Tough Love: The Moral Choices in the Gaza War

Haim Watzman

One series of questions posed to Israeli soldiers in discussions of war ethics goes something like this: If you were ordered to blow up a house where a terrorist commander was hiding, and you had reason to believe that enemy civilians were in the house, should the order be refused? If you were ordered to blow up the house and you were told that an Israeli soldier was being held hostage in the house, should you agree to do so? If you were ordered to blow up the house and your father was being held hostage there, would you obey?

These hypotheticals are telling because they assume a moral instinct that journalists and commentators often forget, dismiss, or explicitly condemn: that all lives are not equal. But, as Sahil Mahtani points out, that’s the way the numbers work when we are talking about war and defense. And as Ross Dothat notes, rules about war will be useless—in fact, pernicious—if they does not take into account the realities of the moral choices faced not by armchair theorists but by leaders, commanders, and combatants charged with protecting their societies, soldiers, and friends.

That all lives are equal is a fundamental principle of law in Western societies, and rightly so. A government cannot be just if it values the life of some citizens over the lives of others without due cause.

But when faced with the life-and-death situations involving survival and war, this principle breaks down. Closeness makes a difference when we value lives.[continue….]

Read the rest on Jewcy–Comment there or here.

35 thoughts on “Tough Love: The Moral Choices in the Gaza War”

  1. Haim,

    Ah, the luxury of moral perpexity in wartime. Can you imagine being a English gentleman living in 1940/1941/1942 dwelling on the same moral conundrums? of course you can, but imagine had it had an affect. Many hundreds of thousands of UK civilians would have survived, but the Jews and many others in Europe would have been completely annihilated. But early in the war between 1940 and the US entering the war, it was pretty much a bloody draw, would you advocate peace them? For the very reason that you’re giving is the reason why the Arabs still have hope for victory? they haven’t yet lost miserably and they will probably not even now, not that we can’t make it happen but we choose to now. I don’t know how all this will end, but one thing we can pretty certain if the Arabs have a victory it will be decisive and the world will all sleep better knowing that Jews will no longer be committing atrocities.

  2. Interesting. I agree and disagree. That this cycle of violence hasn’t and won’t achieve our respective goals should by now be clear but sadly isn’t. But I do not find it understandable that Israelis are not moved by the Palestinian suffering and vice versa. I went off to war once and I went with such a heavy heart because of what I knew I was going to have to do. I did what I had to but because I was so moved by the other’s suffering that it transformed my thinking towards conflict resolution. It was exactly because I was so moved and because I was able to personally identify and empathize with my enemy’s pain that I internalized the idea that violence was indeed a futile and counterproductive way to achieve our objections. I learned that in 1982 and unfortunately in the 26 ensuing years I seem to be one of the lucky few to have learned that lesson.

  3. I guess I agree that respective goals haven’t been met yet, but why do you think these goals should be able to be met within our lifetime. It depends on the identification and definition of the goals. What are the goals of Hamas and what are the goals of the Israeli government?

  4. You should obey orders regardless (most often) as in war an individual soldier doesn’t have the time or the resources at hand to question every order.

    To do so could cost your life and/or the lives of your fellow soldiers.

    So, if you are ordered to do something as a soldier then do it. (Yeah there are exceptions but I am talking about 99 percent of the time).

    Commanders give orders and soldiers follow them. It is as simple as that.

  5. If you have information at hand that you don’t think the one giving the order has then you inform the one in the decision making role that information.

    And then if they say “that’s an order” you do it.

    An individual soldier just isn’t in a position to make a decision which orders he should and should not follow. The order would have to be pretty extreme for the soldier not to follow it.

  6. I know telling Jews that “just following orders” is indeed most of the time a good rule is a tough sell.

    But indeed that is the case. With few, very few exceptions which aren’t the exceptions listed on the post.

    The legality/morality of each order can’t be placed on the shoulders of the individual soldiers. They have nether the time nor the resources to make such a call.

  7. I think both sides could agree, if emotion could take a back seat for a while, that both people – the Israelis and the Palestinians, should have a land of their own.

    I think both would agree the dispute is over the land, which both sides claim.

