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Blood, tears and ethics in Gaza


Matthew Beard article 'The Virtue of a Proportionate Response: Why Israel Must Resist Personal Vengeance' from ABC Religion and EthicsThis week in the Wall Street Journal, Thane Rosenbaum argued that Palestinian adults are, as a whole, legitimate targets of attack because they were involved in electing Hamas to power eight years ago. This, as Australians learned that a hospital had been targeted in the continuing devastation, missiles continue to be fired at Israel, and the ground invasion of Gaza continues to report casualties on both sides. There is no need for more blood or tears in Gaza, but there is a strong case to be made for higher ethical standards.

Earlier in this latest round of escalations, I suspected that proportionality would be the central ethical issue in this conflict, and though it has certainly been a factor, my suspicions were short-sighted. In fact, there is nary a military ethical issue that hasn't arisen in these rapidly-escalating hostilities.

Perhaps most telling, however, are two matters of frequent discussion in military ethical literature. First, the relation between the justice of a cause and those people fighting for the cause; and secondly, the extent — if any — to which military actions can justifiably cause harm to citizens.

Historically, the argument that the use of military force can sometimes, under strict conditions, be justifiable has been championed by what is known as the Just War Tradition. A watered-down, generalised form is frequently taught in introductory courses as 'Just War Theory'.

Despite great variance among thinkers, this school of thought traditionally held that ad bellum ethical questions — concerning whether war should be engaged in at all — should be treated separately to in bello questions regarding how military personnel should conduct themselves once they were at war.

Combatants, on this view, are responsible for how they conduct themselves on the ground (or at sea, in the air, or — increasingly — online), while political leaders and higher levels of military and intelligence leadership are usually responsible for whether a cause is just or not. So long as combatants adhere to the laws of war, target only enemy combatants, and avoid civilian causalities wherever possible, they can be said to have acted well.

However, in recent times, this has been challenged by philosophers aiming to revise the traditional view of just war to say that it is logically impossible for a soldier whose actions are advancing an unjust cause to be acting morally well. Instead, only soldiers fighting for a good cause and who obey the laws of war can be said to be fighting well. 'Unjust combatants' who fight for an unjust cause are, at best, excused for their unjust service; but that service remains unjust.

According to this view, only unjust combatants can be legitimately killed in war. Just like, in a shootout between a bank robber and a police officer, the police officer is — all things being equal — not a justifiable target of killing because the bank robber is committing a crime, combatants fighting for a just cause are acting morally well and are not doing anything that makes them liable to be killed. By contrast, unjust combatants are advancing an unjust cause, and for that reason may be targeted with lethal force.

One danger with this view is that the continuity between the justice of one's cause and the moral status of those fighting on each side means discussions about the ethics of the conflict tend to be reduced to a political struggle between warring parties; in this case, Israel and Palestine. Whichever side appears to be justified is vindicated; the other side is the terrorist (a term which is being used with increasing inaccuracy). What receives less attention is that even if a cause is just, utilising unjust means as a chosen strategy in pursuit of that cause immediately renders the war unjust.

It isn't easy to wage a just war: it requires the combination of a just cause and just means.

Another danger of the revisionist approach, which associates in bello morality with ad bellum questions, is that any person who is helping to advance an unjust cause becomes at least partially liable to some kind of attack. Suddenly it is not only combatants who can be targeted, but any person supporting the advancement of an unjust cause. It is this form of reasoning that appears to have informed Rosenbaum's argument that the Palestinian populations' support for Hamas during 2006 makes them culpable for the current actions of Hamas, and therefore not protected by traditional non-combatant immunity.

It is also this type of reasoning which, when flipped on its head, makes it possible for Hamas supporters to argue that every Israeli citizen is liable to attack. After all, Israelis elected their government too and, given Israel's military service obligation, many Israeli citizens serve, or have served, in the IDF.

Hamas is wrong — the firing of rockets indiscriminately into civilian-populated areas of Israel is a grave violation of morality and should not be forgotten by groups who are broadly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. However, the point is that the case for universal culpability can be made both ways, turning only on which side the viewer believes to be justified.

Even if it were true that the election of a warring regime did render one liable to being killed in war, which it patently isn't (even revisionists would likely reject this claim, holding that even if those who voted for Hamas are culpable, they would not be culpable of a severe enough crime to warrant being killed), it would hardly render children, many of whom weren't even alive when Hamas was elected, liable to attack. How can the deaths of children be justified?

Two weeks ago, William Saletan argued for Slate Magazine that 'by the standards of war, Israel's efforts to spare civilians have been exemplary'. Saletan refers (problematically) to a view that has been in military ethics for some time; namely, the difference between intentionally killing civilians, and the deaths of civilians being caused as side-effects to legitimate operations.

The term 'collateral damage' is a familiar one, referring to undesirable but foreseeable fallout of a justifiable military operation. However, even when the deaths of noncombatants are side-effects, the morality of war requires that steps be taken to ensure that (i) the civilian causalities are unavoidable; (ii) attempts are made to minimise them as much as possible; and (iii) the military gains of the operation are proportionate to the tragic deaths involved. (Here, again, just war revisionism raises a question: how can any death be proportionate if it advances an unjust cause?)

