Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

“Just War Theory after Gaza: Does Just War Allow for Atrocities”*

It is not new news that Israel cannot exist as a democracy on its present path. Many have known this since 1977 when Polish Zionism took the government from Labor in a coalition with Mizrahi  parties (those who come from Arab countries and their descendants). The 77 Likud coalition government led by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir narrated and rooted an uncompromising Polish Zionism over the West Bank or biblical Judea and Samaria or Palestine. Most have never cared about Gaza, not even the Egyptians, who refused to take it back when Israel offered to return it in the negotiated return of the Sinai peninsula.

I learned of this when writing my undergraduate thesis in the fall of 1986, which evaluated “the security implications of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” My conclusions argued occupying Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank didn’t support Israel’s long-term security. It was easy to see then that Israel was on a slow path to democratic self-destruction. Although, I did not then, or even now, know if being an inclusive democracy is considered a security concern by most Israeli Jews. It doesn’t look like it.

The first Intifada supported my conclusions. The Oslo Peace accords followed. The 2nd Intifada blew up everything when Hamas sabotaged Oslo by responding with suicide bombing all over Israel, murdering citizens eating pizza, on city buses, buses taking students to school, on street corners, in restaurants, discos and more. There isn’t an Israeli Jew who wasn’t scarred by it, nor have Jewish Israelis forgotten it. It wasn’t so long ago.

Netanyahu’s policies as head of Likud, enabled Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. His thinking was no one can expect Israel to negotiate with Hamas. (Read the Hamas charter to find out why. Just google it.) The intention was to create a path to incorporation of the West Bank, biblical Judea and Samaria, or Palestine.

Not only was this policy short-sighted, it is responsible for October 7th. Netanyahu’s concern with annexation of the West Bank left a security portal for Hamas operatives to literally drive through. If the border had been fortified, there would not have been an October 7th. Hamas men murdered 1,200 Israeli Jews, killing babies in front of their parents and parents in presence of their children. They raped women after they murdered them, gunned down hundreds of Israeli teens and twenty something’s at a concert while grabbing hundreds of hostages.

Anyone who has followed the cycle of violence between Hamas and Israel knew what was coming from Israel when first hearing about October 7th. Everyone, including Hamas, who thirsted for Israel’s murderous response.

Israel walked right into it, but Netanyahu also felt Israel could respond in the same way the U.S. responded to ISIS strongholds, e.g. Mosul, Iraq. No. Israel doesn’t get the freedom to commit mass-murder like America. American progressives and Americans in general rarely protest US conduct, just US support for Israel’s conduct. Americans from the center right to the far left are outraged by Israel’s response. Hypocrisy aside with a dose of realpolitik, what we think of you matters to your security. You are not ‘strong Israel’ without the USA.

The mass-murder of Palestinian civilians by Israel in its goal to get the Israeli hostages  (why doesn’t Hamas return them to stop Israel’s onslaught?) and to secure Israel by restoring its understanding of deterrence is harmful to Israel’s long-term security. (Note that mass-murder isn’t always genocide, but it is always murder.) The winds now trying to isolate Israel are as strong as they were in the eighties when Americans began protesting against South African apartheid. Those protests turned into a storm that helped bring down South African apartheid.

It did not surprise me when South Africa charged Israel with genocide. Karma. Israel was in bed with South African apartheid. I ran into this when I met South African military officers at a poolside Be’er Sheva hotel in 1985. They spoke of Israel and the Afrikaans cause as one and the same. I was horrified, not only by them, but by their comfort in conflating Israel with apartheid.

I’m not surprised Israel walked into this trap, neither were Israelis. They know it is both a security and political trap set by Hamas in their quest to destroy the Hamas military infrastructure, which includes approximately four hundred miles of tunnels beneath Gaza. However, that Israel is now understood ‘like’ apartheid South Africa in many American and European circles isn’t good for Israel. Ideally, Israeli Jews get this and that they cannot continue on Netanyahu’s path.

Finally, I ask Israeli Jews two questions: What is just about your Gaza campaign? Does Just War Theory in defending yourself allow for these mass atrocities?*

For all readers: with today’s weapons systems, what counts as a Just War when civilians will be mass murdered?

*Professor Cheyney Ryan of Oxford University and Co-Director of the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights recently asked a similar question when giving a paper on “Just War theory after Gaza.” He asked: “Does just war allow for atrocities?” I reformulated his question in this piece.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College