    Right now, Israel has a land and is in the process, at least if the actions of the settlers are an indication, of extending it over the protests of the entire world, let alone those of the Palestinians.

    The Palestinians, in effect in the West Bank and literally in Gaza, have nothing that is not allowed to them by Israel. The Palestinians may go where Israel has decided they may go, provided they pass through checkpoints, provided they obey rules that Israel decides upon. Now it’s true that a Palestinian may get up in the morning and go about his or her business without contact with Israeli authorities, but it is within the power of Israel at any time to decide otherwise.

    This status quo, as I see it from these many thousands of miles away, is that one side, Israel, holds all the cards and can dictate the conditions under which the other side, the Palestinians, will live.

    Those with Hamas who launch the rockets are doing the only thing they can do with violence to the other side; they aren’t capable of launching a military operation of any scope.

    Israel can intervene whenever, wherever and however it wishes. It can use violence daily in the hum-drum operation of humiliation and constraint, all the more bitter because it is seen as the outsider that has come, taken over and controls.

    All of this is possible because Israel is backed, it would appear unconditionally, by my country, the United States.

    The claim is always made that Israel is only defending itself, but the Palestinians could claim as well that they are the original defenders that are trying to reclaim what was taken from them.

    Those who fought for Israel in 1948 were doing what they had to do to survive, who could or can blame them? But something cannot be taken from others without a cost. The losses of the Palestinians only make the acid burn deeper into their gut, particularly since the loss of land continues.

    Now I am one who was raised with the idea of the heroic Israeli – the one who stood up in moral purity and fought for an empty land that was otherwise going to waste, when he/she had been deserted by the whole world – while cowardly, insidious, conniving Arabs did their best to stop them.

    Since then I’ve tried to educate myself, eagerly reading book after book on the subject of the Middle East.

    Now I see another people, trying for survival, for dignity, for the freedom to walk about in their own land uninhibited and pitted against a super-power backed by a mega-super-power that can strike without limit.

    Isn’t it just possible that the Palestinians see Hamas as heroic – those who, armed with a pathetically puny arsenal spit in the eye of the Goliath and vows to fight against odds that are impossibly against them?

    There is no limit on Israel – it has the ordinance, the manpower, the training, the financial backing to dial up destruction on a scale that is carefully calibrated while the rocketeers simply throw everything they can, puny as it is, at their foe.

    So I sit here and watch “my” F16’s causing carnage. I watch the figures mount up, 100’s and thousands (over the years).

    This might be defended if Israel were actively withdrawing from the occupied territories as we speak. But I see little or no action on that count and no prospect of it.

    Palestinian casualties will mount as Israel repeats again and again that it will do whatever it has to do. But the one thing it will not do, is to remove even 100 of its own people who are violating its own law.

    Yes, I agree with you Haim that one will value others in proportion to how closely one is related to them, but can I beg all to consider that the deaths of so many, many Palestinians might just cause Israel to consider moving legally to remove some settlements? That it will never be productive to say to the Palestinians that their situation is entirely their own fault and will not improve until they produce a government that accords with the behavior Israel believes is acceptable in relation to it?

    The settlements are only turning the screw tighter. Is there not room for a new heroism in Israel – the settler who says it has gone too far and it is time to go home, to Israel?

    The Palestinian cries out to Israel – Let my people go!

  8. The crux is in the definition of “us” and “them”. Of course those we know personally, let alone immediate family, will always be closer than strangers, but why favour some strangers over others on the sole merit of their nationality? It seems that under attack (real or perceived) many people reflexively circle the wagons and chose their allies by some simplistic, yet contextually nonsensical classifications. Some of the latter (like religion, sex, culture, region of origin) may otherwise make some sense, but when they are taken to such lengths that they override the basic affiliation we all share – being human – they turn immoral, tags easily exploited by anyone with the means and the cynicism to do so. That’s why I fully agree with Robert Fisk’s often repeated characterisation of war as the total failure of the human spirit.
    You seem to suggest it was as normal as moral for even a left-of-centre, liberal Israeli like yourself these days to team up with the Liebermans, the Mofaz’ and the Feiglins against the Nusseibehs, the Ashrawis and the Saids, and similar for the Palestinians, which is why even those of the latter who are otherwise on the exact same page as yourself matter less than even a fingernail of some Jewish stranger. (Needless to say, the mirror image goes for the “other” side.)
    I couldn’t disagree more.

