For many years there have been a number of prominent American Jewish public figures, academicians, or organizational leaders who have essentially functioned as propagandists for Israeli policy in its conflict with the Palestinians: the names that immediately come to mind are Abe Foxman, Marty Peretz, and Alan Dershowitz. However, sensible people who lack expertise in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but who are increasingly uneasy about Israel’s policies and behavior are likely to discount those hasbarists and their like.
For two reasons, however, that is not the case when it comes to Michael Walzer. First, by almost universal acclaim, he is the preeminent just war moral philosopher of the last half-century, a scholar and teacher at Princeton, Harvard, and for over thirty years a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies, perhaps America’s most distinguished and prestigious academic institution, whose members have included such intellectual and moral giants as Albert Einstein and George Kennan. Secondly, Walzer’s extensive writings on the Arab-Israel conflict are by no means uncritical of Israeli policies, particularly, the settlements, the occupation, and the Israeli refusal to accept a two-state political settlement.
Consequently, Walzer has far more credibility than the propagandists–except, that is, for specialists on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who have become increasingly alarmed by Walzer’s analytical and moral failings when it comes to that issue. The Walzer problem is extremely important, precisely because of his stature and apparent moderation. Thus, among America’s elites and liberal Zionists (as Walzer himself is usually categorized), he almost certainly has done far more damage than the propagandists to public understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just to take one example, Walzer is on the Board of Directors of Americans for Peace Now, which could just as well be called the Liberal Zionists of America; it is unimaginable that APN would ask Dershowitz, Peretz, or Foxman to be on the Board, let alone to be regularly invited to comment on recent events, including about Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza (to be discussed below).
In the July 30th issue of New Republic, Walzer writes about the latest and most destructive Israeli attack on Gaza, in an article entitled “Israel Must Do More to Limit Civilian Deaths.” Characteristically, as the title suggests, Walzer is critical of some Israeli policies, for he argues that Israel should have been working with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority instead of deliberately weakening them. In addition, Walzer continues, while he is “a little uneasy” about criticizing Israel’s bombing policies, he thinks that it should have done more to limit Palestinian civilian casualties. In a subsequent APN discussion, Walzer was even more cautious, saying that the attack did appear to create some ethical “dilemmas” but that he couldn’t “sit in Princeton New Jersey” and judge them.
Notwithstanding such mild and standard criticisms—practically by definition these days, all liberal Zionists are uneasy about those issues–the weight and clearly the intention of Walzer’s article is to defend Israel against the far more severe criticisms of its policies that are becoming increasingly common, particularly that it has repeatedly committed war crimes in Gaza, especially in the 2008-09 “Cast Lead” attacks and, probably even more so, in the recent “Operation Protective Edge” assault.
Walzer’s two main arguments are that the civilian casualties in Gaza are primarily the responsibility of Hamas’s policies rather than those of Israel, and that Israel is only exercising its right of self-defense against an organization with which it cannot negotiate because it is not interested in a compromise two-state settlement and “is religiously committed to the destruction of Israel.”
Walzer develops the first of these arguments in the context of what he describes as “asymmetric wars,” meaning wars against insurgents who can blend in with the civilian population. In such wars, he writes, “the attacking forces [must] make positive efforts, including asking their own soldiers to take risks, in order to minimize the risks they impose on enemy civilians.” After laying out this general argument, Walzer then asks: “Is Israel fighting that kind of war?” His concern is that Israel’s warnings to Palestinian civilians of imminently impending attacks on residential areas were insufficient to meet his criterion. As he forthrightly puts it:
“People don’t leave, or not all of them leave; they are caring for elderly or sick parents; they can’t bear to abandon a home of 30 years….they don’t know where to go; or there isn’t any safe place to go.”
Nonetheless, the problem with Walzer’s answer to his own question–is Israel fighting a just asymmetric war?–is that his criticisms fall far short of facing up to the realities of Israel’s ways of warfare. Even leaving aside the issue of whether Israel, in this war as well as in previous attacks on Gaza and southern Lebanon, actually intends or at least welcomes a certain level of “enemy” civilian casualties and general suffering—for the sake of “deterrence,” of course—there simply isn’t any doubt that it isn’t fighting the kind of war that Walzer considers to be appropriate.
It has been obvious for a number of years that the Israeli army, far from asking its soldiers to take risks, uses massive firepower in civilian areas precisely in order to protect its soldiers from the casualties that would occur if they had to directly engage Hamas fighters. The evidence that this is the case is decisive. For example, according to a number of analyses, since the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, the IDF has adopted the “Dahiya Doctrine,” which specifically calls for the use of heavy and “disproportionate” firepower to be employed against civilian infrastructures, both in order to subdue the enemy and to deter future wars.
