Iraq and Gaza – Humanitarianism and Hypocrisy

Yet again, the American military is intervening in Iraq.  However, this time the intervention is being sold to the public as a humanitarian mission.  ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [also known as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]), an offshoot of al-Qaeda, has expanded its military operations.  Having already taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq, they have now encroached into Kurdistan, an area in northern Iraq occupied by ethic Kurds that is largely autonomous.

The reasons for this invasion are not entirely clear, but theories range from a land grab by ISIS, to a possible desire to take over Kurdish oil fields, to a complete wiping out of the Kurdish people and other non-Muslim minorities, including Iraqi Christians and Yazidis.  Slate’s Reihan Salam expands on this last theory:

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria steals with the best of them, and I don’t doubt that some of the fighters who’ve attached themselves to its cause are thrill-seeking psychopaths like those you’ll find in any lawless hellhole. On the whole, however, you get the impression that its fighters aren’t killing for fun and profit, and they’re certainly not killing to protect themselves from other crazies. Instead, they are killing because they are utopians. They want to live in a world that is quite literally cleansed of those who do not share their deranged beliefs, and by killing Yazidis and Christians and members of other religious minorities, they believe that they are serving a noble and just cause. The Taliban are awful, but given their willingness to cut deals with the Afghan government and the United States and its allies, they aren’t quite so insane. Even al-Qaida is more tolerant of religious minorities than the lunatics of ISIS. Now, with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stolen loot, ISIS is on the march, closing in on stranded pockets of women and men they see as pagans and slowly starving them to death. The Kurdish peshmerga, the only Iraqi fighting force capable of holding ISIS at bay, has put up a brave resistance, yet they are starting to buckle.

And, it is this targeting of religious minorities and the buckling of Kurdish forces that has drawn the United States back into the fray.  As many as 40,000 Yazidis fled from an ISIS invasion of the town of Sinjar up a nearby mountain.  They were surrounded by ISIS troops and cut off from access to food and water.

In response, President Obama announced a humanitarian mission that would drop food and water to the refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar.  Good.  Any attempt to save people from being slaughtered should be applauded.  However, this mission was accompanied by bombing and airstrikes from American planes.  While the stated goal was to protect Americans in Iraq and keep ISIS from following the Yazidis up the mountain, I have long believed and argued that peace cannot be achieved through violence.  But, the threat that the Yazidis and Kurds face is very real, and they deserve our help, though I do wish we would drop more food and fewer bombs.

President Obama has spoken out on his decision to act in Iraq:

And when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action. That is our responsibility as Americans. That’s a hallmark of American leadership. That’s who we are.

Is that really who we are?  I wish it were true.  But, the situation in Iraq brings to mind another group of people who are being slaughtered and cut off from food and water by an invading army.  Thousands have already died, and even though there have been occasional breaks in the fighting, there are no humanitarian food drops to keep these people from starving.  This raises the obvious question: what about Gaza?

The plight of Palestinians in Gaza has been largely forgotten in the wake of the atrocities in Iraq, but the casualties there continue to pile up, and they continue to starve.  Are Palestinians not worth saving?  Do the crimes of their Hamas leadership mean they all must suffer?  Israel may not be quite as guilty on the war crimes scale as ISIS, but they are far from innocent.  It is they who have blockaded Gaza over land and sea, encroached on its land, and killed its citizens.  Won’t America intervene?

But, we have intervened, on the side of Israel.  It is our money that buys their rockets.  And, it is our implicit endorsement of their policies that keeps the United Nations from taking action.  American hypocrisy in choosing whom to protect and whom to ignore has resulted in well over a thousand deaths, most of them civilians.  We have the capacity to do something about it.  Isn’t that our responsibility?  We don’t even have to drop any bombs.  We could just stop selling our bombs to Israel for them to drop.

