Who Should We Blame for Civilian Deaths in Gaza?

According to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, 12,000 people in Gaza have been killed since the start of the current Israel–Hamas war. While some people including President Biden have claimed the figure cannot be trusted, a senior U.S. official recently stated that the true death toll is likely even higher.

Indeed, a simple check suggests the figure is plausible. There were around 13,000 UN aid workers in Gaza as of August this year. And since 7th October, 101 of them have died, which is 0.78%. If the same percentage of Gaza’s overall population has died, that is 16,380 – which is actually higher than the Health Ministry’s figure. It’s also worth noting that the Health Ministry’s figures from previous conflicts have been reliable.

Many pro-Israel commentators argue that civilian deaths in Gaza are entirely the fault of Hamas, since it was Hamas who started the current war when they brutally attacked Israel on 7th October. Such commentators also point out (correctly) that Hamas uses human shields by placing its weapons in civilian areas. They insist that Hamas is a “terrorist organisation” and get angry when news outlets do not use the term.

What they don’t mention is that the Israeli government has at various points supported Hamas, with the aim of dividing the Palestinians and preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation,” historian Avner Cohen told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. “Israel for years tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged them as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organization.”

This is particularly true today. “Keeping Hamas in power has become a central policy of the entire Israeli right”, writes the journalist Meron Rapaport. “In the eyes of the Israeli right, the real threat to Israel is not Hamas’ violence and terrorism – the danger is a peace agreement with the PLO, Abbas, and the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Rapaport backs his claim with numerous quotes from right-wing Israeli figures. For example, in 2015 the politician Bezalel Smotrich described Mahmoud Abbas as a “liability” and Hamas as an “asset”, while in 2019 the activist Erez Tadmor said that “the split between Abbas’ Judea and Samaria and Hamas’ Gaza is optimal for Israel”.

Also in 2019, the activist and future-politician Galit Distal-Atbaryan wrote that “Netanyahu wants Hamas on its feet” because “if Hamas collapses [Abbas] might rule the Strip and if he rules it there may be those on the left who will encourage negotiations and a Palestinian state”.

It is even claimed that Benjamin Netanyahu told his party’s Knesset members: “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy.”

There’s no evidence that Netanyahu transferred money to Hamas himself, but he did actively encourage Qatar. In 2020, Israeli media reported that he’d sent Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to “beg the Qataris to keep funneling money into Hamas”.

“Both the Egyptians and the Qataris are angry with Hamas, and they were going to cut all ties with them,” former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli media. “All of a sudden Netanyahu shows up as a Hamas advocate, pressuring Egypt and the Qataris to continue.”

What did this achieve? As Netanyahu’s advisor Yonatana Orich explained, “He succeeded in disconnecting between Gaza and Judea and Samaria, and effectively shattered the vision of a Palestinian state in these two areas. Part of the achievement is linked to the Qatari money that comes to Hamas every month.”

Maintaining the flow of Qatari money also had the effect of strengthening Hamas’s military arm. “Without those funds”, notes the journalist Adam Raz, “Hamas would not have had the money to maintain its reign of terror.”

Furthermore, Netanyahu worked to prevent any political reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority – even when such reconciliation was backed by the U.S. As former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said of Netanyahu, “His strategy is to keep Hamas alive and kicking … in order to weaken the PA in Ramallah.”

One shouldn’t overstate Israel’s support for Hamas. It’s plausible that an organisation like Hamas would have emerged regardless of whether Israel had funded mosques in the late 70s and early 80s. And it’s plausible that Hamas would be a threat regardless of whether Israel had treated them as a partner in recent years.

But it does raise the question: if civilian deaths in Gaza are the fault of Hamas, and Israel supported Hamas, does Israel not bear some responsibility too? (One can obviously dispute that civilian deaths in Gaza are the fault of Hamas, I might add.)

Israel’s continued bombardment of Gaza would seem a lot more justified if it hadn’t spent the preceding years bolstering the most belligerent and intransigent actor on the other side with the explicit goal of undermining Palestinian statehood. After all, it could have pursued a wholly different policy, such as working with the Palestinian Authority and other Arab states toward a negotiated settlement.

The latest survey in Gaza, carried out just before the war broke out, revealed deep dissatisfaction with Hamas. About two thirds of respondents gave their level of trust in the organisation as “not a lot” or “none at all”. And when asked to say which party they felt closest to, more respondents chose Fatah than Hamas. So the organisation Israel propped up wasn’t very popular with Gazans – who are now being killed in response to its actions.

An apology from Netanyahu is clearly in order. And the people angry at news outlets for not using the word “terrorists” should redirect their anger at the man who sought to keep Hamas in power.

Noah Carl is Editor at Aporia Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @NoahCarl90.