Walzer would probably reply that no such written doctrine can be found in the official IDF code of conduct or rules of agreement. In 2008, however, Gadi Eisenkot, a senior Israeli General in charge of Israel’s northern regions, publicly stated that in the event of a new conflict with Hezbollah: “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases….This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized.” (emphasis added)
The Dahiya Doctrine was not meant to apply only to Lebanon but also to Gaza. For example, in February 2009, following the end of the “Cast Lead” attacks on Gaza, prime minister Ehud Olmert told a cabinet meeting that “the government’s position….is that if there is shooting at the residents of the south, there will be a harsh Israeli response that will be disproportionate.” Of course that is precisely what has happened.
Shortly after the recent Israeli attack, Michael Sfard, perhaps Israel’s leading human rights lawyer, wrote that since the 2006 Lebanon War the IDF now officially holds that “when fighting in urban areas, we are entitled to treat the entire area as a legitimate target and bombard it via air strikes or artillery shelling—as long as we first warn all the residents of our intention to do so and give them time to leave. This is what Israel is doing, despite the evidence that warnings don’t work, there is no place for them to go, no safe corridors are provided. Israel is attacking the very places it tells them to flee—and these amount “to a declaration of war against the fundamental principles of the law of armed combat.”
In addition to the Dahiya Doctrine, the recent fighting has revealed that the Israeli army also has incorporated a “Hannibal Doctrine” or “Procedure,” which requires that whenever an Israeli soldier is “kidnapped,” the nearby Israeli forces must use massive force against surrounding areas, regardless of whether they are residential or not, in order to cut off the “escape routes” of the enemy forces–i.e. Hamas or Hezbollah–that have captured the soldier. During “Operation Protective Edge,” the Hannibal procedure was put into effect after the suspected capture of an IDF officer. A Haaretz editorial noted that it “resulted in massive firing” upon a residential area in Gaza, in which between 130 and 150 Palestinians, including many women and children, were killed.”
In other words, far from instructing its troops to take risks to minimize civilian casualties, the Israeli military essentially tells its forces not to take such risks. There is much more evidence of such policies than I have included here. Anyone writing or talking about the issue should acquaint himself with this evidence, which can even be done while “sitting in Princeton New Jersey.”
Hamas and the problem of “Asymmetric Warfare.”
“Asymmetric war” is the term which for obvious reasons counterinsurgency theorists prefer over the traditional and more neutral one, “guerrilla warfare.” Thus, Walzer’s use of the term is revealing, for its clear implication is that Hamas (like other insurgents rising up against large state armies) not only has an advantage but perhaps an unfair advantage over the otherwise far superior Israeli military forces: “it can’t be the case that the insurgents, by hiding among civilians, make it impossible for the other side to fight against them,” Walzer writes.
Like other insurgents in the past, Walzer continues, Hamas employs a “human shields” strategy against Israel, meaning it hides its fighters and their weapons in homes, hospitals and schools, thereby ensuring that attacks on them will cause civilian casualties. In fact, he seems to be arguing that as in the case of other insurgents, Hamas actually welcomes Palestinian civilian casualties because of their propaganda value: “Hamas isn’t so much hiding behind them [the Gazan “human shields”] as deliberately exposing them to harm, which is one way of ‘winning’ in asymmetric warfare,” Walzer writes. Later he adds: “The more civilians they [the militarily superior power] kill…the better it is for insurgents…. it is the insurgents who decide that the death of civilians will advance their cause.”
Judging from the news reports on the recent Israeli attack, it is true that Hamas did launch rockets against Israel and fought against the invading Israeli army from crowded residential neighborhoods, thereby supposedly leaving Israel no choice but to bomb and shell them, causing thousands of civilian casualties. It is instructive to note, however, that after the end of Cast Lead in 2009 extensive investigations by the Goldstone Commission and Human Rights Watch examined the “human shields” argument in great detail; both concluded that, despite some unavoidable mixing of combatants and civilians in Gaza’s densely populated cities, Hamas did not have a strategy of using civilians as human shields. Indeed, Human Rights Watch stated that Israel continued to bomb civilian targets even though the fighting had already ended and there were no longer Palestinian “human shields” at the sites. The conclusion of both organizations, as well as that of Amnesty International, was that the Israeli “wanton destruction” of civilian institutions amounted to war crimes.
