Is Israel’s military action in Gaza morally defensible?
Different answers to that question are possible. Some depend on answers to prior questions about the founding of the state of Israel, the circumstances that led to many Palestinians becoming refugees, and responsibility for the failure of earlier efforts to reach a peaceful solution. But let us put aside these questions — which have been explored in great depth — and focus on the moral issues raised by the latest outbreak of hostilities.
The immediate trigger for the current conflict was the murder of three Jewish teenagers in Hebron, on the West Bank. Israel, blaming Hamas, arrested hundreds of its members in the West Bank, though it has never explained the basis of its accusation.
The Israeli government may have seized on the outrageous murders as a pretext for provoking Hamas into a response that would allow Israel, in turn, to invade and destroy the tunnels Hamas has dug from Gaza into Israel.
Though Israeli leaders claim to have been surprised by the extent and sophistication of the tunnels they discovered, Israel’s military briefed the government on the tunnels more than a year ago, and the government created a special task force to consider how to deal with them.
Hamas responded to the West Bank arrests with a barrage of rockets that reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, though without causing any injuries. Israel then began its air attacks, followed by a ground invasion. At the time of writing, more than 1,600 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians, by Israeli air and ground strikes. Three Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket or mortar fire from Gaza, and 64 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the ground invasion began.
In firing rockets at Israel, Hamas invited a military response. A country subject to rocket attacks from across its border has a right to defend itself, even if its own actions can be construed as having provoked the attacks, and the attacks themselves are relatively ineffective. But a right of self-defense does not mean a right to do anything that can be construed as a defensive act, regardless of the cost to civilians.
Despite calls in some Israeli media for Gaza to be bombed “back to the stone age,” the Israeli government seems to accept that that would be wrong.
Israel has taken some steps to minimize civilian casualties by warning Palestinians to evacuate areas that were about to be targeted.
Hamas, by contrast, has shown no interest in avoiding civilian casualties, either in Israel or in Gaza. The whole point of firing rockets at Israeli cities is to inflict civilian casualties, and the fact that the rockets have largely failed to do so is due to their inaccuracy, Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile-defense system, and perhaps some good luck. Hamas’ strategy of launching rockets from residential areas and storing them in schools clearly reflects its leaders’ willingness to put Palestinian civilians in harm’s way in order to confront Israel with the grim choice of killing civilians or allowing the rocket attacks to continue.
So, whatever moral objections to Israel’s actions over the past month there might be, there are even more serious objections to be made against Hamas. In contrast to previous episodes, Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been very restrained in their criticism of Israel, though perhaps less for moral reasons and more because they regard militant Islam as a graver threat than Israel to their own regimes.
But to say that Israel’s actions are less clearly wrong than those of Hamas is not to say much. Israel has legitimate military objectives in Gaza: to stop the rockets and destroy the tunnels. It should be pursuing those objectives while showing the utmost concern for Gaza’s trapped civilians.
In a recent article, Fania Oz-Salzberger, writing from Tel Aviv while rockets were being intercepted overhead, urged her government to send medical supplies to the villages of Gaza. Since then, the Israeli military has set up a field hospital on the border with Gaza to treat wounded Palestinians.
That is a positive step, but it is outweighed by repeated instances of Israeli airstrikes and shelling that appear to have needlessly killed civilians, from the four boys killed on a beach on July 16 to the 20 Palestinian civilians killed while taking refuge in a United Nations school on July 30. These incidents are reminiscent of past NATO operations in Afghanistan, in which there was manifestly less care taken to safeguard the lives of local civilians than there would have been if the lives of NATO troops, or their civilian compatriots, had been at risk.
Some will shrug and say, “War is hell.” But between the untenable extremes of pacifism and the elevation of war to something beyond morality, there is a middle ground that seeks to minimize the unquestionable evil of war. We can acknowledge that Israel has made some efforts to do that, but we must still say: It is not enough.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. © 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)