Israel-Hamas War: Moral Rules and Judgment

Israel-Hamas War: Moral Rules and Judgment

Judging from the public furor in response to present conflict in Gaza it is evident that people are concerned that innocent people should not suffer violence in times of international conflict. The Malaysian government has sided with Hamas and forcefully condemned Israel Link: Malaysiakini 12 Jan 2009. The public furor is a natural reaction to the gut wrenching images broadcasted in the media. Indeed, it is right to say that moral outrage is a proper reaction to the images of innocent victims killed by bombs and missiles.

However, TV images are inherently impressionistic and devoid of context. The continuous stream of images of war literally overwhelms both TV and U-tube viewers and forces them to become fixated with the ghastly wounds of the casualties of the immediate shooting that results in an amnesia of the circumstances that decisively led to the present shooting.

The challenge is to take a step backwards in order to arrive at an objective assessment of the war. That is to say, moral outrage must be properly informed by accurate (though essential contestable) historical background knowledge and the facts on the ground so that such outrage is translated into a constructive response that works towards a lasting resolution to the conflict.  We need to go beyond pre-mature finger pointing and attempt the task of clarification of the moral issues surrounding the present military conflict.

To this end, I propose the following theses for debate:

A.  Culpability of the Party That Shot First.
1) First, we must name the beast in front of us. The Gaza conflict is a situation of WAR. Merely to describe the military conflict as victimization will only obscure the tragic reality before us.

War arises because the combatants are intransigent in their demands and are convinced that they can secure their demands through military means. In particular, Hamas thinks it can undermine the state of Israel by shooting rockets into Israel. Conversely, Israeli hardliners think Israel can prevail over Hamas by retaliating with bombs.

It is nobody’s fault that the world failed to stop Israel and Hamas from this round of fighting. The war will not stop only when one side acknowledges that it will lose more than it can gain if it carries on fighting and that it is therefore prudent to sue for peace.

The Middle East War is certainly the new “Hundred-Years-War” with many cycles of military violence. We cannot solve a “Hundred-Years-War”, but we can at least work out the moral terms that undergird our call for an end of this present cycle of military violence.

The crucial question to ask is – “Who started the latest cycle of violence?” It is logically absurd to punish either the bigger boy or the smaller boy just because a fight has taken place. The proper approach is to determine who started the fight so that he is taken to task accordingly. Likewise the party that started this round of war in Gaza by shooting first is required to be the first to stop shooting.

B. Rules of Proportionality in War
1) The Just War theory states that a war is just if it is prosecuted by a legitimate authority (usually an internationally recognized state with a government that is duly elected in a peaceful, free and fair elections) to achieve just causes through just means.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997) says: The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

– The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
– All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
– There must be serious prospects of success;
– The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good (paragraph 2309).

2) Proportionality is not measured by the number of casualties (be rest assured that in this context of asymmetric urban warfare, Israel and Hamas have different criteria for deciding whether the casualty is a combatant or a civilian). It is measured by the goals of the military action:  Is the shooting intended to neutralize a military threat or is it to spread terror with indiscriminate attacks? In this regard, proportionality is not defined by the relative strength of the warring party. It is neither true that having might is right or that being weak entitles one to claim victimhood.

3) Proportionality is defined by the immediate military objectives. Both Israel and Hamas have announced publicly the goals of their military action. The questions to be directed to both parties are: (a) Are the military goals reasonable? By reasonable I mean goals that bring towards a stable political situation that allows for further international negotiations and adjudication of their grievances that have perpetuated the conflict and violence between the warring parties. (b) Is the military action then proportional to these military goals?

Israel and Hamas may be judged (or morally blamed) if their military action exceeds the sense of reasonable force that is required to achieve their military goals.

It is morally misleading to assign parity of blame to the warring parties. Most likely, one party bears the major blame for this war: either Israel or Hamas. To conclude, our moral judgment in assigning the blame depends on (1) identifying any party that is culpable for starting this round of war and (2) condemning any party that commits the offense of resorting to disproportionate force (even on the assumption that there could well be reasonable military goals).
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I would like to hear your view. Please avoid emotional rhetoric and name-calling and support your view with evidence and your own arguments (sorry, this blog does not accept links).

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