  9. Nationalism has shackled both sides. The nation is a fiction, made by outsiders who declare it to be, then attack it. Palestinians exist because of Israel; Israel exists because of many others, over many centuries. What I do not see among “leftists” or “peace advocates” is assumed risk, as present in Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., risk taken against their purported government. But, in the US, where I am, such statements as mine are so easy to make. Which reflects what risk really is.

  10. Gregory, I don’t know if any of it was reported in the US, but last month the so-called “Shministim” made some headlines in Israel – young conscientious objectors who are willing to go to prison rather than be conscripted. There is also a small number of actual soldiers/reservists who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, and I assume they’d face disciplinary consequences as well.

    Then there was the bomb attack against Zeev Sternhell, likely by someone associated with the settler movement.
    (Has that one been cleared up by now?)

    These may seem small matters from the distance, but deserve to be mentioned, I think.

  11. Pingback: P 7/09 « Plinius
  12. I agree with what Haim has been saying generally and with most of the the above comments. In war time sometimes you do have to get on with the business in hand as best as you can and that can be a bloody and violent business. Soldiers disobeying orders in war need to be shot often (but soldiers must also refuse to carry out acts that they regard as unethical too).

    It is also true that people will favour their kin, and unskilful posturing and moralizing will just make the whole situation worse–I detest most the simplistic moralizing that predictably emanates from certain liberal directions at times like this (and here simplistic is the operative word). My sympathies are actually with Israelis and Palestinians alike.

    My ire is for the industrial nations outside of the region that have created and profited so much from its dysfunctional features and continue to facilitate what we see, and are no friends of the people of the region. One of the things they do is provide Israelis with truly lousy council, and don’t provide nearly enough tough love.

    So I have to say that while I sympathize greatly with where Haim is coming from I think it shows some highly confused ethical reasoning.

    The point about an ethic is to stop us from engaging in compulsive patterns that undermine us in the long-run. To say that it is only human to behave like so-and-so in certain situations and then conclude that our ethics should allow for it is to miss the point entirely. (I am not talking about justice–deciding when to punish–but how a person or group decides what is wholesome and healthy.)

    Another confusion surrounds proportionality–a cornerstone of ethics. Isn’t this the whole point of the famous ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ injunction? Once you lose any sense of proportionality you are in a pretty nihilistic place.

    I remember someone addressing us at school after the revelation of the Sabra and Chatila massacres in ’82. We were told the same things as we were told today, that the cross-border activity made it inevitable and that once they had cleared out the problem proper everything would be fine.

    Well we know that that war led to the evolution of an organisation that can’t be easily crushed, so providing some pressure for what we are seeing. Hamas won’t be destroyed by this operation. The trauma that is being visited on a 1.5m people, half of which are children, will see to that. They are getting a first-class training in how to deal with the IDF, just as South Lebanon did in the ’80s and ’90s.

    And the West bank will provide another training ground.

    I really think it would be a good idea if we were to see see a little more clarity in this discussion. Wherever I look in the public discussion I see almost none; but private conversation is a completely different matter.

  13. The idea that one should value all lives equally is a view that we might call moral fanaticism. It seems to me that it constitues a reductio of any moral theory that implies it.

    Let me note, first, that it flies in the face of the idea that one has the right of self-defence. When someone tries to kill you, you have the right to defend yourself, killing your attacker first if necessary. In so doing, you are giving greater value to your life than to that of the attacker–and rightly so, in my opinion.

    More generally, if one believed this priniciple and acted consistently, one would live one’s life in the manner of the most wretched on the planet, giving all of one’s wealth beyond that necessary to main subsistence to help those who less fortunate. (The $10 you spend for a movie ticket could be put to much better use in the Third World.) Doubtless, most of us can do better than we do, but few would go to that extreme–or think that we should.

    Nor is Mr Watzman correct that it is a fundamental principle of Western societies that all lives are equal. A country’s first duty is to look to the well-being of its citizens. Indeed, the amount that countries give to foreign aid, even in the case of the most liberal and progressive countries, are miniscule percentages of their overall budgets.

