It’s hard to figure out why Hamas would launch a missile attack against Israel. They can’t possibly win. Their missiles are useless, and seldom hit anything before the Israelis blow them up. If they wanted to, they could crush Hamas like a bug.
What Hamas does get is good PR. The visuals are golden: fleeing civilians, injured kids, apartment buildings bombed to rubble. So are the lopsided statistics – hundreds of Palestinians dead but zero Israelis. European press coverage has been overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinians. In the Guardian, one commentator called the conflict “as perverse as Mike Tyson punching a toddler.”
There’s another difference between the two sides. Israel doesn’t want to shed civilian blood. Hamas needs it – especially from its own civilians. That’s one reason why it puts rocket launchers and ammunition dumps in mosques and homes in crowded neighbourhoods. That’s why it told people not to leave northern Gaza this weekend after Israel warned it was going to bomb.
Even Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has called out Hamas. “We are the losing side, and every minute there are more and more unnecessary deaths,” Mr. Abbas said in an interview on Lebanese television. “I don’t like trading in Palestinian blood.” (In response, Hamas called him a criminal.)
Israel tries to minimize civilian deaths by warning people in advance of a strike, either with a telephone call or a harmless missile (known as a “knock on the roof”). These tactics don’t always work. A few days ago, the IDF mistakenly bombed a home for the disabled, whose residents were unable to flee despite the warning. Advance warnings also fail because instead of running away from the scene, some people rush to it. They hope their presence might deter an attack. Either it works or they become martyrs.
Earlier this month, the IDF targeted a compound in Khan Younis that was allegedly a headquarters for leading Hamas bad guys. They made a phone call warning noncombatants to get out. They also sent a knock-knock missile. But instead of leaving, people rushed in and headed to the roof to form a human shield. Eight noncombatants died, including several children. The IDF called it a “tragic mistake,” noting that by the time the people were spotted on the roof, the missile was already in the air.
Hamas openly encourages civilians to act as human shields. Here’s what Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri had to say recently on Al-Aqsa TV (via the Middle East Media Research Institute): “This attests to the character of our noble, jihad-fighting people, who defend their rights and their homes with their bare chests and their blood … We in Hamas call upon our people to adopt this policy in order to protect the Palestinian homes.”
The willingness to sacrifice Palestinian children has served Hamas well. Rights groups have condemned the advanced-warning efforts as just another version of collective punishment. “There is no way that firing a missile at a civilian home can constitute an effective ‘warning,’ ” said Amnesty International’s Philip Luther. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay says there is “serious doubt” that Israel is complying with international human-rights law.
In the greater bloodbath that has engulfed the Middle East, this doesn’t add up to much. It will probably be over soon, and things will quiet down until next time. And there will be a next time – the younger generation of Israelis isn’t all that interested in peace. Nor are the kids on the other side. As one boy said on Palestinian TV, “We love the resistance. We want to die as martyrs. Long live the martyrs.”