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.