Israel, Palestine and just war: America’s editorials over two decades
The attacks against Israel by Hamas militants on Saturday, Oct. 7, that killed over 1,400 Israelis drew immediate condemnation from most of the world, not least for Hamas’s countless violations of international law, including the taking of Israeli hostages, the deliberate targeting of civilians and the murder of children.
The Israeli response since—a declaration of war against Hamas, an unrelenting barrage of air strikes against Palestinian buildings in the Gaza Strip that have killed over 3,700 residents, a "total siege" which has only after two weeks begun to allow an insufficient trickle of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and an evacuation order for 1.1 million people living in northern Gaza in advance of an anticipated ground invasion of the heavily populated territory—has added to the grim realization that the region, and perhaps the Middle East as a whole, once again finds itself locked within the devastation of war.
Though the Hamas attacks seem to have come as a surprise to Israel and its allies, and have been called “Israel’s 9/11,” those attacks and the Israeli response since are part of a larger conflict that has dominated the history of the region since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. America has a long history of covering this conflict, and the possibilities for resolving it, particularly under the leadership of Drew Christiansen, S.J., editor in chief of America from 2005 to 2013.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.: "The principal reason for Pope Francis’ distancing from just war thinking seems to be its humanitarian consequences, both experienced and potential."
Father Christiansen, who died in 2022, was heavily involved in peacemaking efforts and interreligious dialogue in the region. In 2020, responding to Pope Francis’s encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” Father Christiansen wrote that “What I once described as ‘stringent just-war thinking’ has over time become more a moral theology of peacemaking, showing a preference for nonviolence and edging toward pacifism.” He argued that “the principal reason for Pope Francis’ distancing from just war thinking seems to be its humanitarian consequences, both experienced and potential. He asks his readers to ‘touch the wounded flesh of the victims,’ particularly civilians whose killing was considered ‘collateral damage.’”
It is our conviction that Father Christiansen would apply his deep expertise to the question of how Israel could justly defend itself from terrorist violence—but even more that he would call our attention to all those who suffer “collateral damage” in war and to the conditions necessary for a just and lasting peace.
What follows are excerpts from some of America’s editorial coverage of Israel and Palestine over the past two decades.
Sixteen years ago, in December 2007, the editors wrote that “achieving peace requires that both sides find a new way to engage Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza and a majority in the Palestinian legislature. Only determination by the United States to grasp the nettles represented by Hamas will make this happen.”
On Oct. 5, 2009, the editors lamented the “siege mentality” that led to a presumption that Israel’s almost unlimited use of force was appropriate in defense of its population:
The welfare of the Palestinian people, owing to their unique and vulnerable status, remains the responsibility of the international community. If collective punishment is to be the ongoing policy of the Israeli government, officially or otherwise, the U.S. public should understand the implications of such a position and press for an appropriate adjustment of U.S. foreign policy. It is possible in this instance both to agree that Israel has the right to defend itself against such attacks and to insist that this right does not give a green light to unlimited use of force.
The I.D.F. faces a difficult fight with an elusive opponent, but it also confronts a civilian population in no position to defend itself from the I.D.F. and its American-made hardware and no practical way to escape from its ferocious path. Even in the heat of battle, the I.D.F. cannot escape its responsibility to distinguish between civilians and militants.
The next year, in October 2010, the editors lamented the power hardliners on both sides held over the peace process:
What makes the current stalemate especially vexing is that both sides know what is required to reach peace: a return to pre-1967 borders, land swaps, the sharing of Jerusalem, recognition of Israel by its Arab neighbors and an agreed remedy to the refugee question.
