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Fighting a just war against Hamas justly

The war against Hamas is justifiable as long as the threat still exists, and only so long as further operations can have an effect on this threat


As Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza proceeds, both the war’s legitimacy and the means used to fight it are increasingly coming under criticism. We Israelis and Jews find ourselves again in the familiar place of feeling misunderstood and unjustly accused. We feel that double standards are being used against us by governments that would have engaged in similar responses under similar circumstances and by individuals for whom it seems that it is only death caused by Israelis that is worthy of condemnation, and never the deaths of Israelis themselves. Language such as "the holocaust in Gaza" further exacerbates our sense of alienation from our critics and reaffirms our condemnation of them. Our response is to define them as anti-Semites and consequently ignore their arguments.
I have no sympathy for many of our critics. Nor do I accept the moral underpinnings of many of their positions. That said, it does not mean, however, that all who criticize the war in Gaza are anti-Semites and enemies of Israel. Furthermore, because a position is mouthed by foes, it does not follow that the content is unworthy of consideration. Quite to the contrary, I believe that we as Jews and Israelis are obligated to give serious consideration to these critiques and are bound to ask these questions of ourselves: What do we believe constitutes a "just" war? How does one fight justly? We also must ask whether both the war in Gaza and our conduct there meet the standards that we want for ourselves, our people, and our country. We do a great disservice to ourselves as a Jewish people when moral discourse is limited under the guise of mistaken patriotism or associated exclusively with a particular political agenda or party or viewed as the consequence of weakness of spirit, or in the particular lingo of Israeli life – of being a "yafe nefesh" – roughly translated as a naive goody-two-shoes.

More on the War on Hamas from Hartman Institute

Asking these questions and engaging in moral self-evaluation, even in the middle of war, is not a sign of weakness. Rather, what we in Israel have learned is that our strength as a country and the fortitude of our army and soldiers are grounded in a significant way on our moral fiber and our soldiers’ recognition that they are part of a just cause and a just army. When we and they speak of fighting for our home, the home we speak of is not simply a physical one, but a spiritual and moral one, in which certain ideas and values reign strong and free. It is consequently our duty and responsibility to ask ourselves these questions and not to fear the outcome. To banish moral evaluation and potential self-criticism from our national discourse is tantamount to destroying the home that we are working so hard to preserve.