  14. Fiddler, I have not heard of present enlisted refusals, although I do know of some among pilots in the 2006 war. My only sources are the BBC and New York Times online.

    Nonviolent protest fails when it is compartmentalized. Key are not those detained, but those waiting and ready to be detained. Generally, those so ready have gotten to that point through a long series of repressive measures creating mutual support networks before the nonviolent protest is envisioned–so the American South in the 50’s and 60’s. Ths suggests, good or not, that Israeli Arabs (IA) are the most likely source of sustained nonviolence, if possible at all; I read today in a NYT op-ed that IA students are protesting at Hebrew University; and that, generally, IA’s are evidencing more anger at the present camapign than any past. This suggests, to me, that the fate of violence such as this Gaza war may be fundamentally tied to IA civil rights.

    I have an English translation of David Grossman’s Rabin Square address of 2006. I think it exactly on mark. I have stood in that square, 10 years ago, small, unpretentious it is; granduer is in the mind. My life station today makes it very unlikely I shall ever return.

  15. Mr. Pollack:

    Thank you for mentioning D.Grossman’s speech; I read it for the first time tonight. It is horrifying to me to think that Wouk, who supported the idea of a large American-Jewish population (just in case!) may be right for the wrong reason. Who can dismiss the notion that Israel (and other countries while we are at it) must chase after peace as heartily as they conduct war? Perhaps a new generation of the youth – one that doesn’t recall the miracle gift of of Haig’s TOW missiles can approach the Syrians, Palestinians, and Israeli-Arabs on a new tack with a new attitude.

  16. For the sake of world peace, Jews must evacuate stolen Palestine (that includes both Haim and Gershom). I actually thing “progressive zionists’ are more dangerous than right wing israelis. Right wingers say-we stole this from the Palestinians because we have more force, and the Palestinians are animals. The “progressives” pretend to be our friends at the same time takeing over our movement and suppressing the indigenous Palestinains with your smothering paternalism. Make no mistake-when we regain Palestine, we dont want you or Feiglin as neighbors. If you really want to contribute to our cause, please leave Palestine. That is all you can do

  17. I am disappointed that more attention has not been paid to the comments of Raed kami (poster 19). How does Haim and Gershon reconcile their views with those of Raed, whose views are likely shared by a significant number of Palestinians and Muslims worldwide?

  18. How can I reconcile my views with those of Raed, who is a virulent anti-Zionist and borderline anti-Semite? In fact, his comments are so far out that I suspect he doesn’t exist and that he’s a straw man set up by someone else. What do the rest of you in this conversation think?

  19. Scott Benson: During Gandhi’s long independence campaign, he once stayed at a prominent Muslim’s house–one that had been gutted by fire ignited by a Hindu mob. He and an iman lived there some days. Gandhi spent most of his time there arguing with Hindus who gathered, angrily decrying his stand. If you want to change Islam, all you can do is try and create opportunities for Muslims wanting to change Islam. Faith is changed from within, not by force outside. If you want to fight Muslims “worldwide” you will make more of your enemy–and you will be battling unending. I have found Satan is most revealed close at home.

  20. If Raed is a sock puppet I don’t know; his comments, in style and content, remind me most of — USENET trolls. Good that no one has bitten the bait so far, he’s giving anti-Zionism a bad name.

  21. Whether “Raed” is real or not hardly matters. The statement is a faithful summary of what Hamas, the PLO, and many Arab governments and public speakers say every day. Just watch their TV. There’s nothing “borderline” about the anti-semitism. It knows no borders and they really do want us gone, as they did consistently from at least the 1920’s through the present.

    Your full article says, in part, “Both sides err in their valuation of the efficacy of force, in their belief that violence can achieve their goals.” Yes, that’s the horrible story of war.

    But what’s more horrible in our story is that both Hamas’ (and the PA/PLO’s) and the recent Israeli governments’ goals are anti-semitic to both Arabs and Jews.

    Hamas wants Jews gone, will kill us at every opportunity, and feed generations of Arab lives to the fires of war.

