Hassett: The perceptions of major conflict

BY NICK HASSETT | JULY 28, 2014 5:00 AM

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When I was 16, I started working my first real job at a neighborhood grocery store. My coworkers were generally around the same age as me, with the exception of my manager, who was closing in on 30.

My manager was a pretty cool dude. He had no qualms about his employees leaving early as long as the work got done, didn’t mind when we high-schoolers goofed off in the parking lot, and taught me some life lessons along the way.

“Perception is reality,” he used to say. His favorite phrase. That applied to the look of the store, our personal appearance, and our behavior. “All anyone knows is what they see.”

My manager was fired after attempting to steal more than $250 of groceries when the store was closed for a holiday. His “shopping spree” was captured by the store’s cameras. He didn’t bother to act furtively. Apparently, he thought nobody would be watching.

But we don’t live in a world where crimes go unnoticed. With billions connected to the Internet, atrocities are seen by the world in near real time. You’d think that would be a deterrent for nations that care about their standing in the international community. Yet recent news has shown us otherwise.

On July 24, it was reported that Israeli bombs had struck a U.N. refugee shelter in the Gaza Strip, resulting in at least 16 deaths and more than 150 injuries. The director for the U.N. humanitarian organization in Gaza said there was no warning from the Israelis before the attack. It has been the fourth time a U.N. facility has been hit since the Israeli offensive into Palestinian territory started earlier this month.

The July 24 death toll is just a drop in the bucket in the two-week conflict. More than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed and 5,000 have been injured, mostly due to bombs dropped in the territory. The United Nations estimates that more than 70 percent of the dead were civilians. In that same time frame, 42 Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel have been killed.

How does the world perceive this conflict? It depends on whom you talk to. President Obama, after repeating the trite “Israel has a right to defend itself” line, raised concerns about the growing number of civilian casualties. The U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights said there was a “strong possibility” that war crimes have been committed. The French foreign minister said the death toll was disproportionate and the “massacres” of civilians were unacceptable.

Israel excuses the casualties by saying Palestinian terrorist organizations such as Hamas are fond of using “human shields” and that in the case of the bombings, Palestinians were given advance notice via leaflets from Israel’s air force. For those that perceive Israel as the lone bastion of Western values in the Middle East, it’s apparently OK to air-drop eviction notices before air-dropping destruction on civilian homes.

Perception is reality, after all. If you think Israel’s right to defend itself applies unconditionally, then the notion of proportionate force doesn’t apply. If you perceive citizens as human shields, then their casualties are unfortunate necessities of war. If Israel is our stalwart ally in a region of hostile states, then we can raise our concerns and avert our eyes. All we know is what we see.

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