Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Lone(ly) Moral Path

One cannot turn on the news or visit nearly any news website today without a screaming headline about the war between Israel and Hamas in Southern Israel and in Gaza. This latest series pits each side into a war that almost seems to have more to do with public relations, the media, and getting out their message than it does with the actual fighting - though of course that PR war is all about how each one is fighting. While everyone the world over seems to have condemned Hamas' actions of sending rockets into Southern Israel, noting that Israel's difficult 2005 withdrawal from Gaza should have ended the violence, the focus has been squarely on the Israeli response. There is the constant barrage of "Israel has the obligation to defend itself" from its defenders, an equally steady stream of "Israel is striking back disproportionately" by its detractors, and most confusingly, a large group in the middle attempting to say both.

The question this poses to the average follower, however, is: Well, which is it?

Before we can answer this, we have to analyze what options are available to any government in Israel's position and what restraint must be exercised in the quest for an effective but moral response. There would seem to be five basic options available; the first two being the easiest to reject:
  • Israel should nuke Gaza. The pros of this approach are obvious: It effectively solves the problem. Hamas will cease to exist, and Israel probably wouldn't have to worry about its neighbors much after that. The con is a small thing called morality: The killing of millions of civilians is, you know, immoral - not to mention the likelihood that such an action would start a regional if not world war and create havoc around the globe.
  • Israel should do nothing. This approach is only slightly murkier: Israel would not have to worry about killing civilians, as they wouldn't be killing anyone at all. The rather important con, however, is that this too is completely immoral. Every government is responsible for the protection of its citizens and has an obligation to carry out that responsibility, however difficult it might be. All people have the right to expect their government to protect them from any and all terror attacks.
As neither of those caricatured options are even remotely appropriate, the answer must lie somewhere in between. The difficulty is, as always, in determining where that balance lies. Certainly, it would be lovely if all of Hamas would congregate in a remote field where Israel could stop the terror threat without a single civilian casualty; as this is not reality, however, Israel cannot wantonly bomb Hamas without inflicting destruction on Gaza's civilians. The remaining options are the following:
  • Israel should bomb all Hamas positions. The argument for this approach would be that every Hamas target needs to be destroyed, and civilians are simply unwitting pawns who unfortunately cannot be spared to oust the terrorist threat. Moreover, some may argue that the population's overwhelming support for terror and their election of Hamas in democratic elections means that they deserve what they voted in - war.
  • Israel should engage in a tit-for-tat with Hamas, striking only at targets which are clear and present dangers to Israel. For example, anytime a rocket is fired at Israel, Israel could take out that rocket while trying to avoid any civilian casualties. Or perhaps even more carefully, Israel would take out only threats which were immediate dangers and those which would definitely result in zero civilian casualties. More simply put, Israel's primary objective would be to minimize all civilian casualties, and within that framework, destroy as much of Hamas as possible. Strikes at Hamas would be limited to those which did not hurt civilians as well.
  • Israel should avoid civilian casualties only insofar as it doesn't limit its own ability to take out terrorist targets. Israel's primary objective would be to maximize the dismantling of Hamas' terror capabilities while giving as much attention to avoiding civilian casualties as can be reasonably expected within that framework.
As the primary desire is to create the most effective moral solution to the current situation, it is very difficult to say that indiscriminate bombing is a fair approach. While it would fulfill Israel's responsibilities to its citizens, it would effectively end any chance of a lasting peace with a group which already shows a difficulty in respecting Israel's desire for coexistence and peace. Indiscriminate bombing sends a clear message that Israel places its own desires not just first, as one might reasonably expect, but too far above those of the Palestinians.