Morality of war, morality in war
Moral discourse around war in general and our war in Gaza is divided in two areas. The first is the morality of war, and the second is morality in war.The first deals with the moral legitimacy of the war itself; the second deals with the issue of how one must conduct oneself within the context of war.
The universally accepted standard of a "just" war is one that is embarked upon out of self-defense, with all wars of aggression deemed immoral. Similarly, one of the central moral tenets of the Jewish tradition is the sanctity of human life, a tenet that obligates not only the preservation of others’ lives, but the moral responsibility to act in the preservation of one’s own, as well. As our rabbis teach us: im ba l’horgicha, hashkem l’horgo (BT Sanhedrin 72a). If someone comes to kill you, arise and kill them first. Self defense under these circumstances is not viewed as a necessary evil but as a moral requirement. Self-interest and self-preservation are not expressions of selfishness and moral weakness, but the foundation and expression of our moral commitment to life itself.
In a war against a terrorist regime such as Hamas, there is great moral clarity but also, some claim, a measure of ambiguity on the issue of morality of war. Having initiated years of ongoing missile attacks against the citizens of southern Israel, killing and injuring, both physically and mentally, hundreds of individuals, and making the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens untenable, it was a clear moral responsibility to defend our citizens and to attempt to create a new situation under which attacks would no longer occur. It was also necessary to act today to preempt further attacks that would only be more deadly, as Hamas continues to smuggle longer-range and more powerful missiles into Gaza. While no one is certain that the war will achieve the desired outcome, this debate has no effect on the morality of the attempt.
The measure of moral ambiguity that may exist in the eyes of some is grounded on the disparity of military capability between Israel and Hamas, a disparity which may question the legitimacy of the premise of self-defense. Hamas as a terrorist organization aims to terrorize, and as such has a limited ability to endanger Israel’s basic existence. While it may harm individual citizens, Hamas does not endanger the state as a whole.
It is under the cloud of this moral ambiguity that much of the criticism against Israel finds shelter. The justification of self defense dissipates when one compares Kassam rockets and mortar shells and their casualty toll with the might of the Israeli army and the consequences of its actions. Furthermore, it is also this reality which fuels the calls for proportionality in which the use of force on Israel’s side, it is claimed, must match that of the enemy it attacks. A "disproportionate" response is classified as unjust, for it is no longer contained or justified under the rubric of self-defense.
The moral difficulty, if not corruption, entailed within the above argument lies in the fact that it essentially allows terrorist organizations to terrorize with impunity, and morally handcuffs a society’s legitimate right to defend itself not merely when its existence is threatened, but when the lives of some of its citizens are in danger and many more are subjected to the effects of terror. The "weak" are allowed to engage in terror, for it is argued that it is the only means available to them, while the more powerful, and in this case Israel, are always morally reprehensible, for our power and strength voids any military response the legitimacy of the claim of self-defense. This "moral" argument, which grants immunity to terror perpetrated by the weaker, is a significant moral failing in much of the public discourse on morality of war.
Jews and supporters of Israel attempt to counter with claims of Israel’s weakness and victim-hood, creating a competition between Israel and the Palestinians over who is suffering more, and thus worthy of the mantle of morality. This, however, is a competition which Israel cannot, nor I hope, ever win. I welcome Israel’s power, and pray that, we will always lose in the competition over relative victim-hood when it comes to wars that are forced upon us. We cannot, nor should we concern ourselves with the calculation of proportionality. Our task is not to act proportionately but morally and appropriately within the context of the danger we face. That is not only morally permissible but obligatory. As members of the Jewish people, the state of Israel, and the community of nations committed exclusively to fighting just wars and refraining from wars of aggression, we need not apologize for the war in Gaza, but rather be morally proud of our actions. Our return to statehood does not entail a desire to relive the tragedies of the mass suicide at Masada, but to embrace life, and our right to live as a free people, free from terror, free from aggression, and free to pursue the larger values and aspirations of our society.
Fighting a just war in a just fashion
While a war may be just in the sense that it is grounded on a sufficient measure of self-defense, there still remains a significant moral challenge, and that is to ensure that the just war is fought justly. There are some who claim that such a consideration is foolish, impractical, and unrealistic. War is war, they argue, and the sole aim must be victory, regardless of the consequences. In Israel this position often takes a unique form as a result of the closeness the civilian population feels toward our soldiers. They are our children, and our primary concern as parents is that they come home safely. As my son was heading into Gaza with his Army unit, I repeated a conversation that I had mentioned to him before. "Yitzi, " I said, "if you are in doubt, please shoot first. I want you home. We will deal with the consequences of later."
When the aim of war is not merely victory, but also a zero tolerance for casualties on our side, all discussion of morality in war is nullified. While this aspiration is understandable and possibly excusable for us parents, there is a danger in Israel, one that the army fights hard to prevent, that parental instincts will become national and military policy. Moral considerations within the battlefield are as critical as morally evaluating the legitimacy of a war. The fact that we did not instigate the conflict does not give us the right to remove the issue of morality in war from our discourse and reflection. We want to fight the terrorists who target civilians and not emulate them.
What then are the basic guidelines for morality in war? Can we engage in such a war? How must we assess the current war in Gaza, with the numerous civilian casualties that have been suffered on the Palestinian side?
