Amherst College is a small community, so I am sure that many of my fellow classmates already know that I left Amherst to join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). I am sharing my experiences with you from this past week to illustrate two things to the Amherst community: why I took a leave of absence to serve in the Israeli Army and why Israel deserves an apology from her many critics on and off of our campus.
I have spent the last three days in Netivot, a small city of 30,000 people located less than 12 kilometers away from the Gaza Strip. I was volunteering there with a small non-profit. We were operating day care centers, teaching children in bomb-shelter-turned-classrooms and trying to restore a sense of normality to the children’s lives. For the over one million Israelis living within 40 kilometers of Gaza (the typical range of Hamas’s Qassam and Grad rockets), their children experienced the Israeli equivalent of a snow day there was no school here for over a week as the blizzard of rockets continued. It was too dangerous to travel to school and too dangerous to congregate under one roof, so the Israeli government spread out children in bomb shelters across southern Israel to minimize the likelihood of mass casualties. The young, old, sick and disabled must remain in these bomb shelters day and night because they cannot run to safety in time. The residents of Netivot have less than 12 seconds between siren and impact.
As I attempted to entertain the frightened children of Netivot, reading stories and playing games, I could hear the deep booms of rockets slamming into nearby cities and towns. Over 1,000 rockets were sent screaming toward Israel in the past week. If the rocket was within five kilometers, we could feel the vibrations of the impacts, watch books fall off of shelves, see windows shiver and sit helplessly wondering who was injured. If the predicted trajectory of the rocket was towards us in Netivot, an air-raid siren would alarm, and the 30,000 residents scrambled towards shelter. When the siren began to howl, the feeling was one of absolute panic. As I sprinted toward safety and grabbed any straggling children nearby, the idea of terror became a reality to me; it dawned on me that there are actually people, just a car-ride away, who are trying to kill me and those around me. On the night of November 20th a rocket leveled a house a block away from my bunker.
However terrorized we may feel in southern Israel, I realize the people of Gaza have it worse. Tragically, the people of Gaza have no shelters to run to and no sirens to warn them when Israel strikes back. Their government (since 2006 controlled by the internationally categorized terrorist group, Hamas) has chosen not to invest in these public safety measures despite waging a continuous war on Israel. This negligence is no accident. Hamas has decidedly tried (and succeeded) to take advantage of Western disdain for civilian casualties, choosing to play off of our sympathy for the pain and suffering of innocents. Hamas’s leaders know that by repeatedly firing rockets towards Israeli civilian areas from their civilian areas, Israel’s response will be one of impossible choices.
Defense and safety are the most fundamental duties of a functioning state. (It is sad that I feel the need to remind my readers of this.) Knowing that any state would eventually be forced to respond, Hamas leaders choose to house their rocket caches, launchers and training facilities within populated areas — all in an effort to maximize their own civilian casualties and thereby earn the sympathy of the international media. This is why whenever a Gazan child dies, he or she is quickly paraded in front of cameras for a photo op. This is why Hamas’s leadership hides in a bunker located underneath Gaza’s largest hospital. Israel will not strike the hospital. (This hospital was modernized by an Israeli relief project in the 1980s and is supplied by Israeli humanitarian aid.) This is why Hamas does not build bunkers for Gaza’s 1.6 million residents. (The bomb shelters that do exist are reserved for Hamas officials and fighters.) This is not because of a lack of finances. According to the Palestine Human Development Report, Palestinians are the largest per capita recipients of international development assistance in the world.
Criticizing Israel for the resulting deaths is not only an unfair and frustrating irony, but it encourages Hamas and makes life worse for Gazans. The U.S. State Department reaffirmed this irony, saying, “Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. Attacking Israel on a near daily basis does nothing to help Palestinians in Gaza or to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self-determination.” The international condemnation of Israel becomes laughable to many of us under fire. We understand that simultaneous to Hamas’s brutal tactics, our military goes through great lengths to avoid the very casualties that Hamas so aggressively seeks. As Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “When we hit civilians, we call it a failure. When they hit civilians, they call it a success.”