    The recent Israeli governments want Jews gone from whatever territory is the world’s flavor-of-the-month, and at the same time support the installation of terrorist, dictatorial leaders for Arabs in Gaza and parts of Judea and Samaria. Remember who invited Arafat back to this area after he was exiled to Africa. Our recent governments have willfully created the situation which guaranteed Hamas’ existence and attacks, and then required the sacrifice of Jewish soldiers’ and civilians’ lives in the face of those attacks.

    If you want to stop war around here, start by voting in a very different kind of government from the ones we’ve had. At least we in Israel have a choice.

  22. I think people like Raed exist but cannot be reasoned with. My mother-in-law was a seventh generation Yerushalmi, Tziporah, whose attachment to the land was deep. The Arabs chose to block European Jews from entering Palestine in the desperate years before the final solution was implemented. The truth is that many of those Jews would probably have left Palestine after the war. The lives of those thousands, if not millions is on their heads as much as it is on the other countries of the world that refused to allow Jews to come to Palestine.
    They are not morally pure.

  23. I wanted to comment on the original article. While I agree with your point that this ultimately works against Israeli interests, I don’t buy your analysis of the moral component.

    To take your analogy with the stranded mountaneer, I would argue that the key point in all three cases is the argument you make that
    “the members of the rescue team freely chose a risky profession”.

    So the key is that these people volunteered. If for example, they were in your employ and you forced them to go out on a dangerous rescue operation because it was your son out there, that would not be acceptible. It is one thing to be a biased advocate for those close to you. It is another to expect outsiders to react the same.
    The prejudice of your wanting everything to be done is acceptable due to your inablity to coerce others to act strictly on your wants.

    Let us consider the case of a judge presiding over a murder case. If the victim happens to be related to the judge, then the judge would have to recuse themselves. The judge is required to be impartial in the capacity of judge.

    The problem with your analogy is that Israel is in some sense responsible for the lives of the Palestinians. It controls where they can live. It controls how they move. For years, it has tried to control who can represent them. They are not free. They are not stranded on that mountain by choice. Israel, has to bear some responsibility for putting them there. It is not OK for Israelis to allow themselves to indulge in caring for their own, when they have operated in Gaza and the West Bank with such a heavy hand for all these years.

    It is also a bit of a stretch to say this is a “life and death” issue for Israel. Would Ehud Barak have supported this operation if he thought that Israel would sustain as many as 100 military casualties? Would the public be supporting it?

    Some would, convinced that this was indeed a “life and death” issue. But I believe that many more Israelis do not think that the outcome of this war will represent a decisive victory, and the only reason they support it is due to the relative lack of Israeli casualties so far. So it is not fair to calculate this based on its being a life and death issue either.

  24. I dont think that Raed Kami’s views are that far out there. Read Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview in the NYT today with the late (unlamented) Hamas leader Nizzar Rayan, whose views are pretty darn similar. Here is the conundrum that I challenge the leaders to
    1) It is said that “disproportionate action” is a major recruiting tool for terror because it stimulates hate
    2) It is said that not responding to terror is a major recruiting tool for terror because it exposes moral bankruptcy of the opponent (someone really convinced of their position would respond), and shows that the terror movement is “blessed”.
    Which of these are true? If both are true, than Israel has a fight to the finish.
    It is not so important whether Raed is a right wing troll. What is important is how many Palestinians hold the same views

  25. Scott, re Goldberg’s op-ed–
    I’d be the last to dismiss the importance of ideology and am certainly aware of how awful and benighted fundamentalist Islamic ideology is. However, ideology isn’t everything, either. Interests matter a lot. Certainly history provides us with many examples of ideological enemies reaching modus vivendis and even alliances, from Crusader princedoms that allied with Muslim potentates against their fellow Christians, to Hitler’s and then the U.S. and Britain’s alliances with the Communist regime of the Soviet Union. As the Israeli traffic safety commercial says, it’s not enough to be right, you have to be smart, too.

  26. From Goldberg’s NYT op-ed: “First we must deal with the Muslims who speak of a peace process and then we will deal with you,” he declared.–“He” is the now dead Rayan. Why is the State of Isreal making this dead man’s case? 300 children dead in less than 20 days, if we can believe the claim of Gaza based doctors. That is a daily death rate of about 15 children per day. The same rate for Israel is 0 per day. The way of war? Have not other States said this? Why does the State of Israel make this dead man’s case?