The guiding principle for moral conduct in war is grounded on the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. As the moral justification for the war is self defense, the only individuals against whom life-threatening force may be used are those who are directly endangering the lives of others. This distinction between combatants and non-combatants is morally intuitive and serves as the basis of the moral condemnation of terrorists, who are classified as such by virtue of their targeting civilian populations. It also lies at the foundation of Judaism’s moral justification for self defense. It is only against the individual who arises to kill you that one is allowed to use violent means, and even then, the level of the violence allowed is only that which is necessary to remove the threat.
That said, one of the greatest difficulties in fighting modern warfare morally is not identifying the line between combatants and non-combatants, but the operational challenge of maintaining this distinction in practice. This is particularly the case when it comes to terror organizations willing to fight to the last drop of their own citizens’ blood, and who embed themselves in the midst of the most vulnerable and sensitive civilian targets. Civilian casualties on their own side are viewed as not only acceptable but a key tactical and strategic tool to achieve their aims. When one adds into the equation the significant factor of human error, exacerbated under the pressure and tension of war, countless tragedies in the city-cum-battlefield regularly occur. The myth of precision in the modern battlefield is precisely that. Even among Israel’s casualties, historically, 25 percent are from friendly fire. Under these circumstances, it is essentially impossible to fight a terror organization while maintaining the core minimal moral standard which requires that non-combatants be unharmed.
This failure, some argue, eradicates the moral justification necessary for fighting this war. While the war itself might be just, it ultimately becomes an unjust one due to the fact that it cannot be fought justly.
The moral problem with this argument is that it guarantees protection to terrorists and grants a military victory to evil. As long as one "protects" oneself from attack and forces one’s enemy to inflict civilian causalities through the use of non-combatants as human shields, then one ostensibly has the moral high-ground and immunity from prosecution. If a war is just, then it is a war that must be fought.
This said, it does not mean that a just war may be fought regardless of the consequences to the innocent. While it is impossible to fight terror without civilian casualties, it is critical to maintain the standard that civilian casualties are fundamentally unacceptable and must be the exception to the rule. Every effort – and by that I mean every effort, up to and including some measure of increasing the danger to one’s own soldiers – must not be merely acceptable but also embraced. We must target combatants exclusively and mourn any instance in which we are not able to harm them alone.
The moral responsibility for harming civilians cannot be placed exclusively in the hands of the terrorists who choose to fight from their midst but must be carried as well by we who are fighting them, for it is only thus that we maintain our moral responsibilities to avoid harming them to the best of our ability. The essential point is that a just war does not morally justify either the removal of the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, or the responsibility for operations that do not succeed in maintaining this distinction. We must accept the immorality entailed in harming any civilian, but recognize the inevitability and even the moral imperative of acting to some extent immorally, as long as the overall purpose and the clear majority of operations fall under the moral standards and guidelines of morality in war.
One of the tragedies of war in general and of fighting terrorists in particular is that the battle itself morally taints the individual who was heretofore the victim. Under these circumstances, one cannot remain morally pure in pursuing one’s moral duty to preserve one’s own life. The necessity of this compromise, however, is at the foundation of our decision to be a real people, living in real bodies, in a real country. We must, however, be extremely careful never to allow this realism to remove our moral aspirations. The rabbis said it best:
"Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed," – R. Judah b. Ilai said: Are not fear and distress identical? The meaning however is that he was afraisd lest he should be slain, and was distressed lest he should slay [others]. Genesis. Rabbah, 76:2
To be a Jew and a moral human being is to be fearful for one’s own life and never to become callous at the taking of another.
When to end the war
If, in essence, one cannot fight this just war justly, but one is nevertheless morally required to embark on it, one’s duty to maintain moral standards in war places greater emphasis on two critical moments. The first is the decision of when to go to war, and the second is the decision of when to end the war. As long as we continually remember the moral price of war, we must be a people who never run to do battle or embrace the use of force. The years of suffering of the citizens of southern Israel and the parallel restraint of Israel’s government clearly, and I believe unequivocally, meet this standard of restraint. In fact, embarking on such an operation was morally justifiable – if not obligatory – a long time ago.
With that being the case, knowing the moral compromises we have had to make in fighting this war, the moral weight shifts today to when to end it. The central guiding principle for when to end the war must be grounded on the moral justification for embarking upon it. The war is justifiable as long as the threat still exists, and only so long as further operations can have an effect on this threat. Neither political benefits nor psychological needs to make the other pay a price are acceptable. Were the life of combatants alone lying in the balance, the war may still be deemed just, so long as they continue to bear arms. Once, however, it is a given that innocent civilians will also pay the price we must be extremely strict and in fact choose to err on the side of stopping the war at the right time rather than continuing it unnecessarily.
Whether Israel has reached this point or not is not a question with a definitive answer. My goal is not to offer a position as to when that point is reached but rather to encourage the conversation and debate. We have nothing to fear from a moral debate and analysis of our behavior. At the worst, we will identify areas that require moral improvement. Any person or people who believe they are immune from moral evaluation and criticism are idolaters, for they view themselves as gods. It is precisely by engaging in such discussions that our greatest strengths lie, and that our soldiers are safe knowing what they are fighting for, and that theirs is a noble and just cause.

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