ is not an anti-occupation group; it is not seeking a Palestinian state on 1967 lines or any accommodation with Israel, and it is not willing to come to tacit understandings that would allow it to maintain its ideological foundation while shifting its behavior. Its leaders are not standard criminals, and there is no way to arrest them. And despite all of that, if people who defend Israel’s operation in Gaza cannot acknowledge that these men’s wives and kids were killed along with them and take a moment to contemplate the human toll and how that lands among Palestinians, it speaks volumes and will not convince anyone of the justness of Israel’s actions who is not already convinced.
The death toll among Palestinian civilians in Gaza in Israeli operations dating back to 2008 is tragically high. Innocent Palestinians have been killed in their beds, walking on the beach, and playing in the streets. The presence of one wanted Hamas or PIJ operative can be enough to reduce an entire building to rubble and leave hundreds of people homeless. There is no escape and nowhere to run, not outside of Gaza since the overwhelming majority of Palestinians have no way of leaving and not inside Gaza since there is no adequate infrastructure for ordinary Palestinians where they can shield themselves from Israeli strikes. It confounds notions of justified self-defense to routinely bomb Gaza and turn a blind eye to the cost in Palestinian lives and livelihood when Israel has found ways to reduce its casualties from rockets to close to zero. And despite all of that, if people who rail against the injustice and inhumanity of the IDF killing Palestinian civilians in Gaza cannot acknowledge that three PIJ leaders who were taken out oversaw an entire terrorist infrastructure in Gaza that seeks to kill Israelis wherever they are without acknowledging their right to a state or even their basic humanity, it speaks volumes and will not convince anyone of the need for justice for defenseless Palestinians who is not already convinced.
Rather than hearing about terrorists purposely hiding among civilians, Palestinians having to live with the consequences of voting for Hamas, or knocks on the roof, and rather than hearing about indiscriminate Israeli firepower, Gaza as an open-air prison, or the gaping disparity in casualty numbers between the two sides, it would be a step forward to hear some measure of empathy—and even self-doubt—from each of the two camps. Maybe it won’t change anything on the ground, but it would be a small sign that everyone is seeking a better solution. Maybe Israelis focusing on the dead civilians rather than the dead terrorists, and Palestinians focusing on the fact that Gaza has become the headquarters for planning terrorism against Israelis beyond the narrower issue of rockets, will in some way turn what has become a predictable yet terrible routine into a larger effort among both societies to focus on stopping the routine rather than focus on winning the aftermath.