mardi 31 mars 2009

A Perfect Moral Catastrophe: Just War Philosophy and the Israeli Attack on Gaza

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by Jerome Slater

Note: A longer version of this article, expanded to include, among other related issues, a discussion of the actions of Hamas in light of just war theory, has also been posted to our website. Click here to view/download that version (in PDF format) or Click here to view that version in a Flash Flipbook format. It has been extensively footnoted, so please read it before responding to this article, especially if your concern is the nature of the supporting evidence for Jerome Slater's statements. The author of the response to this article did not have access to the longer piece, which was not finished when this issue went to press.

Even strong critics of the Israeli attack on Gaza have generally prefaced their criticism by saying, in essence, "of course Israel has every right to defend itself against Hamas rocket attacks, but its methods are disproportionate." Or, as it is sometimes put, "no country can ignore attacks on its territory and citizens."

There are two problems with these arguments. The first is that calling Israel's attack on Gaza "disproportionate" falls well short of revealing the full dimensions of its behavior: the Israeli way of war-including in most of its previous wars, not just in Gaza-is worse than merely "disproportional," or even "indiscriminate." Second, a nation does not have a "right" of self-defense if attacks on its soil are triggered by-or are acts of resistance against-its own aggression, colonialism, occupation, or repression.

Jus ad Bellum, or the Justice of Going to War

The analysis and argument of this article will be based on just war philosophy, the dominant Western framework for moral discussions of war. The central principles of just war philosophy are jus ad bellum-the justice of going to war-and jus in bello, or just methods of warfare. The most important of the jus ad bellum constraints are that states must have a just cause for going to war, that war must be a last resort, and that the war must have a high enough probability of success (in attaining a just cause) to offset the inevitable devastation of war.

Further, even if all the jus ad bellum criteria are met, a state must not resort to morally unacceptable methods. The three major constraints within jus in bello are proportionality, meaning that there are limits to the amount of force that is morally allowable, even for a just cause; distinction, meaning that every effort must be made to distinguish between soldiers and civilians; and noncombatant immunity, meaning that there may never be deliberate attacks on civilians. The Israeli attack on Gaza violated every one of these principles.

Just Cause and the Israeli Attack

Begin with just cause: did Israel have a moral right to go to war against Hamas in order to end its rocket attacks aimed at the Israeli population? The standard argument of those who believe that Israel was merely exercising its right of self-defense is that in 2005 Israel ended its occupation of Gaza, allowing the Gazans to peacefully govern themselves and develop their economy, but was met with continued terrorist attacks whose purpose was to destroy the state of Israel.

No part of this argument can withstand serious analysis. First, it is widely argued in Israel that the real purpose of Ariel Sharon's withdrawal of the Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005 was to ease the overall burden of the occupation on Israel rather than on the Palestinians, and to allow Israel to consolidate its occupation of the West Bank-which is far larger, more economically productive, and contains more invaluable water aquifers than Gaza-as well as its occupation of East Jerusalem, which is religiously and symbolically important to both sides.

In any case, there was no true end to the Israeli occupation even of Gaza, for Israeli forces retained control over Gaza's borders, coastline, and airspace; continued to wield overwhelming power over its economy and external trade; continued to control Gaza's telecommunications, water, and electricity networks; and reserved the right to launch incursions at will-which, of course, it has done. As a 2004 Human Rights Watch report put it, "The removal of settlers and most military forces will not end Israel's control over Gaza.... Israel plans to reconfigure its occupation of the territory, but it will remain an occupying power."

Moreover, even if Israel had genuinely withdrawn from Gaza and also ended all other means of repressing Gaza's residents, that hardly would have met the need of the Palestinians as a whole for a viable independent state of their own. The Palestinians living in Gaza are not a separate nation from those living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; to believe otherwise is the equivalent of believing that if in the 1770s the British had withdrawn from New Jersey but continued to occupy New York, the residents of New Jersey would no longer have the right to take up arms in support of American independence.

Consider the extent of Israeli repression, as it repeatedly has been described by the most important international human rights organizations; by western media, including even the New York Times (which typically downplays Israeli repression); and above all by Israeli human rights organizations, academics, journalists and newspapers, and even by disillusioned former Israeli politicians, military men, and intelligence officials.

