Moral Responsibility and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

As Israel begins a ground invasion of Gaza in which hundreds of civilians will almost certainly be killed and the endless misery of the people who live there will only intensify, we haven't actually seen much debate about the subject here in the U.S. There's plenty of news about it, but unlike most issues, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is one we don't actually argue about much. There aren't dueling op-eds in every paper the way there are when even a country Americans care far less about, like Ukraine, works its way into our attention.

There are many reasons for that, not least of which is the absurdly constrained debate we have over the topic of Israel. But I suspect that the relative quiet is in part because in a debate where even casting the two sides as equivalent is portrayed as a betrayal of Israel (you'll notice, for instance, that the White House is careful to say, again and again, that Israel has a right to defend itself, but you'll hear them say that the Palestinians also have a right to defend themselves at the approximate time the Winter X Games are held in Hell), few people can even manage to say with a straight face that both sides are suffering equally. Having to constantly rush to the bomb shelters and being afraid go outside is awful; I have many relatives and friends in Israel who are experiencing that right now. But it's different from knowing that there is a good possibility that in the next few days a missile will blow apart a house on your street—as one "targeted" strike after another kills a house full of people—and there are no shelters to retreat to.

It's been said many times that no government would tolerate rockets being fired into its territory without a response, which is true. But those rockets do not grant Israel a pass from moral responsibility for what it does and the deaths it causes, any more than prior acts of terrorism have. In this as in so many conflicts, both sides—and those who defend each—try to justify their own abdication of human morality with a plea that what the other side has done or is doing is worse. We've heard that argument made before, and we'll continue to hear it. But when we do, we should acknowledge it for what it is: no justification at all.

Actions are either defensible on their own terms or they aren't. The brutality of your enemy makes no difference in that judgment. It wasn't acceptable for the Bush administration's defenders to say (as many did) that torturing prisoners was justified because Al Qaeda beheads prisoners, which is worse. And our judgment of Hamas's lobbing of hundreds of rockets toward civilian areas tells us nothing about whether Israel's actions in Gaza are right or wrong.

According to this tally from the New York Times, as of Wednesday, Israeli strikes had killed 214 people in Gaza, most of whom were civilians. One Israeli has been killed by a Hamas rocket over the same period. Yes, Hamas would kill many more Israelis if they could. But if the question you're asking is what kind of moral responsibility Israel bears for the choices it makes, that fact is irrelevant.

Nor does saying "Hamas is a terrorist organization!" tell you how to judge Israel's actions. While it doesn't appear that the group ordered the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers that started this conflagration, Hamas is quite happy to provoke Israel with rockets and watch its own people die in response; I suppose its leaders believe that the more terrible Israeli actions toward Gaza are, the better it is for their position there. Had Palestinians chosen to wage a campaign of nonviolent resistance against Israel, they could have had their own country a decade or two ago. But today, Hamas and Israeli hard-liners, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are partners in maintaining this ghastly status quo, both happy to see Gaza drown in blood and despair so long as a two-state solution never comes to pass and they can both maintain power.

But if you consider yourself a friend of Israel, the next time a bomb kills four kids playing soccer on a beach or buries a family under the rubble of their house, you have a few options. You can condemn it, or you can say it was just an accident, or you can say that regrettable things happen in war and there's nothing anyone can do. But what you can't say is that it's OK because Hamas are terrible people. Israel is responsible for its own actions, just as Hamas is, and everyone else is, and nothing the other side does changes that.

Comments

Sorry, but the claim, "Had Palestinians chosen to wage a campaign of nonviolent resistance against Israel, they could have had their own country a decade or two ago" is the sort of fantasy I would expect from somebody like Thomas "Why isn't Gaza as rich as Singapore?" Friedman. If you are even passingly familiar with the facts, during the last, best opportunity for a peace deal, Israel accelerated its construction of settlements and population transfers into the occupied territories. If your attitude is that of Moshe Ya'alon, "Our intention is to leave the situation as it is: autonomous management of civil affairs. If they want to call it a state let them call it that. If they want to call it an empire, by all means. We intend to keep what exists now", then perhaps you have a point, but having a rump state, criss-crossed with bypass roads and with no control of your own borders, water supply, or security is not the same thing as having an actual state.

