Civilians First

By Assaf Sagiv

Only in Israel does concern for the safety of soldiers override the state’s obligation to defend its civilians.

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n 1847, disaster befell a Portuguese Jew by the name of David Pacifico, a trader living in Athens. An anti-Semitic mob stormed his house, looted its contents, and left it wrecked and vandalized. The beleaguered merchant appealed to the Greek authorities, demanding compensation for the considerable financial losses caused by the attack. He was turned down. A British subject by birth, he then turned to Her Majesty’s government, which responded with decisive force. In 1850, a Royal Navy squadron was dispatched to the Aegean Sea, where it seized Greek ships, confiscated property, and even blockaded the port of Piraeus for two months. The blockade was lifted only when the Greek government agreed to pay Pacifico restitution.
These punitive actions caused an international uproar: France and Russia, which along with Britain sponsored the fledgling Greek state, protested vehemently against the blockade. Even London itself was bitterly split over the issue. The House of Lords condemned the sanctions, but the House of Commons reversed the sentence following a lengthy speech delivered by Lord Palmerston, the foreign minister. The renowned statesman appealed to British legislators’ sense of national pride, and justified his country’s intervention on Pacifico’s behalf by recalling an ancient and revered precedent: “As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity when he could say, Civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen], so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong.”
Some one hundred thirty years after this proclamation, the State of Israel proved that such commitments are not solely the privilege of imperial powers like Rome or Britain. Even a small country is sometimes prepared to take far-reaching measures-in more than one sense of the word-to defend its citizens against acts of aggression. On the night of July 3, 1976, an elite Israel Defense Forces (IDF) task force raided Uganda’s Entebbe airport in a daring effort to free ninety-eight Israeli and Jewish hostages held by a group of European and Palestinian terrorists. The rescue mission, which came to be known as “Operation Yonatan” (named after its commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, who gave his life in the raid), was crowned a dizzying success, and is today considered one of Israel’s finest moments. The pride felt by both Israelis and Jews the world over stemmed not only from the extraordinary operational achievement of the IDF, but also from knowing that-in this case at least-the young country had lived up to its promise of coming to the aid of Jews everywhere, even if it meant jeopardizing the lives of its finest soldiers in the process.
But in the three decades that have passed since the Entebbe raid, and particularly in the last few years, Israel’s commitment to defending its citizens from the ceaseless aggression of its enemies has eroded considerably. Certainly the residents of the beleaguered Negev town of Sderot would agree with this statement: Many of them believe that Israel’s political and military leadership has not done all it can to stop, or even substantially reduce, the rocket attacks that have endangered their lives and property for the last six years. Indeed, the rise of an Islamic terrorist regime in the Gaza Strip-and the concomitant deterioration in the living conditions of the Jewish communities nearby-has continued far too long without a serious Israeli response. Sderot’s mayor, Eli Moyal, merely expresses a widely held opinion when he insists that the government knows full well what it must do to deal effectively with the rocket threat, “but it simply doesn’t have the courage.”
At the time of this writing, the Israeli government still has not ordered a comprehensive and systematic action against the Hamas terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, despite near-unanimous agreement that an extensive ground operation there is unavoidable. There are, of course, good reasons to delay such an order; Israel is hardly anxious to open yet another round of bloody clashes with the Palestinians, the results of which will most certainly be extensive civilian casualties, wall-to-wall international condemnation, and a torpedoed political process-however faltering it may already be-with “moderate” Palestinian leaders. But there seems to be another reason no less, and perhaps more, important for the hesitation displayed by Israel’s political and security elite on this issue. In an article published in the Hebrew daily Haaretz in March 2007, commentator Amir Oren described the persistent nightmare that hangs over both government and IDF decision makers: “A campaign in Gaza… will be effective only if it is thorough and protracted,” he wrote. “The price in Israeli casualties threatens to be heavy: According to one of the unofficial estimates-fifty to eighty dead and nine times as many wounded. The majority of the casualties are expected to be from regular infantry divisions, as well as the engineering, armored, and special forces units.” Such a high casualty rate, he continued, will make it difficult for Israeli society-and in turn, its leaders-to maintain the patience and resolve required for a serious campaign against Gaza’s terrorists. “IDF casualties will undermine public support for the campaign, even if the provocation for it is a horrendous terrorist attack,” emphasized Oren.
In the face of such a scenario, the Israeli government’s trepidation is understandable. The loss of a single soldier is a tragedy not only for the bereaved family, but for the entire nation. Nonetheless, a government policy that leaves its civilians at the mercy of the enemy in order to avoid military casualties is not merely a gross strategic error with ruinous longterm consequences. It is also a betrayal of the state’s fundamental duty to its citizens. Sadly, this misguided order of priorities has already taken root in Israeli public discourse, becoming a near-unimpeachable consensus that guides politicians and commanders alike. Thus, we must not avoid an open and honest debate on this sensitive matter, nor refrain from pointing out some of its problematic ramifications.


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