New York — Imagine it’s 1964. President Lyndon Johnson just signed the landmark Civil Rights Act. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrates by ordering his supporters to launch missiles from black neighborhoods into white communities. Picture the rockets’ red glare as they rise from Watts and land in Beverly Hills. Up they soar in Harlem, and down they rain on the Upper West Side.
Such mayhem would have triggered a white crackdown on black areas. The squandered opportunity for greater racial equality and economic prosperity would have hobbled black progress, probably for decades. Barack Obama’s presidential victory might have been a non-starter had Dr. King taken this low road. Thank God Almighty, he did not.
While imperfect, this analogy approximates today’s conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s current military retaliation would have been unnecessary had Gaza’s leaders capitalized on the excellent hand they were dealt.
Israelis withdrew from Gaza in August 2005. Israeli soldiers literally dragged devout Jews kicking and screaming from land they believed the Torah granted them. Authorities evacuated 21 Jewish settlements, dismantled 38 synagogues, and even excavated 47 deceased Jews from Gaza’s Gush Katif cemetery. Unwanted dead or alive, the Israelis vanished from Gaza without a trace. The 8,150 Jews who lived there linger only in the memories of their Palestinian ex-neighbors.
Gaza’s leaders had the opportunity of a millennium. "Free at last, free at last," a Palestinian Dr. King could have said. "Now, watch us flourish." A Gazan MLK could have asked J.P. Morgan Chase to help construct the Middle East’s most modern financial system. He could have called Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic to help build world-class hospitals. Teams from Georgetown, NYU, and Stanford could have helped establish universities whose graduates could outthink anyone from Cairo to Kabul. Estonian experts could have jetted in to explain how free trade and a flat tax can enrich small nations with powerful next-door neighbors. The world would have come running to help elevate this benighted, Denver-sized territory into an oasis from which the mirage of Middle East peace could blossom into reality — if Gazans only asked.
Top Gazans had a different development strategy: Fling rockets at Israel.
Between Israel’s disengagement from Gaza through last November 30, Palestinian forces fired 3,123 rockets into southern Israel, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs calculates. Since Hamas seized control in June 2007, Gazans have shot 1,685 rockets into Israel — 1,212 of them between January 1 and November 30, 2008. Hamas fired 177 missiles at Israel, even during a June 19 — December 19, 2008 “state of calm.” Indeed, rockets are Gaza’s chief export.
Gazans also fired 2,299 mortar shells into Israel since 2005. Israelis traded land for peace. Instead, they got land for pieces of shrapnel. Since Israel withdrew, Gaza’s rockets and mortars have pummeled southern Israel, killing 17, wounding 851, and terrorizing some 700,000 others.
Israel has had it with these explosions and casualties. It is defending itself appropriately, despite complaints that Israel’s response is not proportional. If proportionality is key, may Israel shoot 5,422 missiles and mortars indiscriminately into Gaza’s residential neighborhoods?
Israel’s critics hush up when Hamas uses Gazans as human shields. Hamas’s TV broadcasts ask civilian men, women, and children to protect suspected terror sites from expected Israeli strikes.
“This is why they have formed human shields of the women, the children, the elderly, and the mujahideen, in order to challenge the Zionist bombing machine,” Hamas parliamentarian Fathi Hammad said on Al-Aqsa TV last February 29. “It is as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy: ‘We desire death like you desire life.’”
Israel’s self-defense will be tough on rank-and-file Palestinians. Some of them will get stuck in the cross fire as Israel disarms Hamas. This is sad, but inevitable. As Gazans curse Israel’s jets, they should remind themselves that they had a perfect chance to make the world proud, and they blew it.