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Israel and Gaza: A Just and Unjust War


Wartime is a test of one’s clarity, and independence, of thought. This is not to say that solidarity with a side always marks a collapse of clear and independent thinking. It all depends on who the sides are, and whether their actions can be adequately justified. Of course there are wars in which one feels that one already has a side, because one’s own country or people or worldview is a party to the conflict; but identity is not a sufficient guide to loyalty, because it may be legitimately expressed in various ways. Prior commitments and enthusiasms cannot tell the whole story: The conduct of a war must influence one’s judgment of it. Disagreement is not treason, at least in a decent society. Dissent about matters of life and death may disturb those who worry about morale, but not those who worry about justice. Indeed, an overwhelming consensus in support of a war should (I have learned) fill one with foreboding, because it generally means that significant empirical or ethical considerations may be overlooked. The history of war fever reveals nothing to recommend it. Even a just war should be supported unfeverishly.

A war against Hamas is not an unjust war. Hamas has been a failure at everything except murder. Its strategy is the targeting of civilians, those of its enemy and (since the brutal response of its enemy is an important element of its the-worse-the-better calculus) of its own. The callousness of Hamas toward the sufferings of Palestinians is unbelievable. A combat manual of the Shejaiya Brigade of Hamas advises its fighters to deploy in densely populated areas because “the soldiers and commanders must limit their use of weapons and tactics that lead to the harm and unnecessary loss of people and civilian facilities,” and adds that “the destruction of civilian homes” is a boon to the cause, because it “increases the hatred of the citizens toward the attackers and increases their gathering around the city defenders.” This plan for Palestinian carnage is no less repugnant than the missiles and the tunnels designed for the slaughter of Israeli citizens. These are monsters. But the population of Gaza are not monsters and the Palestinian people are not monsters; and I will confess that I have found myself unable to be satisfied, in the analysis of responsibility in this war, by the assertion, which is incontrovertible, that the killing of non-combatant Palestinians by Israel in Gaza is one of Hamas’s war aims, and so Israel is completely absolved if it obliges. A provocation does not relieve one of accountability for how one responds to it. For this reason, the war has filled me with disquiet, which my sympathetic understanding of Israel’s position has failed to stifle.

I believe in philosophical reasoning and I have followed the philosophical reasoning about Israel’s actions. I know about asymmetrical warfare, and the theory of the just war, and the criterion of proportionality, and the doctrine of double effect, and the rest. I have no new argument to offer to this deliberation. I am pleased that the deliberation may vindicate Israel. But my heart is not in it. I do not know how to do the arithmetic of conscience. Officials in Gaza say that 1,834 Palestinians have been killed. An IDF spokesman says that “approximately 900 militants in combat” have been killed. That leaves about 900 dead civilians. Is that doctrinally acceptable? Is it “mowing the lawn”? What is the concept which can confidently prescribe that when three Hamas operatives are on a motorcycle at a school where people are waiting in line for food supplies, the trigger should be pulled? If the villains can be identified, so can the people. There are no concepts that can catch up with the murder of children. After all, even Satan has not yet devised the proper vengeance for the death of a child. I have been surprised by the magnitude of the indifference in the Jewish world to the human costs of Israel’s defense against the missiles and the tunnels. Some of the e-mails I have received have been lunatic in their lack of compassion. According to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 95 percent of Jewish Israelis believe the war in Gaza is just. It is easy to see why: Self-defense is also a moral duty. But only 4 percent believe that the Israeli military has used excessive force. This makes me queasy. Unanimity, or close to it, is no guarantee of truth. No excessive force, anywhere?

There are two ways to interpret my disquiet. The first, a canard of the right, is to view it as a breach of solidarity, as a wobble in hard times. The second, a canard of the left, is to view it as moral complacence, as a cunning form of complicity with what it deplores. Needless to say, I do not regard myself as a turncoat or a pawn. It is not sickening that Israel is defending itself—it is, by the standard of Jewish historical experience, exhilarating; but some of what Israel is doing to defend itself is sickening. Is our identity so infirm that such complication cannot be introduced? 

And there is another reason for insisting on a more humane attitude toward the Palestinians, a political reason. It is that the Palestinians are not Hamas. One of Hamas’s objectives in this war has been to salvage its fortunes by creating the impression that it is representative of its people, and in this it has met with a measure of success. American diplomatic mistakes, along with the coarseness and the virulence of the opposition to Israel in Europe, have obscured an accurate understanding of the relation of Hamas to the Palestinians. Before the war Hamas was unpopular among Palestinians even, or especially, in Gaza: The miseries of Gaza can hardly be attributed only to Israeli policy. Now the Gazan tunnels and the Gazan arsenals have been gutted, but the old problem remains. Israel has a strategy for war, but it does not have a strategy for peace. In the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, the notion, recently in fashion, that there is no need for a peace process is absurd. The destruction of Hamas is one of the interests that Israel and the Palestinians have in common, but the only way to destroy Hamas is to make peace with Abu Mazen.