To be sure, that doesn’t prove that Hamas did not deliberately employ a human shields strategy during the recent conflict; that remains to be examined in the investigations by human rights organizations that almost certainly will soon be undertaken. What is certain, however, is that it will continue to be the case that vastly outnumbered insurgents, rising up against far more powerful state armies, will try to avoid making themselves easy targets. In particular, Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, so Hamas fighters and their weapons will inevitably be intermingled with the civilian population. To be sure, there are some open or lightly populated areas, but should Hamas be required to mass its forces and weapons there, thereby ensuring that it would take Israel about twenty minutes to destroy them from the air?
Uri Avnery, the legendary Israeli peace activist and former fighter for the Irgun—the Zionist terrorist organization—has recently observed that during the British occupation, the Jewish resistance organizations, facing both the British army and Palestinian forces, also hid its arms in schools, hospitals, and other civilian institutions. Indeed, Avnery could have added that when Zionist terrorist groups bombed Palestinian buses, movie houses, and other civilian targets they surely knew that the Palestinians would respond in kind (and, of course, vice-versa) but did so anyway, in effect accepting those consequences as the unavoidable cost of gaining national liberation and independence.
There is no reason to think that Hamas doesn’t make the same calculations. That may certainly demonstrate that Hamas—like the Irgun before it—is a ruthless organization that is prepared to accept a certain level of death and suffering among its own civilian population as an unavoidable cost of its resistance, but it hardly demonstrates that it welcomes it, as Walzer clearly implies, let alone deliberately invites it.
The Proportionality Issue
Walzer writes that “it can’t be the case that the insurgents, by hiding among civilians, make it impossible for the other side to fight against them. There has to be a just, or justifiable way of responding to indiscriminate rocket attacks.” He then goes on to argue that the “rule of proportionality” must govern such a response: “If you are aiming at military targets (rocket launchers, for example, and know that your attack will also cause civilian casualties (collateral damage), you must make sure that the number of dead or injured civilians is ‘not disproportionate’ to the value of the military target.” He continues that such calculations are “highly subjective;” nonetheless, without quite saying so directly, he clearly considers that the Israeli attack is violating the proportionality rule, and that therefore must make greater efforts, even if it increases the risks to its own soldiers, to avoid inflicting a “disproportionate” number of civilian casualties.
Despite its apparent balance and implied criticism of Israel’s behavior, Walzer’s discussion of the proportionality issue is quite misleading. First, if a military attack is on behalf of an unjust cause the rule of proportionality does not apply, since you are prohibited from attacking any target, military or otherwise, even if there is no “collateral damage” at all. This, of course, goes to the issue of whether this and all previous Israeli attacks on Gaza are truly necessary for self-defense, or whether, as I and others have contended (see link below) their deeper purpose is to crush resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
Second, that issue aside, Israel is not just attacking military targets—proportionately or not—for as in almost all of its previous wars against the Palestinians (and other Arab states and peoples) it is striking undoubted civilian targets: the family homes of Hamas militants (with the families inside), power plants, civilian industries, water and sewage facilities, schools, hospitals, banks, mosques and office buildings.
Consequently, Israel—as in the past– has not only violated the principle of proportionality, it is in blatant violation—as in the past—of the even more fundamental and categorical just war and international legal principle, noncombatant immunity, which mandates that it is a war crime to deliberately attack civilian targets, even in a just cause, let alone an unjust one.
I’m not telling Walzer anything he doesn’t know—on the contrary, he wrote the book, or rather, the book on it.
What Does Hamas Want?
Is the present-day goal of Hamas still that of Israel’s destruction of Israel, or rather of fighting against the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza? Walzer has no doubts on the matter—he won’t even accord Hamas the dignity of calling it a resistance organization, only “resistance,” in quotes. Meaning what—that there is nothing Israel is doing to the Palestinians that would justify resistance, no quotation marks?
To be sure, even if Hamas is best seen as a true resistance movement, no quotation marks, the issue of its terrorism (attacks aimed at Israeli civilians) would still arise. However, a full moral analysis of the terrorism question would also have to deal with the fact that the Palestinians have no capacity to resist an illegal, unjust, and repressive occupation by other means, since they have zero chance of defeating the Israeli military forces, and Israel either ignores or crushes (sometimes with lethal force) all Palestinian nonviolent resistance.
According to Walzer, Hamas “is religiously committed to the destruction of Israel.” Interesting wording: most people sharing Walzer’s views say simply that Hamas “is committed to the destruction of Israel.” By adding the adjective “religiously,” perhaps Walzer intends to give himself plausible deniability that he is distorting the historical record, for it is true that the Hamas Charter is intensely religious and is committed to the destruction of Israel. The real issue, however, is whether in practice Hamas is still so committed, notwithstanding its religion and its original Charter. In any case, later on Walzer drops the qualification, if that’s what it is, for he flatly states that “Hamas has never deviated from its absolute opposition to the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East.”