The killings. According to studies by the United Nations and Israeli as well as international human rights organizations, from 2006 through the end of 2008, Israel killed about 1,000 Palestinians, up to half of them civilians and as many as a quarter of them children. During the recent rampage in Gaza, Israel killed more than 1,300 Palestinians-two-thirds of them civilians by the Israeli army's own analysis (Haaretz, January 25, 2009).
Beyond the outright killings, surely by now it is obvious that Israel has followed a deliberate policy of collective punishment and impoverishment of the Gazan people, the clear purpose of which is to intimidate them and induce them to turn away not only from Hamas terrorism, but from all forms of resistance to Israeli control, including nonviolence. As Yitzhak Laor, the Israeli poet, author, and political columnist recently wrote: "If they launch a missile, we destroy families, neighborhoods, streets, towns.... If they protest peacefully, we fire tear gas at them."

Economic warfare. In carrying out what has been widely termed the siege of Gaza, since 2006 Israel has regularly blocked Gazan trade and commerce with the outside world; bombed and shelled Gazan factories, farms, and olive orchards; and destroyed Gaza's main power plant. Consequently, even before the latest attacks the economy of Gaza was on the verge of collapse, unemployment ranged from 45 percent to 60 percent, 80 percent of Gazans were estimated to be below international poverty lines (according to a number of studies, among the worst such figures in the world), and malnutrition was rampant, even if outright starvation was averted by a small stream of Israeli food supplies and extensive outside assistance.
One can only imagine how much worse this already intolerable situation has become in the aftermath of the recent attacks: roads, bridges, factories, agricultural lands, and the electrical system were destroyed or badly damaged. Further, about 4,000 homes were destroyed, 21,000 damaged, and 100,000 people left homeless (New York Times, January 25, 2009).

Destruction of Palestinian government. In its recent attacks on Gaza, the Israeli forces have repeated their deliberate and extensive 2002 attacks on the governing institutions of Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority in the West Bank: the Gazan parliament, the main government ministries, and nearly all police stations were reduced to rubble.
Destruction of public and private health systems. As in the earlier attacks in the West Bank, Israel cut off supplies of desperately needed medicines and equipment. It also struck hospitals and ambulances. Moreover, the attacks on the Gazan electrical system have resulted in even greater devastation to the sewage system, food production and distribution systems, and even of supplies of drinking water.
Destruction of Palestinian education. Both in the West Bank earlier and in the recent Gazan attacks, Israel has deliberately attacked many Palestinian schools and universities, and in other ways made normal education impossible. According to one United Nations study, the combined effect of direct attacks on schools and universities, widespread malnutrition, and the consequences of all the other Israeli forms of repression has resulted in "the collapse of the education system in Gaza."
For all of these reasons, the Israeli attack on Gaza cannot be considered a legitimate act of self-defense, for its main purpose, as Henry Siegman has put it, is "to protect its right to continue the strangulation of Gaza's population."

Last Resort

Nonetheless, for the sake of analysis let us suppose that Israel really had withdrawn not only from Gaza but also from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Let us suppose, further, that it had truly ended its occupation and repression, and therefore had earned a genuine right of self-defense against Hamas attacks. Even in these (purely hypothetical) circumstances, Israel would still not have had the moral right to attack Gaza unless it also had met the last resort criterion.

The last resort principle requires that every reasonable effort to seek a political solution must be tried before going to war. Israel also failed this test, for it made no attempt at negotiations before attacking Gaza, despite a number of indications that Hamas was becoming increasingly amenable to a reasonable political settlement.

If so, Hamas would be following in the footsteps of Arafat's PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and those of many other radical movements that became much more moderate when they had countries to run. Beginning in the 1980s, the PLO gradually but steadily moved away from its early ideological and uncompromising rejection of the existence of Israel and effectively abandoned its dream of creating a Palestinian state in all the historic land of Palestine. Today, no one doubts that the goal of the PLO and Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's successor and the West Bank prime minister, is limited to the creation of a small state in the 23 percent that remained of Palestine after the 1948 war, living in coexistence with its far more powerful Jewish neighbor.

