A Response to Yishai Schwartz
I was recently sent an article titled “Israel’s 2014 Invasion of the Gaza Strip is Morally Justified”, by Yishai Schwartz. It has been years since I’ve been so disturbed and disgusted by a piece of writing.
A bit of background: several days ago I got into a…spirited debate on the subject of Israel and Palestine with a friend. This is rare, because though I write and discuss politics on the internet, I’m not the type to jump into one in the real world, especially not such a difficult and divisive issue as this one. But it happened. The viewpoint I gave to my friend was much the one I’ve written of previously - that both sides have legitimate grievances, that Israel has a right to defend itself, but that I find the way Israel chooses to marginalize Hamas both confusing, ineffective, and cruel in its high collateral damage.
Afterwards, my friend sent me Schwartz’s article. I found myself dumbfounded by its threadbare argument. Obviously enough, Schwartz writes that Israel’s recent actions in Gaza, beginning on July 8th with bombings of suspected Hamas militant stockpiles and quarters and continuing with a ground offensive, are morally justified. As of today (August 22nd), 25 Israeli soldiers and 2 Israeli civilians have died. Meanwhile, 550 Gazan citizens have perished, including at least 30 children.
For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide will—as they have for generations—learn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.
But there is an alternative. We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally.
Schwartz has laced his argument in rhetoric that speaks of principles, morals, and a greater good. But when you actually spend the time to discern and summarize his argument, it is that because Hamas uses reprehensible tactics, human shields are a non-issue that must be ignored.
I was floored. How could an educated man make that argument that Israel is morally justified for no other reason than that the other side is using despicable tactics? His sole argument is this: two wrongs make a right.
That’s it. That’s all there is.
It is childish, it is petty, and it is cruel. There is no appeal to Just War Theory or any substantive argument of political science. Only the belief that we must create a precedent in which the actions of terrorists do not at all constrict our own tactics. And yet he espouses the precedent that in times of conflict, innocent human shields should be blithely ignored for the sake of achieving tactical objectives.
The tactics of the enemy influence our own. They always have and they always should. I can not imagine the slope that such a belief would take humanity down. Do we mow down the next gunman that takes a hostage, just to show future criminals that we won’t allow innocents to determine our tactics? Because this seems to be precisely what Schwartz is arguing for.
Like Nicholas Kristof, I believe both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate grievances. I personally do not believe Hamas is justified in its tactics that trade civilian life for potshots at Israel, nor do I believe Israel is justified in accepting extremely high collateral damage in exchange for mediocre tactical gains. I believe that there are better ways for Israel to end the rocket fire. Yet with a terrorist group firing rockets into its territory, I am certain a plausible argument could be made that Israel’s Gazan offensive is morally justifiable, even though it is likely I would ultimately disagree.
This however, is not one of those arguments.