Yesterday I outlined some of the commonly accepted criteria of Just War theory. They included circumstances which must be satisfied before going to war (jus ad bellum) and principles that should govern how the war is actually fought (jus in bello). In any conflict it must be asked whether either party was justified in entering into the conflict, and if so, are they fighting it with due consideration to the requirements of Just War theory.
These are often difficult questions to answer, of course, because it's so hard to know what's going on both on the battlefield and behind the scenes in the offices of the leaders of the combatant parties. Even so, based on news reports we have of the current Israeli/Hamas conflict, I think the case can be made that, as far as we're able to tell, Israel is making a genuine effort to abide by the principles of Just War.
The first question which must be answered is whether the Israelis were justified in attacking Hamas. Did they have just cause?
Hamas has two objectives: To destroy Israel and to establish a hard-line Islamic state in its place. Since Israel left Gaza in 2005 Hamas has launched over 5000 rockets into Israeli cities and countryside killing dozens and terrorizing thousands. They've launched 3000 rockets in just the past year. Given these facts it certainly seems that Israel is acting in legitimate self-defense.
Meanwhile, as many observers have pointed out, Hamas is committing three distinct war crimes. They're deliberately targeting Israeli civilians, they're using their own civilians as human shields, and they seek the destruction of a member state of the United Nations.
The second question is whether the Israelis had just intention in entering into war. Their stated purpose is to remove the existential threat to their citizens which is a valid justification under Just War theory. Moreover the the war was declared by a legitimate authority - a freely elected government.
Next, is there a reasonable prospect of success? This is difficult to assess from this vantage, of course, but it certainly is the case that doing nothing would not have stopped the attacks. Israel will have been successful if it destroys Hamas' ability to make war, and if the world community is persuaded to take a more active role in monitoring the flow of weapons into Gaza.
Finally, is the Israeli offensive a last resort? Israel has been trying through negotiations since at least 2005, when they withdrew from Gaza and gave the territory to the Palestinians, to get them to stop their terror attacks. Nothing has worked. Not walls, not blockades, not talks. The most recent rocket barrage came as Israel was delivering relief supplies to Palestinians. When the border crossing was opened to allow the trucks into Gaza the Israelis cautioned Hamas that should they continue to attack Israel they would incur grave consequences. Hamas continued to fire rockets at Israeli targets anyway even as the trucks were delivering relief to the Palestinian people.
According to Reuters Israel reopened border crossings with the Gaza Strip on Friday, a day after Prime Minister Olmert warned militants there to stop firing rockets or they would pay a heavy price. Despite the movement of relief supplies, militants fired about a dozen rockets and mortar shafts from Gaza at Israel on Friday. One accidentally struck a house in Gaza, killing two Palestinian sisters, ages 5 and 13. Palestinian workers at the crossings said fuel had arrived for Gaza's main power plant and about a hundred trucks loaded with grain, humanitarian aid and other goods were expected during the day.
It's hard to imagine what more Israel could do that would placate Hamas, short of simply leaving the region like they left Gaza. Some have argued that the Israelis have established a naval blockade of the country which is causing hardship and that they should lift it, but the blockade was necessitated by the fact that Hamas was using shipping to import rockets and missiles with which to threaten Israel. To lift the blockade without having some way of supervising what flows into Gaza would be folly.
Few critics of Israel argue that they had no justification for initiating an attack on Hamas, but many have argued that the war does not meet the jus in bello principles of discrimination and proportionality.
