What Is Collective Punishment?

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To what extent is a state permitted to target another polity's civilian population for political and strategic reasons? It's a tricky question - because sanctions can sometimes be effective weapons against regimes, while hurting civilians. Think of the 1990s in Iraq. Now think of Gaza under Israeli siege. Here's a Wikileaks cable revealing the US's deep enmeshment in Jerusalem's policy toward Gazans:

"As part of their overall embargo plan against Gaza, Israeli officials have confirmed to (U.S. embassy economic officers) on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge," one of the cables read. Israel wanted the coastal territory's economy "functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis," according to the November 3, 2008 cable.

The public position of the Israeli government - best seen here - was that there never was a humanitarian crisis. Their actual position was to keep Gaza on the very edge of one. Is that a distinction without a difference? Or is it, in fact, a relatively civilized collective torment? Since it seems to me a policy designed to achieve the maximal pain for Gazans within Israel's actual international capacity I lean toward the former. There is a defense of sanctions against a terror state like Hamas' Gaza. And then there is a long-term war of attrition against an entire people's welfare.

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