An Israeli Progressive on His Country’s Moral Culpability

“I can think of no military objective in the world that would justify [this] non-combatant casualty rate.”

An Israeli artillery unit fires into Gaza (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

This post has been updated to reflect the IDF's updated Palestinian casualty figures, which give the non-combatant fatality rate for Operation Protective Edge at about 50 percent. [Please see update explanation at the end.]

Through this week and still for the next few days, I am out of the country and in unreliable and very expensive Internet range. So for timeliness reasons, I am now posting, without elaborate set-up, an email message that has come in from Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson, director of programs at the Molad think tank in Jerusalem, who was part of a memorable exchange last month with an American rabbi visiting the city.

This latest message is about the ways in which—from a progressive Israeli’s point of view—the nation’s government and military should and should not be held culpable for the destruction of houses, schools, power plants, hospitals, and other structures in Gaza, and the appalling civilian death toll there. Like his previous message, this one raises questions of “universal” versus particularistic or narrow morality and human obligations, and what standards of ethics apply in a situation like this one, where the position of the parties is so different in so many fundamental ways. I would like to engage these, plus the ethical ramifications for Americans and others far from the scene, but I can’t do it in present circumstances.

In my freedom from Internet exposure these past few days, I have instead been reading two powerful histories that cast the origins of World War I in (for me) new light: To End All Wars, by Adam Hochschild, and The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark. Plus The Atlantic’s own special centennial issue on the war, which I have just managed to download and will read tonight.

More, later, on how these bear on the morality of Gaza. For now, another dispatch worth reading carefully from Hillel Ben Sasson:

Before addressing the actual question of whether or not the IDF's actions in Gaza were permissible and therefore justifiable, it's important that we differentiate between the responsibilities and potential blame of the military and government, and the judgements we pass on the Israeli society with its almost consensual support of the soldiers. Let us begin with the latter group.

In my view, it is not only permissible but indeed commendable that a society whose sons and daughters are sent to fight in its name and who are paying with their lives to enable this society to continue and thrive, responds in an overwhelming wave of support and solidarity. Israelis sending anything from candy to underwear down to those on the front are a sign of social health and collective decency. (A friend of mine who was fighting in Gaza told me that as he was manning a post in Gaza, an armored tank stopped by them, dropped a pack of McDonalds burgers sent from the "back", and continued on to its mission).

The military and it's commanders in government, however, we ought to judge by a different standard, and this standard is the rules of war.

These rules are not moral ornamentals; they are the globally agreed upon laws that govern exchanges of violence between nations. They stem out of the understanding that unchecked violence is bad for everyone - today for you, tomorrow for me - and that immense power comes with considerable responsibilities for the ways of exerting it. Abiding by the rules of just war has nothing to do with anti-patriotism or pacifistic convictions. It is what prevents wars from deteriorating to complete mutual annihilation. From this elementary understanding, I draw several conclusions:

1. I can think of no military objective in the world that would justify a 50 percent non-combatant casualty rate (These are IDF numbers).* We must ask, what exactly were the specific objectives that resulted in such a horrific toll? I doubt that there's an answer which is both true and acceptable. And we must remember, it was Netanyahu and Yaalon who called the shots,

2. I have no doubt that the IDF is true to its word - there was no intentional targeting of civilians. This however, is not enough. Yes, Hamas launches rockets from densely populated urban areas; Hamas might also use Innocent Gazans as human shields. Yet the hand that pulls the trigger is the one that bears responsibility. It might be justified in pulling it, but it cannot escape scrutiny altogether.

3. A troubling issue for me is that there's no debate on the facts - IDF officials admit that innocent civilians were killed in the recent bombing of the UNRWA school in Rafah. We had witnessed in the past military operations that took a severe toll in civilian lives on the other side, but we have never seen such a resignation to accept so high of a body count simply because it serves a tactical military objective. This is worrisome to me.

Finally, I would like to remind readers in the USA that for us, Israeli progressives, this is not an abstract moral debate. It is our responsibility to address our own society with these questions, it is our role to confront our leadership with pressing and hard issues. It lies on our shoulders to bridge between the two realms, channeling the enormous forces of social solidarity into national self correction.

*This post originally used outdated IDF casualty figures showing an 80 percent non-combatant death rate on the Palestinian side.

JF addendum, August 12, 2pm EDT: As noted above, this message from Hillel Ben Sasson came in while I was on the road, in Europe, in places with no regular internet connection. On Sunday Hillel Ben Sasson sent a note saying that the IDF had updated its casualty data. The "85% non-combatant" figure he had used earlier had been replaced by one saying it was closer to 50%. My colleagues on the Atlantic's site updated the post at his request.