In September 2011, the editors called for the United Nations to recognize Palestinian statehood (and for the United States not to issue a veto of it), saying “It is past time to welcome Palestine into the community of nations”:
For those serious about finding a negotiated end to the conflict, U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood makes very good sense as an incentive for productive talks. It will help create some leverage for Palestine in addressing issues that will have to be negotiated eventually, like final borders, Israeli security, Jerusalem, refugees and water. As a sovereign state, Palestine would be empowered under international law to demand an end to Israeli occupation and to place its claims before international courts. Its membership in international organizations would aid the further development of Palestinian state structures and help bring more pressure to bear on Israel to agree to a just and lasting settlement. The United States has failed to provide that kind of pressure. It is time to see whether, with broad international support for Palestinian statehood, the Palestinians may at least enter into negotiation on a more equal status with the Israelis.
In October 2011, the editors suggested the United States might not be the best lead negotiator in peace negotiations:
At this crucial juncture it would be better for the United States to step away from negotiations and allow other countries to explore paths to peace. President Sarkozy has proposed one such plan; and other international leaders, including members of the Arab community, should be encouraged to do so as well. Recall that the first direct agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization originated in Oslo, not Camp David. It is also important to remember that not all successful diplomatic initiatives originate from the halls of power.
On Dec. 17, 2012, the editors began to advocate more consistently for a two-state solution that could lead to peace in “New Resolution”:
Zionist and Islamist maximalists have had their eyes fixed on a prize neither can secure while dedicating themselves to a conflict that must be inevitably refreshed with the blood of innocents. Responsible U.S., European and now regional Islamic leadership should refuse to participate in the farce being made of the peace process.
In a reinvigorated diplomatic effort, the Obama administration must urge Israel to halt settler expansion on the occupied West Bank and guide it back to the negotiating table before the next cycle of violence begins. Likud hardliners must be pressured to reconsider policies that undermine the peace process and make a viable Palestinian state impossible. If they cannot be so persuaded, then the administration should proceed on its own in diplomatic efforts to make that two-state solution a reality. Despite everything that has happened, the possibility of peace remains tantalizingly within reach. The two-state solution remains a viable option—in fact, perhaps the only viable option.
In September 2014, the editors responded to a previous cycle of violence in which Hamas militants launched rockets indiscriminately into Israel, and Israel responded with airstrikes and tightened already-strict controls on who could enter or depart the Gaza Strip. What conditions might be necessary to establish peace? First, the reconstruction of Gaza.
Though numerous U.S. attempts to broker an agreement have failed, there are steps the United States can take to create the conditions for peace. First, the United States should, for a change, use its influence in the United Nations to support, not veto, the Palestinian people’s demands for justice. This could mean allowing an investigation by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations into possible war crimes committed by both sides: Hamas firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel and Israel bombing near U.N. schools and family homes. Both sides, including some people in the United States, may resist this investigation. But the only way to curtail war crimes is to hold responsible those who commit them.
Second, though rebuilding may take 20 years, initial steps can improve living conditions now. The United States should drastically cut, by as much as two-thirds, the $3 billion in mostly military aid it gives to Israel each year and direct those resources to the reconstruction of Gaza. With international oversight, the money should help build schools, hospitals and factories to jumpstart its economy.
A functioning economy also requires that citizens have freedom of movement. With no seaport, airfield or highways that offer a way out, Gaza has become a prison. Israel should lift the blockade on goods and people flowing in and out of Gaza. But lest Hamas and other militant groups exploit looser borders to bring in weapons and sneak out terrorists, Israel should accept the European Union’s offer to provide security at border crossings.
Previously in 2014, the editors warned that Israel’s pursuit of a one-state solution would result in “either further segregation of Palestinians in an apartheid state or a criminal policy of mass expulsion”:
America’s editors have repeatedly addressed the Israel-Palestinian problem, urging restraint, dialogue and even a reassessment of a U.S. policy of unblinking diplomatic and military support for the State of Israel and pressing for the two-state solution both sides claimed to be seeking. Now, judging by comments made by Prime Minister Netanyahu during the crisis, the current Israeli leadership is no longer interested in that option. But a one-state solution will surely mean either further segregation of Palestinians in an apartheid state or a criminal policy of mass expulsion. Neither is an outcome that the United States should be willing to accept.