Granted, there are no guarantees that Hamas will duplicate the evolution of the PLO, for it has remained committed-at least verbally-to its anti-Semitic founding ideology and 1988 charter, which explicitly states that it is a religious obligation to eliminate Israel and the Jews from the Islamic holy land. It is clear that there are internal divisions within Hamas-particularly between the relatively more moderate Hamas officials in Gaza, led by Ismail Haniyeh, and Hamas officials in exile, led by Khaled Meshal-over the extent to which this ideology must give way to practical realities.

A Political Settlement with Hamas?

Regardless of the divisions within the organization, by 2006 there were a number of indications of emerging Hamas flexibility, even among the hard-liners. In January 2006 Hamas published its official platform for the upcoming Gazan elections; it included no language calling for the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamic state in all of Palestine. To be sure, the apparent change in Hamas's position was ambiguous, for it continued to proclaim that it did not reject any means, "including armed resistance" if that was necessary to "end the occupation" and "establish a state whose capital is Jerusalem."

As Israeli analysts noted, the Hamas platform did not specify whether such a state would be limited to the West Bank and Gaza and did not clarify whether "the occupation" to be ended referred only to the post-1967 Israeli expansion or to the entire Jewish state. Even so, the very ambiguity greatly differed from earlier Hamas extremism and even suggested that the operational, if not the ideological, goals of Hamas now might not substantially differ from those of Abbas and other Palestinian moderates.

Moreover, the Hamas leaders were surely aware that they won the 2006 Gaza parliamentary elections not because of their ideology but despite it: as Henry Siegman has pointed out, post-election polls showed that 73 percent of the Gazan population favored a peace deal with Israel and a two-state solution. As nearly all observers agreed, Hamas won because the Gazan people were tired of Fatah's incompetence and corruption.

It has now been revealed that, after the elections, Haniyeh, the new Gazan prime minister, sent a written message to George Bush offering a truce for many years in exchange for a compromise political settlement; the Bush administration did not reply to this and additional overtures (Haaretz, Nov. 10, 2008). Soon after that, Hamas began to go public with its new position. For example, in May 2006, Haniyeh told Haaretz that the Hamas government would agree to a long-term truce with Israel if it withdrew to the 1967 lines. Shortly afterward, a joint statement of senior Hamas and Fatah members who were imprisoned in Israel went further; the highly important and prestigious "Prisoners' Declaration" cleared up previous ambiguities by calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state "in all the lands occupied in 1967," and would employ armed resistance only in those territories (Haaretz, May 11, 2006; emphasis added). In an even more significant indication that Hamas was moving towards Mahmoud Abbas's position, in March 2007 Hamas and the Palestinian Authority formed a national unity government to negotiate with Israel; Hamas officials stated at the time that they agreed that Abbas should play the leading role in such negotiations.

Israel and its ally the United States ignored all these overtures, or contemptuously dismissed them as "tricks." Nonetheless, throughout 2008 Hamas's political position continued to evolve; even Meshal publicly announced his support for a ten-year "truce" if Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders.

It is undeniable that the Hamas position still contains a number of ambiguities and inconsistencies. First, it calls only for a truce rather than a permanent settlement-but sometimes suggests that the truce can be extended indefinitely. Second, sometimes Hamas officials say that they accept Israel as a "fact" but will "never recognize its legitimacy"; on other occasions they strongly imply that their formal position has no practical importance and could eventually change. One day a Hamas official sounds particularly conciliatory, and the next day other officials back away. Sometimes Hamas stresses its commitment to the return of all Palestinian refugees to Israel, perhaps the most difficult obstacle to a permanent settlement, but at other times it downplays the issue. And so on.

Yet, the general direction is clear, and in historic terms the evolution has been rapid. A number of factors account for this evolution, including the realities of governing, especially when most Gazans continue to favor an end to the conflict and a two-state solution; the fact that most Arab governments today-particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and probably Syria, the most important of the Arab states-also support a compromise settlement solution and fear Islamic fundamentalism; the economic sanctions imposed by Israel, the United States, and European countries after the Hamas takeover of Gaza; and, no doubt, the unending Israeli assassinations and other attacks.

