A warrior of the Hamas Naval Commando drowned during a training exercise in northern Gaza on September 2015. In an Israeli online newspaper’s report on the story, they opened the article with the sentence, “He didn’t excel in his role.” They showed a picture of him which they titled “the schlemiel.” They wrote, “to strengthen the absurdity [of him drowning], his name means ‘ocean.’” They called him an “unskilled fighter.”
As an Israeli and a five-year veteran of an elite combat unit in the IDF, I don’t care about this man; it’s good he’s dead. He was training to infiltrate my country via the sea and kill Israelis. His death is beneficial to Israel’s national security.
But we don’t have to mock him in a newspaper report of his death.
There is no higher moral ground in war because war is not a moral beast. There can, however, be a higher moral ground in how we react to and report on war, and how we react to death on the other side, where instead of mocking our enemy, we can show them respect.
For me, there is nothing wrong with killing members of Hamas, or Palestinians who have devoted themselves to destroy Israel or its citizens. But I’m also aware that had I been born in Gaza or the West Bank, the opposite would be true. And if, in that situation, I felt for Palestine what I feel for Israel, there is a high chance I would have joined the Hamas Naval Commando, as I had volunteered for the Israeli equivalent.
I can therefore respect the fighters on the other side, and even though I think of them as terrorists, I also think of them as men and women with a particular set of beliefs, and an ideology — as incorrect and extreme as it is in my mind, but an ideology nonetheless — for which they are willing to kill and die, as I am prepared to do for mine. It’s possible to kill without feeling regret or guilt, but still feel sadness for the situation that pits enemies against each other, and empathy for those who lose.
It isn’t that Israel doesn’t take the high road in hard places. We don’t parade in the streets to celebrate enemy deaths, as is done in Gaza. And when Palestinian terrorists were recently killed while attempting to stab Israeli civilians, the Israeli government returned their bodies to their families for funerals and mourning, despite Hamas not returning the bodies of two Israeli soldiers taken more than a year ago.
But it’s not only a matter of being the bigger people or nation or taking the higher moral ground. It’s also a question of what it says about the way we view death and killing, what that teaches teenagers and soldiers about the act, and what it’s adding to the culture of our country. I often witnessed during my service the celebration of the soldier who took a life, turning him into a mini-celebrity. Not only can this warp the act for the soldier — make him thirsty for it instead of dealing with the gravity of the act — but as a nation, it numbs us to the destruction happening on both sides. There’s a difference between celebrating killing and celebrating still being alive.
One place where we can be better, and should be better, is in how we report about war and death on the other side. We don’t have to turn them into heroes, which they aren’t, but we can spare the mocking. Respect is key. As long as we’re in a state of fighting and war, it’s okay to kill those who pose a threat to national security. But it’s possible to do what needs to be done with a respect and humility that will only elevate us as a country and as soldiers. We don’t owe as much to them; we owe it to ourselves.