  27. 300 children dead in less than 20 days, if we can believe the claim of Gaza based doctors…can we believe the claim of Gaza based doctors, or is it another Mohammed aldura scam?

    That is a daily death rate of about 15 children per day. The same rate for Israel is 0 per day…Would it make you feel better if 14 Israeli kids were killed daily

  28. No Scott, it would not. By your logic a death rate of 200 children per day would be acceptable. Nothing matters but the abstraction of nation. The Nazis used similar abstractions against people. We all know this.
    I will see people. My abstraction shall be pain and suffering. No one owns these abstractions. They are not Jewish; they are not Arab; they are not American. They transcend the boundaries we always desperately try to make. I am reminded of a saying attributed to Cicero: Choose your enemies wisely–for you shall become them.

  29. No Scott, it would not. By your logic a death rate of 200 children per day would be acceptable. Nothing matters but the abstraction of nation…Im not sure how you derive this from anything that I have said. It is most likely a product of your fevered imagination

    I will see people…Then check out this video about hamas indoctrination of Palestinian kids. I have a question. Are Jewish kids in Sderot people, or are they apes, kids, dogs. You have had 8 years to protest their situation (if they are indeed people). Funny, you have become an instant humanitarian in the last 2 weeks

  30. Actually, Scott, I have been repulsed by the Bush Administration all along. What we all, at the moment, must decide is whether the killing of hundreds of children to eradicate a military and social network is legitimate. Actually, the most likely outcome is that the networks will survive. As long as Gaza’s boarders are closed, there will be rockets into Israel. I don’t advocate that. It is just a fact of human life. Israel has tried to economically starve Gaza; that hasn’t worked. I think Jimmy Carter is right–we should have delt with Hamas directly several years ago.

    Now, I am nobody and will ever be so. I am not interested in fighting a war in web fantasy. Of course Hamas is going to indocrinate; so too will Israel. If you want a permanent enemy–congratulations, I think you are well on your way to that end.

    Yes, Jewish children are people. It is so inane to speak like this. Yes, the dead Palestinian children were people. Are and were, are and were. If you cannot see how this will generate an unending hatred I can say nothing of import. I exit this thread.

  31. Haim:
    You have raised some profound questions and the responses have in general been thoughtful and quite reasonable. Debbie R. essentially co-opted my response to your article in a very cogent way. Well done, Debbie!
    I would like to address the angle of whether Israel’s recent “operations” – actually slaughter – was provoked by Hamas or anyone else, whether it was done with the intent of protecting Israeli citizens, and whether it will achieve the latter goal.
    Rabbi Waskow was kind enough to provide a link to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center (IICC), which reports information coming directly from Israeli military intelligence sources.
    If you go to the site ( you may be surprised to learn that:
    Rocket fire from Gaza from June until November was very limited (1-5 rockets and 1-4 mortars per month at most);
    The rocket fire did not emanate from Hamas;
    On November 4, without provocation, the IDF crossed into Gaza and killed 7 Palestinians, in addition holding several Palestinians hostage in their own homes.;
    Only after this cross-border raid did Hamas begin to fire rockets at southern Israel.
    The question of whether the Israeli leadership intended through their military incursions to protect their citizens cannot be definitively answered – it would require the ability to read minds. However, it has been widely reported in the Israeli press that Olmert, Barak, and their military advisers have been planning an attack on Gaza since June of 2008 (for example The extremely low rate of rocket fire from Gaza prior to Nov. 4 hardly justified the vicious and inhumane counterattack that followed.
    One cold make a similar argument regarding Lebanon 2006, of course: the capture of a single Israeli soldier, when compared with the 11,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, provides meager justification for the invasion of Lebanon and killing of thousands of civilians.
    In truth, none of Israels wars and massacres have provided safety for Israelis; to the contrary, a reasonable solution, such as leaving the occupied territories for good, would have saved many Israeli lives, both soldiers and civilians.
    So, Scott: Jewish kids in Sderot deserve to live in peace and safety. From the evidence, these kids wold have been in much greater danger over the past 8 years from cab drivers in New York, whose kill record is much more effective than rockets randomly fired cross the border.

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