For these reasons, many Israeli analysts today-including past and present intelligence and other government officials-now argue that the Hamas evolution is meaningful and that the organization-unlike al Qaeda-is becoming a movement fighting for limited national goals rather than uncompromising religious ones. Some have even suggested that Hamas's anti-Semitism just might have something to do with the decades of Israeli occupation and repression rather than being simply an a priori and immutable product of religious fanaticism.

In the final analysis, the key point is that the only way to resolve the ambiguities is through negotiations with Hamas-no serious peace proposal requires Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories until a reasonable and enforceable political settlement is reached. That the Israeli government has refused to take this obvious path of exploring Hamas's true intentions strongly suggests that it is Israel at least as much as Hamas that is unwilling or (for domestic reasons) unable to accept a genuine two-state solution.

A Cease-Fire

Even if a political settlement with Hamas-for whatever reason-is presently out of reach, Israel could have come closer to meeting the principle that force is justified only as a last resort had it not ignored a number of Hamas cease-fire proposals as well as complied, in good faith, with several recent cease-fires that were either negotiated or unilaterally proclaimed by Hamas. Thus, contrary to the widespread view that it was unprovoked Hamas rocket attacks that gave Israel no choice but to attack Gaza, the chronological evidence overwhelmingly shows that Israel was primarily responsible for the continuation of the violence.

According to ex-Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy, in 1997 King Hussein of Jordan conveyed to Israel an offer from Khaled Meshal, the chief Hamas leader, to reach an understanding on a cease-fire to last thirty years. Israel not only ignored the offer, but a few days later, Israeli operatives also tried to assassinate Meshal in Jordan.
According to Matti Steinberg, former head adviser on Palestinian affairs to the Shin Bet (Israel's internal security agency), Hamas refrained from attacking civilians inside Israel until Baruch Goldstein's February 1994 murder of twenty-nine Palestinians in a Hebron mosque. When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin refused to withdraw the settlers from Hebron in the aftermath of the massacre, Hamas then retaliated with suicide bombings of its own.
Sporadic terrorist attacks on Israel in the ensuing years typically followed Israeli undercover operations that killed Hamas members or other militants, and often civilian bystanders, as well. Beginning in February 2005, Hamas unilaterally declared a cease-fire; while Israel then temporarily suspended its assassinations in Gaza, it continued to target Islamic Jihad activists inside the West Bank, who then retaliated with rocket attacks.
In January 2006, Israel assassinated a senior Hamas leader; however, Hamas did not retaliate and continued to press for a far-ranging, long-term cease-fire, during which it would not only take no violent actions against Israel but would also prevent other Palestinian organizations from doing so.
In November 2006, following an Israeli artillery attack in which a shell struck several homes, killing 19 people, most of them women and children, Hamas retaliated with an attempted suicide bombing in Israel, its first such attack in nearly two years. Following that, however, in the next year there were few attacks inside Israel, whether by Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
Nonetheless, throughout 2007 Israel continued its assassination attacks on militants inside Gaza, killing more than 100 Palestinians, many of them civilian bystanders, including women and children. There were a few retaliatory rocket attacks, but only three Israelis were killed, the lowest number since 2000.
In April 2008, Meshal stated that Hamas was ready to stop attacking civilians if Israel did the same, and in early June a new six-month truce went into effect. During the next few months there were few if any Hamas rocket attacks; although there were several Islamic Jihad retaliatory attacks in response to Israeli military actions in Gaza or the West Bank, they resulted in few casualties. A Haaretz correspondent wrote: "Hamas leaders have spoken out vehemently and unequivocally against the rocket fire and ... [have] even threatened those who violate the lull with arrest."
In September and October, there were two Islamic Jihad rocket attacks but none from Hamas. Nonetheless, Israel greatly tightened its siege of Gaza, sharply limiting the movement of food supplies, medicines, fuel, and repair parts for water and sewage systems; moreover, six Hamas men were killed in a November 5 Israeli raid on a Gazan tunnel. Following that attack, Hamas fired rockets into southern Israel and announced it would no longer abide by the latest cease-fire agreement when that pact expired in December but would be prepared to negotiate a new one if Israel agreed to ease its siege. Israel refused, but even so, no Israelis were killed until after the full-scale Israeli attack on Gaza that began on December 27, 2008.
In short, Israel has had many opportunities to bring about a negotiated end to missile or other terrorist attacks from Gaza, if that had been its true goal. However, the evidence makes it apparent that its underlying purpose is to destroy all resistance to its continued occupation of the West Bank and external control over Gaza. Using both economic siege and military force as its weapons, Israel has repeatedly provoked Palestinian terrorist retaliation.

