Will Hamas emerge stronger?

Today's topic: Israel is killing an awful lot of people in its attempt to bring Hamas under control. Some say that such a show of force is necessary to help Israel regain its aura of strength and its power of deterrence. Others say that the tactics could backfire, radicalize Palestinians and alienate the world while making Hamas stronger. What's the truth? George E. Bisharat and James Phillips debate the violence in the Gaza Strip.

What's Israel trying to prove by killing Palestinians?
Point: George E. Bisharat

James, I expect you would agree that Israel is indeed killing an awful lot of Palestinians -- 670 as of this writing -- and at least 300, including 130 children under the age of 16, were civilians. It has also wounded many more -- at least 2,850 -- and caused untold damage to public and private property. In the first days of the fighting, United Nations officials were only counting women and children as civilians, as if to be a Palestinian man were enough to be marked for death. Yet many of the male victims have surely not been fighters, and doctors and hospital workers in Gaza report that the overwhelming majority of killed and wounded they are seeing are civilians. Israel has also killed many civilian policemen, who in media reports are counted without distinction as "Hamas security forces." These young men, like police officers everywhere, had no combat roles. They were simply trying to serve their communities and support their families in a job-scarce region.

The full truth about the proportion of civilians killed and wounded will probably never be known. The Israeli military continues to bar foreign journalists from the Gaza Strip, ducking an Israeli high court ruling that journalists should be admitted when safety permits. All news emanating from Israel passes through military censorship, and the government is tightly controlling message content in the Gaza campaign as part of a spin effort that was crafted over the last six months. Israeli generals can, therefore, claim whatever they want -- that mosques hold weapons or that their artillery is returning fire to schoolyards -- virtually without challenge. You probably remember, James, that Israel successfully stiff-armed an investigation team endorsed by the U.N. Security Council to examine allegations of a massacre in the Jenin refugee camp in 2002, so it has every reason to believe that it can escape unscathed again.

That Israel is killing, maiming and traumatizing many civilians should come as no surprise because, as in Lebanon in 2006 and the West Bank in 2002, it is deliberately attacking civilian infrastructure. I will suggest why tomorrow, when we discuss Israel's strategic objectives. But for now, suffice it to say that when you attack civilian targets, naturally, you kill and wound lots of civilians. This violates the fundamental international legal principle that states must discriminate between military and nonmilitary targets. Israel's failures to respect this rule, now and in the past, are war crimes. While we are on the topic, so are Hamas' indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians, whether by unguided rockets or other means.

Israel's military has 875 combat aircraft, 3,800 tanks, up to 400 nuclear weapons and a standing army of 133,000 soldiers plus another 380,000 reservists. Hamas has between 15,000 and 20,000 lightly armed fighters in Gaza and no air force, air defenses or tanks. How is Israeli "deterrence" -- which, when you think about it from the perspective of Israel's neighbors, stands for "perpetual intimidation" -- advanced by enacting this absurd mismatch? Who is deterred? Was Israel's ability to pummel an essentially defenseless population ever in doubt?

If Israel's willingness to spill Palestinian blood were in question, such willingness has been demonstrated over and over again. After all, from the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000 until November 2008, Israeli troops killed 2,990 Palestinians in Gaza and another 1,860 in Israel and the West Bank, according to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem. So very little is proved here of Israel's "might" that was not known before. If enhancing "deterrence" were an Israeli objective, bloodying Gaza seems a macabre way to achieve it.

In fact, Israel's serial aggressions against Arab civilian populations have been enabled by its vast military superiority -- something that we Americans have abetted with an average of $3 billion annually to Israel's military since 1973 and by providing it our most advanced military hardware. Our tax dollars help pay for the F-16s fighter jets and attack helicopters now screaming across the Gaza sky, dumping their lethal payloads and terrorizing 1.5 million trapped Palestinians, more than half of whom are children. Sadly, our diplomats, especially under the Bush administration, have regularly run diplomatic interference for Israel at the U.N. and elsewhere, permitting Israel to extend its killing sprees without consequence. They are doing it again.

