Proportionality And Terror

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Noah Pollak asked me to provide some framework for a discussion of proportionality and just war theory with respect to the Israeli attack on Gaza. In re-reading my Catechism and brushing up on just war theory, I am struck first of all by how alien the context seems for the current war. The asymmetric nature of the threat and the emergence of failed states run by mafioso religious fanatics makes everything more complicated. You could argue that this makes just war theory more important, rather than less, since we are in danger of having the rules of war dictated by barbarians. Or you could argue, along with the neocons, that Jihadist barbarism demands a response in kind. I favor the first view. And it is nonetheless fair to say, I think, that Israel's actions in Gaza fail every traditional just war justification.

In the history of the West, the laws of war are clear enough. You do not launch a just war if it leads to greater evils than the status quo Sderotdavidsilvermangetty ante. There must be a reasonable proportion between means and ends. Both sides should be able to acknowledge common human values, even as they fight over territory or ideology. And yet Hamas has never done this; has no capacity for abiding by even minimal moral norms, believes it has a moral responsibility to eradicate the Jewish state, and certainly finds the universalist and liberal moral law embedded in Western and largely Christian culture meaningless outside Islamic hegemony. Israel, for its part, is on a different moral plane than Hamas. Its internal critics write op-eds; they are not taken out and shot. But, in the face of what is, essentially, a 60 year war against enemies on all sides and within, it has long since disappeared down the self-reflecting mirrors of survivalist logic and existential panic. It looks to me like a society in danger of losing its sense of restraint to the logic of violence. It is lashing out because it feels it can do no other and senses its long-term survival at stake. Even if violence does not solve the problem and may make it worse, war can seem a better option now than disappearing passively in the next couple of decades. The stunning near-unanimity of Israelis behind the Gaza attack is proof of this. In Israel, it seems, it is always America in 2002.

But the point of just war theory is to give us a vantage point outside any particular contingency. Even though I may provoke a Jewish-Catholic fight here, the Catholic Catechism has as useful and concise a statement of the right of self-defense as anyone:

At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

Let's take each condition separately.

Is the damage Hamas has inflicted on Israel "lasting, grave and certain"?

Taking the vantage point of the conflict from May 2007 on, Hamas has fired several thousand Qassam Gaza2abidkatibgetty rockets with such imprecision that no distinction between civilian and military targets is meaningful (which is to say they were all war crimes). Until the recent conflict, Israel suffered 11 military deaths, 131 wounded, 8 civilian deaths and 83 wounded, with more than a hundred treated for shock. In a country of several million, these deaths and injuries were sustained within a relatively small and limited geographical area. (Gazans, in the same conflict, with a much smaller population and far more geographically concentrated, suffered 409 military deaths, 436 injured, and 92 civilian deaths - before the current outbreak even started.) The idea that the indefensible damage Hamas has inflicted on Israel makes an "all-out war" on all of Hamas and Gaza morally necessary in Charles Krauthammer's typically nuanced view, is obviously a non-starter. But one recalls that Krauthammer also believes in the moral imperative of torture.

Have all other means of ending Hamas's aggression been shown to be impractical or ineffective?

At some level, this is meaningless with Hamas. It exists in order to wage total war on Israel. But it is also unclear if the brutal economic embargo on Gaza - imposed by Egypt, Israel and the West for more than a year - was not actually already weakening Hamas from within, and rendering it less popular. It's certainly a plausible reading of recent history. And under just war theory, any possibility that the goal of restraining Hamas or undermining it could be achieved by non-military means renders the current Israeli counter-attack illicit.

Are there serious prospects for success?

We will see. Perhaps the "don't fuck with the Jews" message will finally be heard and a profound shift will occur in the hearts and minds of Gazans. But the Middle East's history of the past two decades (and its culture of eternal revenge) is not exactly encouraging in this regard.

If the goal is to prevent any further missiles ever reaching Israel from Gaza, I can't see it working either. Even if it is immensely successful as a military operation, this is a very hard test to meet. Even a few missiles will represent a "victory" for Hamas among those Muslims whom we need to appeal to. Even if Hamas is effectively wiped out in Gaza, its leadership massacred, its infrastructure badly damaged, it is hard to see who would replace it, or how a completely failed state in Gaza would then be more likely to restrain Islamist violence than even Hamas. If the goal is to persuade Gazans to ditch Hamas, the war has so far been counter-productive, and has certainly exposed the Sunni Arab dictatorships' de facto alliance with Israel against Iran-backed Hamas. So far, the big winner - again! - is Iran.

Is the evil inflicted by the war greater than the evil prevented?

It seems clear to me at this stage that the answer is yes. The loss of life this past week has been huge - far greater than any other stage of the conflict, and out of all proportion to the damage Hamas has inflicted on Israel. In terms of casualties, we are talking about ratios of roughly a hundred to one. That makes this far from a close call morally. There is a reason, in other words, for many Europeans' horror. This is an extremely one-sided war, with one side essentially being attacked at will in a way that cannot avoid large numbers of civilian deaths. It is all very well understanding and sympathizing with Israel's dilemma in tackling Jihadist terror, as we should and must; it is another thing to watch women and children being terrorized and killed as they currently are in Gaza, with very little tangible gained as a result in terms of Israeli security. Maybe the long-term gains will shift the balance here. But those now arguing for exactly that proposition are those who believe the Iraq war has been a great success.

I need to repeat: There is no "just war" excuse for Hamas' murderous terrorism or for its refusal to acknowledge or peacefully co-exist with Israel. But there's no reading of traditional just war theory that can defend what Israel is now doing and has done either. Maybe I am missing an element here. Or maybe just war theory cannot account for modern terrorism. But if that is the case, then an argument must be made for a new framework of just warfare that can account for that. It does seem to me that the combination of apocalyptic terror and WMDs shift the equation. But with Hamas, we are not talking about WMDs. And we have to acknowledge something the neocons rarely do: Hamas is more democratically legitimate than the King of Jordan, an unelected plutocrat who runs a torture state.

Maybe Noah has a response to these points. I'm happy to air it. These are provisional thoughts and I reserve the right to adjust them. But until neoconservatives can do a better job at defending the morality of the current assault, they will lose the battle for global opinion, and deepen the crisis that the Israelis face in the new century.

(Photos: a traumatized Israeli child in Sderot by David Silverman and a murdered Palestinian child in Gaza by Abid Katib. Both from Getty.)

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