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Tough Love: The Moral Choices in the Gaza War

One series of questions posed to Israeli soldiers in discussions of war ethics goes something like this: If you were ordered to blow up a house where a terrorist commander was hiding, and you had reason to believe that enemy … Read More

By / January 6, 2009

One series of questions posed to Israeli soldiers in discussions of war ethics goes something like this: If you were ordered to blow up a house where a terrorist commander was hiding, and you had reason to believe that enemy civilians were in the house, should the order be refused? If you were ordered to blow up the house and you were told that an Israeli soldier was being held hostage in the house, should you agree to do so? If you were ordered to blow up the house and your father was being held hostage there, would you obey? These hypotheticals are telling because they assume a moral instinct that journalists and commentators often forget, dismiss, or explicitly condemn: that all lives are not equal. But, as Sahil Mahtani points out, that’s the way the numbers work when we are talking about war and defense. And as Ross Dothat notes, rules about war will be useless—in fact, pernicious—if they does not take into account the realities of the moral choices faced not by armchair theorists but by leaders, commanders, and combatants charged with protecting their societies, soldiers, and friends. That all lives are equal is a fundamental principle of law in Western societies, and rightly so. A government cannot be just if it values the life of some citizens over the lives of others without due cause. But when faced with the life-and-death situations involving survival and war, this principle breaks down. Closeness makes a difference when we value lives. If I am told that an Eskimo is hanging from an Alaskan cliff and that a rescue operation would require risking the lives of a dozen alpinists, I could consider the case more or less dispassionately and might suggest that it is not reasonable to for twelve men and women to face death in order to save one man. If the person hanging from the cliff is someone I know and feel close to, I might point out that the members of the rescue team freely chose a risky profession and that they must rescue my poor friend. If the victim is my son, I would accept no moral calculus at all—no effort and no risk would be in any way equal to my son’s life. This instinct of ours is not the vestige of primitive tribalism, a prejudice we should seek to cure ourselves of. It lies at the very core of our humanity and our ability to forge human relationships, communities, and cultures. We should not be surprised, then, that most Israelis are not moved by the fact that hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in their country’s attack on the Gaza Strip as compared to only a handful of Israelis by Hamas rockets. Nor should we be surprised that many Palestinians are unmoved by the prospect that one of those rockets might strike a school, hospital, or supermarket and kill dozens of Israelis. If a high death toll on the other side brings peace, security, and justice to my people, most Israelis and Palestinians will tell you straight out, then it’s a price worth paying. The mistake both sides make, the mistake that keeps the Israel-Palestine conflict going, is the assumption that death and destruction will in fact produce peace, security, and justice. In abstract terms, the Palestinians have every right to use force to defend themselves and to seek to right the wrongs they have suffered. And Israel has every right to use force to defend its population and its existence. Both sides err in their valuation of the efficacy of force, in their belief that violence can achieve their goals. But if Palestinians blow up a bunch of buses, killing and maiming hundreds of Jews, yet do not achieve their goals, can that ever be forgiven? And if Israel kills hundreds in Gaza only to return, in the end, to a modus vivendi not all that much different from the one before the invasion, how can they claim that those Palestinian deaths were collateral damage in a justified military operation? In fact, the reason Israelis condemn Palestinian violence so vociferously, and the reason Palestinians Israeli aggression so stridently, is that we both see the other side’s violence not just as bloody but as futile. Seeing the solidarity, determination, and fundamental justice on our own side, we cannot conceive of how a reasonable enemy could think that violence could achieve his goals. Therefore, we see violence with a justifiable purpose on our side, and gratuitous violence on the other. Preaching to the Palestinians about the turpitude of launching missiles against Israel will get us nowhere, and neither will preaching to the Israelis about the incommensurability of the Palestinian versus the Israeli death toll. Leaders, and citizens, on both sides are quite right and justified in valuing the lives of their countrymen over the lives of their enemies. Moral condescension from writers outside the war zone whose families, friends, and fellow-citizens are not at risk will not change any minds. If I’m to persuade my fellow-Israelis that this war is useless and wrong, the only way to do it is to show them that we are shedding blood and getting little or nothing in return. That may sound callous to the referees on the sidelines, but I’m not ashamed to say that I love my son more than my friends, my friends more than my fellow-Israelis, and my fellow-Israelis more than my enemies. What kind of father, friend, and Israeli would I be otherwise? Read more by Haim at South Jerusalem

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