Bernie Sanders and the Israel Blame Game

Blunders on Israel abound in the Bernie Sanders camp. On April 14, Sanders suspended his new national Jewish outreach communicator, Ms. Simone Zimmerman, after just two days on the job. Her sacking followed discovery of her calling Benjamin Netanyahu “an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative a[**]hole,” accusing him of “sanctioning the murder of over 2,000 people,” and presiding over a “brutal military occupation” of the West Bank (a canard I debunk here). In an April 1 interview with the NY Daily News, Mr. Sanders stated that Israel killed over 10,000 Gazans in the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas. He later walked that number back to 2,100.

The most disturbing things about these blunders is not that Mr. Sanders got the numbers wrong, or that he does not exercise sound judgment in hiring staff. One shouldn’t dismiss these two incidences as momentary lapses of reason. Rather, these events symbolize the false view of Israel’s moral culpability in Gaza, and role in contributing to “war and conflict” in the Middle East more broadly. Simply put, Sanders harbors some preconceived ideas about Israel that are factually incorrect.

Israel Did Not Act “Disproportionately” in the 2014 Gaza War

Sanders stated in the NY Daily News interview, and later in the April 14 Democratic debate, that Israel acted “disproportionately” in fighting Hamas in 2014. Sanders’ statement whitewashes the degree to which Hamas put Palestinian civilian lives in danger as human shields, and Israeli civilian lives in danger as targets of rockets, and tunnels used to kidnap and kill. (Israel’s army thwarted a massive tunnel attack involving sending 200 Hamas terrorists into six Israeli communities on Rosh Hashanah in September 2014). It was Hamas, not Israel, that acted disproportionately in the war. Sanders’ commentary also does not reflect that Israel was fighting a defensive war.

Hamas’ use of human shields. While stating that “my understanding is that a whole lot of apartments were leveled” and that “hospitals, I think, were bombed,” Sanders did not mention that Hamas is on record admitting that it used hospitals, homes, and schools as human shields in the 2014 war. In fact, Shifra Hospital was a “de facto headquarters for Hamas leaders,” according to the Washington Post. Hamas stored rockets in United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) schools at least three times. While these schools were allegedly abandoned at the time, UNRWA returned the rockets to Hamas after they were discovered. So given that Hamas was using civilian areas to stockpile weapons, fire missiles, and tunnel into Israel, what does Sanders envision as a “proportionate” response?

Hamas’ “Urban Warfare” manual highlights how much of a strategic asset Hamas viewed Palestinian civilian casualties. “The destruction of civilian homes,” it read, would result in “increas[ing] the hatred of the citizens towards the attackers [the IDF]” and “gathering [support] around the city defenders (resistance forces[i.e. Hamas]).” In Hamas’ twisted logic, goading the IDF to fire into civilian areas strengthened Hamas’ fight against Israel.

Civilian casualties. Civilian casualties should come as no surprise, given Hamas’ tactics within densely populated, urban Gaza. A  Washington Institute for Near East Policy analysis claimed 2,016 total Gazan fatalities in the 2014 war. Of those, the analysis cited that the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (which withdrew its initial inflated civilian death claims of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002), claimed that 83% of fatalities were civilian. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) claimed 72% civilian casualties. These figures too might seem suspect given that over 90% of UNRWA staff are Palestinians, and UNRWA staff have both supported and sympathized with Hamas. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimated civilian casualties at slightly less than 50%, and the Israeli left wing NGO B’Tselem interestingly undercut the IDF estimate, putting civilian casualties at around 40%.

Precautions taken by Israel. Sanders’ double standard, armchair quarterback comment that Israel acted “disproportionately” also serves as a nonsensical slander omitting the great lengths Israel’s military took to save lives. Israel warned civilians of an impending attack via leaflets, phone calls, radio, and TV broadcasts.  As one legal scholar argues, any semblance of Israel’s “disproportionate” use of force is in fact a justified response to Hamas’ “perfidy,” i.e. “specific and egregious violation[s] of the law of war involving, in this particular case, deceptions that knowingly endanger noncombatant populations.” Notwithstanding Israel's groundbreaking policies to preserve civilian life by using extraordinary means to avoid civilian casualties and warn (in many different ways) of impending strikes, Sanders’ misrepresentation of facts make Israel appear to be operating even below international standards.

