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.

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