The principle of discrimination forbids doing intentional harm to civilians. Indeed, in my mind this principle calls into grave question the decision to carpet bomb German and Japanese cities in WWII. Those who think that Israel is recklessly killing civilians, however, just aren't thinking. Every dead civilian is a propaganda coup for Hamas. Why would the Israelis hand them such a gift if it could be avoided? The fact is what evidence we have shows that they're not recklessly killing civilians, and to get a sense of the lengths to which Israel is going to avoid civilian casualties consider this story from Strategy Page:
The Israelis have been using both leaflet drops and the phone system to avoid civilian casualties. For example, the bombing campaign after the initial attack was directed mostly at the thousands of rockets Hamas had stockpiled. Most of these were stored in civilian housing, a technique pioneered by Hezbollah in Lebanon. When a cache is found the Israelis will phone the home just before the attack and tell the civilians they have a few minutes to get out before the place is bombed. In at least one case, the civilians were defiant, and went to the roof, believing that the Israelis would not bomb with women and children in plain sight. In response, the Israeli fighter came in low and fired some 20mm cannon shells right next to the building. The panicked civilians fled the building and the place was then bombed shortly thereafter.
It's interesting to note that the Hamas tactic would not have worked against any but a moral attacking force. No one would have even thought to try it against the Russians in Chechnya or Afghanistan where civilians were slaughtered willy-nilly. Nor would such a tactic have been employed against their fellow Arabs who recognize no such distinction between civilians and combatants. The Hamas tactic of using women and children as human shields works only against a moral enemy who cares deeply about minimizing civilian casualties and Hamas knows it.
The most voluble complaints against the Israelis, however, have to do with what is claimed to be their disproportionate response to the provocation. A few dozen Israelis were killed by Hamas rockets, the reasoning goes, so an attack that takes the lives of hundreds is wildly disproportionate to the offense. This, however, misconstrues the principle of proportionality.
If the purpose of the principle were to establish a tit for tat retaliation protocol then Israel would be justified in killing one Palestinian civilian, and only one, for every Israeli civilian fatality. But this is absurd. Hamas would gladly sacrifice millions of civilian Palestinians if they could kill millions of Israelis.
Nor has proportionality ever been understood to be correlated with the deaths of combatants. It has to do with matching ends and means. Proportionality means that the steps taken to bring about a legitimate end must be the least destructive steps available which do not place one's own troops at significantly increased risk. It would have been disproportionate, for example, had U.S. troops leveled an entire neighborhood in Iraq in order to silence a single sniper.
If the terror attacks on Israel will not stop as long as Hamas controls Gaza then it's legitimate to degrade Hamas to the point where they can no longer cling to power, whether it takes the deaths of 100 Hamas fighters or 10,000. The deaths of Palestinian civilians are tragic, but as long as Israel has just cause to fight and is doing its best to honor the principle of discrimination, the ratio of dead Palestinian civilians to dead Israeli civilians is irrelevant to whether the war is being justly fought.
Many of the dead civilians, moreover, were killed because Hamas uses them as human shields. Nizar Rayan was a Hamas leader who sent his own son on a suicide bomb mission that killed two Israeli civilians and who had repeatedly swore to destroy Israel. Rayan was stockpiling weapons in his home, and the IDF called to warn the family to get out because they were going to destroy the weapons. Either the family (four wives and nine children) chose not to leave or Rayan wouldn't let them leave. In any event, they all died when the home was bombed. Given that Israel had a right to destroy the weapons, and urged the family to evacuate, who is responsible for the deaths of the innocent children?
In fact, Hamas has killed almost as many of their fellow Palestinians as the Israelis have. As of this writing some 40-80 Palestinian civilians have died from Israeli fire. Fearing that their rival political faction, Fatah, will use the chaos created by the war to topple Hamas, Hamas is killing or crippling whatever Fatah personnel they can find. So far, they've murdered about 35 and shot some 75 others in the legs. These civilian casualties are all no doubt attributed to Israeli aggression, but their deaths are the work of Hamas (See here for more on the murderous brutality of Hamas toward their own people).
Israel has adopted the Christian Just War standard in their fight against an enemy for whom there are no standards. It puts them at a serious disadvantage but one which they believe is worth assuming in order to avoid lapsing into the barbarism of their enemies. The shame is that so many in the West are so reluctant to give them the credit they deserve for trying to defend themselves in the most honorable way possible and are so quick to believe the worst reports about Israeli conduct in the war zone.RLC