A Response To Sam Harris Blaming Muslims for the “Careful” and “Compassionate” Killing of Palestinian Civilians

By Nick Pendergrast


Recently Katie posted some critical comments on the Facebook page for our podcast about the above cartoon, which was published in the right-wing newspaper The Australian. This cartoon blames Palestinians for the civilian deaths they have suffered at the hands of the Israeli state. Someone commented that the picture was actually an accurate depiction and after a lengthy discussion, they recommended I listen a podcast episode by atheist writer Sam Harris on the topic of Israel/Palestine, in order to better understand their views. I thought that Harris’ views expressed on this episode were representative of a lot of what I see to be common misperceptions about the situation. So in this very first blog post on our site, I thought I would provide some of my responses to these claims, in order to hopefully provide a better understanding of what is going on in that region.

Attack is Israel’s Best Option for Defence

I think Harris is way too apologetic about the killing of civilians by the Israeli state. He argues that they have had to this, that they were made brutal by their enemies and they are defending themselves against aggressors in a defensive war. He asks whether they should be blamed for protecting their civilians.

I don’t see how killing Palestinian civilians is protecting Israeli civilians. I don’t hear anyone criticising them for protecting civilians with methods such as shelters, intercepting rockets – I do hear criticism against their killing of civilians. He argues that they receive public scrutiny out of proportion to what they have actually done – but I don’t see how this reaction is out of proportion to the deaths of over thousand people.

He also congratulates Israel for not targeting civilians, taking “great pains” to avoid civilian casualties and for being “deterred” by human shields. Just because the Israeli government keeps making this claim that Hamas is using civilians as “human shields”, doesn’t make it true. Amnesty International have not found evidence to support this claim, although it keeps getting repeated (I guess it’s a good cover to try and excuse the continued bombing of civilians – that United Nations school was being used by Hamas, that hospital was being used by Hamas…):

‘Israeli air strikes have targeted civilian homes in Gaza on the basis that they are the family homes of “Hamas operatives”, according to statements by the Israeli military, destroying the homes after warning the families to leave. However, in several such cases no evidence has emerged to indicate that the alleged “Hamas operatives” were inside the homes at the time of the attack, that the homes were being used to store munitions, or otherwise were being used for military purposes.

“Unless the Israeli authorities can provide specific information to show how a home is being used to make an effective contribution to military actions, deliberately attacking civilian homes constitutes a war crime and also amounts to collective punishment against the families,” said Philip Luther [Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International].’

Sara Saleh (Amnesty International Australia’s spokesperson) does a great job at disputing this claim that Hamas are to blame for the civilian deaths in Palestine (as well as other Israeli government “one liners” which they keep repeating, regardless of how far from reality they are). She argues that:

‘Hamas is a symptom, not cause, of Israel’s ongoing illegal occupation…So let’s not get distracted by the symptoms in this case – Hamas – and look at the cause – Israel (which, incidentally, has also been accused of state terrorism on many occasions)…Israel has repeatedly broken truces in the lead up to each of the past attacks on Gaza, before rockets came into the picture.’

Harris is too quick to take the Israeli government’s rhetoric of avoiding civilian casualties at face value. Andrew Exum, a former US army officer and defence department special adviser on the Middle East, who has studied Israel’s military operations, has labelled the weapons used by Israel against Palestine as “pretty indiscriminate”. The Israeli state specifically chooses weapons that are not precise. As journalist Jonathan Cook, who lives in Israel, explains, these weapons have:

‘a margin of error of up to 300 metres, plus a lethal radius of up to 150 metres and an injury radius of 300 metres. So that’s a killing and injury zone of close to half a kilometre from the intended “precise” site of impact. In a territory that is only a few kilometres wide. In short, the main shell Israel is using in Gaza is entirely imprecise.’

I also disagree with Harris that we should congratulate Israel for “only” killing over a thousand civilians when they physically could have killed tens of thousands – that is setting the bar very low. As DSWright argues:

‘If the current bloodbath is a result of unprecedented attempts to avoid civilian casualties what would less restrained warfare be – a nuclear strike?’

Muslims are Inherently Violent – That’s the Problem!

