Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Weighing in on the conflict in Gaza

Very concisely, I’m going to express some thoughts on the ongoing conflict.

First, I want to state that I believe Israel’s occupation and settlement of the West Bank is bad and should stop. I believe that Israeli diplomatic intransigence and, in particular, the expansion of Israeli settlements have powerfully negative effects upon the possibility of peace in the near future, and I believe that they cause unjustified suffering to both Palestinians and Israelis.

Second, I want to state that regardless of the bigger picture, regardless of the conclusions we come to about the justifications or lack-thereof for the use of force, an image of dead children is one that should all give us a great feeling of sorrow and horror (note: link is not to the image, though it’s not hard to find). We should lament every loss of life, but when children die, we can’t escape the simple aesthetic experience of helplessness, despair, and generalised anger. Let none of us gloss over this.

But the conflict in Gaza is complicated.

Hamas’s position in the territory is very government-like in certain key ways. Hamas commands a large military wing, comprising10,000 active fighters and up to 20,000 reservists that are reasonably well trained and equipped (by regional standards), a police force to keep public order, and a bureaucratic infrastructure that collects taxes and administers services ranging from health-care to sanitation. The Gaza Strip may be a territory under siege, with Israeli control over its airspace, waters, and border crossings, but it is not occupied in the way that the West Bank is occupied.

And the rockets and mortars that Hamas and its Palestinian Islamic Jihad allies have been launching are a real threat. In the recent flare-up, three Israelis have been killed and about a dozen more have been moderately to seriously injured, which basically means some long-term and possibly permanent health problems. Israelis within rocket range do feel legitimate fear, and they are lucky to be able to take cover in the vast number of bomb shelters that Israel makes sure are available to its citizens. These not only include the regulation bombshelters that every residence in Israel must possess but also portable concrete shelters that have been erected in communities bordering the Gaza Strip.

Now obviously the people in Gaza have it a lot worse. Israeli bombs and missiles are far more deadly than the rockets that Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups have been firing.

But what does this all mean for the legitimacy or justification for Israel’s on-going military campaign against Hamas, in which well over a hundred people have died so far?

I think we should affirm Israel’s right, and obligation, to defend its citizens from military attack by a foreign government. And I think that Hamas’ rockets do constitute such an attack. This brings us into the territory of ‘just war theory‘, and to the question of what kind of violence is permissible in war and what kind isn’t. Conventional just war theory actually permits quite a lot of force. For example, the simple fact that Hamas’ rocket launchers are often fired from densely populated areas would, under conventional understandings. probably permit fairly massive Israeli retaliation, with the Doctrine of Double Effect permitting extensive casualties amongst those unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. But this seems perverse and I don’t want to endorse it. Neither does Israel, it seems, as the Israeli military warns locals by text message and by leaflet before it begins bombing. Nevertheless, many people are dying.

It is not at all trivial to note that if Israel were to engage in any military actions in Gaza at all, those actions would likely cause non-combatants to die. The assassination of Hamas’s military commander, which took place at the beginning of the recent flare-up, is actually an anomaly in that it was highly discriminate and resulted only in the deaths of its target, a combatant, and the car’s other occupant, also a combatant. As I’ve said in the past, just because someone is a combatant does not mean that their death isn’t a bad thing. We should value all life, and see all loss of life as a tragedy. We can also say that many of Israel’s bombs are falling on empty buildings – or at least on buildings where the combatants have left – and thus aren’t actually achieving a particularly useful military objective. So we can condemn those.

Nevertheless, it seems to me, so far, that we shouldn’t be condemning the larger military operation.

But I am with Jeff McMahan – one of my favourite philosophers on the morality of war – in holding that no act of violence in war can be just if it is in the service of an unjust war. And while we might see this particular flare-up as a just war if we narrowly conceive of it as a response to rocket fire, we must not ignore the overall context of the conflict: a century-long struggle between Zionist Jews and Arabs both in Palestine and in the surrounding region, which in its current state certainly does not lend much legitimacy to the Israeli position. How can we endorse a war against Hamas when Israel could almost certainly stop the rocket attacks, at least for the time being, by doing what it already should be doing, which is evacuating its settlements and ending its occupation?

To this I can only say that things are not so simple. And I’m sorry for the weakness of this answer. We know that the Israeli government is a terrible mess of extremist parties and coalition governments, within which the settler movement is very powerful. We know that even if a substantial majority of the Israeli population wanted to see the occupation end – and it did at one point, though it seems as though that progressive bloc is shrinking in the face of a fearful resurgent nationalism – no rapid or unilateral action is likely to take place. And so we’re stuck with a tragic situation. We need to ‘bracket’ shorter-term situations like this recent conflict between Hamas and Israel and, to a far greater degree than we probably would like, come to conclusions that run contrary to our overall sympathies.

In this case, to my discomfort, I conclude that Israel’s military action is just, despite my deeper and broader objections to Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.


4 responses to “Weighing in on the conflict in Gaza

  1. rutgervanm November 21, 2012 at 12:29 am

    Thanks for this overview, with which I generally agree.