On the flip side of this, a framework which proposes the minimization of all civilian casualties as its primary objective is simply not sustainable, and in the long run, immoral. Terrorists - and Hamas is quite clearly guilty of this tactic - make use of civilians to protect themselves from attack. A reluctance to take out a terrorist for fear of harming civilians allows and encourages terrorists to further exploit innocent civilians for their purposes, placing themselves amidst large populations to dare their opponents to target them. This translates into civilians constantly being placed in harm's way, and often will result in their economic loss, injury, and death when the other party feels compelled to attack regardless. Simply being placed into such a situation is immoral; on top of that, it furthers terrorism by protecting those terrorists who would otherwise be eliminated, when the more moral attacking party is uncomfortable with the civilian casualties that would be incurred. (This process has been seen countless times in the Palestinian territories, as Hamas leaders will often place themselves in large urban populations. When they are still not important threats, Israel refuses to take them out, citing the collateral damage that would occur; when they are finally too important to ignore, Israel is forced into a position where their actions are likely to kill the many family and friends who either wish to stay with the terrorist or are unable to get out, even after warnings from the Israeli Defense Forces.) Furthermore, an unwillingness to take such terrorists out would result in greater popular support for them while allowing the nearby civilians to be deluded into even greater service on behalf of a cause that they see firsthand actually works.

What remains as the only viable option for a moral army is the precision targeting of enemy units, minimizing the impact such actions would have on civilians - but without sacrificing any necessary undertakings. It is a maximization of attack first, an accounting for civilian casualties second. A responsible and moral government cannot trade the lives and well-being of its citizens in a quest to avoid casualties. Even one terror attack is an allowance a government is not permitted to make on behalf of its citizens. To that end, all stops must be pulled out in ensuring that a terror regime cannot survive. Unfortunately, this translates into occasions where civilians will unwittingly be killed because of their proximity to terrorists who have deliberately placed themselves next door - or even under the same ceiling. To that end, Israel's willingness to risk missing some terrorists in the short-term to avoid large civilian casualties by sending out advance warnings is quite impressive and honorable. However, once such a warning has already been given, even if the civilians remain, it is an army's responsibility to carry out its operation regardless of the tragic loss of life that may occur in the process. In the long-term, this will also help reduce the ability of terrorists to utilize human shields, as they will not stop the terrorists from being targeted; not only would the terrorists still die, but they themselves would be blamed for the civilian deaths as well, eroding the group's popular support. (This, too, is being seen in Gaza, as Hamas is being increasingly blamed for the deaths of civilians.)

One of the biggest problems in the Middle East has been Israel's inability to consistently stay with any option, let alone the correct one. For decades, Israel's approach has fluctuated from doing nothing to strong bombing, from tit-for-tat to precision strikes. For there to be any kind of peace between Israel and Gaza, Israel must make it clear to Hamas, the Palestinian people, and the rest of the world that they will be taking one and only one approach to this conflict which has already cost so many lives, and there is only one such road to take. This option will not be easy and it will certainly not be comfortable, but for the sake of its own Israeli citizens and for the future of the civilians of Gaza, Israel must choose this lone - and if need be, lonely - moral path.


  1. If only the world would know what we know:
    "One who is merciful to the cruel is ultimately cruel to the merciful."

  2. I like your nuke idea, but it should also target Iran, Lebanon, and other areas.

  3. The killing of millions of civilians is, you know, immoral

    Wait, I thought numbers were irrelevant! If nuking Gaza would save even one Israeli life from terrorism they should do it! Who cares about millions of enemy civilians. ISRAEL HAS A MORAL OBLIGATION TO DEFEND ITSELF!

    (That's sarcasm, for those who aren't following the conversation at my blog.)

  4. B~M - Amen.

    Zoe - Heh.

    JA - It's not the numbers so much as the way of going about it.

  5. Wonderful article. I am going to use this for explaining the situation to my hebrew school class. Do you have any good sources or articles I should share with them? How about on Israel's right to exist in the first place? Thanks! Keep up the great work.

  6. Anon - Thank you!

    I wish I could say that I did, but this piece was meant to rely only on logic and thinking through the different options. There are surely countless resources all over the internet that would have such information, so I'd really just start with Google. If you'd like me to connect you with people who might have excellent resources, feel free to e-mail me!

  7. You expressed your opinion quite well, & a lot less stridently than the vigorous debate taking place on DovBear's blog. Thanks for trying to put the options in perspective.

    I don't see that Israel really has any alternative at this point than to strike as necessary while avoiding civilians when possible. As you said, "Every government is responsible for the protection of its citizens and has an obligation to carry out that responsibility . . . "