Israel is Not the Epicenter of War in the Middle East

In an April interview with CNN, Sanders stated “I would hope that every person in this country wants to see the misery of never-ending war and conflict ending in the Middle East.” Sanders’ position reflects an-oft peddled false assumption that Israel and the disputed territories are the epicenter of war in the Middle East. Fix the Arab-Israeli conflict, the argument goes, and Middle East peace will follow.

Casualties in the Arab/Israeli, Israeli/Palestinian conflicts. Cursory estimates of the total casualties (killed and wounded) of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict (1920 to present) range from approximately 116,000 to 231,000 over 96 years, averaging 2,400 per year. This figure includes Arabs of many stripes (not just Palestinians, but Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, and others), as well as Jews/Israelis killed by terrorism and by fighting terrorism and defensive wars. The total number of casualties from the recent Israeli-Palestinian wars specifically (1987 to present), comprising the Intifadas (1987-1993, 2000-2005) and the 2008-9, 2012, and 2014 wars in Gaza, amount to about 46,000 casualties in 29 years.  

Casualties in other Middle East conflicts. An awful lot of ink has been spilt over the broader Arab-Israeli conflict and recent Israel-Palestinian wars specifically, relative to far bloodier conflicts in the region. Several other Middle East conflicts having nothing to do with Israel have produced many more casualties in either absolute numbers, per-year, or both (some of the items below list deaths, not casualties):

  • 1948: Alwaziri Coup (Yemen): 5,000 deaths
  • 1962-1970: North Yemen Civil War: 100,000-200,000 casualties
  • 1978-present: Kurdish-Turkey conflict: 30,000-100,000 casualties
  • 1980-1988: Iran-Iraq war: 1.0 to 1.3 million casualties
  • 1982: Hama Massacre (Syria): 40,000 to 50,000 casualties
  • 1986: South Yemen Civil War: 5,000 to 12,000 casualties
  • 1986-1989: Al-Anfal Campaign (Iraq/Kurds): 150,000-350,000 deaths
  • 1990-1991: Gulf War (Iraq): 40,000-57,000 casualties
  • 1991: Uprisings in Iraq (by the Shia and Kurds): 50,000 to 100,000 casualties
  • 1994: Yemeni Civil War: 7,000 to 10,000 casualties
  • 2003 to 2011: Iraq War: 109,000 to 650,000 casualties
  • 2011 to present: Syrian Civil War: 250,000 to over 470,000 casualties
  • 2014 (1st eight months): The Islamic State’s campaign in Iraq: 25,000  casualties
  • 2015 (June): The Islamic State’s campaign in Iraq: 4,500 casualties
  • 2015 to present: Yemeni Civil War: 6,500 deaths

A tally by Daniel Pipes placed the Arab-Israeli conflict (from 1950 to 2007) as the forty-ninth most fatal conflict in the world post-1950 (as of 2007).

Sanders has advocated that the United States take a “more balanced” approach to the Middle East. So for a truly “balanced” approach to the “never-ending war and conflict in the Middle East,” Sanders should focus less on Israel, and more on Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, the Islamic State, and Kurdistan. Try as it may to defend itself and its right to exist, Israel simply can’t keep up with the carnage of other conflicts in the region.


Given Sanders’ disproportionate views on Israel, his Middle East policies if elected president would likely be quite unbalanced. Similar warped views of the centrality and culpability of Israel as the source of Middle East wars permeates the United Nations. The U.N. Security Council may vote on April 22 on a resolution that would impose Israeli concessions to the Israel-Palestinian conflict in direct contravention of the Oslo accords. To quench its obsession with the Middle East, perhaps the United Nations (and Sanders) can instead turn to more pressing issues, like durable peace treaties for the failed states of Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya; freedom for Kurdistan; Iran’s growing regional hegemony, ballistic missile threat, and insuring that it in fact doesn’t get a nuclear bomb; and the Islamic State. That would be a more balanced approach.