Thursday, July 20, 2006

Morality and politics of the current war in the Middle East

Michael Walzer wrote an important piece about the morality and politics of what Israel is doing in the current war in the Middle East that appeared in the New Republic. He writes,
Israel is now at war with an enemy whose hostility is extreme,
explicit, unrestrained, and driven by an ideology of religious hatred. But this is an enemy that does not field an army; that has no institutional structure and no visible chain of command; that does not recognize the legal and moral principle of noncombatant immunity; and that does not, indeed, acknowledge any rules of engagement. How do you--how does anyone--fight an enemy like that? I cannot deal with the strategy and tactics of such a fight. How to strike effectively, how to avoid a dangerous escalation--those are important topics, but not mine. The question I want to address is about morality and politics.


The argument, in this case, is prudential as well as moral.
Reducing the quality of life in Gaza, where it is already low, is intended to
put pressure on whoever is politically responsible for the inhabitants of
Gaza--and then these responsible people, it is hoped, will take action against
the shadowy forces attacking Israel. The same logic has been applied in Lebanon,
where the forces are not so shadowy. But no one is responsible in either of
these cases, or, better, those people who might take responsibility long ago
chose not to. The leaders of the sovereign state of Lebanon insist that they
have no control over the southern part of their country--and, more amazingly, no
obligation to take control. Still, Palestinian civilians are not likely to hold
anyone responsible for their fate except the Israelis, and, while the Lebanese
will be more discriminating, Israel will still bear the larger burden of blame.
Hamas and Hezbollah feed on the suffering their own activity brings about, and
an Israeli response that increases the suffering only intensifies the

So, what can Israel do? It is an important principle of just
war theory that justice, though it rules out many ways of fighting, cannot rule
out fighting itself--since fighting is sometimes morally and politically
necessary. A military response to the capture of the three Israeli soldiers
wasn't, literally, necessary; in the past, Israel has negotiated instead of
fighting and then exchanged prisoners. But, since Hamas and Hezbollah describe
the captures as legitimate military operations--acts of war--they can hardly
claim that further acts of war, in response, are illegitimate. The further acts
have to be proportional, but Israel's goal is to prevent future raids, as well
as to rescue the soldiers, so proportionality must be measured not only against
what Hamas and Hezbollah have already done, but also against what they are (and what they say they are) trying to do.

The most important Israeli goal in both the north and the south is
to prevent rocket attacks on its civilian population, and, here, its response
clearly meets the requirements of necessity. The first purpose of any state is
to defend the lives of its citizens; no state can tolerate random rocket attacks
on its cities and towns. Some 700 rockets have been fired from northern Gaza
since the Israeli withdrawal a year ago--imagine the U.S. response if a similar
number were fired at Buffalo and Detroit from some Canadian no-man's-land. It
doesn't matter that, so far, the Gazan rockets have done minimal damage; the
intention every time one is fired is to hit a home or a school, and, sooner or
later, that intention will be realized. Israel has waited a long time for the
Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government to deal with the rocket fire
from Gaza and the rocket build-up on the Lebanese border. In the latter case, it
has also waited for the United Nations, which has a force in southern Lebanon
that is mandated to "restore international peace and security" but has
nonetheless watched the positioning of thousands of rockets and has done
nothing. A couple of years ago, the Security Council passed a resolution calling
for the disarming of Hezbollah; its troops, presumably, have noticed that this
didn't happen. Now Israel has rightly decided that it has no choice except to
take out the rockets itself. But, again, how can it do that?


There is no neat solution to their dilemma. When Palestinian
militants launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves
responsible--and no one else is--for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli
counterfire. But (the dialectical argument continues) Israeli soldiers are
required to aim as precisely as they can at the militants, to take risks in
order to do that, and to call off counterattacks that would kill large numbers
of civilians. That last requirement means that, sometimes, the Palestinian use
of civilian shields, though it is a cruel and immoral way of fighting, is also
an effective way of fighting. It works, because it is both morally right and
politically intelligent for the Israelis to minimize--and to be seen trying to
minimize--civilian casualties. Still, minimizing does not mean avoiding
entirely: Civilians will suffer so long as no one on the Palestinian side (or
the Lebanese side) takes action to stop rocket attacks. From that side, though
not from the Israeli side, what needs to be done could probably be done without
harm to civilians.

I was recently asked to sign a condemnation of the Israeli
operation in Gaza--a statement claiming that the rocket attacks and the military
raid that led to the capture of Gilad Shalit are simply the inevitable
consequences of the Israeli occupation: There "never will be peace or security
until the occupation ends." In the past, I am sure, some Palestinian attacks
were motivated by the experience of occupation. But that isn't true today. Hamas
is attacking after the Israelis departed Gaza and after the formation of a
government that is (or was until the attacks) committed to a large withdrawal
from the West Bank. Similarly, Hezbollah's attacks came after the Israeli
withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The aim of these militants is not to create a
Palestinian state alongside Israel; it is to destroy Israel. Admittedly, that is
a long-term aim that derives from a religious view of history. Secularists and
pragmatists have a lot of trouble acknowledging such a view, let alone
understanding it.

By contrast, the Israeli response has only a short-term aim: to
stop the attacks across its borders. Until that is achieved, no Israeli
government is going to move forward with another withdrawal. In fact, it is
probably true that the Hamas and Hezbollah attacks have made any future
unilateral withdrawals impossible. Israel needs a partner on the other side who
is, first of all, capable of maintaining security on the new border and who is,
second, actually willing to do that. I can't pretend that the Israeli military
operations now in progress are going to produce a partner like that. At best,
the army and air force will weaken the capacity of Hamas and Hezbollah to attack
Israel; they won't alter their resolve. It will probably take the international
community--the United States, Europe, the United Nations, some Arab states--to
bring the Lebanese army into the south of the country and make it an effective
force once it is there. And it will take a similar coalition to sponsor and
support a Palestinian government that is committed to two states with one
permanent and peaceful border and that is prepared to repress the religious
militants who oppose that commitment. Until there is an effective Lebanese army
and a Palestinian government that believes in co-existence, Israel is entitled
to act, within the dialectical limits, on its own behalf.

You may read the entire essay here.

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