Israel’s choice to inflict violence on civilians and ignore political offers violates ‘just war morality’

Israel/Palestine
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Editor’s note: Several writers have raved lately about a long piece on Gaza by Jerome Slater called “Just War Moral Philosophy and the 2008–09 Israeli Campaign in Gaza,” published in International Security, a journal put out by Harvard and MIT. The piece supplies important historical context for the latest Israeli assault in Slater’s finding that “instead of exhausting all reasonable alternatives to war, Israel has deliberately ignored or even sabotaged them.” Slater argues that Israel long ago adopted a policy of inflicting pain on civilians, an “iron wall” strategy, and that it continues this immoral policy despite overtures from Hamas toward a political solution of the conflict. Below, some crucial excerpts, sans footnotes.

On the origins of the conflict:

According to Avi Shlaim, although Ben-Gurion “did not use the terminology
of the iron wall, his analysis and conclusions were virtually identical to
[Vladimir] Jabotinsky’s.” Thus, under his leadership during the 1947–48 period, Israeli forces often launched attacks designed to drive large numbers of Arab civilians out of areas designated by the 1947 United Nations partition plan for the
creation of a Jewish state or otherwise claimed by Israel. These actions created
the refugee issue that still plagues the conflict: 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 because they fled in fear of being killed. This was a legitimate fear, given
that many Palestinians were killed by deliberately indiscriminate Israeli artillery
and mortar fire—and sometimes in outright massacres, as in the case of
Deir Yassin.

Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report:

The Goldstone Commission and other major investigations demonstrated that, beyond the direct killings, Israel intentionally attacked Gazan economic targets as well as other civilian infrastructures and institutions, including government institutions and police stations; schools; hospitals and ambulances; electrical generation plants and power lines; industrial facilities; fuel depots; sewage plants; water storage tanks; and various food production systems, including orchards, greenhouses, and fishing boats; and even private homes—all for “the specific purpose of denying their use for the sustenance of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip.” B’Tselem provided additional details: “Israel destroyed over 3,500 homes, leaving approximately 20,000 persons homeless. . . . [It also attacked] the health infrastructure that had already been on the brink of collapse due to Israel’s siege on Gaza.”

Since the release of the Goldstone report in September 2009, all of its major factual findings have been confirmed and new details have emerged as a result of other extensive investigations and public reports by human rights organizations— including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Red Cross, CARE, Oxfam, and especially the Israeli human rights organizations B’Tselem, Israeli Physicians for Human Rights, and Breaking the Silence (an Israeli military veterans organization formed after the Gaza attack) In sum, the Goldstone Commission found that “the conditions of life, resulting from deliberate actions of the Israeli forces and the declared policies of the Government of Israel. . . . cumulatively indicate the intention to inflict collective punishment on the people of the Gaza Strip in violation of international humanitarian law.” Those actions, of course, also violated just war morality, as the next section of this article demonstrates.

Hamas has been remarkably restrained, while Israel has been the aggressor: 

In early 2006, following its electoral victory in Gaza’s parliamentary elections, Hamas secretly conveyed a message to the Israeli government that it “would pledge not to carry out any violent actions against Israel and would even prevent other Palestinian organizations from doing so,” provided Israel stopped its undercover assassination program and ended its military attacks in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel ignored the message; according to B’Tselem and Israeli Physicians for Human Rights, Israeli raids killed 660 Palestinians in 2006, most of them unarmed noncombatants and up to a third of them minors.  For the first ten months, Hamas did not respond, although Islamic Jihad did launch a few rocket attacks despite stringent Hamas restrictions against its doing so.

Then, in November 2006, following an Israeli artillery attack in which a shell struck several homes in a Gaza town, killing 19 Palestinians, most of them women and children, Hamas retaliated with an attempted suicide bombing in Israel, its first such attack in nearly two years. Throughout 2007 Israel stepped up its targeted assassinations and other attacks on militants in Gaza and theWest Bank, using indiscriminate methods that resulted in the killing of civilians: an independent investigation by Haaretz concluded that in 2007 and 2008, Israel killed 816 Palestinians in Gaza alone, 360 of whom were civilians and 152 minors—even Shin Bet reported to the cabinet that some 200 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces “were not clearly linked to terrorist organizations.”

