Commentary Magazine


Topic: civilian casualities

Morality and Warfare in Gaza

In Alana’s post about Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s conference call this morning, she reported his comments about the difficulty of trying to fight a war against an immoral foe while preserving your own morality:

The ambassador said Israel has destroyed many of Hamas’s long-range missiles in its first-stage air strikes, but that they couldn’t be completely successful “because of considerations of collateral damage.” In one case, an Israeli pilot refrained from striking a long-range missile because the pilot noticed children in the vicinity, Oren said. That missile was later launched into Tel Aviv.

The action of that Israeli pilot must be seen as praiseworthy since it showed that even in the midst of a conflict in which his country’s security is at risk, that officer was still concerned about saving the lives of Palestinian children. Even if Hamas hides its forces behind civilians, the rules of engagement for Israel’s soldiers require them not to deliberately place innocents at risk even if it confers a military advantage on the terrorists. That is the sort of decision that is in accord with the values that democratic Israel prizes as well as those of Judaism. But this anecdote raises more questions than it answers. It may, in fact, be an apt metaphor for the problems that Israel faces in its conflict with Hamas. One needn’t be a bloodthirsty militarist or be indifferent to morality or to the dictates of international opinion to understand that the consequences of such a policy may not always advance humanitarian goals.

The moral dilemma here is fairly clear. Choosing not to fire at the Hamas missile site may have saved the lives of Palestinian children who were near the weapon. But what would we think about that decision had the missile that had been spared on account of the presence of the Palestinians kids landed on a school, a school bus or a home in Tel Aviv where Israeli children might be hurt or killed? Unless you believe, as many of Israel’s critics apparently do, that Israelis deserve to be killed but that Palestinians ought to be treated as out-of-bounds for any military action, this is an immoral equation.

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In Alana’s post about Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s conference call this morning, she reported his comments about the difficulty of trying to fight a war against an immoral foe while preserving your own morality:

The ambassador said Israel has destroyed many of Hamas’s long-range missiles in its first-stage air strikes, but that they couldn’t be completely successful “because of considerations of collateral damage.” In one case, an Israeli pilot refrained from striking a long-range missile because the pilot noticed children in the vicinity, Oren said. That missile was later launched into Tel Aviv.

The action of that Israeli pilot must be seen as praiseworthy since it showed that even in the midst of a conflict in which his country’s security is at risk, that officer was still concerned about saving the lives of Palestinian children. Even if Hamas hides its forces behind civilians, the rules of engagement for Israel’s soldiers require them not to deliberately place innocents at risk even if it confers a military advantage on the terrorists. That is the sort of decision that is in accord with the values that democratic Israel prizes as well as those of Judaism. But this anecdote raises more questions than it answers. It may, in fact, be an apt metaphor for the problems that Israel faces in its conflict with Hamas. One needn’t be a bloodthirsty militarist or be indifferent to morality or to the dictates of international opinion to understand that the consequences of such a policy may not always advance humanitarian goals.

The moral dilemma here is fairly clear. Choosing not to fire at the Hamas missile site may have saved the lives of Palestinian children who were near the weapon. But what would we think about that decision had the missile that had been spared on account of the presence of the Palestinians kids landed on a school, a school bus or a home in Tel Aviv where Israeli children might be hurt or killed? Unless you believe, as many of Israel’s critics apparently do, that Israelis deserve to be killed but that Palestinians ought to be treated as out-of-bounds for any military action, this is an immoral equation.

It is true that the immoral act would have been the responsibility of the Hamas members who ordered and launched the missile, not that of the Israeli pilot. Those who shelter such weapons behind women and children are despicable cowards, especially when it is understood that their goal is to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible.

It should be understood that Israel does not act in this manner because it is under the misapprehension that moral behavior will win it international applause. Few in Israel are that foolish. Despite the calumnies of Israel’s critics, purity of arms is more than a tradition in the Israeli military; it is a strict code of ethics that has informed the country’s armed forces since they were formed. In any war, especially one waged against irregular forces that hide among civilians, noncombatant casualties are inevitable. Yet Israel actually takes even greater care to avoid them than other nations, including the United States, which has been bitterly criticized for drone attacks on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in which civilians have died.

But though ethicists may always treat any military action in which the soldier consciously endangers the lives of noncombatants in order to achieve their military objective as wrong, a decision that enables terrorists to go on killing other innocents is, at best, a morally dubious proposition.

This is more than just a hypothetical about asymmetrical warfare or even a question about a specific incident. This discussion goes to the heart of Israel’s problem in defending its population against a terrorist enemy.

The Jewish state is locked in a struggle with an organization that exercises effective sovereignty over Gaza. Indeed, for all of the caterwauling about the need to create an independent Palestinian state, what Hamas has created in Gaza is just that. Gaza is an independent Palestinian state in all but name. The rule of the Islamist group there is absolute and tyrannical. Yet the unwritten rule of the current conflict is that any attempt by Israel to depose Hamas will be regarded as intolerable even by states that don’t recognize the group’s right to rule there.

But more than that, the international community has somehow accepted the idea that Hamas can wage war across what is regarded as an international frontier against Israel without having to face the usual consequences of such actions. Rather than just a few children being used as human shields for one missile, the entire population of Gaza has been employed for the same purpose for a terrorist army that has no scruples about targeting civilians on the other side of the border. Though it has sought to hamstring Hamas’s ability to inflict suffering on its people, Israel has largely acquiesced to this absurd moral construct and refrained from the sort of action that any sovereign nation would employ were its towns subjected to the sort of pounding that residents of southern Israel–and now even the central part of the country–have come to treat as “normal.”

It should be recalled that before Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made it clear that should the place be used as a launching pad for terrorism, there would be no respect for the status quo and no holds barred in terms of Israeli retaliation. That pledge may have always been more braggadocio than credible threat, but the moment his successor allowed it to go unfulfilled it became clear that Israel had no good options when it came to restraining Hamas attacks.

The problem here is not just that of one principled pilot or even a thousand other such decisions that are being made throughout the conflict by similarly scrupulous Israeli soldiers. Rather, it is the acceptance of a situation in which Islamist terrorists are allowed to behave as sovereigns but not held responsible for their actions. The true moral dilemma isn’t about a missile; it involves a decision to allow a terrorist group to rule over Gaza the way the Taliban once ruled Afghanistan. So long as Hamas control over Gaza is treated as inviolable, the rockets will continue to be fired at Israeli civilians and some of them will be wounded and killed. While the terrorists will be at fault for those crimes, it is an international community that treats the continuation of Hamas rule in Gaza as permanent and inviolable that will truly be responsible for it.

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