The Case of Mahmoud Abu Asbah (non-fiction)

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In this week’s rocket attack on Ashkelon, a man named Mahmoud Abu Asbah was killed. His wife was seriously injured. Mahmoud was a Palestinian with valid work papers. He worked in the building in which he was killed. He was not an enemy of Israel. If he had been, he could have killed more Israelis by himself in a single attack than 400 rockets from Gaza had at the cost of numerous Hamas targets.

Mahmoud was not an enemy. And while he was a victim of Hamas he can also unlock a method of undermining them.

When Western moralists look at Israel, they want to apply Western rules of war. However, Western rules of war were designed for nations in conflict. In this conception, militaries fight, not people. But in this region, peoples are in conflict. Just as the Islamic State in Syria concerned all Yazidi fair targets, Israel’s enemies consider all Jews fair targets. There is no divide between combatant and non-combatant. Even the ‘moderate’ Palestinian Authority considers terrorists who have targeted and killed school children (Dalal Mughrabi) worthy of great honor.

Despite this regional reality, Israel holds itself to a different set of rules. Israel’s enemies know this and they manipulate it. They position rockets in residential areas or in schools. They use women and even children to launch attacks. At the same time, they act within their rules of war: they target Israel’s civilian populations relentlessly. They know Israel won’t target their civilian populations relentlessly. And they know, with the exception of some extremists, that Israelis don’t want to. Israel’s only concession to the local rules of war is that Israel acts on groups when it cannot individually target all of its measures. The Gaza fence, the separation barrier, checkpoints and restrictions on imports impact a large population because there is no other way to individually restrain significant numbers of terrorists within that population.

Israel’s desire not to target civilians while it faces the necessity of large-scale measures that impact whole populations hampers their effectiveness in this conflict. It also strengthens Israel’s enemies. Hamas and many in the Palestinian Authority want all Palestinians to be the enemies of all Jews. They want to maintain a united front. It is critical to their continued power and relevance. Israel’s current path reinforces their unity.

But Israel can create cracks in that unity and Mahmoud Abu Asbah was one such crack. Despite being Palestinian, Mahmoud Abu Asbah was not an enemy. He might even have been a friend; I have no way of knowing. But Israeli security forces had approved his permit to work in Israel and he had harmed nobody. Giving Mahmoud Abu Asbah a work permit not only gave him and his family new hope, it weakened Israel’s enemy’s united front.

Now, imagine extending that concept to an entire town or city from which no terrorism emanates? Israel could officially recognize such a town and its citizens and give them access to Israeli labor markets; much as has been done with Arab sections of Jerusalem. Such a city would even be able to invite others to become residents. Unlike Arab areas of Jerusalem, they would maintain their unique status only for as long as their citizens do not engage in terror. This recognition would not be a method of integrating territory (as it is in Jerusalem). Instead, it would be a method of offering hope to those who want no part in conflict, while isolating those populations who are truly dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

Put another way: offering a way out would grant those like Mahmoud Abu Asbah a life of peace and hope rather than making them collateral damage in a conflict they can not escape.

And this path, a path of peace with whoever will accept it, can benefit us all.


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Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (, a thriller about creating hope from war.



    (November 17, 2018 - 2:11 am)

    I’m glad you and family are safe, Joseph.

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