Hamas has repeatedly indicated that it would negotiate with Israel toward a political solution. But Israel has preferred a policy of subjugation.

As discussed earlier, a willingness to pursue the possibility of a reasonable political settlement before resorting to war is a major principle of just war theory. Indeed, it was supposed to have been the goal of Jabotinsky’s iron wall strategy, which in his conception did not require endless war and the total defeat of the Palestinians and other Arabs, but only their being brought to the point at which negotiations could produce a political settlement resulting in the realization of the core goals of Zionism. As Shlaim argues, however, although the military component of the iron wall “became the cornerstone of Israeli government strategy from 1948 onward,” almost all of Israel’s political leaders ignored the political side, which had “encompassed a theory of change in Jewish-Palestinian relations leading to reconciliation and peaceful coexistence . . . [rather than] a bulwark against change and . . . an instrument for keeping the Palestinians in a permanent state of subservience to Israel.” By the end of 2008, there were substantial reasons to believe that Hamas was ready to go beyond cease-fires and join with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in supporting a political settlement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As had been the case with Yasser Arafat’s PLO, which gradually became more moderate (especially once it had a de facto government and a potential state to run in the West Bank), there were growing indications that Hamas was moving toward a pragmatic, if reluctant, acceptance of the realities of Israeli power and was becoming increasingly amenable to a de facto if not de jure two-state political settlement. The record makes clear that Israel made no attempt to explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement. First, shortly after winning the January 2006 Gazan elections, Hamas sent a message to President George W. Bush, offering Israel a truce for “many years,” in exchange for a compromise political settlement; neither the Bush administration nor Israel replied. Soon afterward, Hamas began to go public with its new position. In February 2006, Khaled Meshal said that Hamas would not oppose the unified Arab stance expressed in an Arab League summit conference, which offered Israel full recognition and normalized relations in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and a solution to the refugee problem. In April 2006, a senior Hamas official stated that Hamas was ready to discuss a possible two-state solution with Israel. In May 2006, senior Hamas members imprisoned in Israel joined with Fatah leaders and issued the “Prisoner’s Declaration,” which went further than the earlier Hamas overtures. It called for the establishment of a Palestinian state “in all the lands occupied in 1967” and reserved the use of armed resistance only in those territories. In August 2006, Gaza’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, in effect accepted and incorporated the Prisoner’s Declaration into the Hamas position, especially its crucial distinction between the occupied territories and Israel within its 1967 borders, telling an American scholar: “We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all of our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm.” In January 2007, Meshal stated that Hamas would consider recognizing Israel once a Palestinian state was established; a Haaretz story noted that “this is the first time that a Hamas ofªcial has raised the possibility of full and ofªcial recognition of Israel in the future.”

Prime Minister Olmert of Israel “shrugged off” Meshal’s statement. Throughout 2008 Hamas’s political position, including that of its hard-liners, continued to evolve. In particular, Meshal publicly reiterated in April 2008 that Hamas would accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders—meaning Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Israel ignored all of these overtures, terming them “verbal gymnastics.”

The conclusion of the piece emphasizes the moral dimensions of Israel’s war policy in light of Hamas’s willingness to negotiate:

Since the 1930s, the Zionists and later Israel have employed the iron wall strategy in its conflict with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states. In Vladimir Jabotinsky’s formulation, the strategy held that Israel must avoid compromises with its adversaries until its military advantage is so overwhelming and the costs of resistance so painful that they have no choice but to accept Israel and agree to a negotiated end to the conflict. From the outset, a central component of the iron wall strategy has been to directly attack civilians, or their institutions, or both—partly as revenge or punishment for Arab attacks on Israelis, but more fundamentally for the purposes of what the Israelis see as “deterrence.” The premise is that the more the pain, the greater the likelihood that the Arab peoples will force their states or militant organizations to end their conflict with Israel.

