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Israel Must Defeat Hamas, But Also Must Do More to Limit Civilian Deaths


When it comes to the conflict in Gaza, the critical question, "Cui bono?"—"To whose benefit?"—suggests that this is Hamas's war. It is a reckless gamble by an organization that was in deep trouble, and the gamble (so far) is paying off, at terrible cost to the people of Gaza—though the terrible cost is crucial to the payoff.

Looked at from afar, and I suspect from close up—I have never visited Gaza—Hamas is an awful organization and deserves all its trouble. It is religiously committed to the destruction of Israel, and it has no commitment, religious or secular, to the welfare of the people it rules in Gaza. It has worked hard and surprisingly effectively to build its arsenal and to dig its attack tunnels and its underground fortresses, but it has built no bomb shelters for the ordinary Gazans from whose midst it fires its rockets and in whose homes, schools, and mosques it hides them. Israel claims that Hamas uses the people of Gaza as "human shields"; in truth, Hamas isn't so much hiding behind them as deliberately exposing them to harm, which is one way of "winning" in asymmetric warfare.

But Hamas isn't the only Palestinian organization. For some years now, Israel has had the option of working with Fatah and with the Palestine Authority that Fatah controls. Indeed, Israel has benefited greatly from the diligence of the PA's security forces on the West Bank—and would now like (as would Egypt) to see those same forces at work in Gaza. And yet it has done nothing to strengthen the PA and to move it toward its own goal: Statehood and sovereignty. Instead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has done pretty much everything it could to undermine the PA—by expanding West Bank settlements, seizing land and water, and failing to deal with the settler movement's zealots and thugs and their "price tag" attacks. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict would look very different today if the PA was on its way to statehood. For one thing, it would be difficult for Hamas to claim to lead the "resistance" to Israeli occupation if the occupation was approaching its end.

Like the present Israeli government (or, better, its leading members), Hamas doesn't believe in a Palestinian state alongside Israel. These two bitter enemies are actually helping one another. Every rocket that Hamas fires weakens the Israeli left and makes it more difficult for ordinary Israelis to contemplate a withdrawal from the West Bank—since rockets from there could make all of Israel uninhabitable. And every new settlement, every "price tag" attack on the West Bank, weakens Fatah and the PA and lends credence to Hamas's claim that violence is the only way.

Hamas wants Greater Palestine; the Netanyahu government, though it doesn't admit it, is moving steadily toward Greater Israel. Hamas opposes Little Israel, and Netanyahu opposes Little Palestine. One might well want to say, a plague on both their houses! But now they are at war, and choices have to be made.

We should choose Israel—because Israel is a democracy where it is possible to imagine the political defeat of the rightwing nationalists who are now in charge; it is possible to imagine a government that would work toward Palestinian statehood—Israel has had governments of that sort in the past, under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Olmert. Inside Israel today, it is possible to criticize the government's bombing policy—as I will do below, a little uneasily, from the outside. Public criticism of Hamas in Gaza, even in "peacetime," is a risky business, and a victory for Hamas in this war—indeed, any strengthening of its hand vis-a-vis Fatah—would set the stage for future and more terrible wars, for Hamas has never deviated from its absolute opposition to the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. 

But this choice, Israel over Hamas, is difficult for many people to make because of the rising tide of Palestinian casualties, dead and wounded, in the Gaza war. Israel, people say, is the strongest military power in the Middle East, so what can it possibly fear from Hamas? Why is it killing so many people, not militants only, but also civilians? Indeed, Israel is the Middle East Goliath. But readers of the Bible will know that it wasn't Goliath who won the battle with little David. In a conventional war with Hamas, Israel would win—not in six days as in the 1967 war, but in six hours. Asymmetric warfare, however, is a very different story. Despite its high-tech army, the best in the world, the United States lost an asymmetric war in Vietnam and may soon turn out to have lost another such war in Afghanistan. In the last decade, Israel, with what may be an even higher-tech army, was unable to win asymmetric wars in Lebanon and Gaza.

The reason has a lot to do with civilian casualties. In asymmetric warfare, low-tech forces—call them terrorists, militants, or the more neutral "insurgents," which I will use—aim at the most vulnerable targets, civilians, and they launch their attacks from the midst of the civilian population. The high-tech forces respond, in defense of their own or of allied civilians, and end up killing large numbers of enemy civilians. The more civilians they kill—this is the sad, but not morally puzzling truth—the better it is for the insurgents. If you kill civilians in places like Vietnam or Afghanistan, you lose the battle for "hearts and minds." If you kill civilians in a place like Gaza, you lose the battle for global support. The two losses are different: America was defeated in Vietnam, while Israel in Gaza (in 2006) was merely forced to accept a cease-fire, and so prevented from winning. Indeed, the cost of winning would probably have been unbearable.

But it can't be the case that the insurgents, by hiding among civilians, make it impossible for the other side to fight against them. There has to be a just, or justifiable, way of responding to indiscriminate rocket attacks. Hence the doctrine of double effect and the rule of proportionality: If you are aiming at military targets (rocket launchers, for example) and know that your attack will also cause civilian casualties (collateral damage), you must make sure that the number of dead or injured civilians is "not disproportionate" to the value of the military target. Needless to say, this is a highly subjective calculation and has rarely been much of a limit on military attacks: This target is very valuable, the generals say; almost any number of civilians deaths is justifiable. Nor has proportionality provided much of a guideline for moral judgments: Even a very low number of civilians deaths, the moralists say, is disproportionate and a war crime.

Along with many others, I have argued for another rule: that the attacking forces must make positive efforts, including asking their own soldiers to take risks, in order to minimize the risks they impose on enemy civilians. How much risk has to be accepted? There is no precise answer to that question. But some risk is necessary, and if it is taken, then I think that the major responsibility for civilian deaths falls on the insurgents who are fighting from homes and schools and crowded streets. And if responsibility is understood and assigned in that way by the global public, it will be possible to fight and win an asymmetric war.

Is Israel fighting that kind of war? Warning civilians to leave a house or a neighborhood, as the IDF has been doing, probably reduces civilian deaths; and it may involve increased risks for the attackers, if the attack is coming on the ground rather than from the air, since defending forces will also be warned. But warnings, as the U.S. learned in Vietnam, aren't enough. People don't leave, or not all of them leave: they are caring for elderly or sick parents; they can't bear to abandon a home of 30 years, with all its accumulated belongings; they don't know where to go; or there isn't any safe place to go. Except when they are being used for some military purpose, houses where people live are not legitimate targets—even if the people who live there include Hamas officials. These attacks are wrong because the officials live with their families, who can't be called human shields.

It is always necessary to figure out who is there, in the house, in the school, in the yard, before an attack begins—and that will often require the attacking soldiers to take risks. I suspect that some Israeli soldiers are doing that, and some are not. That's the way it is in every war; a lot depends on the intelligence and moral competence of the junior officers who make the most critical decisions on the ground. Judging these issues from a distance is especially difficult. But I would strongly advise anyone contemplating the loss of life in Gaza to think carefully about who is responsible, or primarily responsible, for putting civilians at risk. The high-tech army, for all its claims to precision, is often callous and clumsy. But it is the insurgents who decide that the death of civilians will advance their cause. We should do what we can to ensure that it doesn't.