Harris is a well-known atheist and it is no surprise that his analysis focuses on religion. I’m also an atheist and no fan of religion, however, I disagree that the major problem is religious. Harris argues that even on its worst day, Israel shows more ‘care, compassion and self-criticism’ than any Muslim combatant anywhere, including Hamas. When you look at the death toll, quite the opposite is true. The Palestine death toll is over 1700 and the United Nations estimate that up to 80% of those killed are civilians. On the Israeli side, 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians (two Israeli civilians and one Thai worker) have been killed.

So despite what either the Israeli state or Hamas might say, I think their actions are the most important. Based on the figures above, the Israel state have killed approximately 1360 civilians (up to 80% of casualties), whereas Hamas have killed 3 civilians (4.5% of the casualties). So while “both sides” have killed civilians, to put them on equal footing (or to argue that is Hamas that is the worst) totally goes against the evidence. I don’t see the care and compassion in killing over 1000 civilians and from the Israeli government officials I’ve heard interviewed, such as the BBC interview with the economic minister that we played and discussed on our 63rd episode, I’ve heard zero self-criticism.

Harris argues that lots of Palestinians support violence and cites suicide bombings etc but doesn’t mention that there was over 30 years of Occupation before this started to be used as a tactic of desperation after non-violent methods of protest were brutally crushed. So I think it is wrong to portray Palestinians/Muslims as somehow inherently inclined towards violence. Even after decades of Occupation, huge numbers of Palestinians oppose violent resistance:

‘The poll found that a large majority of Palestinians favored the tactic of “popular resistance” – such as demonstrations and strikes – over violence to achieve their goals, Globes reported Sunday…On the question of tactics, again, the trend was toward moderation, with 70 percent of Gazans and 56 percent of West Bankers saying Hamas should observe a cease-fire with Israel. Asked if Hamas should go along with Abbas’ demand that the unity government publicly renounce violence, 57 percent of Gazans agreed, while West Bankers were split evenly.’

Can’t We All Just Get Along?!

Harris argues that we have to side with Israel because if it could accomplish its aims, it would live peacefully with its neighbours, if its neighbours would live in peace with them. I know there are Israelis who want to live in peace with Palestinians and this is obviously a positive thing. Naama Blatman-Thomas, who we’ve had on the podcast the last two episodes (episodes 62 and 63), is an Israeli Jew who has worked with Palestinian groups. However, the difference is, these groups are working together to end the Occupation of Palestine. You can find a long list of Australian Jewish groups and individuals working to end the Occupation of Palestine here and it’s also well-worth looking into the US-based group Jewish Voice for Peace which shares this goal.

Jews against the occupation

Harris mentions the Occupation I think once, but when he’s talking about Israel accomplishing its aims and living peacefully, he does not mention the Occupation at all. Everyone in that region could get along great and sing ‘Kum Ba Yah’ together, but that wouldn’t change the facts of Palestinian loss of land (have you seen the maps?), living under Occupation including random restrictions on essential products, and Palestinians as “second-class citizens” – they would still be living under apartheid.

As Jewish Voices for Peace explain, there are different laws in Israel, depending on people’s ethnicity:

  • ‘Israel still applies 20 laws that privilege Jews over Arabs.’

  • ‘The 1950 Law of Return grants automatic citizenship rights to Jews from anywhere in the world upon request, while denying that same right to Palestinians.’

  • ‘The Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom ensures that Israel is the state of the “Jewish people,” not its citizens.’

  • ‘Israel’s flag and other national symbols are Jewish religious symbols, not neutral or national ones that represent all the citizens of the state.’

Many who have suffered from apartheid in South Africa have made comparisons with Israel. For example:

“The ANC chairperson, Baleka Mbete, strongly responded, saying that she has been to Palestine herself and that the Israeli regime is not only comparable but ‘far worse than apartheid South Africa’.”

In apartheid South Africa, should there have been calls to just let the white South Africans live in peace, as long as the South African government can accomplish its aims of an apartheid state? While we can obviously discuss the tactics used to oppose apartheid in South Africa, the central injustice was the apartheid itself, I think the same is true here. Harris is right to condemn Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Semitism but what is lacking from his analysis is that his interpretation of Israelis living “peacefully” still involves Occupation and apartheid.

There’s no meaningful peace without justice and there is no justice while Israel continues to Occupy Palestine.

3 thoughts on “A Response To Sam Harris Blaming Muslims for the “Careful” and “Compassionate” Killing of Palestinian Civilians

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