As we hear the accounts of the latest flare-up in the Israel-Palestinian conflicts, I feel it is important to remind folks that, when dealing with that particular situation, certain words have different meanings than we are traditionally used to assigning them.
For example, “civilians.” To most people, this means folks who are not part of a military and not part of a particular conflict. However, this word has some different connotations in this context.
Israel has pretty much universal conscription. This means that nearly every Israeli has to serve in the military. Therefore, all Israelis of any age or sex is a combatant — either past, present, or future. There are no Israeli “civilians,” so therefore they are all targets.
Palestine is not a recognized state. It has no official military. Therefore, all Palestinians are civilians. Even — and especially — those who carry automatic weapons, fire rockets, and set bombs.
Thus, in any conflict, the “civilian” casualties on the Palestinian side will be considerably higher than on the Israeli side.
Next, remember that the Palestinians are never responsible for their actions, but the Israelis are always responsible for theirs. This explains why the Palestinians can fire rockets for months and months, terrorizing Israelis (and, occasionally, maiming or killing some), and it’s regarded as little more than a nuisance by the rest of the world. But should Israel ever hit back, that is a “threat to the peace process” and “destabilizing” and “provocative” and a host of other such terms.
Then, remember that the rules of the Geneva Convention only apply to the Israelis. More than that, they are responsible for any and all violations on both sides.
One of the tenets of the Geneva Convention that protects civilians is the rule that the military must make efforts to separate and distinguish itself from civilians. They must wear distinctive uniforms and operate well away from civilians. In fact, should any nearby civilians be injured or killed in combat, the responsibility lies upon the party that put itself near them, not the party that actually pulls the trigger.
But when it comes to the Palestinians, they cheerfully surround themselves with willing human shields. They’ve fired their rockets from all sorts of places, most noticeably a school in session, in hopes that the Israelis will either not fire back or fire back and kill civilians — it’s a win-win for them either way.
Israel has gone to great lengths to minimize “collateral damage” — that military euphemism for killing people and blowing up things that you don’t intend to while you try to kill and blow up those people and things that need killing and blowing up. For example, they’ve reduced the size of warheads in their Hellfire missiles so they can blow up a car (and shred its occupants, often resulting in a ghoulish display that Little Green Footballs calls a “car swarm”) while putting nearby people at minimal risk.
The core of this, I think, is the “moral equivalence” fallacy. There is a tendency to not want to render a judgment on either side, so as not to be seen as “taking sides.” That is reinforced by the disparity in military capability and resources of the two sides: since Israel is more powerful than the Palestinians, by several orders of magnitude, they are held to a higher standard. That is reinforced by the raw numbers whenever the fighting flares up: considerably more Palestinians are killed than Israelis.
That’s not because the Israelis are that much more bloodthirsty than the Palestinians. It’s because the Israelis are that much more competent.
There’s an old aphorism that needs repeating as often as possible, as it sums up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so perfectly:
If the Palestinians were to lay down their weapons, there would be no more conflict. If the Israelis were to lay down their weapons, there would be no more Israel.
Keep that thought in mind when you read or hear about the current fighting. And don’t for an instant succumb to the “moral equivalence” canard.