Israeli-Hamas conflict: Just war?

Israeli is accused of using disproportionate means, and the toll on Gazan civilians is weighed against the civilian casualties in Israel from Hamas’ homemade rockets. Hamas fighters use their own civilians as involuntary human shields, and fire their rockets indiscriminately and triggering the end to the ceasefire. These issues have got bloggers thinking about just war theory.

Andrew Sullivan begins: “How does just war theory defend the deaths of many innocent civilians as a means to increase “deterrent strength”?”

Noah Pollak requests in response: “Increasing “deterrent strength” against an enemy is simply another way of saying that you intend to fight them until they stop attacking you. As far as just war theory is concerned, I invite Andrew to cite chapter and verse, or even vague tenets, which might guide us toward his claim of the illegitimacy of the ground operation.”

Sullivan, after checking his Catholic Catechism accepts Pollak’s invitation:

The loss of life this past week has been huge – far greater than any other stage of the conflict, and out of all proportion to the damage Hamas has inflicted on Israel. In terms of casualties, we are talking about ratios of roughly a hundred to one. That makes this far from a close call morally. There is a reason, in other words, for many Europeans’ horror. This is an extremely one-sided war, with one side essentially being attacked at will in a way that cannot avoid large numbers of civilian deaths. It is all very well understanding and sympathizing with Israel’s dilemma in tackling Jihadist terror, as we should and must; it is another thing to watch women and children being terrorized and killed as they currently are in Gaza, with very little tangible gained as a result in terms of Israeli security. Maybe the long-term gains will shift the balance here. But those now arguing for exactly that proposition are those who believe the Iraq war has been a great success.

I need to repeat: There is no “just war” excuse for Hamas’ murderous terrorism or for its refusal to acknowledge or peacefully co-exist with Israel. But there’s no reading of traditional just war theory that can defend what Israel is now doing and has done either. Maybe I am missing an element here. Or maybe just war theory cannot account for modern terrorism. But if that is the case, then an argument must be made for a new framework of just warfare that can account for that.

Pollak responds:

Andrew has fallen for one of the great deceptions of the current age. In Andrew’s telling, and in the current faddish European one, proportionality requires that a military’s response to aggression must not exceed in violence the original provocation. This idea is not just a foolish and morally benighted concept of warfighting — it represents the complete repudiation of the actual doctrine of proportionality.

Pollak takes his understanding of proportionality from Michael J. Totten who wrote earlier this month:

The Law of Armed Conflict “arises from a desire among civilized nations to prevent unnecessary suffering and destruction while not impeding the effective waging of war. A part of public international law, LOAC regulates the conduct of armed hostilities. It also aims to protect civilians, prisoners of war, the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked.”

Proportionality, in short and according to the law, “prohibits the use of any kind or degree of force that exceeds that needed to accomplish the military objective.”

In other words, if a surgical strike is all that is needed to take out a Grad rocket launcher, carpet bombing the entire city or even the neighborhood isn’t allowed.

Hamas is still firing rockets; therefore, the IDF is not using more force than necessary to disrupt the firing of rockets. … nd the IDF, unlike Hamas, does what it can to minimize injury to civilians. “Militants often operate against Israel from civilian areas,” the Associated Press reported last week. “Late Saturday, thousands of Gazans received Arabic-language cell-phone messages from the Israeli military, urging them to leave homes where militants might have stashed weapons.”

Ross Douthat (who has, independently, consulted the catechism on just war) has this punchline:

if it’s important not to stretch the theory to justify any goal or end you seek, it’s also important not to narrow it to the point where it seems so unrealistic and disconnected from the realities of war that policymakers will feel comfortable ignoring it. Which is why I find the widespread tendency to label Israel’s current tactics as unjust – as opposed to labeling the war as a whole unwise, and unjust in its unwisdom – to be a somewhat troubling development: If you find yourself saying that a modern state cannot take the fight to a terrorist regime if doing so unavoidably involves civilian casualties, you’re advancing a theory of jus in bello that no state can accept – and ultimately, I suspect, you’re giving ammunition to the side of the debate that wants to do away with moral restraint in the struggle against terrorism entirely.

Douthat was reacting to these words of Peter Hitchins: “[T]he bombing of densely populated areas, however accurate, is certain to cause the deaths of many innocents. How then can it be defended? In what important way is it different from Arab murders of Israeli women and children?”

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