Noting the endurance of familiar faces and voices in the conflict, the editors called for all sides to support new actors who “offer some hope of breaking through the calcified positions of the current political establishment”:
The Obama administration was stoned from all sides as it fruitlessly pursued the usual suspects in negotiating a ceasefire during this current crisis. Now it should just as energetically locate and support new actors in Palestinian and Israeli civil society who offer some hope of breaking through the calcified positions of the current political establishment. Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders of the Holy Land should revisit the commitments they made in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2002 to “seek to live together as neighbors, respecting the integrity of each other’s historical and religious inheritance” and decide what a practical expression of that pledge means today.
Two years later, in May 2016, the editors asked: How can American Catholics work for peace in Israel?
Catholics should care about this issue, since the Holy See and Palestine have committed themselves to a two-state solution. How can American Catholics work for fair treatment of Arab citizens and for peace in Israel? We should encourage our political and religious leaders to raise their voices… [U.S. policy] should re-emphasize the importance of minimum standards for the protection of the human rights of Palestinians and of freedom of expression for dissenters among the Israeli public. It should also call for a review of the Israeli military field manual, lest any ambiguity become a license to kill.
Even in Israel, the editors noted, a divide had emerged between military hardliners and those who sought more humane treatment of the residents of Gaza, nothing that “The rising tide of self-examination in recent years has transformed arguments over a two-state solution into a debate over the ‘two Israels’—between those sensitive to Palestinian rights and those so terrified by the “intifada of the knives” that they deny those rights in the name of security.”
In July 2021, the editors noted that the plight of Palestinian civilians was again often missing from headlines and media coverage of Israeli military actions.
The editors also noted the demographic reality worked against against any notion that Israel could survive a one-state solution without working to establish a homeland for Palestinians:
Meanwhile 16 of Israel’s current and former security chiefs posted a full-page ad in The New York Times (3/29) endorsing the two-state solution. The alternative is a future in which Jews will be a minority in Israel; it is estimated that in 15 years they will make up 44 percent of the population. We pray that before it is too late, the United States will demonstrate its friendship by speaking honestly and encouraging Israel to be true to its better self.
In November 2018, the editors lamented that the Trump administration’s policies had reduced the U.S. role in the Mideast to voicing military threats:
The guiding principles of current Middle East policy appear to be knee-jerk antipathy toward Iran and unqualified support of Israel and Saudi Arabia, despite their evident contradictions with long-term U.S. interests in regional peace and stability. The underfunding of the State Department and its marginalization by other players in the administration have degraded U.S. responses to shifting conditions in the region and led to a limited focus on military power and threats. But entrenched conflicts in the Middle East make a mockery of the long-term effectiveness of military might in the service of geopolitical ends.
In the wake of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 2018, the editors called for vigilance in the face of any ideology that sought the dehumanization of others in "Catholics have a moral duty to fight anti-Semitism":
We must reject violence. But this is the least that we should do. We must also directly challenge the deranged ideologies that spawn such acts and the toxic political culture in which they find a fertile soil. This means challenging the villainization and marginalization of Jews and other minority groups, which give encouragement, even if unintentionally, to these acts of violent depravity.
In July 2021, the editors noted that the plight of Palestinian civilians was again often missing from headlines and media coverage of Israeli military actions.
When the clearly disproportionate nature of both the capacity for death-dealing and the predictable outcomes are pointed out, military and political leadership in Israel grit their teeth and intone, “Israel has the right to defend itself,” as if that reply were sufficient to overcome any ethical objection. U.S. politicians all the way to the top grimly corroborate that assessment as American-made missiles, mortars and tank shells fall on the streets and houses of the Palestinian people. No one denies that Israel has a right to defend itself, but surely the manner and execution of that defense can be assessed and challenged. The common-sense demand of the Arab world is that the United States’ political ally and military client in the Middle East calculate its response—and its treatment of Palestinian residents and protestors in general—with a higher sensitivity to justice and mercy and the sacredness of human life than it has in recent years been demonstrating.
