Yesterday I recoiled at an episode of HuffPost Live on the situation in Gaza. Like so much of the reporting and commentary, the discussion was replete with snap moral judgments on Israel’s conduct in war seemingly based on horrific visual imagery and devoid of serious analysis. Photos of casualties are treated as prima facie evidence of Israel’s guilt.
Some supporters of Israel have been similarly guilty of making generalizations, suggesting that every Israeli military action can automatically be justified by Hamas’s firing rockets, building tunnels and cynically using Palestinian human shields. It is possible that Israel has every right to act but acts in an immoral or excessive way.
Both the detractors and supporters routinely oversimplify, without ever having analyzed an individual act of war.
Here are four questions you can ask and attempt to answer before making a moral judgment—pro or con—about Israel’s conduct in this conflict.
Is the accusation true?
As a “veteran” of numerous rounds of hostilities in the region, I’m always struck at the variance between the initial pronouncements about Israel’s wartime conduct and the far more in-depth and often more honest post mortem reckonings. During the Lebanon war in 1981, the Lebanese government claimed that 85 percent of the 18,000 killed—more than 15,000 people–were civilians. The Lebanese later revised the estimate of civilian casualties to 1,000.
When, a couple of weeks ago, I came across media reports that 80 percent of the casualties in the current conflict in Gaza were civilians, I was immediately suspicious. How could the UN body reporting the figures secure reliable information so quickly? It turns out that it didn’t. As several subsequent reports have established, the UN relied on faulty information from Hamas sources and failed to dig deep or dig at all to determine if more of the casualties were Hamas fighters. A cursory look at the disproportionate number of young males killed in hostilities would immediately call into question the UN finding. Undoubtedly, many civilians have been killed, likely upwards of 50 percent of the death toll. Law professor and military historian William Echhardt found that approximately 50 percent of the casualties of any war are civilians. The numbers go up in dense urban warfare.
Another common flaw in the public discourse is blaming Israel for a particular atrocity without doing due diligence. In 2012, Israel was roundly lambasted when the baby of a BBC reporter was tragically killed. A UN investigation later found that it was a Hamas rocket, not an Israeli military operation, which likely killed the child. Similarly, a number of recent attacks in Gaza may have been perpetrated by Hamas, not Israel. While Israel was initially accused, for example, of firing a missile into Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital that resulted in numerous deaths, it now seems likely that a Hamas rocket did the damage. When innocents are killed, Hamas immediately points the finger at Israel, while Israel conducts a thorough investigation. It’s no wonder that the first take is often proved wrong.
Were the attacks intentional?
Many accuse Israel of intentionally targeting noncombatants in current and past hostilities in Gaza. The number of casualties do not bear this out. If Israel wanted to, it could wipe out the entire population of Gaza in a matter of hours. If mass casualties were the goal, as they are in, say, Syria, there would be hundreds of thousands, not 1,000, casualties in Gaza in the past three weeks.
Moreover, every Gazan casualty takes a toll on Israel’s international standing and, hence, its capacity to fight the war. It’s overwhelmingly in Israel’s interest to minimize, not maximize, civilian casualties. That’s not to say that individual Israeli commanders or soldiers always act with pure intentions and abide by government policy. But a single malicious incident by a wayward soldier or soldiers in a drawn out war effort should not implicate the entire government with intent to harm civilians.
Were the attacks reckless?
Just war theorist Michael Walzer poses the following questions: Is the attacking army acting in concrete ways to minimize the risks they impose on civilians? Are they taking risks themselves for that purpose?
In the complex circumstances of an urban war, especially one in which the the adversary intentionally puts its own civilians in harms way, these are tough questions to answer. Take a very typical scenario: Israel determines that a building houses several Hamas commanders and a cache of weapons, but also three families. The IDF calls the residents three times ordering an immediate evacuation, and then sends a warning missile—“a knock on the roof”—and then, finally, not knowing whether people stayed or left, destroys the building. Are such actions careless or judicious or somewhere in between?
By the standards of modern warfare, the IDF practiced extreme judiciousness. Most armies, including those of Western countries, would not go to such great lengths to minimize casualties. But many of Israel’s critics do not use the standards of modern warfare in rendering judgment, and, arguably, the fact that others have acted less morally doesn’t get the attacking army entirely off the hook.
Further muddying the moral waters, countries inevitably make mistakes in the bewildering conditions of war. In May 1999, NATO forces accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. A New York Times investigation revealed that “the bombing resulted from error piled upon incompetence piled upon bad judgment.” Such human error occurs in every war that’s ever been fought. When, in the current Gaza fight, Israeli forces killed four children playing on a Gaza beach, the IDF had intelligence that Hamas terrorists were in the vicinity. An Israeli spokesperson later acknowledged that the IDF should have been able to recognize that the kids on the beach were not Hamas operatives. Apparently, in this case, the military personnel involved did not exercise maximum judiciousness and made a tragic error resulting in loss of life.
We can look at each incident separately, and render judgment, and we can look at the totality of incidents, and draw conclusions about Israel’s moral conduct in a war. Thoughtful people–those who actually try to find out what happened and analyze it fairly–may well disagree about the morality of a particular action or the conduct of a party at war.
Who’s primarily morally responsible for the deaths?
Even when we apportion some of the blame to Israeli carelessness, the lion’s share of culpability may still belong with Hamas. Let’s take another scenario: Israel finds out that a medical clinic has been used to hide and fire weapons into Israel. Israel doesn’t fully investigate the situation or provide adequate warnings, and, in the heat of battle, destroys the medical clinic, killing several innocents. Under the just war doctrine, Israel bears some responsibility for lack of caution in choosing the target. The soldiers should have checked before firing. However, in storing weapons in and staging a war from the medical clinic, Hamas intentionally endangered civilians, which makes it far more culpable for the deaths. Contrary to the simplistic judgments we often hear, it is possible that more than one party can be morally responsible for the same act and to varying degrees.
Now if we can only get the mainstream media to ask these questions and undertake serious analysis.