So Hamas and Israel both wanted war and each got their wish. The war was no surprise when it came and the outcomes are predictable as well. Israel will use its overwhelming military superiority to smash enemy infrastructure while also killing many civilians, which will allow Hamas, broken but not destroyed, to claim moral and political victory. The international community will broker another truce, the band-aid of humanitarian aid will be restored, rocket attacks on Israel will diminish for awhile, and the occupation policies that have turned the West Bank and Gaza into prisons will continue. A rejuvenated IDF will claim that it did indeed, as the Defense Minister promised, restore “peace and tranquility,” a phrase notable for not including the word “justice.” Then the rocket attacks or suicide attacks will resume, Israel will again be given the worthless admonition that it should allow itself only a proportionate response–which, technically, would be firing rockets at civilians–and so it goes. It is tempting to simply say, “a pox on both your houses.” But then there is this:
A child’s arm protrudes from the rubble of a building destroyed by an air strike. This is one death among many–500+ civilians and counting–including perhaps the woman whose half sandal also is in the picture. It is one picture among many, and one of of the least dramatic, but I can find no other that so eloquently communicates the crushing sorrow of war’s devastation. The mass of concrete crushing the child also completely crushes any hope. This is not a scene of rescuers digging frantically in a race against time. Instead, the several adults simply stand there, helpless. It’s as if they are granting the child a last moment of dignity before they have to tear the broken body out of one grave only to return it to another.
This is why we shouldn’t turn away or throw up our hands in disgust. Each death is a separate tragedy, not merely another datum to be aggregated into the geopolitical assessment. But it is not enough to mourn the individual loss of life if that does not also include a commitment to facing the deep causes of this war and the other wars now underway–most of them killing far more people than will die in Gaza. Precisely because each death is so wasteful, unnecessary, and immoral, it should be counted in another sense: as a measure of collective political failure.
Let me put it this way. What if God counts? (I realize that belief in God is rather difficult these days, but let’s at least consider the idea a useful fiction.) What if, that is, God judges not so much by weighing reasons but simply by how many are harmed? It makes sense, if you think about it. God (for example, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, just to name a few religions) is supposed to see through our social identities, our many rankings and all the aggrievements they involve. God calls on us to transcend social ascription and avoid false pieties and idolatries, all on behalf of living in justice and compassion with one another. Nor has divine judgment ever given points for wealth or firepower, or for sacrificing children for one’s cause. The more I think about it, the more clear it seems: God would put great weight on how many were harmed, and what was done on all sides to prevent harm, while being much less concerned about who had the better rationale on any particular day.
Think about it: not what you intended, and not whether you were right, but simply how much damage you caused. Relentlessly counting while turning a deaf ear to our many arguments, no wonder God’s judgment is said to be so terrible.
In the short run, it would seem that God’s judgment should fall on Israel: a handful of deaths on one side and hundreds on the other, not to mention the continuing toll taken by the occupation. But that may be too simple. Surely God also follows the money, which goes back to the U.S. on one side and sources throughout the Arab world on the other side. And this is a small war by comparison with the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and even more so compared to the wars raging across central Africa. Again, war is a collective failure, and ultimately the judgment rests on us all.
Photograph by Mohammed Abed/AFP-Getty Images.