Why Bernie Exaggerates About Gaza

JONATHAN S. TOBIN / APR. 5, 2016
Commentary Magazine

It might be comforting if we could put Bernie Sanders’ comments about Israel in an interview with New York Daily News editorial board down to the same kind of appalling ignorance that characterizes so much of what Donald Trump says about foreign policy. But Sanders, who has spent the last 26 years of his life in Congress, can’t plead ignorance when it comes to his distortions of the record regarding the 2014 war with Gaza. Instead, we must acknowledge that Sanders’ willingness to believe the lies that are put forth by the Jewish state’s worst critics is part of something even more ominous than Trump’s lack of knowledge and isolationist instincts. Sanders’ comments reflect a mindset of the left-wing base of the Democratic Party, which views the Middle East conflict through the prism of Israel’s foes. By failing to acknowledge the real reason for the lack of peace and instead focusing obsessively on canards about “disproportionate” attacks and distorted arguments about settlements, Sanders isn’t being merely wrongheaded. He’s showing us the future of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy in an anti-Israel trend that has been slowly building for decades.

There’s a lot to digest in the Daily News interview. But let’s leave Sanders’ socialist dialectic about the evils of profits, corporations, and banks for another day. Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party leadership may have been forced to follow him to the left on economic issues during the primary campaign. But Democratic superdelegates have no intention of letting Sanders sink their party by having it led by a socialist.

But Sanders’ comments about the Middle East deserve special notice because while we are used to the candidate’s left-wing rants on economics, he’s said very little about his foreign policy views during his challenge to Clinton other than boasting of his opposing the Iraq War.
After going on about forcing Israel to withdraw from areas where he considers their presence to be illegal, Sanders got to his critique of Israeli self-defense against a Hamas terror offensive, which included the use of tunnels for kidnapping and murder and firing thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and towns:

I think it is fair to say that the level of [Israeli] attacks against civilian areas…and I do know that the Palestinians, some of them, were using civilian areas to launch missiles. Makes it very difficult. But I think most international observers would say that the attacks against Gaza were indiscriminate and that a lot of innocent people were killed who should not have been killed. Look, we are living, for better or worse, in a world of high technology, whether it’s drones out there that could, you know, take your nose off, and Israel has that technology. And I think there is a general belief that, with that technology, they could have been more discriminate in terms of taking out weapons that were threatening them.
I’m just telling you that I happen to believe … anybody help me out here, because I don’t remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?
Daily News: I think it’s probably high, but we can look at that.
Sanders: I don’t have it in my number…but I think it’s over 10,000. My understanding is that a whole lot of apartment houses were leveled. Hospitals, I think, were bombed. So yeah, I do believe and I don’t think I’m alone in believing that Israel’s force was more indiscriminate than it should have been.

There’s a lot here to unravel, but let’s start with the level of exaggeration involved with the claim of 10,000 “innocent people killed in Gaza.” The pro-Palestinian United Nations Human Rights Council claims that 1,462 civilians out of the 2,251 people in Gaza were counted as fatalities during the 50-day war. The UNHRC is hopelessly biased against Israel and devotes more of its efforts to attacking the Jewish state than in dealing with the human rights catastrophe in Syria, where deaths can be counted in the hundreds of thousands and the refugees in the millions. But even if we took their figures to be true, Sanders is still blaming Israel for seven times more dead civilians than its worst critics.

But the truth about civilian casualties is more complicated than that. Israel has claimed, with good reason, that at least half of those claimed as civilian deaths were, in fact, Hamas personnel. That means the number of deaths is far lower than even that 1,462 number. All unnecessary deaths in war are tragic, but what is troubling is Sanders’ willingness to accept anti-Israel propaganda at face value and to wrongly assume that Israel wasn’t doing its best with the technology it has to minimize civilian casualties.

No army operating in the fog of war has a perfect record, and there were a few regrettable mistakes in which Israeli strikes didn’t hit the target. But had Sanders bothered to learn the truth about Gaza that most of his colleagues have assimilated, he would have known that Israel’s rules of engagements there are, if anything, more restrictive than those employed by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, General Martin Dempsey, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces at the time correctly lauded Israel’s behavior and said it was a model for Americans to emulate.

Had Sanders bothered to think more deeply about the issue, he would have understood that without taking the care that it did, casualties in Gaza would have been as high as 10,000 or even more than that because of Hamas embedding its rocket launchers and fighters in and among civilians, including using hospitals as bases and UN schools as ammo dumps. And while he may regard Israel’s need to take out these targets as optional, Israel’s leaders had the responsibility to defend their people against truly indiscriminate attacks in the form of Hamas rockets and terror tunnels.

But the problem here, as with the entire “progressive” critique of Israel, is that Sanders’ beliefs about the Gaza war are rooted in his misconceptions about the continuing cause of the conflict. He seems to think it’s about Israel having to “improve its relationship with the Palestinians.” But not once in his lengthy comments about the Middle East in the Daily News interview does he note that Israel has repeatedly offered the Palestinians far-reaching territorial concessions in exchange for peace and has been turned down every time. Nor does he care to notice that even Palestinian moderates refuse to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders may be drawn. Pushing for more unilateral Israeli withdrawals, as President Obama has done and Sanders seems to indicate he would also advocate, merely encourages the Palestinians to continue to believe that continued intransigence will eventually isolate the Jewish state. It also gives the Palestinian leadership a pass for fomenting hatred against Israel and Jews that has set off a bloody third “stabbing” intifada.

Sanders doesn’t oppose Israel’s existence, and he can claim both to have lived there briefly and to have relations with Israelis. But his policies do not encourage peace, nor do they do Palestinians held hostage by Hamas in their independent state in all but name in Gaza much good either.

More importantly, he reflects a blame Israel first mindset of the left wing of his party that is as divorced from reality as anything that comes out of Trump’s mouth. While he isn’t likely to become president, Sanders’ mindless repetition of canards about Israel probably sounded like the truth to many of his fans. If, as the age demographics would seem to indicate, those young voters are the future of the Democrats, the party’s divorce from the pro-Israel movement seems to be accelerating.

JONATHAN S. TOBIN IS SENIOR ONLINE EDITOR OF COMMENTARY MAGAZINE AND CHIEF POLITICAL BLOGGER AT WWW.COMMENTARYMAGAZINE.COM. HE CAN BE REACHED VIA E-MAIL AT: JTOBIN@COMMENTARYMAGAZINE.COM. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER AT TOBINCOMMENTARY.