'Militants use places of worship as shields'

David Saks

David Saks

In one recent incident during Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza, Israel discovered that a certain house, home to a Palestinian family, was also being used to make and store rockets.

The Israeli military informed the owner that his house was a military target, and gave him 30 minutes to leave with his family before it was attacked. The owner responded by telling Hamas, which immediately sent dozens of mothers carrying babies to stand on the roof of the house.

Commenting on the above, renowned American human rights lawyer Allan Dershowitz observed that it epitomises "the newest tactic in the war between terrorists who love death and democracies that love life".

The former have become adept at exploiting the morality of democracies, which will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the deaths of civilians, even enemy civilians.

It goes without saying that in military terms Israel enjoys an overwhelming superiority in its war against Hamas in Gaza.

In one crucial respect, however, the Palestinians have a distinct advantage. Israel is expected - and indeed, expects of itself - to ensure that collateral damage to Palestinian civilians is avoided or at least minimised.

This results in self-imposed constraints that do much to impede the effectiveness of the Israeli counter-offensives against the Hamas terrorist infrastructure.

There is no such compunction on the part of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other radical militant groups when it comes to attacks on Israel.

On the contrary, killing and maiming as many Israeli civilians as possible is precisely what they are seeking to achieve, and they know very well that the international community will not call them to account for it.

Even those critical of Israel generally acknowledge that the rocket-fire from Gaza into Israel is unacceptable and must stop.

They concede, however grudgingly, that Israel has a right to take appropriate defensive action against such attacks.

However, they also insist that such action must not result in the "collective punishment" of the Palestinian population as a whole.

In this regard they deplore, for example, the destruction of mosques, schools, universities and other "non-military" targets

Under normal circumstances mosques would be treated as "non-combatant" areas by Israel, but the circumstances are not normal. It has now been clearly established that Hamas has been using mosques as military positions - weapons stores, command centres and as cover for networks of tunnels through which weaponry can be safely transported.

On a constant basis, militants have been observed going to and from mosques for their rocket supplies. The Israeli defence force has released footage of a rocket being fired at Israel from a position immediately adjacent to the wall of a mosque.

Hamas, in short, have been blatantly abusing the immunity usually granted to places of worship, and in so doing have made them legitimate military targets. Significantly, there has been little attempt by its officials to deny that this is the case.

Why, in any case, would Israel want to destroy mosques when there is obviously so little to gain and so much more to lose by doing so?

The Middle East conflict is fraught enough without further inflaming existing religious tensions. Wantonly targeting Islamic places of worship would also needlessly alienate moderate Muslims, who would otherwise be opposed to the extremist version of their faith propounded by Hamas.

Not only mosques have been exploited by Hamas in this way. Schools and densely populated residential areas have likewise been used to store and make weapons, and militants have likewise been captured on film firing missiles from such locations.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Hamas are deliberately inviting Israeli attacks that will inevitably result in civilian deaths so that these can then be used for propaganda purposes. By deliberately siting its terrorist infrastructure among its own civilian population, Hamas has made itself guilty of war crimes not just against Israelis but against the Palestinian people.

This is, of course, in addition to its crime in seeking the destruction of a member state of the UN.

What needs to be recognised and unambiguously acknowledged by those who genuinely hope for peace in the region is that the responsibility for this must be laid entirely at the door of the Palestinian leadership.

Those who continue to blame Israel, despite all the contradictory evidence, are doing no more than rewarding Hamas for its cunning and cynical strategies and thereby encouraging them to persist with them.

l The writer is associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.