a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Many, many eyes for an eye

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 30th, 2008

Israel has now declared “all-out war” on the Gaza strip Hamas government for its continued rocketing of nearby Israeli towns and settlements.  The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan and Griff Witte report the death toll stood at 364 — including at least 57 civilians, according to a separate (and heartbreaking) report on the death of five sisters when a neighboring mosque was bombed.  The numbers and high civilian casualties are in large part because the aims of the Israeli government are broader than ever before:

While previous Israeli assaults on Gaza have pinpointed crews of Hamas rocket launchers and stores of weapons, the attacks that began Saturday have had broader aims than any before. Israeli military officials said Monday that their target lists have expanded to include the vast support network that the Islamist movement relies on to stay in power in the strip. The choice of targets suggests that Israel intends to weaken all the various facets of Hamas rather than just its armed wing.

“There are many aspects of Hamas, and we are trying to hit the whole spectrum, because everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against Israel,” said a senior Israeli military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Hamas’s civilian infrastructure is a very, very sensitive target. If you want to put pressure on them, this is how,” said Matti Steinberg, a former top adviser to Israel’s domestic security service and an expert on Islamist organizations.

This is a formula for all-out, total war indeed.  But it presupposes you’re fighting people who’ll accept different leadership when it’s over — and by that measure, Israel’s war may well have the opposite effect.  In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Palestinian journalist Daouad Kuttab notes that Hamas had been increasingly unpopular in Gaza — its support stood at a Bush-like 17% level among Palestinians in November, with Hamas trailing Fatah even within the Gaza Strip.  As importantly, it had lost support around the Arab world, in part for scuttling Arab-sponsored talks with the rival Abbas government in the West Bank.  That’s all a thing of the past:

The disproportionate and heavy-handed Israeli attacks on Gaza have been a bonanza for Hamas. The movement has renewed its standing in the Arab world, secured international favor further afield and succeeded in scuttling indirect Israeli-Syrian talks and direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. It has also greatly embarrassed Israel’s strongest Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan. While it is not apparent how this violent confrontation will end, it is abundantly clear that the Islamic Hamas movement has been brought back from near political defeat while moderate Arab leaders have been forced to back away from their support for any reconciliation with Israel.

But the same poll showing low Hamas approval ratings showed Palestinians essentially uncommitted to the Hamas 6 month truce with Israel: a clear majority (41%) felt it had made no difference, with the remainder statistically tied between judging the truce had served or harmed the national interest.

The question was whether even an eye for an eye — let alone many, many eyes for an eye — was the right way to go under these circumstances. It’s interesting and a little sad to note that the “original intent,” as it were, of the “eye for an eye” phrase may be quite different from what it’s assumed to be.*  Exodus 21:23-25, in the King James Version, reads as follows, with emphasis added:

23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

To be sure, other biblical passages (e.g. Lv 24:19-20, Dt 19:21) are more clearly about punishment to be exacted, and there’s apparently room for debate with this one, since other translations replace the “give” with “take.” But this discussion suggests that the original Hebrew for this Exodus passage amounts to “being in place of being” — i.e., it actually comes closer to suggesting proportional, functional substitution of something new for that which was lost, by you, for your own misdeeds rather than narrowly equivalent penalties on someone else for theirs; the writer proposes that a person blinded by your fault would be compensated by a seeing servant.

But in any case, the fundamental idea is “proportional” — and also in any case, these biblical passages aren’t the end of all wisdom on the topic.  It’s all too easy for me to sit here in safety and pontificate, but I think hilzoy is right:

I imagine what people on both sides are thinking is something more like: do you expect us to just sit here and take it? Do you expect us to do nothing? To which my answer is: no, I expect you to try to figure out what has some prospect of actually making things better. Killing people out of anger, frustration, and the sense that you have to do something is just wrong. For both sides.

* In case it’s not obvious, I’m no biblical scholar; I’m just following up on leads from the Wikipedia “eye for an eye” entry.

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