A rabbi’s perspective on conflict in Gaza


By Rabbi Henry Jay Karp

Once again violence has broken out in the Middle East and once again there are those who are all too quick to point the accusing finger at Israel as provocateur and bully.  Sadly, the media only began its serious coverage of the current hostilities with the recent Israeli air strikes against Hamas installations in Gaza and has sorely neglected covering the preceding massive rocket and mortar attacks that Hamas directed, and continues to direct, against civilian population centers in southern Israel; attacks which ultimately left the Israeli government with little or no alternative but to take their current actions.

Since 2001, over 4,000 rockets and mortar shells, launched from Gaza, have rained down upon these communities.  The vast majority of those attacks have taken place since Israel conducted its complete withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005. 

For the last six months, contrary to a popular misconception, there has been no formal cease fire between Hamas and Israel but rather an informal lull.  During that time, Hamas still launched 215 rockets against Israel.  Then, on Dec. 21, Hamas — and not Israel — unilaterally announced an end to that lull. Since that time, and before the Israeli air strikes, Hamas launched well over 140 missile and mortar attacks targeting Israeli civilians. Also, prior to Israel’s counter attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued an appeal to the Gaza Palestinians urging them to stop all rocket attacks. With that appeal came a warning that a failure to do so would result in a Israeli military response. This appeal was ignored as the attacks continued.

A decent government’s primary responsibility should be to protect the lives and well being of its citizens. As Americans, it would be nothing less than intolerable if our government sat passively by, allowing missiles to fall upon the homes, schools, and workplaces of our countrymen. We clearly would expect our government to respond promptly and forcefully.  Should not Israeli citizens expect equal protection from their government?  It would be one thing had the Israelis not attempted over and over again to sit down with the Palestinian people and resolve their differences peacefully, but they have done so and they are still willing to do so. Indeed, Israel has made it abundantly clear that it is most certainly open to a two-state solution to their conflict with the Palestinians and that they far prefer a peaceful resolution rather than a military one. Yet in the face of continual terrorist attacks, Israel’s hand has once again been forced to take up the military option.


Once again there is a great deal of concern expressed about civilian casualties. Such concerns are legitimate. Indeed, Israel shares them. Israel has made, and continues to make every effort, short of complete military restraint, to limit as much as possible the death and injury inflicted upon civilians. The Israelis’ targets have been Hamas military and administrative ones. The Israelis have issued repeated advance warnings to civilians to distance themselves from such targets. To this end, the Israelis have been largely successful with the overwhelming majority of Palestinian fatalities being Hamas operatives. 

Yet it is a painful and tragic fact of war that civilians may be injured or killed along with combatants. This possibility is all the more likely because Hamas insists upon conducting is military activities from within civilian population areas, using their very own people as human shields. In the face of such barbaric practices, only the greatest of cynics would attempt to attribute the responsibility for civilian casualties to someone other than Hamas itself.

Once again Israel has been accused of using disproportionate force in its response to the Hamas attacks. Those who make such claims point to the dramatic differences in casualty figures.  However, two years ago Alan Dershowitz correctly pointed out that  “Proportion must be defined by reference to the threat proposed by an enemy and not by the harm it has produced.” 

Waiting for a Hamas rocket to fall on an Israeli school, he notes, would put Israel in the position of allowing “its enemies to play Russian Roulette with its children.” If we were talking about the safety of American school children, would there be any question as to how we would respond? The weapons supplied to Hamas by Iran have been increasing in potency and range. On Dec. 28, Hamas conducted its first rocket attack against the coastal city of Ashkelon. 

With such increased range, the number of Israelis under threat from Hamas missiles has grown from 200,000 to half a million. Left unchecked, that number will only grow. It would be grossly irresponsible of any government, Israel included, to allow such attacks to continue until such a time that their severity “justifies” in the minds of some the severity of Israel’s counter measures.

Yet it is never too late for peace to prevail. I pray, as do so many others, that the people on both sides will quickly come to realize that neither Palestinian independence nor Israeli security can ever be fully attained through bloodshed and force of arms. 

Only when the rockets and mortar shells stop flying and the bombs stop dropping, and reasonable people are willing to sit together, in a spirit of good will, to negotiate their differences, recognizing that each side must make concessions, for an “all-or-nothing” attitude will avail them naught, only then will they be able to fashion a mutually acceptable and enduring peace.  I believe that the time can and will arrive when Palestinians and Israelis will embrace each other as neighbors and kindred.I heartily pray that time may come soon.

(Rabbi Henry Jay Karp leads the congregation at Temple Emanuel in Davenport.)

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