While Hamas purposely puts civilians in harm’s way in order win a cheap media campaign, Israel carries out arguably the most humane military response in the history of warfare. While I do wish that more could accomplished on the diplomatic front, Israel’s handling of the barrage of rockets itself is wholly impressive. Complex international politics, a broken peace process and the lack of earnest peace partners in Gaza force the status quo to continue. This is, however, a separate issue. Israel’s military and humanitarian response to the continuous rocket fire is probably unmatched by any nation. Israel has been delivering continuous aid to Gaza even during wartime. Israeli citizens’ tax money helps feed the same people who voted Hamas into power in 2006. Furthermore, Gaza’s electricity comes from Israel — which if Israel chooses to, it could simply shut off. Unlike Hamas, all IDF strikes in Gaza are carried out with surgical precision by laser guided missiles, purposely avoiding civilian casualties. In fact, Israel drops warning pamphlets, makes telephone calls and sends out text messages to all residents near potential targets so that civilians can stay far away before a strike occurs. Moreover, Gazans are transported to Israeli hospitals for advanced medical treatment on Israel’s dime.
However, Israel’s moral upper hand does not stop there. While in Netivot, I witnessed firsthand Israel’s rocket defense system, Iron Dome, at work. Israeli- designed and partly funded by the United States, this program costs an average $50 million for one battery and over $30,000 per missile. This price tag shows our value for human life. It goes without saying that Israelis have access to bomb shelters unlike their Gazan counterparts. All these reasons make it senseless to look at “disproportional death rates.” Hamas wants death for their own citizens as well as Israel’s, while Israel seeks to protect all lives, Gazan or Israeli. While in bomb shelters in the south, it was not only Jews who took refuge alongside me, but also Bedouin Arabs. Caravans of the still semi-nomadic people arrived to hide in our shelters. Not a single person was turned away because of their race or religion. Meanwhile, the rockets fired into Israel have no specific aim. These rockets don’t discriminate between men or women, Jew or Arab, soldier or civilian, children or the elderly. In fact, several of these rockets landed in Israeli-Arab villages, killing one man. Of course, that is a price the fanatics of Hamas are at peace with, given that he is now a “martyr of the cause” whether willing or unwilling.
What is their cause? End the occupation? Israel already pulled out of Gaza seven years ago and has only been rewarded with more terror. The remaining restrictions on the Gaza Strip are only in place to impede the smuggling of weapons. (Gaza is already one of the most heavily armed places on earth per-square mile.) The Hamas Charter proudly pronounces their cause to anyone who is unsure: “Israel…will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors….The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them.” Those on the left who claim to be champions of human rights do not realize the stark contrast between Israel and Gaza or any of our neighbors for that matter. You cannot be openly gay in Gaza. Women there can be arrested for their own rape. How about life for children? I am not sure if there is a worse form of child abuse than using your child as a human shield. Yet, Israel is framed as the human rights abuser. Still, the greatest tragedy in this conflict may be from those on the left, who in their confusion, support a totalitarian ideology that hurts the very people they claim to support.
The best way to support the people of Gaza, and indeed the entire Arab world, is to support Israel in its struggle against Islamic extremism. For Israel is the only viable model of a country with religious tolerance, multiparty democracy, independent judiciary and free press in a diverse, war-torn region. Israel is an imperfect democracy, as all democracies are, but the governing ideology is one of Western, secular liberalism.
I left Netivot the morning of November 21st for a placement interview with the IDF. About six blocks north of where I was, a bomb tore through a city bus, forever changing the lives of 23 innocent passengers. That same day, Israel pushed ahead toward peace, agreeing to a ceasefire. After the ceasefire began, five more rockets hit southern Israel. Israel chose not to respond. Sadly, it looks like the rocket fire will continue until the world demands more from Hamas. Until that time, Israel will continue to need to defend herself.
It is this past week that reaffirmed my decision to leave the comforts of study at Amherst College. I am drafting into the Israeli army to help defend the Jewish people, to defend the democratic and diverse people of Israel, to ensure the phrase “never again” remains true and because defending Israel is not just a Jewish cause, an Israeli cause or Western cause but a humane cause.