Peace in the Middle East, the editors wrote, could never be achieved as long as the United States played a passive role (while simultaneously funding the Israeli military).
Real progress toward peace between these Middle East antagonists has been achieved only when the United States has taken an activist role; often that has meant U.S. presidents taking a firm stand with Israeli leaders, who do understand the importance of all that U.S. aid. In this case, that firm stand should include pressure on Israel to recognize the Palestinian right to a homeland and to seek out its aims at the negotiating table—not through the construction of more walls or the use of overwhelming force.
Referring to the Hamas attack as Israel’s 9/11 offers a caution even as it establishes the legitimacy of acting to prevent further harm from terrorism.
Relevant to the current violence and potential for an Israeli invasion of Gaza is a September 2021 editorial whose primary focus was American involvement in Afghanistan but also asked a question that is again rearing its head: Is just war theory relevant to today’s world conflicts? The editors noted that the application of the theory could be difficult in modern warfare.
In the aftermath of 9/11, as the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan was getting underway, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a pastoral message, “Living With Faith and Hope After September 11,” which offered moral guidance drawn from the church’s traditional just war framework: “We acknowledge…the right and duty of a nation and the international community to use military force if necessary to defend the common good by protecting the innocent against mass terrorism,” the bishops wrote….Yet at the same time that they invoked the church’s just war tradition, the bishops acknowledged the difficulty of applying its provisions in the contemporary world, conceding, for example, that “probability of success is particularly difficult to measure in dealing with an amorphous, global terrorist network.”
So too, they noted, the pope had called into question the difficulty of applying just war theory in a contemporary context:
Pope Francis has also questioned the viability of just war theory, writing in “Fratelli Tutti” that “we can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits…. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’” Pacifists took the pope’s words as a clear nod in their direction. Perhaps they were, but the pope appeared to be addressing the difficulty, not the impossibility, of applying just war principles in the modern world. If the pope’s comments tell us anything definitive, it is, at a minimum, that just war theory needs to be updated if it is to be relevant.
Lastly, as the church’s reflection continues, Catholics must continue to bear witness to both justice and forgiveness. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, St. John Paul II spoke of justice; but even more, he had the courage to speak of forgiveness at a time when few were in the mood to hear it. “Forgiveness is in no way opposed to justice,” he wrote, “as if to forgive meant to overlook the need to right the wrong done. It is rather the fullness of justice…. Peace is essential for development, but true peace is made possible only through forgiveness.””
There is truth in calling the Oct. 7 attacks Israel’s 9/11; both attacks were brutal, unjust attacks that disproportionately impacted civilians and showed a blatant disregard of human life. In both cases, the impacted nations have a right and duty to respond in service of justice and the common good.
But referring to the Hamas attack as Israel’s 9/11 offers a caution even as it establishes the legitimacy of acting to prevent further harm from terrorism. Twenty-two years on, most Americans can recognize that the “War on Terror,” justified as an effort to make the world safer on the model of American democracy, has failed to achieve those aims, while entangling the United States in tragic and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These conflicts cost upward of 900,000 lives, over 400,000 of which were civilians, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University. Far from stabilizing the geopolitical situation in favor of American leadership and a greater commitment to human rights, they squandered lives, resources and American influence on nation-building projects that could not ultimately be accomplished.
All who hope for peace in Israel and Palestine should recognize that war is no more able to build a lasting peace today than it ever has been.
Waging war should always be a difficult question, for political leaders especially, who should be careful not to allow a necessary opposition to terrorist evil to overshadow their larger and more challenging duty to work for justice. The words of St. John Paul II ring true still today; there can be no justice without peace and reconciliation. Therefore, all who hope for peace in Israel and Palestine should recognize that war is no more able to build a lasting peace today than it ever has been. Any just solution must envision a future in which Israelis and Palestinians can flourish side by side.