Probability of Success

Just war philosophy prohibits the use of force unless the probability of success is sufficiently high as to offset the destructiveness of war. Israel's attack also fails this principle.

Even if Israel's purpose had been only to end terrorist attacks, the war was unlikely to achieve that purpose so long as Israel continued its occupation policies and various forms of oppression in the Palestinian territories, for it was clear that Hamas (let alone Islamic Jihad) would not indefinitely refrain from resisting or retaliating with whatever weapons they had at their disposal. That Israel would not be able to destroy Hamas's military capabilities nor its will to use them was predicted in advance by a number of Israeli analysts, and the predictions are already coming true: only a relatively small number of Hamas fighters were killed during the war, the tunnels are being rapidly rebuilt, the Shin Bet has warned the Israeli cabinet that Hamas plans to resume its arms smuggling into Gaza within a few months, and rockets are again falling on Israel.

The Israeli attack also failed to attain its deeper purpose, the destruction of Hamas or at least the undermining of its support among the Gazan population. Many Israeli as well as U.S. news stories have pointed to indications that the hatred engendered by the devastation of Gaza has led to more, not less, Palestinian popular support for Hamas. Indeed, the history of previous Israeli attacks against Arab populations intended to undermine their support for militant movements has already demonstrated the futility, let alone the immorality, of such behavior: the rise of Hezbollah was the direct consequence of the massive 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and Hamas was created after Israel repressed the first Palestinian uprising in 1987.

Even more importantly, it was perfectly predictable that the devastating attack on Gaza would greatly intensify the hatred of Israel in the Arab world as a whole and undermine the moderate Arab governments that support a compromise peace settlement. Already Turkey, long Israel's most important ally in the Arab world, is changing its stance; King Hussein of Jordan is distancing himself; and Mubarak in Egypt is under severe domestic pressures. Consequently, even if Israel had destroyed Hamas, the Arab battle against Israel almost certainly would have been transferred from inside Palestine to Arab militant groups or even states that are beyond the effective reach of the Jewish state. Thus, in the absence of a settlement acceptable to the Palestinians, including Hamas, sooner or later there are likely to be far greater terrorist attacks on Israeli cities, whether from inside or outside Palestine.
In short, in terms of Israel's long-term security, the attack on Gaza could not have been a greater failure: "One more victory like this," said ancient Greece's King Pyrrhus after his armies defeated the Romans in a particularly bloody war, "and we are ruined."

Jus in Bello, or Just Conduct of War

Just wars must not only have a just purpose and meet the other conditions or constraints already discussed, but also must be fought justly, according to the principles of proportionality, distinction, and noncombatant immunity.


The proportionality principle, or constraint, requires that even in a just war, the military measures that are employed must in some sense be proportional to what is at stake. The application of this criterion in many cases is difficult, ambiguous, and a matter of judgment over which reasonable people may disagree; in particular, it would be absurd to believe that the proportionality principle prohibits the victims of an armed attack from inflicting more military casualties on the aggressor than it has suffered itself.

The Israeli attack on Gaza, however, is not one of the difficult cases, in the first instance because in its conflict with Hamas it has been more the aggressor than the victim. In any case, as already noted, even the liberal commentators who accept the idea that Israel was only defending itself agree that its methods were disproportional; the sheer scale of the Israeli attacks on Gaza makes that an easy judgment to reach. From early 2005 until the Israel invasion at the end of December 2008, eight Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinian attacks, while during that same period over 1,000 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. As noted earlier, in the war itself the Israelis killed over 1,300 Palestinians and inflicted vast economic and property damage. The Israelis suffered almost no property damage and lost three civilians and thirteen soldiers.


