France Speaks the Truth about Hamas and Israel

Israel is not yet the land of croissants, camembert, and châteauneuf du pape.  Nevertheless, the strongest, unequivocal support it has received in the current fighting with Hamas has come from French President François Hollande.  That unequivocal support may help influence and correct the many Western advocates of moral equivalence, those blaming Israel and the terrorist group Hamas equally for the outbreak and the continuing violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Even accepting the premise of legitimate differences of opinion about the conflict and responsibility for the outbreak, this does not entail a moral calculus of equivalence of blame between the contending parties.  Political commentary on the present hostilities and policy-making should be based on real events, behavior, and objectives.

It is undeniable that Hamas for at least a decade has been relentless in its aggression against the State of Israel, even after total Israeli withdrawal of its troops from the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of all Israeli settlements there in August 2005.

There is no secret about Hamas’s real objectives.  Even those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause may now be aware of the songs being sung on the Hamas TV station: “Fire your rockets, make them explode…victory is from Allah…O Martyrdom seeker, O blaze, hurry, blow up Tel Aviv.”  Hamas has given fair warning to Israeli citizens: “wait for suicide attacks on every bus, café, and street…start counting the number of coffins you’ll need.”

The key disquieting factor in the present situation is the increase in the capacity, as well as the determination, of Hamas with its 16,000 rockets to inflict harm on Israel.  The rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza have become more accurate and more deadly in their increased range and can strike deep in Israeli population centers.  The rockets made in Gaza have a range of only about 12 miles; they were able to reach the towns of Sderot and Ashkelon.  The newer rockets that Hamas has obtained from Syria (M-302s) have a range of more than 90 miles; those received from Iran (FAJR-5s) have a range of 45 miles.  Life in central and southern Israel has been disrupted, as schools have been closed and people are obliged to stay in their homes.

The dilemma for Israel is how to respond to the threat of these rockets that can reach the areas in the country in which about two thirds of the population, about five million, live.  The strong Israeli response has focused on eliminating the rocket-launching sites, military facilities in general, Hamas militants, and the underground tunnels on the Egyptian border that have been used to smuggle arms.

Israel has retaliated by an intensive aerial assault against the targets in Gaza as well as by using the Iron Dome missile defense system that intercepts projectiles aimed at populated areas.  In two days of fighting, Israel has hit 750 sites in response to the 400 rockets launched by Hamas.

A serious public relations problem for Israel is that Gaza civilians as well as terrorists have been killed in the raids.  Israel has attempted to avoid this outcome.  But the reality is that Hamas has deliberately endangered Palestinian civilians.  It has fired rockets from inside houses and in neighborhoods populated with civilians.  Its armed militants often dress as civilians.  Hamas is aware that as a result of the deaths of Gaza civilians, the international environment automatically becomes more critical of Israel.

The Arab world has been reluctant to aid Hamas, or has paid only lip service to it.  President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, who sees Hamas as an accomplice of his enemy the Muslim Brotherhood, has made this plain.  Syria and Iraq have their own problems, as the Arab world is in turmoil.  The Arab League secretary-general, Nabil al Arabi, limited himself to calling for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council “to adopt measures to stop Israeli aggression against the Gaza Strip.”  No doubt the Council will express “deep concern.”  Though President Abbas has accused Israel of genocide, he has not engaged in any action.

Lukewarm expressions of sympathy for Israel have come from the major democratic countries, including the United States.  However, these are usually accompanied by expressions of moral equivalence; the conflict is said to have brought suffering to both Israelis and Palestinians.  The moral equivalence argument is that more than 70 people, including children and civilians, have been killed in the Gaza Strip, while hundreds of rockets have been fired into Israeli territory.

Yet the moral equivalence is never precise.  The call for Hamas and Palestinian militias to put an immediate end to the rocket attacks on Israel is clear.  It is less clear what “obligations under international law” Israel should respect in order to avoid the excessive use of force and to protect civilians in the Gaza Strip.

The U.S., through spokesperson Jen Psaki in a press conference on July 9, 2014, exemplifies the careful equivalence.  Psaki urged both sides to de-escalate tensions and expressed concern for the safety of civilians on both sides.  Israel had the right to defend itself against rocket attacks.  Nevertheless, “we are concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides – the residents of Israel who are forced to live under rocket fire in their homes and the civilians in Gaza.”  Both sides needed to calm the crisis.  Among other things, Psaki, voicing the policy of the Obama administration, said that a wider Israeli military campaign might destabilize political control in the Palestinian Authority.

Though British Prime Minister David Cameron also strongly condemned “the appalling attacks being carried out by Hamas against Israeli civilians,” the most important exception to the morally equivalent position has been President François Hollande.  He had already shown his goodwill in Israel in November 2013, speaking in Hebrew in his airport declaration and saying, “I will always remain a friend of Israel.”  He opposed the movement to boycott Israel goods, even those coming from Israeli settlements.

Hollande has during his presidency taken the lead in a fight against radical Islamist terrorists, and Hamas falls in that category.  He joined the international chorus in calling for the parties to avoid the escalation of violence.  However, he went farther.  On July 9, 2014, in a telephone call to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he issued a strong message of support for Israel, which he said should take all measures to protect its population faced with rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.  France, he said, firmly condemns these aggressions.

France has once again taken the high road and demonstrated the meaning of the symbolic words coming from the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.