I had a ticket on a plane to Tel Aviv this evening, joining my wife who would already have been in Israel on a business trip. For obvious reasons, that trip is off. But I did say in my post of July 10 that I would eventually be commenting on issues raised by the Noam Sheizaf piece I cited that day, and I don’t need to be on the scene to do that. The question I want to consider is: are Israel’s current actions in Gaza justified?
A good way to think about this question is to consider what has come to be called “just war theory.” For centuries, philosophers, theologians and other scholars have talked about the morality of war. They’ve asked two basic questions. First: under what conditions is it morally acceptable to go to war? Second: once war is under way, what kinds of war-fighting actions can be morally justified and what cannot? The first question goes by the term jus ad bellum, the justice (or injustice) of war, which concerns whether it is right or wrong to fight a particular war. The second question centers on jus in bello, justice in war, which is concerned with the way a war is fought, particularly regarding observance of the requirement that non-combatant civilians be spared from harm as much as possible.
The two questions are logically independent: a just war can be fought using immoral means. But it is also possible to fight an unjust war even while observing the “rules of war” that require consideration for civilian life.
Today I’m going to consider the Gaza war in terms of jus ad bellum. My next post will be concerned with jus in bello.
So, is Israel justified in attacking Gaza? The obvious answer is that of course it is: Israel has a right to defend itself against rockets raining on its land, threatening its people.
But it’s more complicated than that. One problem is when to pinpoint the start of this war. The common view that it started with the rocket fire from Gaza ignores the provocation that preceded. As Larry Derfner of the Israeli website +972mag recounts, Bibi Netanyahu instantly seized on the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers to launch a widespread offensive against Hamas, re-arresting operatives it had previously freed by agreement.
Netanyahu blamed Hamas for the kidnapping. He said he had proof. To this day, neither he nor any other Israeli official has come forward with a shred of proof. Meanwhile, it is now widely assumed that the Hamas leadership did not give the order for the kidnapping, that it was instead carried out at the behest of a renegade, Hamas-linked, Hebron clan….
But Netanyahu used the kidnappings to go after Hamas in the West Bank…. The army raided, destroyed, confiscated and arrested anybody and anything having to do with Hamas, killed some Palestinian protesters and rearrested some 60 Hamasniks who had been freed in the Gilad Shalit deal, throwing them back in prison.
Meanwhile, in Gaza, Israel had already escalated matters on June 11, the day before the kidnappings, by killing not only a wanted man riding on a bicycle, but a 10-year-old child riding with him.”
Another Israeli blogger, Roy Isacowitz (a friend of a friend who I would have visited had I gone to Israel) commented acidly on the selective shortness of Israeli memories:
“Take, for example, the current round of butchery, which, if you ask nine out of 10 Israelis, began when Hamas started firing rockets at Israel a little over a week ago in an unprovoked and totally irrational attack. That and nothing else, is the background.
As for the Israeli military rampage through the West Bank that preceded the rockets, which was publicly proclaimed by Israel as a bid to cripple Hamas and its infrastructure in the West Bank … what rampage? Either it never happened or it had nothing to do with the rockets.” [Isacowitz presumably doesn’t follow the US mass media, where he could have observed a similar shortness of memory.]
So, Israel launched a war against Hamas on the West Bank and Hamas replied with the only means of resistance it has available —rockets from Gaza. There is no reason to believe those rockets would have started flying had it not been for Netanyahu’s deliberate breaking of a cease-fire that both sides had been observing. (It’s not the first time Israel broke a cease fire with Hamas, as Jerome Slater has explained.) Netanyahu had no just cause for doing so. Israel’s obvious right to defend itself from rockets thus becomes at least a bit less obvious: it turns out that it was Israel that initiated the hostilities that led to the rocket fire that it “obviously” has a right to defend against. I would go further: it is not altogether wild to speculate that the Israeli government expected that their offensive on the West Bank might provoke rocket fire (what else?), and relished the opportunity to seize on that pretext to attack Gaza.
Israel’s right to defend itself becomes more dubious still when we consider the broader historic context. As one commenter to +972 colorfully put it,
Bibi and his bullies have held siege over Gaza for about a decade and I can’t help but think of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising when they too had had enough. This crap about rocket fire coming into Israel is portrayed as some vile act of terrorism occurring for no other reason than to wreak havoc in Israel. These rockets don’t come over the border in a vacuum. There are decades of oppression, land grabs, continuing settlement activity, thievery, looting, and murder of Palestinians.
Slater, writing about an earlier (2008-9) Israeli assault on Gaza, makes essentially the same point in more conventional language that applies equally to the current situation:
…[T]here can be no right of self-defense when illegitimate and violent repression engenders resistance—and that holds true even when the form of resistance, terrorism (a fair description of Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians) is itself morally wrong. In that light, the Israeli attack was a war crime in and of itself…
But wait: didn’t Israel withdraw from Gaza, only to be punished by rocket fire? Anyone who asks that question is either naïve or disingenuous. Israel did dismantle its untenable settlement in Gaza, but that was a unilateral strategic decision that had nothing to do with generosity. The stranglehold that Israel has maintained over Gaza—controlling its borders, airspace, and coastline; restricting its foreign trade, crippling its economy; and blocking practically all movement of people in and out—amounts to an extreme occupation from without. It is hard to overstate the suffering the people of Gaza have undergone under Israel subjugation, whose measures go well beyond the stated purpose of containing Hamas’s threat to Israeli security. There is only slight hyperbole in the frequent description of Gaza as the world’s largest open-air prison. Occasionally, some of the prisoners lash out hatefully and desperately at their captors.
My conclusion, then, as to jus ad bellum: Israel’s attack on Gaza is not a just war, both because it is a war that was effectively started by Israel without legitimate provocation, and because it is a war that shouldn’t need to be fought in the first place—a war to crush resistance to oppression.
But what of Israel’s conduct of the war? Is Israel taking all reasonable steps to minimize harm to civilians? I’ll address those questions in my next post.