The Israeli attack on Gaza was an even greater and more obvious violation of the principle of distinction. According to that principle, soldiers are morally required to make every effort to distinguish military from civilian targets before they attack. To be sure, in some circumstances some unintended but unavoidable harm to noncombatants ("collateral damage") may be acceptable, but only so long as the military value of the target is high, the harm to civilians and their infrastructures is relatively low, and the attacking military forces are willing to accept casualties of their own in order to keep that collateral damage as low as possible. As with the principle of proportionality, then, judgment and the rule of reason are required, and there may be close cases.

Once again, however, the Israeli attack was not one of them; indeed, high Israeli military officials openly admitted that they paid no attention to either proportionality or discrimination. Several months before the war, a leading Israeli general told the Haaretz military correspondent that in the next war the army was planning to violate both rules: "We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction.... Efforts to hurt [rocket] launch capabilities are secondary" (Haaretz, October 5, 2008).

And so they did. On January 7 Haaretz reported that a senior Israeli officer told journalists that the war was causing a great deal of damage to the Palestinian civilian infrastructure, saying: "It will take many years in order to restore this area ... when we suspect that a fighter is hiding in a house, we shoot it with a missile and then with two tank shells, and then a bulldozer hits the wall. It causes damage but it prevents the loss of life among soldiers." (Note: suspicion is sufficient cause for attack, and even when the target is a single Hamas fighter.)

Finally, it bears repeating that if you don't have a just cause, you are not morally allowed to attack even the other side's soldiers, let alone its civilians.

Noncombatant Immunity and the Israeli Way of War

The last jus ad bellum principle is noncombatant immunity, and it is even stronger than the principles of proportionality and discrimination, for it categorically prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians, regardless of circumstances. Israel has repeatedly violated this rule throughout its history-so much so that systematically attacking crucial civilian infrastructures, and often civilians directly, can be said to be the Israeli way of war.

Thanks to the work of Israeli, Palestinian, and independent historians, there is no serious doubt that during the 1947-1948 war of independence, Israeli forces sometimes deliberately attacked civilians in order to drive many if not most Arabs out of the areas designated by the United Nations partition plan for the Jewish state. That, of course, is what created the refugee issue that still plagues the conflict: the historical consensus is that most of the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who fled into neighboring Arab countries did not do so "voluntarily" (as the Israeli mythology has it), but either because they were driven out or fled in understandable fear that they would be killed if they didn't.

Subsequently, on a number of occasions Israel has attacked Arab-that is, not just Palestinian-civilians and their infrastructures, in order to intimidate them, or to punish them for their alleged support of Israel's enemies, or in an effort to induce them to turn against their own governments or internal militant organizations. The most obvious examples, well-documented and often cited in Israel, were the attacks on Jordanian villages in the 1950s; the use of massive airpower against Egyptian cities during the 1970-73 "War of Attrition"; and in the air and ground force power employed in a number of attacks against Lebanon in the 1970s, in 1982 (when at least 10,000 Lebanese civilians were killed), in 1996, and in 2006, when an estimated 900 civilians were killed.

In all of these cases, as has been repeatedly documented in great detail by historians, journalists, and international as well as Israeli human rights organizations, much of the civilian destruction was not merely the consequence of the use of massive and inherently indiscriminate firepower, but deliberate. Space does not allow for the dozens of supporting citations, but here are just two of them-and not from "leftists," journalists, international organizations, or human rights groups, but from pillars of the Israeli establishment:

In July 2006 Yossi Alpher, a former deputy head of the Mossad and now a prominent centrist political commentator, wrote: "Some of the humanitarian suffering in Gaza and Lebanon is a deliberate act on Israel's part ... it is intended to generate mass public pressure on the respective governments to force the Islamic militants to release three IDF soldiers snatched from Israeli territory and end rocket attacks."
Even before the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, Moshe Arens, a high-ranking Likud official and well-known hard-line rightist, a former ambassador to the United States in the Menachem Begin government, the foreign minister in the Yitzhak Shamir government, and a three-time defense minister in Likud governments since the 1980s, wrote the following: "The ‘leverage' theory-which holds that the destruction of enemy infrastructure and attacks on the enemy's civilian population will produce pressure on decision makers to cease their attacks against Israeli civilians- ... did not work in Lebanon, and it certainly does not work in Gaza. Quite the contrary, it only increases the support that the terrorists receive from the civilian population.... [Such measures are] ... counterproductive, [and are] impermissible by our moral standards."
Where Do We Go From Here?

