Thoughts on Michael Oren’s Claims about Israel and Gaza – Econlib


Yesterday, I posted on the part of Michael Oren’s views that I strongly agreed with: that the U.S. government should not fund Israel’s government, either for war or for anything else.

I promised to look at some other issues he raised. Here they are.

Number of Gazans killed

Russ asks:

Let’s move to the current moment, which you’re writing about a lot on your Substack, and let’s dig into it. Let’s start with the question of the number of civilian dead in Gaza, which is horrifying. And, the situation there is horrifying.

You said you see the number over and over again of 23,000. That will stop soon, because it will go up–for many possible reasons–but it may sadly go up because more people will die as this war continues. And, I don’t know what the actual number is. Like you, I recognize Israel says that 9,000 of the 23,000 were Hamas fighters. So it’s, quote, “only 14,000 civilians.” That’s still an enormous number. Still a tragedy. What should Israel do, if anything, to fight this war humanely and whatever that–I don’t even know what–that’s a hard phrase to define. But, what might it mean to you? And, certainly as someone who has been involved in the government in a number of different ways, how could Israel–how can it do better? Should it? And how should we think about it as observers?

Those are all good questions, and good for Russ for asking them even though he is clearly on one side on this.

Oren answers:

Yeah. We have to also add, Russ, that out of the 23,000, 9,000 are terrorists, but about 30% of the remaining 14,000 are casualties caused by Palestinian rockets.

So, you’re down to–I said it before–a ratio of about two to one, civilian to soldier. Soldier to combatant deaths: that is roughly half the ratio of United States and Iraq and Afghanistan, half the rate of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and Kosovo–something of a world record by the way. Certainly a world record for intense urban combat against an enemy that is dug in and using its civilian population as a shield.

The criticism in this country is not that we’re killing too many Palestinians. The criticism in this country is not doing enough to protect our soldiers and that we are taking unnecessary risks with our soldiers’ lives in order to curry favor internationally.

Now, that argument, of course, is more complex because we need that favor in order to gain time and space for the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] to get ammunition, for example, from the United States. If we killed too many Palestinians, that supply of ammunition might be threatened.

So, even that–even the way we’re conducting this war and trying to minimize Palestinian deaths also has not just a moral component, but a strategic component.

A couple of thoughts. First, Oren’s math is wrong, and in a direction that undercuts his case. If it’s true that the IDF has killed 9,000 terrorists, and if it’s true that 30% of the other 14,000 deaths were caused by Palestinian rockets, then the math is even more favorable than Oren says. That would mean that 70% of 14,000 deaths of non-terrorist Palestinians were caused by the IDF, which makes 9,800. So the ratio of civilian deaths to soldiers’ deaths (I’m assuming he’s equating soldiers and terrorists) is 9,800 to 9,000, which is close to 1:1.

Second thought. I have no idea how accurate his 9.000 and 30% numbers are. Oren is way more informed on this than I am. But I still would like to know how he reached this conclusion.

Then Oren says:

This is one of the many grueling, fundamental dilemmas we face. We face a whole series of dilemmas around the hostages. But this is one of them. And go tell the parents who have just lost their 21-year-old son or daughter that that son or daughter had to die in order to take greater care to limit Palestinian casualties.

This was the lesson of the Jenin Battle in 2002 where we lost something like 24 paratroopers trying to limit civilian casualties. And afterwards we were accused of perpetrating a massacre, the Jenin massacre. So, we lost the 24 soldiers and we still got blamed for producing a massacre that never occurred, by the way–completely fabricated.

And within Israeli society–that was within the IDF–in the Israeli society, people said, ‘Enough. We’re not going to do this anymore.’ And, those 24 were reservists with kids and we’re just not going to do this anymore.

I note two important things.

First, Oren contradicts himself. He goes from “We’re trying to minimize Palestinian deaths” to “we’re just not doing to do this any more.” Which is it? I’m guessing the latter.

Second, Oren seems to think that reason to limit civilian casualties is to get credit. Notice what he says about the Jenin Battle: we tried to limit civilian casualties and even succeeded but we didn’t get credit. So if limiting civilian casualties doesn’t get us credit, then let’s not.

The Jewish State and anti-semitism

Oren states:

But the basic reason our public diplomacy–I would call it–is so bad is because we are the Jewish State. And, as much as we like to think we’re not–that we’re a normal state, we’re just like any other state–we are far from being like any other state. We are judged by a completely different set of criteria. Held under that microscope of a power that no other country is examined. And much of the criticism leveled at us, if you would look at it closely, echoes classic antisemitic tropes. Whether it be the Massacre of the Innocents from the Book of Matthew, whether it be the blood libel, whether it be deicide. And it just comes up.

Notice that after pointing out that Israel is a Jewish State rather than a secular one, Oren immediately goes to anti-semitism as a motive. I’m sure he’s right that it’s often, maybe even usually, a motive. But there’s an obvious other one that should be considered: when a country’s government explicitly ties itself to a particular religion, many people will react badly even if they share that religion or have no religion. How would Oren account, for example, for anti-Zionist Jews, of whom there are many? I often ask my fellow Americans, hoping that they cherish the U.S. Constitution as much as I do, whether they like the part of the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” I point out that Israel, being a Jewish State, doesn’t have that.

Also, imagine that the United States government decided it’s a Christian State and imagine that its spokespeople, in pretty much every speech, referred to the United States as the Christian state. Wouldn’t that naturally stir up a lot of anti-Christian feeling? I realize that it shouldn’t. People should be able to separate their feelings about what the state is doing to them from their feelings about Christianity. But many people wouldn’t.

Who has the tin ear?

Near the end, Oren states:

I thought that–personally, the Secretary’s [Antony Blinken] remarks here, totally look any Israeli feelings–he was talking again about too many Palestinians killed on a day that nine Israeli soldiers were killed. And, there’s a total detachment from our reality.

In essence, Oren is stating that Blinken has a tin ear for Israeli sensibilities. Guess who else has a tin ear? Oren. Nine Israeli soldiers were killed in one day. Presumably that’s above the average or Oren wouldn’t have mentioned it. How many civilian Gazans did Israel’s military kill on an average day? By his math, it’s 8,400 over 120 days, which is 70 in a day. 70 is about 8 times 9.

Who’s preventing Gaza from getting food?

Russ states:

It looks to me like we’ve pushed about a million people south. They don’t have enough food. That’s not our fault, Israel’s fault: that’s probably Hamas’s fault.

I think that’s a stretch. It seems pretty clear that Israel’s government is preventing food from getting to Gaza.

Postscript:

A long-time libertarian friend who knows I’m a libertarian wrote me the following: “I have a question about your blog on the Oren podcast: is there something special about the effects of US aid on Israel? Why wouldn’t the same arguments apply to aid to Egypt or other countries?”

I thought that he would know that since I’m a libertarian, of course, I’m against U.S. government aid to the Egyptian government. But if he, a libertarian, doesn’t know that that’s my view, then the odds are high that a non-libertarian would think that I’m making an exception for Israel. I’m not. I’m against all foreign aid.



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