Some questions we need to ask are: Why do we accept Israel's total military domination of its neighbors as the natural state of affairs? Is restoring Israel's deterrence (or intimidation) really a legitimate goal? Or is there something to be said for a balance of power, which might coax Israel to search its toolbox for something other than a hammer?

Given its overwhelming military advantage, Israel will considerably degrade Hamas' short-term operational capacities -- both military and civilian -- and the longer it stays in Gaza, the more this will be so. Ultimately, however, the invasion and the resulting destruction of Palestinian lives and property will further anger and alienate Palestinians, and others, and strengthen Hamas -- not to mention the emerging handful of organizations in Gaza that are even more irrevocably committed to confrontation with Israel. The French killed an estimated 1 million "natives" during Algeria's struggle for national liberation and only succeeded in delaying the inevitable. For the sake of both Palestinians and Israelis, I dearly wish that Israel could learn to skip the mass killing phase and begin to come to terms with the just aspirations of the Palestinian people -- for equal rights to security, economic opportunity, and freedom.

George E. Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.

Palestinians held hostage -- by Hamas
Counterpoint: James Phillips

The truth is, George, that Israel was forced to take action to defend itself against the growing threat of Hamas' rocket terrorism. Hamas hides among innocent Palestinians while it attempts to massacre Israeli civilians, so the Israeli army was compelled to take action in the Gaza Strip that unfortunately has resulted in civilian deaths. But who is responsible for the outbreak of fighting? It was Hamas that refused to extend the six-month cease-fire that ended on Dec. 19 and escalated its rocket attacks that were purposely aimed at Israeli civilians. And it is Hamas that is prolonging the fighting because it refuses to stop its rocket bombardment, despite the heavy costs that its belligerent policies impose on the Palestinian people.

Why does Hamas place a higher priority on murdering Israelis than protecting Palestinian civilians? Because it is an Islamist extremist movement dedicated to destroying Israel (a goal enshrined in its charter) and replacing the Jewish state with a radical Islamist state. Indeed, after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas was more interested in turning the enclave into a base for launching attacks against Israel than assuring the welfare and safety of Palestinians, who it treats as sacrificial pawns to advance its agenda.

That agenda includes undermining Arab governments that have made peace with Israel (Egypt and Jordan) or are merely open to the idea of peace. Hamas knows that it cannot win a war with Israel right now, but it provoked the latest round of fighting anyway to bolster its flagging support among Palestinians by posing as their champion. It also hopes to radicalize Arabs elsewhere and encourage the toppling of pragmatic Arab governments that seek a just peace with Israel to advance the national interests of their own people, not sacrifice them in disastrous wars against Israel.

Hamas, which staged a bloody coup against the Palestinian Authority in 2007, has taken Gaza hostage. It exploits civilians as human shields to launch attacks and exploits the death of its hostages when Israel is forced to respond. The Palestinian people are the biggest losers in this ruthless hostage-taking strategy.

As long as Hamas maintains its stranglehold on Gaza, there can be no stable peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, cannot prevent terrorist attacks by Hamas. And after withdrawing from Gaza and seeing it transformed into a rocket-launching pad, Israel is understandably less willing to withdraw from the West Bank, which could be used as a base to attack Israel's heartland. Killing the peace process advances Hamas' revolutionary Islamist agenda by discrediting Palestinian nationalists, further radicalizing the Palestinian people and fueling Islamist extremist movements elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The tragic deaths of Palestinian civilians in Israel's military offensive against the Hamas terrorist infrastructure in Gaza also fuel this radicalization. But Israel seeks to avoid inflicting such deaths whenever possible. It has dropped leaflets to warn civilians away from targets and even called occupants of homes and apartments located near Hamas targets to give them advance warning of attacks.

The sad truth is that civilian deaths are unavoidable in the war that Israel has been forced to fight. But the bottom line is that Hamas purposely targets civilians while Israel takes pains to minimize the deaths of innocents. This is a huge difference that cannot be ignored.

James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation.