A sign outside this graveyard in Gaza City states "Cemetery Full." (Photo: Reuters)
Whether on Gaza or any other issue, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But, as the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught, none of us is entitled to our own facts, a lesson that all sides in the Gaza conflict need to learn. Tel Aviv and its defenders never tire of repeating that Hamas started the war by shooting rockets into Israel. Few of the pro-Zionists mention that Israel has long blockaded Gaza's ports and stopped cross-border shipment of needed supplies, creating a humanitarian crisis well before the current fighting began. Blockades are widely considered an act of war and, in the case of Gaza, is arguably a war crime as well.
On the other side, Palestinians and their defenders point to the blockade and resulting misery as the primary cause of the conflict, dismissing the rockets as generally ineffectual and a minor irritation that the Israelis should just learn to live with. Pro-Palestinians are also loathe to question in public why Hamas has been so dogged in denying the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign country and why Hamas demonstrators in Europe have been heard chanting, "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas."
Fudging the facts to justify one's cause is nothing new, especially in the heat of battle. But, Israelis, Palestinians and their respective supporters have spent decades denying the other side's story, and this historic blindness gets in the way of seeing events as the other side sees them.
Seen from the point of view of Hamas leaders, the rockets were one of the few weapons they had to fight back against the blockade - or to provoke an Israeli reaction. The dynamic, though possibly unintended and hardly nonviolent, looks familiar to anyone in my generation who has used civil disobedience to provoke a violent reaction. Like Bull Connor and his dogs at Selma or the police in Berkeley in 1964, the Israelis took the bait and grossly overreacted, playing Goliath to the Palestinian David. Defenders of Israel will no doubt disagree, but this is exactly how it looks in the eyes of most Palestinians and huge numbers of observers around the world.
The harder Israel hits them, the more Hamas leaders gain in their political struggle, and their gains have been historic. As a result of all the death and destruction they and those around them have endured, they have made themselves the leaders of the Palestinian resistance, leaving Mohammad Abbas and his Palestinian Liberation Organization looking like American and Israeli puppets. In perhaps the most telltale sign of these new facts on the ground, incoming Obama officials felt compelled to leak to the Guardian that they would begin "secret meetings" with Hamas.
The leaders of Hamas have also gravely weakened, if not destroyed, any chance for a two-state solution, an option they explicitly reject. A mirror image of right-wing Israelis who believe that God gave all of Eretz Yisroel to the Jews, Hamas believes that Palestinians have a divine right to all of historic Palestine as an Islamic state. God - or Allah - has much to answer for.
Seen from the Israeli side, Hamas needed to be dislodged from Gaza, and heavy bombing and a fierce ground invasion initially looked like the way to do it. This reflected an intoxicating faith that sufficient military force can ultimately destroy any political movement. No doubt it can at the extreme, which - to paraphrase Gen. Curtis LeMay - would probably require bombing Gaza and the West Bank back to the Stone Age and paving them over as parking lots. Hamas clearly calculated that the current tragedy would stop far short of that, leaving the Israelis on the road to "military success" even as they hand Hamas a resounding political victory.
Why, then, did the Israeli leaders allow themselves to be provoked into such an overreaction? Were they seeking individual political gain in the forthcoming Israeli elections? Were they just stupid? Or, as I believe, did they have something more in mind?
The something more was likely Iran, whose nuclear program the Israelis fear as a threat to their very existence. Critics will insist that Tehran has no program to build nuclear weapons, but the reality is that any country with the means to get or produce sufficiently enriched uranium is well on its way to a bomb, as the Israelis proved with their own nuclear arsenal.
Openly backed by Vice President Dick Cheney, Tel Aviv has been pushing Washington to support an Israeli or joint air attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. President Bush refused, as The New York Times reported Sunday, and the Israelis expect that President Obama will prove even less receptive. That remains to be seen, but Obama and even General Petraeus are talking of making deals with Iran to pursue mutual interests in Afghanistan and even Iraq.
By waging war on Hamas, a client of Iran, Tel Aviv could reasonably hope to box Obama into a corner where he would have to be more pro-Israeli and less open to deals with Iran. The current Congressional resolutions supporting Israel bring pressure in that direction. But, however Obama chooses to respond, any attack on Iran would almost certainly bring a huge counter-attack on Israel from both Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas has already begun hitting Israel with more powerful Iranian rockets, and stopping the smuggling of those rockets has become one of Israel's most explicit military and diplomatic goals in Gaza.
Does this justify the human devastation in Gaza? Not to me, but it might help explain what Israeli leaders see themselves doing.