However, in a case of radical asymmetry such as is the case in the Israel-Hamas conflict, I believe additional duties are incumbent on the more powerful side. The use of widespread airstrikes and artillery fire is more difficult to justify when — as we have seen in recent days — the IDF has the resources to achieve its ends using ground forces operating at closer quarters. Although this increases the level of risk to Israeli troops, the benefits in terms of reduced civilian casualties make this an overwhelmingly preferable option from a moral standpoint, and may be required by the Law of Armed Conflict according to Article 51(4) of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts.

However, the Law of War also prohibits using civilians to protect military resources (Article 28 of Convention IV relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War), something that Hamas has been accused of doing.

When the law and morality of war clearly prohibits certain practices, why is it that they are still taking place? Because externally imposed laws and rules of morality are not, and have never been, sufficient to motivate people to act well under difficult circumstances or duress. The sheer amount of vitriolic hatred between Israelis and Palestinians is perhaps best demonstrated by a Facebook post by Ayelet Shaked, a parliamentarian of Israel's ruling coalition that borders on genocidal.

The language of right and wrong is integral to informing what is taking place in Gaza on a daily basis, but unless we can find mechanisms for internalising conceptions of right and wrong in the actual combatants, it is unlikely that we will see any improvement to a war that — based on the manner in which it is presently being conducted — is unjust on both sides.

Matthew BeardMatthew Beard is a philosopher and ethicist. He is currently a research associate in the Centre for Faith, Ethics and society at the University of Notre Dame, Australia. His primary areas of research are military ethics, post-war experiences of military personnel, and applied ethics. Follow Matthew on Twitter @matthewtbeard

Topic tags: Matt Beard, Gaza, Palestine, Israel, Just War



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Existing comments

The WSJ OpEd did NOT suggest that all Palestinian adults are "legitimate targets" for any reason. The last line of the article makes that absolutely clear, for readers like Mr. Beard who have trouble with complex distinctions. It questioned whether Hamas loyalists, who put themselves and their families at risk could claim to be "legitimate" civilians, and it identified the reason the international community should use that term with care. To lump together Hamas supporters with non-supporters is to confuse the question of "civilian" status and "innocence." That point has been emphasized by others, and Mr. Beard's desire to muddy the point and place the article in a negative light may speak to his own confused and relativistic perspective on these issues. The debate about who should be defined as an "innocent civilian" and who not is a debate that can be had. But to assert that the OpEd painted all Palestinians (or even all Gazans) as legitimate targets is patently false.

Drooz | 25 July 2014  

Surely 'military ethics' is an oxymoron. The effort by both sides in Gaza to claim a moral cause throws a different light on what is covered in the second essay here today: theology. Is the theology of Jahweh more valid than that of Allah? And should the government subsidise both as Professor Ormerod suggests? I recommend Arthur Koestler's Janus: A Summing Up, particularly his take on the way that, throughout history, religion has been responsible for more harm/badness than benefit/good. And this applies even to followers of the Judean rabbi who preached love.

Frank | 25 July 2014  

I have no sympathy for the suggestion that the stronger side should in effect have to tie one hand behind its back. If Israel is able to defend itself without losing its own soldiers that is good for them. There is no good argument for requiring them to send in ground operations and put their young men and women at risk just because it seems "fairer".

Adrian | 25 July 2014  

In the horrors of what is going on in Gaza etc. etc. I found this wordy carrying on about the miniscules of just war nonsense an insult to the victims. Jim Wallis in Sojourners is specific and right "The horrible human costs and increasing danger the world is now facing in Gaza, Ukraine, and Iraq show the consequences of not telling the truth. And unfortunately, we seem to mostly have political leaders who are unwilling to admit the truth of what’s happening, deal with root causes instead of exploiting symptoms, and then do everything possible to prevent the escalation of violence and further wars. Instead we have politicians who are mostly looking for opportunities to blame their political opponents...

Brian | 25 July 2014  

All we should be saying, is give peace a chance: I see trees of green, red roses, too, I see them bloom, for me and you. And I think to myself. What a wonderful world.

Annoying Orange | 28 July 2014  

An interesting and illuminating article and certainly not a lowbrow one. I think you get to the crux of the problem in the last two paragraphs. Fine sounding words and earnest moral constructs don't help much if people are determined to be beastly to each other. Internalising morality is something very difficult for anyone to achieve. The problem with a war situation is that you are often either programmed and under very strict orders, the latter possibly amoral, or a civilian, who reacts instinctively and possibly not in the most effective way to preserve yourself. The problem with the Israel/Palestine conflict is, as a British military man said years ago, is that it is not a simple matter of right and wrong but right and right. I regard both Hamas and the Extreme Right in Israel as equal extremists. There are many people around who would love to simplify this into a conflict between "the Jews" and "Islam" or "the West" and "the backward Arab world". Both viewpoints are facile and racist. Jewish opinion, as seen both in Israel and abroad, varies considerably. I suspect many Arabs and Muslims seek and support Hamas because they feel that the Palestinian Authority is corrupt, inept and unable to protect their own people.

Edward Fido | 29 July 2014  

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