The MidEast numbers game

By Jeremy Brier, July 17, 2014

Painting by numbers is easy but it doesn't make for a very illuminating picture. The latest conflict between Israel and Hamas has been constantly reported by reference to the latest death toll and the growing numbers are matched by the hyperbole of the commentators. What started as an "an exchange of fire" became a "crisis", which became "a massacre", and then, according to that bastion of sensitivity and understatement Yasmin Qureshi MP, became "the same" as what happened during the Holocaust.

It is of course vital to be mindful of the human tragedy of warfare, but the fact that [by Tuesday] 160 Palestinians had been killed for one Israeli death is not a reliable guide to events in and of itself without a rigorous exploration of why that disparity exists and which party is morally culpable for the deaths.

The context for the disparity in loss of life is in the first instance Israel's incredible Iron Dome air defence system.

It has intercepted approximately 90 per cent of incoming rockets and, without it, many Israeli citizens would have been killed. In terms of saving innocent lives, the inventors of the Iron Dome would have as a good a case as any for winning the Nobel Peace Prize (but don't hold your breath). The other factor critical to the loss of life calculations is the underreported fact that Hamas place sites of military importance amongst its civilian population. Hospitals, mosques and residential complexes are Hamas's chosen munitions depots and rocket launchpads. This should be seen for what it is: a calculated decision to martyr people for a public relations victory against Israel and it is in contrast to the IDF's efforts to minimise civilian casualties by radio warnings, text messages and leaflet-drops.

Understanding this context for the disparate outcomes of the combat in terms of loss of life is one important step in seeing the truth behind the numbers.

What is the price to pay for protecting one's society?

However, there is a broader and deeper moral analysis beyond this, in terms of identifying the real cause of the combat.

The essential startpoint is to recognise that Israel has no reason or purpose to attack unprovoked. After centuries of dreaming, Israel exists, lives and flourishes. It has no ideological desire to attack Gaza, where it voluntarily ceded power and control in 2005.

This approach contrasts with Hamas, an organisation driven by fundamentalist ideology and which expressly defines its mission to kill all Jews in its widely-available but seldom publicised Charter. The rockets which rain down on Israel reflect an indiscriminate desire to kill. Though they fail in this endeavour, they make life unbearable for many and, in any event, they constitute a criminal recurrence which no country could withstand forever.

So to ascribe the cause of innocent Palestinian deaths to the IDF, defending Israel against these attacks, is to make the moral error of blaming the immediate cause-in-fact of the killing (the IDF) rather than the truly culpable original cause which, but for its happening, the events in question would never have occurred (Hamas aggression). Test this by positing the counter-factual scenario where Hamas does not fire rockets or murder hitch-hikers. Then, the IDF does not attack Hamas targets and there is no asymmetrical death toll.

This all poses a dilemma which reaches far beyond Israel's borders and affects Britain more than we yet realise. That is, how do democratic nation states like ours maintain a modern and a liberal society against a terror-led Jihad antithetical to its values and driven to fight without fear? Israel happens to be on the front line, but if and when Britain or Holland or Spain are under fire, with sustained attacks upon its people, countries used to peace will suddenly find that they must confront Israel's predicament.

They will need to consider if they too will seek to target their enemies in the knowledge that this will cause innocent deaths, or whether instead a new national morality has taken hold in the West which casts self-defence as unwarranted aggression and dictates that causing collateral loss of life is too high a price to pay to protect one's people. Israel, 66 years young and forever under threat, cannot afford to risk the latter approach.

Jeremy Brier is a London barrister

Last updated: 2:10pm, July 17 2014