Israel and Hamas: Moral questions

In my focus on deterrence, I have mostly taken a utilitarian approach to the conflict between Israel and Hamas (if your goal is X, then Y is or is not appropriate), intentionally avoiding moral questions. I could only advocate things that would enhance deterrence, however, if I believed deterrence to be a morally valid option (I may need to write a second post explaining why I think so). A recent Op-Ed by Alan Derschowitz, an American law professor at Harvard, in the Jerusalem Post led me to conclude that it was time to talk about morality. In the article, he asserts that there is no moral equivalence between Israel's actions and those of Hamas, because Hamas intentionally targets civilians and uses them as human shields, while Israel does the opposite. This is true, but does that mean Hamas bears 100% of the responsibility for the conflict and, as I will focus on here, for the current crisis? An analysis of the deterrence situation before the crisis, like that to be found in my article last Friday in Strife journal's blog, adds an additional dimension to the moral question.

In that article, I argue that the current round of escalation was not necessary from a deterrence standpoint unless Hamas's leadership had given the order to abduct the three Israeli teenagers later found murdered near Hebron. The murderers are indeed Hamas members and Hamas has talked about abducting Israeli soldiers and using them to bargain for the release of Palestinian prisoners and has apparently trained members in the West Bank to do so. Israel has presented no evidence to date, however, that would suggest that the Hamas leadership, external or, perhaps more importantly, within Gaza, ordered or authorized the kidnapping and murder. Instead, there is evidence that the kidnappers were members of a rogue Hamas branch that acted on its own. One has to wonder why the teens were murdered relatively shortly after their capture if the idea was to use them as bargaining chips. The fact that Hamas long said it did not desire an escalation with Israel, waited until after Israel struck several targets in the Gaza Strip before launching its first rockets at Israel in two years, and was already in a weakened state led me to conclude that the kidnapping probably was not planned, but a rogue action.

Be that as it may, surely Hamas must take responsibility for the actions of its members, even if they acted without authorization? Of course. We would expect this much from Israel or the United States as well, after all. The initial strikes against Hamas in Gaza thus made sense, as did an extensive search-and-rescue operation to find the teens. But Israel's response went beyond search-and-rescue, punishing the actual perpetrators, and making Hamas pay a price for its lack of control over its own militants. It instead ran an operation to attack Hamas "infrastructure" in the West Bank and continued to attack Hamas targets in Gaza. It arrested scores of Palestinians who were uninvolved in the kidnappings. Hamas is an organization that uses terrorism and intentionally targets civilians. Many of those arrested were in fact known terrorists who were re-arrested after having been released as part of a deal to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier Hamas held for ransom for several years. There is thus a moral logic to all of these Israeli actions.

At the same time, the escalation that has followed Operation Brother's Keeper (as the hunt for the three teens was known) and Operation Protective Edge (the current operation against Hamas in Gaza) has led to the death, so far, of nearly 100 Palestinians in Gaza and the wounding two Israeli soldiers (one seriously) as well as that of seven civilians injured in a rocket attack on the city of Ashdod. One must of course point out that Israel does not intend to kill civilians in Gaza and takes measures to prevent this, the opposite of what Hamas does when it launches rockets. Further, Hamas places rocket launchers and military facilities within civilian areas to try to prevent Israeli attacks. It also encourages Gazans to act as "human shields" against attacks. This means that if Israel did not use precision weaponry, the death toll would be even higher. Hamas actively tries to kill Israeli civilians and places its own civilians in harm's way to protect itself, while Israel actively tries not to kill Palestinian civilians while attempting to keep its own out of harm's way. Derschowitz is right that there is no equivalence between these two actions.

But if this is the fundamental moral level, then, as I've hinted, there is a second moral level as well. Some response to Hamas's involvement, even tacit, in the kidnappings makes moral sense as well as strategic sense from a deterrence perspective. But a response so large that Hamas sees no other option but to fight a losing battle against Israel is not just unnecessary, it is counterproductive. It undermines deterrence and, by leading to escalation, leads to unnecessary deaths. War, though always a tragedy, is sometimes necessary to protect the lives of the citizens represented by the military. This gives such wars a moral legitimacy. Unless Israel has good evidence of Hamas's involvement, this is an unnecessary war that destabilizes the situation and causes unnecessary death and injury on both sides. It thus lacks such moral legitimacy. Do I demand more of Israel than I do of Hamas? Of course I do. Israel is a liberal democracy. Hamas is a political/militant/social organization that advocates violence against civilians and the eventual destruction of the State of Israel. There ought to be no equivalency of standards between them.


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