To put the case mildly, that is a remarkable distortion of the historical record, which includes increasing evidence that Hamas has for some time been gradually moving—in fact, no longer very gradually—towards a pragmatic, if reluctant acceptance of the realities of Israeli power and its implications for Hamas’ operational goals. In chronological order, here is a brief summary of the record (except as otherwise indicated, the full citations for all the statements below can be found in a 2012 article I wrote for the political science journal International Security.
*According to ex-Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, in 1997 King Hussein of Jordan conveyed to Israel an offer from Khalid Meshal, then the chief Hamas leader, to reach an understanding on a ceasefire to last 30 years. Israel not only ignored the offer, a few days later Israeli operatives tried to assassinate Meshal in Jordan.
*In the months before the January 2006 parliamentary elections in Gaza—free elections, which it won–Hamas downplayed its Charter and did not run on a platform calling for the destruction of Israel. Shortly after winning the January 2006 Gazan parliamentary elections, Hamas sent a message to president George Bush, offering Israel a truce for “many years,” in exchange for a compromise political settlement; neither the Bush administration nor Israel replied.
*In February 2006, 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 May 2006, senior Hamas members imprisoned in Israel joined with Fatah prisoners 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 Gazan prime minister Ismail Hanieh 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.” (emphasis added)
*In January 2007, Meshal stated that Hamas would consider recognizing Israel once a Palestinian state was established; aHaaretz story noted that “this is the first time that a Hamas official has raised the possibility of full and official recognition of Israel in the future.” According to the story, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “shrugged off” Meshal’s statement.
*Throughout 2008, Hamas’s political positions continued to evolve. In particular, in April Meshal publicly reiterated that Hamas would end its resistance activities if Israel ended the occupation and accepted a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Israel ignored the statement.
*In a May 2009 interview in the New York Times, Meshal said that Hamas should be judged on its current deeds and policies and that it was “not logical for the international community to get stuck on sentences written 20 years ago” in its Charter.
*In December 2010 Hamas announced that it would honor any Palestinian referendum that approved a peace plan with Israel: “We accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the resolution of the issue of refugees,” said Haniyeh. “Hamas will respect the results [of a referendum],” he added, “regardless of whether it differs with its ideology and principles.” Zvi Bar’el, a leading Haaretz political analyst, noted: “Not a return of refugees, not the destruction of the State of Israel, no preconditions.”
*In January 2012 Hamas announced that it was suspending all acts of terror in favor of “popular resistance” (i.e. nonviolent resistance); was joining in a unity government with the Palestinian Authority; would accept past deals between the PA or PLO and Israel, such as the Oslo agreements; would accept Mahmoud Abbas as the prime minister in that government, which would conduct negotiations with Israel; and would agree to a two-state solution if the Palestinian people approved it in a referendum.
*In May 2012 Haaretz and the New York Times reported that Hamas was taking direct action in Gaza to prevent the firing of rockets into Israel. Later that year top IDF officers said that Hamas had not participated in rocket attacks against Israel for over six months, and the military correspondents of Haaretzreported that since Cast Lead, Hamas “has almost completely refrained from firing rockets into Israel.”
*In November 2012, the ceasefire ended when Israel initiated an eight-day round of exchanges of fire with Hamas. However, before Israel once again broke the ceasefire (as had been repeatedly the case in past ceasefires), Hamas had apparently been on the verge of a radical change in its policies towards Israel. The story was covered in a series of articles in Haaretz. Gershon Baskin–a prominent Israeli peace activist who had ties both to Hamas and the Israeli government and who had helped negotiate the earlier deal in which an Israeli prisoner of Hamas was released in exchange for 1000 Palestinian prisoners of Israel– had negotiated a draft agreement with Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari that provided for a permanent truce between Israel and Hamas: that is, no longer a ten year, or even a thirty year truce, as Hamas had proposed in the past, but a permanent one.
A few weeks later, Reuven Pedatzur, the military correspondent of Haaretz, confirmed Baskin’s account, writing that contacts between Baskin and Hamas had taken place “with the knowledge and consent of Defense Minister Ehud Barak,” and who was shown the draft agreement. Several hours later, though, Israel assassinated Jabari, “the man who had the power to make a deal with Israel,” wrote Pedatzur.