Palestinian rockets and suicide bombings are the consequence of over forty years of continued Israeli occupation, repression, killing, destruction of governmental, societal, and educational institutions and infrastructures, and the deliberate impoverishment and humiliation of the Palestinian people. Consequently, Israel is not engaged in "self-defense" when it uses force to crush resistance to its repression, even when the form of resistance-terrorist attacks intended to kill civilians-is itself morally wrong.

Moreover, Israel has refused to end its siege of Gaza, has broken a series of cease-fires with Hamas, and has refused even to explore Hamas's offers for a long-term settlement. Worse, Israel's punitive attacks on Palestinian civilian targets, as well as on other Arab peoples in the past, are not merely disproportionate or even indiscriminate-they amount to state terrorism.

How can Israel, a state founded not only to ensure the survival of the Jewish people but also to serve as a moral exemplar to the world-"a light unto the nations"-have gone so wrong? The explanation is clear enough: the Israelis genuinely see themselves as victims, determined to do whatever is necessary to prevent a "new Holocaust" at the hands of the Palestinians and their Arab supporters.

That explains how the Israelis see the world, but it doesn't follow that that's the way the world really is, for most Palestinians and the most important Arab states support the international consensus two-state solution that is entirely consistent with-indeed is a sine qua non for-genuine Israeli security: the withdrawal of Israeli settlers and armed forces and the creation of a largely demilitarized Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital. (To be sure, there continues to be ambiguity over the refugee issue. Officially, both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas continue to insist that the refugees must have the right to return to their former homes and villages in Israel; however, there have been numerous indications that in the context of an overall settlement, most Palestinians would agree to separate the principle of return from its practical implementation.)

What if the Guarantees Fail?

Michael Lerner has asked, in effect, a reasonable question: suppose the international guarantees fail and Hamas reverts to fanaticism and continues its struggle to destroy Israel? As he has suggested, Israelis fear that, even if Hamas temporarily welcomes a truce or cease-fire, the group's real position is, "We'll wait ‘til we have adequate military power, and then we'll use that power to wipe out Israel."

The likelihood that this could happen is extremely small. First, there is growing agreement in Israel, Palestine, Europe, and the Arab world that international peacekeeping forces should be sent to the region to back a political settlement. More importantly, once a settlement is reached, Israel, America, Europe, and the neighboring Arab states would have at their disposal an enormous range of carrots and sticks to ensure continued compliance. In that context, the vast majority of the Palestinian people would surely oppose fanatical irredentism, for their lives in every way would be transformed by a compromise settlement that already has their strong support (between 60 percent and 70 percent in recent polls), and who would stand to lose everything from lunatic attacks on Israel that had no chance of success.

Still, suppose the worst does occur, however unlikely. In such a circumstance, Israel would truly have the right of self-defense and would have no other choice but to take whatever steps were necessary to ensure its well-being, indeed its survival. Long before Islamic fundamentalists in Palestine could become a serious military threat, the Israelis would surely-and rightly-move against them with irresistible force even, if necessary, by reoccupying the Palestinian territories, ending the experiment of Palestinian statehood, and permanently destroying the fanatic organizations. Moreover, in such circumstances the international community, including most of the Arab world, would explicitly or tacitly accept that Israel genuinely would have the need and the right to take definitive military action. Not that the attitudes of other states, in those circumstances, would matter much: it has been repeatedly demonstrated that the international community can't stop even illegitimate Israeli attacks.

Morality aside, it is hard to understand what Israelis think will be the long-term consequences if they continue to occupy or otherwise repress the Palestinian people. Given the continuing spread of Islamic fundamentalism, the intensified hatred of Israel, and the likely prospect that terrorist fanatics will one day come into possession of biological or nuclear weapons, the probable outcome is all too easy to predict. In that light, the continuing Israeli oppression of the Palestinians is not merely immoral, it is-no other words will do-almost unfathomably stupid. Israeli leaders are endangering not only themselves but also this country, if not the entire world.

Jerome Slater is the University Research Scholar at SUNY/Buffalo. He writes regularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other foreign policy issues for professional journals, and is the author of many articles in Tikkun.

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