The iron wall strategy, however, suffers from two crucial problems, at least as it has been interpreted by almost all Israeli leaders since the 1930s. First, Israel’s continuing reliance on overwhelming force rather than on political settlement amounts to a repudiation of what Jabotinsky argued should be the ultimate purpose of the iron wall: not an end in itself or a permanent condition, but a necessary means to create the conditions in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be settled on terms entirely consistent with Israeli security and well-being. In that sense, the iron wall succeeded, for not only most Palestinians but the Arab League states have unanimously and repeatedly formally stated that they will agree to accept a two-state end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, based on the creation of a small and lightly armed Palestinian state on the 22 to 23 percent of what is left of the land of Palestine before the 1947 UN partition plan. In effect, then, for all practical purposes Israel’s enemies have conceded defeat; Israel, however, continues its refusal to accept victory. Second, the iron wall strategy in action—in particular, Operation Cast Lead—has violated all of the key principles not only of Western just war morality but also of the “common morality” or heritage of almost all cultures and traditions—that wars can be fought only for just causes, as a last resort after all reasonable efforts to solve a conflict have failed, and with major constraints on their methods. With regard to methods, the most important just war principles—or constraints—are those of discrimination, which prohibits massive attacks even on military targets if they will result in heavy civilian losses, and noncombatant immunity, which prohibits intentional attacks on civilians and their key economic and other crucial institutions.

In support of this argument, I first reviewed the history of the iron wall from the 1930s through the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon, a history that demonstrates that Israel repeatedly and deliberately attacked civilians and their institutions. I then examined the Israeli actions and policies in Gaza since 2005, especially Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008, a three-week Israeli air and ground attack on Hamas, following a three-year period in which Israel engaged in economic warfare as well as repeated though smaller-scale military attacks on Gaza.

Cast Lead violated every major principle of just war morality. Israel did not have a just cause in Cast Lead, despite the (largely ineffective) Palestinian terrorist attacks on its territory, for one can hardly divorce those attacks from the context of more than forty years of Israeli occupation, repression, and killings; the destruction of governmental, economic, public health, educational, and other societal institutions and infrastructures; the deliberate impoverishment of the Gazan people; the drastic restrictions on the importation of food, coldly calculated by the Israeli government so that they would fall short of causing mass starvation but be highly punitive; and the various humiliations, often deliberate, inflicted on the civilian population as a matter of routine. To be sure, because the Palestinian armed resistance to the Israeli occupation frequently has taken the form of terrorism, the argument that Israel still could not claim a just cause or a right of self-defense is necessarily morally complex. For example, some have argued that no state can ignore terrorist attacks on its territory, and this is undoubtedly true if understood as a statement of the facts of life. As a moral argument, however, it would be far more persuasive if Israel had no way to end terrorism other than the use of massive force. As I have demonstrated, even if Israel had a genuine claim to the just cause principle of self-defense, Cast Lead would have violated another crucial just war requirement—that the use of force is allowable only as a last resort after all nonviolent alternatives have been exhausted. As the record shows, Israel broke a series of cease-fires with Hamas and refused even to explore Hamas’s offers for a long-term truce and possibly even for a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its methods aside, Operation Cast Lead was a war crime, the crime of international aggression. It also violated every principle governing morally acceptable methods of warfare, because Israel’s deliberate destruction of Gazan Just War and the 2008–09 Gaza Campaign 79 political, economic, and societal infrastructures and institutions was, at a minimum, grossly indiscriminate. The overwhelming evidence of how Israel has implemented the iron wall strategy throughout its history, as well as the unrefuted and detailed evidence of its behavior in Cast Lead, makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that Israel’s policies in Gaza constituted an intentional violation of the most important and widely accepted moral principle that seeks to minimize the destructiveness of warfare: that innocent civilians may never be the intended object of military attack whether directly or indirectly, as in attacks on civilian institutions and infrastructures.

About Jerome Slater

Jerome Slater is a professor (emeritus) of political science and now a University Research Scholar at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has taught and written about U.S. foreign policy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for nearly 50 years, both for professional journals (such as International Security, Security Studies, and Political Science Quarterly) and for many general periodicals. He writes foreign policy columns for the Sunday Viewpoints section of the Buffalo News. And his website it www.jeromeslater.com.

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