So, what is it that makes Yazidis worth defending and not Palestinians?  Is it just coincidence that in both incidences we have sided against Muslims?  Perhaps, though in both cases we have been careful to classify them as extremists.  Is it just coincidence that we have economic interests both in Israel and in the oil fields of Kurdistan?  Again, perhaps, though there is little doubt that these economic interests color our judgment.  But, if economics are driving decision-making, it would be important to remember that food is cheaper than bombs.  It would be even more important to remember that all oppressed and hungry people are worth saving, no matter where they live.

People are not “Collateral Damage”

Amid all the finger-pointing over exactly who is to blame for the atrocities currently taking place in the Gaza Strip, one very important point is being largely ignored: more than a thousand civilians, including many women and children, have been killed.

The response from both sides, as well as many people reporting on the war from here in America is the same, that these casualties are collateral damage and part of the unavoidable cost of war.  This is unacceptable and also blatantly false.  Every single death in war is avoidable.  War itself is avoidable and to treat it as some sort of inevitability is to disrespect the lives of those whose lives are lost, both those who choose to fight and those who do not.

An infographic from the Washington Post details the casualties.  As of July 29th, they count a total of 1,170 deaths.  Of those, only 61 were Israelis (7 civilians among them).  The remaining 1,109 people killed were Palestinians, including 127 women and 232 children.  It can be hard to determine who among the rest of the dead were actually involved in the fighting, as rebels rarely wear uniforms or identify themselves as combatants.  But, the Post counts only 179 armed militants among the Palestinian casualties.  Even adding the 115 dead who had an “unknown role” brings the total to 294, a number dwarfed by the total of 815 identified as civilians.  And, as the fighting continues, these numbers will continue to grow.

Both sides, of course, blame the other for the terrible loss of life.  Hamas claims the fighting is provoked by the Israeli occupation of Gaza and their ongoing blockade, leaving Palestinians often without food, water, or electricity, and in constant fear of attacks from the air and on the ground.  Israel blames the rockets launched from Palestine into Israel, claiming that the Hamas must be destroyed and that their invasion and constant bombing and shelling is the only way to truly eliminate the rebel threat.  While both sides can be assigned blame, fairly or not, the fact remains that none of the resulting deaths were necessary.

Hamas is accused of keeping its weapons in houses, schools, and other places where civilians are assembled.  This means that these civilians are being drawn into a fight they may want no part of.  It must be remembered that it is Hamas, not Palestine as a whole, that is doing the fighting in Gaza.  Putting civilian lives at risk is deplorable.  And, to use those deaths as propaganda, as some have accused, is even worse.

Yet, Israel is still choosing to bomb these weapons caches, knowing that each bomb dropped or shell fired is likely killing innocents as it destroys weapons whose threat is questionable at best.  But, no one is forcing Israel’s hand.  Israel, and those whose fingers are on the triggers, can simply choose not to fire, not to slaughter civilians, not to perpetuate a fight that does not need to be happening.  They blame Hamas, but their own hands are stained red with the blood of a thousand people who did not need to die.

The fight in Gaza is rooted in thousands of years of history.  Israel is a small country fighting to maintain its identity in a world that is hostile to it.  Its people have been bullied, but they have been made strong by the support (both financially and militarily) of the United States.  Now, they are the bullies, keeping the Palestinians in a virtual prison in Gaza as vengeance for the injustices they have faced over the years.  They are two sides who cannot agree, and so they fight.  They fight over geography, over religion, over years of oppression.  But, none of those things are really worth killing or dying for.  And, they certainly do not justify the killing of people who want no part of the fight, and seek only to live their lives peacefully in a place they call home.

But, there is a solution, and it is a solution so simple that it is easily overlooked.  Just stop fighting.  That’s it.  It really is as simple as that.  Don’t shoot any missiles or drop any bombs.  Don’t kill any soldiers or women or children.  Just stop.  Too many people have died, and too many more will follow.  It’s so simple, even a child could see it.  But, in Gaza, children do not think of history, or geography, or religion, or even peace treaties.  They only think of staying alive as the bombs continue to fall around them, fired by their parents and fueled by the ghosts of their ancestors.  And so, the fighting continues, even if it doesn’t have to.

(The original posting of this cartoon, via Tom Tomorrow and The Nation, can be found here.)