Israel, Hamas and the right to self-defence
12 Aug 2014|
Banksy’s ‘Girl and a Soldier’, stencilled onto the wall of the West Bank in Bethlehem.

The war between the State of Israel and the foot-soldiers of Hamas is further proof of the horrors of war. But it’s also a near-perfect example of asymmetric warfare in which the weaker side in the conflict wages war by doing all it can to undermine the moral authority of its stronger adversary. If that adversary is a liberal democracy, as is Israel, then it faces ultimate defeat: lose moral authority, lose the war.

Typically, the preferred tactic of the weaker party is to prod, provoke and outrage the stronger to the point where something ‘snaps’—and the provocation is answered with a response that is indiscriminate, disproportional or both. The moment that happens, the brute force of superior arms begins to lose its effect—as allies withdraw support and even the people, in whose name the military act, begin to doubt the legitimacy of their cause.

The underlying ethical issues are a tangled thicket. One branch stems from Hamas’ refusal to recognise the right of the State of Israel to exist—another from that section of Israeli opinion that sees itself as having a divine right to occupy lands that the international community recognises as belonging to the Palestinians. Historic wrongs and miscalculations, on all sides, have led us to where we are today.

The military issues are no less complex. On the one hand, Hamas is murderous in its indifference to the possibility of innocent civilians being killed by its rockets. But, a combination of military ‘incompetence’ and superior Israeli defences has meant that, in recent times, few Israeli civilians have been killed by rockets fired from Gaza. On the other hand, Israel has declared itself to be strongly committed to the proportionate and discriminate use of force, with a stated intention of minimising civilian casualties amongst the Palestinians. Yet, for all of Israel’s military sophistication, over 1,400 Palestinian civilians have been killed—many of them women and children. The numbers matter—both in terms of ethics and strategy.

Israel has invited the world to understand its predicament, arguing that no nation would sit idly by while indiscriminate rocket fire rains down on its citizens. The fact that complicates this rational and otherwise fair appeal is the singular lack of ‘success’ on the part of Hamas. Hamas’ indiscriminate use of force is deplorable, but relatively ineffective. So, while we might condemn Hamas’ intentions in the strongest terms, we can’t ignore the fact of its impotence.

Israel has a right to self-defence. But those of us who insist on recognising Israel’s rights must also insist that Israel reciprocate by respecting the rights of others. For example, Israel has breached the rights of others—and fails in its obligations to the international community—by building settlements in occupied territory wrested from the Palestinians during earlier wars (not of Israel’s making). To note this isn’t to excuse Hamas for its reckless attempt to use military force against Israeli civilians. But it’s a mockery of justice to condemn the wrongs of one side and ignore those of the other. Israel isn’t (and can’t be) beyond criticism.

Israel’s obligations also apply in relation to the means employed in exercising its right to self-defence. For example, according to the principles of ‘just war’, a state must use only the minimum amount of force necessary in order to ensure its security. That is, states aren’t permitted to eliminate each and every source of threat; rather, they may take measures to ensure that the risks associated with each threat are neutralised. Israel’s deployment of its ‘Iron Dome’ missile defence system is a perfect example of a proportionate and discriminate response to a threat.

Unfortunately, Israel has taken Hamas’ bait. Rather than managing the threats, it has eliminated the sources of rocket fire and incursions into what it claims to be its territory, knowing that Hamas’ military wing operates in areas densely populated by civilians—often under the cover of civilian infrastructure. The extraordinary level of casualties amongst Palestinian civilians is a product of Hamas’ operating environment and Israeli tactics designed to offer maximum protection to Israel’s people by projecting force from a safe distance (via missiles, artillery and tank shells).

The facts on the ground prove that whatever Israel’s stated intentions, its use of force is indiscriminate. There’s an alternative: send in, on foot, well-trained, well-armed personnel. If Israel used only professional soldiers (and not its civilian reserves) the greater risk of death, wounding or capture may be worth taking in order to avoid the loss of moral authority that comes from the indiscriminate killing of innocent people (especially women and children).

Just War Theory imposes one further obligation on self-defence: the actions must ensure that the quality of the peace secured is superior to that which would have prevailed if no war had been fought. Neither side in the current conflict can make any legitimate claim to meet that standard. If anything, the current hostilities have degraded the prospect of peace, not least because they’ve driven both sides into more entrenched positions of enmity and extremism. But—irrespective of its apparent success in the field—Israel is the one losing this war because it’s the one sacrificing the moral authority it claims for itself amongst the liberal democracies.

The vast asymmetries of power and resources between the Palestinians and Israelis made it almost inevitable that Hamas would set the trap that Israel has found it impossible to avoid. Further destruction of Gaza is against the interests of all who yearn for peace in that troubled part of the world.

This is the background to what we see unfolding in the tragic events befalling the people of Israel and the Gaza Strip. The moment the ethical line is crossed, people embark on the process of calculating and declaring the relative burden of moral infamy carried by each side. But by then it’s too late for both sides—each has been irreparably damaged both militarily and morally.

Simon Longstaff is executive director of St James Ethics Centre. One of his roles is to provide support to the Australian Defence Force in its preparation of personnel prior to deployment overseas. Image courtesy of Flickr user Trocaire.