A generally admirable post, but I have to agree with Aaroni: what conceivable basis is there for your claim about non-violent resistance?

Israel is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as their sugar daddy, Uncle Sam, continues to look the other way, while going "tsk,tsk, that's too bad." The simple fact is that losing the jewish vote in this country scares the crap out of American politicians much more then being judged morally inferior by the rest of the world. Until we find some elected officials with a backbone, or hell freezes over, whichever comes first, nothing will change this fact.

There is a way to get nearly everyone in Washington to say that the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was appropriate and justified: announce that Israel did it.

Someone comes along to shoot you, and you have no way to escape. Can you shoot back to protect your own life or that of your family? You may kill another human being. Is it the case that one can't judge your action by what the other side did?
The author's claim is absurd on its face. No functioning system of justice can abstract completely from the context in which an act is performed.
That said, I think the author is quite correct that one still bears moral responsibility for one's choices, appropriately judged in their context. The fact that Hamas is a bad actor does not give Israel carte blanche to engage in indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians, as inevitably happens with naval and artillery barrages. As one who cares deeply for Israel, I remain unconvinced that the current ground campaign is justified, and I have serious questions about some of Israel's prior actions as well. Some of these actions deserve condemnation, as do Hamas' terrorist actions. Israel has, in my view, unjustifiably departed from its doctrine of "purity of arms", and should be held morally accountable for its actions. But that judgment does require taking some account of the circumstances and challenges it faces and the acts to which it is responding.
The same, dare I say, also applies to the actions of its antagonists. Absent a prospect for meaningful peace and vast improvement in their living standards and human rights, Palestinian resistance has its own moral claims, although like the author, I feel non violent civil disobedience would be a far more effective and morally justified form of resistance in the quest for a Palestinian state living alongside Israel. Of course, Hamas does not seem to be interested in a compromise solution of that sort, and I have my doubts about the current Israeli government.

let's talk about the elephant under the carpet. the PLO charter calls for the death of every Jew in Israel and the WORLD. spare me the psychobabble. let's say the mexican charter calls for the death of all Californians and starts lobbing firebombs over the border. will you be so philosophical about this. Israel and the Jewish people will defend themselves regardless of antisemitic opinion. as netanyahu said; if hamaas puts down the weapons there is no more war, if israel puts down the weapons there is no more Israel. Hamaas is a "bad actor"????????? Hamaas' rule of engagement is to destroy every Jew; is that OK with you people?

In don't think the comments so far are very smart or balanced except the last one. Israel certainly has the right to attempt to stop bombs being lobbed at its people--the fact that only one was killed so far has to do with Israel's capacity to catch those rockets before they kill people. I don't know, and I doubt the letter writers know, whether Israel has any other aim in this action than to stop the bombing of their population, which seems justified. That this is not the only thing Israel should do in making peace with the Palestinians is obvious. But you have to have some cooperation from the other side, and stupid arguments about about the whole history of that situation and the continuing wickedness of both sides won't get us anywhere.

Neither side is going to see any cooperation from the other side as long as hard liners rule both sides. Neither Hamas nor Benjamin Netanyahu have any real interest in ending this. Until there is real leadership on both sides, the only option that will be explored is trying to bomb the other back to the dawn of time.

Bravo for a brave editorial. It's really striking how little acknowledgement there is in the media of Israel's own responsibility in this bloodshed. There's an almost Stalinist adherence to the party line that whatever Israel does is merely "in response" to something Palestinians already did. But what about the occupation itself? Isn't that as good a first cause as any?

None of this excuses Hamas for it's own acts of brutality, of course. Firing missiles into civilians areas is a criminal act, even if you don't kill anyone. But to think that Israel is somehow blameless for this carnage takes a good deal of self deception.

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