In an oped column in the New York Times and subsequent interviews in Haaretz, Baskin said that senior officials who knew about Jabari’s agreement to end all military attacks on Israel but decided to proceed with the attack anyway had “made a strategic mistake which will cost the lives of quite a number of innocent people on both sides.” Pedatzur, however, did not buy the “strategic mistake” explanation and did not shrink from reaching the obvious conclusion: “The decision to kill Jabari shows that our decision makers decided a cease-fire would be undesirable for Israel at this time, and that attacking Hamas would be preferable.”
*After eight days of intense Israeli air attacks on Gaza, Israel and Hamas agreed to a new ceasefire, the central terms of which were that as long as Israel was not attacked, it would significantly ease the economic blockade–widely termed, even in Israel, as the “siege” of Gaza. Throughout 2013, however, this agreement was violated by Israel, which not only continued most of the economic sanctions but repeatedly engaged in assassinations and armed attacks inside Gaza. By contrast, Hamas continued not only to observe the ceasefire but cracked down even harder on Islamic Jihad and other militants to prevent them from launching rocket or mortar attacks; as a result, in the first three months after the ceasefire was negotiated there was just one mortar attack from Gaza and throughout the rest of 2013 there were fewer attacks than in any year since 2003, the first year that such attacks had begun. Israeli intelligence was said to be satisfied with Hamas’s efforts to maintain the ceasefire.
*In January 2014 Hamas and the PA government in the West Bank signed a new reconciliation agreement (the previous agreement of 2012 had broken down). Under its terms an interim unity government would be formed until new elections in six months time, but until then none of the cabinet level positions would be filled by Hamas officials. Even more importantly, Hamas agreed to the PA’s conditions that the Palestinian goal was a two-state settlement generally based on the 1967 lines, and that only nonviolent methods would be employed to reach it.
A cautionary note: Despite the accumulating evidence, it cannot be denied that there have been inconsistencies in Hamas’s position and that on occasion—usually following a particularly destructive Israeli attack—its spokesmen have returned to their earlier militant and rejectionist rhetoric. Sometimes Hamas officials have said that they accept Israel as a “fact” but would “never recognize its legitimacy”—on other occasions, however, they have strongly implied that their formal position had no practical importance and could eventually change. One day a Hamas official makes a particularly conciliatory statement, but other officials then deny there had been any changes in its policies. Sometimes Hamas has continued to stress its commitment to the “right of return” of all Palestinian refugees to Israel, perhaps the most difficult obstacle to a permanent settlement—but at other times it downplays the problem and generally indicates, like Abbas, that in the context of an overall settlement it will accept a symbolic resolution of the issue. And so on.
Despite the occasional mixed signals and contradictory rhetoric, there simply is no doubting the ongoing evolution of Hamas thinking, if for no other reason that, as Paul Pillar (the former Deputy Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center) has recently put it, “Hamas leaders are certainly smart enough to realize their group will never have anything close to a capability to destroy Israel, even if they wanted to do so.” In any case, in the final analysis, the only way to resolve the remaining (and steadily declining) ambiguities in Hamas’s position and test its willingness to reach a settlement is for Israel to enter into serious political negotiations with it, as several former directors and other high officials of Mossad and Shin Bet have been urging for a number of years.
Far from doing so, not only does Israel continue to refuse political negotiations with Hamas, but it continues its assassinations that have killed—or unsuccessfully tried to kill–most of the founders and leaders of Hamas and its main activists, right up to the present day. Pillar succinctly sums up what the evidence demonstrates: “Rather than saying Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, it would be closer to the truth to say that Israel is dedicated to the destruction of Hamas.”
For many years, Michael Walzer has been a significant obstacle to the possibility that the liberal American Jewish community—increasingly uneasy about Israel, but unsure what to believe—will realize that Israel is sliding into a moral, political, and perhaps, sooner or later, an existential catastrophe, which can only be arrested if it is forced to change its course as a result of the loss of its political, economic, and military support from the United States.
Although Walzer is justly acclaimed for his moral thought and other philosophical contributions, specialists and others knowledgeable about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have long been aware of his intellectual and moral failures on that issue. These failures are typically described as Walzer’s “blind spot,” but in my view the matter is considerably worse than that. Because of his stature and articulateness, he has had great credibility among liberal Zionists who are increasingly worried about the course that Israel is on but are unsure what to believe. But his credibility is unmerited: many of his arguments are sophistical and some of them—as in the case of his discussions of Hamas—are downright deceitful. Indeed, even his discussions of important purely factual matters cannot be relied upon, both because he misstates important facts and ignores others.
As in the past, Walzer’s latest work is entirely unequal to the reality of Israel’s criminal and self-destructive behavior.
This post first appeared on Jerome Slater’s site on August 11. It can be read in its entirety there, including sources and footnotes.