Boy, am I not scared. Navi Pillay of the UN Commission for Human Rights, declares that Israel appears to be guilty of war crimes, with, of course, the prerequisite commentary regarding the ‘other’ side. She doesn’t know for certain, but she can’t simply say anything neutral; Israel must bear the bulk of the responsibility. So, invariably, the issues of both ‘moral equivalence’ and ‘proportional response’ move to center stage. But I certainly have no idea what she means, she’s never specific, and these words have been bantered about by so many, that they become virtually meaningless. Perhaps that is the point.
But the words do have actual meaning and they are important.
Moral Equivalence: a form of equivocation often used in political debates. It seeks to draw comparisons between different, often unrelated things, to make a point that one is just as bad as the other or just as good as the other.……….. Drawing a moral equivalence in this way is a logical fallacy. (Rational WIKI) (Full Definition below)
Consideration Regarding Self-Defense: Is the Threat Imminent? Was the Fear of Harm Reasonable?
Proportional Response: Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime. International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur. A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians ….. or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage …..,in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated. (Full Definition below)
Or, in another, non-technical, definition: The use of self-defense must also match the level of the threat in question. In other words, a person can only employ as much force as required to remove the threat. If the threat involves deadly force, the person defending themselves can use deadly force to counteract the threat.
These words above resonate throughout our discourse about the current situation in Gaza. At the dinner table, amongst our friends, even at services for bringing in Shabbat, we all struggle with concepts of right and wrong. For many observers, this is an esoteric discussion, an academic exercise, most suitable in a philosophical environment. For us, it is a nightmare challenging the essence of our being, challenging our sense of values, ethics and the core of our sense of morality.
But our reality is that we are at war with an unforgiving enemy bent on our complete destruction. And in war, innocents die.
There is no definitive answer to allow us to sleep restfully at night, particularly as our sense of justice is challenged by our fears for the safety of our children and families and the knowledge that innocents are dying around us. Many may take a ‘black or white’ approach thinking this makes their choices easier. This is actually the same path taken by both the far left and right sides of the political spectrum. It is the ‘either/or’ approach which allows us to avoid considering the other side. It is easier for us. The grey area, the not so pretty reality of life, is avoided. But that’s the place where most of us live so we must recognize what is contained in that space and we each must deal with it.
For me, personally, very few things are black and white. I have one son in combat and another who may be called. I am not immune to the suffering that I know is happening to many innocents in the arena of combat. I also know and accept that the other side, the enemy, is genuinely trying to kill me. For me, then the choice to fight is simple, the choice to kill the one who is trying to kill me, becomes black or white. My survival, my family’s survival, takes precedence. That is the decision I believe our government has taken and I agree with it.
What keeps me awake at night, the thing that makes me question my values, is ‘at what cost’.
For me, I go back to the basics and avoid getting lost in the philosophical. For me that forces me to go back to basic definitions, which is how I began this piece.
I recently spoke with my son, a former combat officer. He’s been in Gaza, in many of the same neighborhoods in which I served. He entered houses, arrested ‘bad guys, and killed some. He still has difficulty with things he did during combat. But he also made me see the ‘other side’ differently. He stated very directly to me that many of the civilians in Gaza probably never knew of the events regarding the kidnap and killing of our three teenagers. He made me think about their ignorance. He made me think about their being innocent victims of their lives as well, being born into the horrific world of Gaza, a horrific Egyptian slum wanted by no one.
So I thought and considered his words. I thought about what I read and what I saw on the news. I thought about the corrupt leadership of the Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West Bank that brought them, and us, to this place.
I thought about my son in in Gaza at this moment.
I thought about my responsibility as an Israeli citizen, to myself and family. I have always demanded that I accept the responsibility for my personal actions. I have taught my children the same. The other side, I believe, doesn’t share or teach their children this philosophy.
And that has brought me to the place I now find myself.
I look at our situation and consider is what we are doing, the ‘why’ and the ‘way’ we are fighting this war. And I consider what the representatives, both direct and indirect, of ‘the other’ are saying about us. The most common claim is that our response is not proportionate.
We are taught to think about the cost, both to ourselves, our values and what we claim to be as well as what is he cost to ‘the other’. I think of WWII and the wanton death and destruction. I think of the firebombing of Dresden. I compare our behavior in Gaza to other battles that have occurred in the last 60 years, Chechnya, Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Iraq, Afghanistan and of course, Syria.
But, of course, we must consider the civilians in the arena of the battle. A civilian is, by definition, a non-participant, a non-combatant. Then, how does one define a civilian who allowed a combatant into his home to dig a tunnel, a military asset, over a lengthy period of time. Does he remain a civilian or is he now a combatant? What is the status of his family members? Do they become combatants, too?
So, again, I go back to basics and look at the definitions of the words themselves. This helps me examine the issue more clearly, helps me organize my thoughts. From the definitions I have found, printed above, I am comfortable stating that our behavior is both reasonable and rational; it is also proportionate.
We are at war. In a war, the concept of ‘moral equivalence’ is a joke. War by is very nature is not moral. The threat we face is ongoing, until our complete and total destruction, and it declared so, in writing and in speeches, by ‘the other’. It is supported by the flowers of ‘the other’. Until such time as ’the other’ no longer remains a threat, we are entitled to counteract in a manner to remove that threat.
We are entitled to take the necessary actions, with due regard to the local non-combatant civilian population, to remove the actual threat. I believe we are entitled to declare what that threat is and not rely on others to define it for us. After all, we are ones under threat, not someone living many miles away.
In war, the reality is kill or be killed. It is ugly and there are no winners, only losers. We measure victory by the last man standing. I want to be that man. I want to survive. As long as ‘the other’ remains a threat, as long as that threat involves deadly force, we are entitled as the person defending themselves, to use deadly force to counteract that threat. And of course, by implication, our response is not disproportional, as long as that threat remains.
Moral Equivalence: a form of equivocation often used in political debates. It seeks to draw comparisons between different, often unrelated things, to make a point that one is just as bad as the other or just as good as the other. It may be used to draw attention to an unrelated issue by comparing it to a well-known bad event, in an attempt to say one is as bad as the other. Or, it may be used in an attempt to claim one isn’t as bad as the other by comparison. Drawing a moral equivalence in this way is a logical fallacy. (Rational WIKI)
Proportional Response: Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime. International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur. A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) (Article 8(2)(b)(i)) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality) (Article 8(2)(b)(iv)).
Article 8(2)(b)(iv) criminalizes: Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated; Article 8(2)(b)(iv) draws on the principles in Article 51(5)(b) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, but restricts the criminal prohibition to cases that are “clearly” excessive. The application of Article 8(2)(b)(iv) requires, inter alia, an assessment of: (a) the anticipated civilian damage or injury; (b) the anticipated military advantage; (c) and whether (a) was “clearly excessive” in relation to (b).