    Two points I would like to make:
    – I think you are misreading the Israeli efforts to avoid civilian casualties. As a cynic, I would refer (once more) to Eyal Weizman’s article on lawfare: I could read the use of warnings by phonecalls, leaflets and radio transmissions not as a genuine attempt to minimize civilian loss of life, but as a way of providing legal and media communications cover for unpalatable practices. If the IDF bombs a house with non-combatant women and children inside, it can constitute a warcrime. If the IDF bombs the same house, but makes a phonecall to warn everybody out, those same non-combatants can still die in some way, but then the IDF has given fair warning and therefore any casualties are not its responsibility. A single phonecall can change someone’s status from innocent non-combatant to a legitimate target if they remain in the area.

    In somewhat broader terms, I think Israel’s rethoric of sparing no effort to avoid unnecessary casualties and using extreme discrimination in its targeting practices, makes sense only within the narrow and warped moral universe that they themselves have created. It is only “restraint” in comparison with the full destructive capacities that Israel possesses. Now, Israel is able to maintain this narrative of discrimination and restraint in international diplomatic circles because of its symbolic power and media savvy, but the disconnect with alternative explanations (or reality for that matter) is increasingly wide.

    So, rather than seeing it as a genuine attempt to avoid civilian loss of life, I would argue that it is foremost a tactic of avoiding legal responsibility and prosecution in front of international courts and maintaining the moral high ground in international diplomacy.

    – If we are to judge who is responsible for the current round of escalation and who has been most “just” in its response, I think it would be helpful to distinguish between the immediate run up to the current escalation and the wider context of the past few years. I think these two are often conflated in current media reporting.

    There can be little doubt, I think, that it was Palestinian actions that provoked Operation Pillar of Defense and that escalation did not start with the Israeli assassination of Jabaari. The amount of rocket fire from Gaza had been steadily increasing for several months up until the Jabaari strike last Wednesday. The Israeli response to this increased rocket threat was initially very limited. Even if not Hamas, but other groups like PIJ and jihadist groups were responsible for this, it was clear that this would eventually provoke an Israeli response and in this way Hamas knew exactly what it was starting by allowing or conducting more rocket attacks.
    (of course, some would argue that Israel deliberately let itself be provoked to create this “opportunity”, a theory which has been lent credence by the report that Jabaari was actually involved in negotiating a long-term truce)

    However, taking events since Cast Lead into consideration, I would argue that the blame lies mainly with Israel. After deterrence has been re-established with Cast Lead the Israelis continued their blockade of Gaza, which amounts to a semi-occupation (as you argued) and kept the Gazans alive only at subsistence levels. I am a firm believer of being magnanimous in victory and with all the power, the Israelis should have been more generous with Gaza. Continuing the blockade was a missed opportunity to gaing global credibility and sympathy and left Hamas little option but to attack again at a later point. If a dangerous animal is driven into a corner by a man, who is responsible when the animal strikes? The animal has no choice, other than to let itself be captured/defeated, whereas the man has multiple other options.

    • Said Simon November 21, 2012 at 3:18 pm

      Hi Rutger,

      In response to your points:

      Whether or not Israeli efforts to avoid civilian casualties are borne out of the goodness of their hearts or out of cold, strategic assessment is not really relevant. What matters is their actions and the outcome of those actions. Weizman’s article is excellent though, and I’ve been planning to write about lawfare for a while.

      But I disagree with you that their rhetoric only makes sense within their own ‘moral universe’. I do think that many Israelis believe themselves to be taking morally righteous actions when they issue warnings, and I encounter a whole lot of non-Israelis who think that these warnings are indeed virtuous. Whether it is driven first and foremost by legal need, from what I can tell, the sense that it is the ‘right thing to do’ is pretty widespread.

      Perhaps it’s one of those lucky instances in which strategic wisdom and moral wisdom coincide? In that case, we can celebrate, because it means that international law is doing its job.

      I agree, and yet, I don’t agree. The assassination of Jabari did nevertheless constitute a substantial escalation even considering the preceding rocket fire. That doesn’t mean that it was unwarranted, but it came as a surprising and substantial increase in the amount of force Israel was using. This is why I think that selecting the ‘beginning’ of the operation largely depends on when you start your account of events; if you start as of a few months ago, it looks like Israel didn’t ‘start’ things.

      However, I think your understanding of the post-Cast-Lead situation is simply inaccurate. Israel substantially relaxed its blockade and the Gazan economy has been substantially improved. That doesn’t mean the blockade has been anywhere near lifted, nor that many Gazans aren’t relying on subsistence-level food handouts from UNRWA. But it would be wrong to say that Israel has continued to maintain Gaza in the state of poverty that preceded Cast Lead.

      Also, I’m uncomfortable with your ‘man corners animal’ analogy. Hamas is not an animal. Hamas is an organisation of people with no less (or more) agency than Israelis. To portray them as an unthinking and desperate beast not only runs roughshod over strong evidence of their careful strategic thinking and capacity for nuanced politics, but also demeans them in ways that seem distressingly amenable to pro-Israeli bellicose rhetoric. After all, a snarling animal that attacks you should be put down, right?

  2. Ian November 21, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Thanks for your take on this. It’s definitely a huge mess and tragedy. The rabid pro-Israel lobby in the USA and Canadian governments don’t help matters much (not that they should flip to being pro-Palestine obviously). Maybe in a follow up you could give Simon’s roadmap to peace in the Middle East (because I assume you’re an optimist)?

    • Said Simon November 22, 2012 at 3:24 am

      I wouldn’t have any truly innovative suggestions for peace, but I do think that it is possible and I can certainly suggest one of the more promising ‘roadmaps’ I’ve come across.

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