Gaza & Just War Theory

A good friend has raised the issue of Just War theory regarding the fighting in Gaza, specifically the issue of proportionality. This is one of the most difficult and complicated moral issues and I confess that I have been unable to construct anything like a definitive reply to the query, but here are my thoughts on the subject.

Proportionality is a requirement of both the jus ad bellum and jus in bello aspects of Just War theory, that is, both the justifications for recourse to war and the moral boundaries within which war-making tactics must be conducted. In this case, the questions are: 1) are the evils this war entails proportionate to the evils foreseen by failing to address Hamas’s provocation? and 2) was the huge military attack by Israel commensurate to the threat faced?

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Neither are easy questions and the resolution of both requires an assessment of the threat Hamas poses. The issue is not merely that terrorism is far beyond the scope of traditional warfare, and therefore of traditional Just War theory, although the rise of terrorism does require moral theology to update and re-work Just War theory to better account for modern conditions. The issue is rather the use of fear itself as a weapon. Hamas happened to be lobbing Katyusha rockets but the real weapon is terror, the idea that a civilian can be going about his or her business and yet be subject to attack. The Israeli response is not proportionate to the Katyushas but is it proportionate to the fear? I think so.

The evil of this war is obvious. Dozens of Palestinian civilians have been killed and hundreds wounded as Israel has sought out Hamas militants who routinely embed themselves in civilian populations. And war always has bombs that go astray. People’s homes have been wrecked, the already fragile economy of Gaza has been further compromised, the medieval infrastructure made even less useful. The evil the fighting is meant to prevent is more difficult to quantify and certainly more remote, except in one regard that has largely escaped comment. If this fighting was to cause Hamas to lose control over Gaza, the immediate beneficiaries would be the Palestinian people themselves. Hamas may lack the endemic corruption of Fatah, but they have been more interested in building rocket launchers than in building an economy that might improve the lot of their citizens, citizens they routinely try to recruit for suicide bombing missions. The next time your heart breaks watching the image of Palestinian women and children that have been killed by an Israeli rocket that went astray, remember that Hamas recruits those same women and children to become suicide bombers. There is a profound and telling moral difference between killing civilians by mistake and killing civilians by design.

One of the reasons many feel inclined to question Israel’s actions is the David and Goliath quality to the fight. Hamas may want to destroy Israel, but realistically, it can’t even mount a raid on a significant Israeli military asset. But, Israel is more than a place. Israel is a way of life, a liberal, Western way of life. The Islamic fanatics who run Hamas may not be able to acquire weapons to physically destroy Israel (though their patrons in Teheran are about to), but they clearly believe that the clever use of fear can destroy Israel’s way of life. This, too, was bin Laden’s goal in attacking the United States. And, here I find the more difficult aspect of Just War theory. As mentioned before, it is not clear to me that the fighting in Gaza might not have the effect of strengthening Hamas’s hold on power.

One of the problems in fighting terrorism is that you end up doing things that look a lot like terrorism. This is a horrible conundrum and we cannot permit the evil perpetrated by Hamas to cause us to overlook any evil perpetrated by our friend Israel. And, we are correct to hold Israel to a higher standard. But, I can’t bring myself to harden my heart to Israel’s plight when I consider Israel’s history and her neighborhood, a history of relentless struggle to defend herself and a neighborhood of failed states teeming with animosities and angers. I have no doubt that Israel is compelled to fight but the violence of Hamas is freely chosen. There should be no moral equivalency between the adversaries and America is right to consider Israel our ally and Hamas an enemy.

The Israeli government, of course, probably does not consult Christian theologians in calculating its strategy. Alas, neither do most Christian statesmen. "The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics," wrote Winston Churchill in his memoirs of World War II. "Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states...There is no merit in putting off a war for a year if, when it comes, it is a far worse war or one much harder to win." I think Churchill was wrong. Morality must be integrated into all spheres of human decision-making, especially those in which the loss of human life is contemplated. And, Churchill had a love of war as well as a horror of it. But, as I do not envy the pressures he faced in 1940 so I do not envy the Israeli government that must make such decisions today. Neither can I find sufficient grounds to second-guess them in the current fighting.

 

 

 

 

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9 years 8 months ago
There is nothing in the Just War Theory about a right to a proportionate response to fear. Neither is fear one of the Catechism factors for the legitimate use of military force. Rather, the rejection of fear is one of the consistent scriptural messages and one often repeated by Jesus. Resorting to bombing the enemy because they bomb us is no solution. Rather, the solutions lie in reconciliation, loving the enemy, and building just solutions to the injustices which fuel the conflict. Israeli may not be explicitly guided by the sermon on the mount but Leviticus is very clear on loving your neighbour as you love yourself. God Bless
9 years 8 months ago
I have in-laws in Israel and Palestinian foster brothers (as my father was a contributor to Catholic Near East). Responding to the indiscriminate firing of rockets at civilian targets should frankly be all-out, not proportional. Now that settlers have left Gaza, I see no sane reason why it should not be returned to Egypt, although if I were a Palestinian Christian, I might prefer annexation by Israel instead and full Israeli citizenship, since living under Mr. Mubarek would be no picnic either. Regardless, the status quo cannot stand.
9 years 8 months ago
I agree with the major portion of your article. However, the sentence " And we are correct to hold Israel to a higher standard" troubles me. Is it not wrong to hold only one of two parties to the same moral standard? Americans and Israelis are constantly bombarded with media coverage of their wrongdoings in war, while there is hardly mention of that which our opponents do. Obviously, one cannot claim that since "the other side is doing it" as an excuse for wrongs committed by us, but it does leave our enemies with the upper hand in that they are accorded more room for "error" in their actions. I am aware of the dangers of a race to the bottom in moral conduct, but by what grounds do you hold one side in a conflict to a higher standard to another?
9 years 8 months ago
"The Israeli response is not proportionate to the Katyushas but is it proportionate to the fear? I think so." But what about the fear inflicted on the Palestinian people by Israel for so many years. Fear of being harrassed, of being exposed to checkpoints, of losing land and homes and livelihood? Who then started the conflict? Couldn't the rocket attacks by Hamas be viewed as a desperate response to a persistent refusal on the part of Israel to grant to the Palestinian people its right to exist?
9 years 8 months ago
I agree with the major portion of your article. However, the sentence " And we are correct to hold Israel to a higher standard" troubles me. Is it not wrong to hold only one of two parties to the same moral standard? Americans and Israelis are constantly bombarded with media coverage of their wrongdoings in war, while there is hardly mention of that which our opponents do. Obviously, one cannot claim that since "the other side is doing it" as an excuse for wrongs committed by us, but it does leave our enemies with the upper hand in that they are accorded more room for "error" in their actions. I am aware of the dangers of a race to the bottom in moral conduct, but by what grounds do you hold one side in a conflict to a higher standard to another?

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