The questions from the Gaza war don’t go away. They stay in the air, seep into conversation like smoke into a room.
In the course of some reporting I recently spoke with a rabbi at a West Bank settlement. The conversation meandered to the ethics of war. He raised the question of whether, in order “to strike a terrorist who endangers the Jewish nation,” it’s permissible to cause harm to additional people around him.
“In parentheses, I don’t call them ‘innocent,'” he said, referring to people who live, work or go to school near a terrorist. Rather, he said, such people “envelop” the terrorist. The word he used in Hebrew was otef, which means to wrap or package – the hint being that simply by being nearby, non-combatants have voluntarily become human shields.
After the parenthesis, he rephrased his question: To avoid hurting those people around the terrorists, should the army allow Israeli “soldiers and civilians” to be killed?
His answer, of course, was “no.” Note how he’d defined the problem: Enemy civilians aren’t really non-combatants, they are otef terror; and on our side, the danger is to both civilians and soldiers. Both ways, the line between combatants and non-combatants has been blurred, if not erased. So causing harm to those civilians who are the “packaging of terror” is OK in the pursuit of military objectives.
I mention his opinion because it wasn’t unique or rare. A pamphlet circulated by the army rabbinate during the war in Gaza recommended using firepower from afar to protect soldiers, “From a distance the enemy can be obliterated more easily than from close up. … Cruelty is a bad quality but it all depends when.” After the Yesh Din human rights group complained about the booklet, Army Chief Rabbi Avihai Ronski said he hadn’t seen it before it was distributed to soldiers.
But it is unfair to act as if such arguments are only made in religious terms. Religious and secular discourse aren’t separate planets. Ideas seep between them, in both directions. Arguments reducing responsibility toward civilians can be framed as easily in religion-neutral philosophic language. As Haim has written here, Asa Kasher – “the IDF’s favorite ethicist” – is
best known for dissenting from one of the commonly accepted general principles of the international law of warfare—he claims that a country’s duty to protect its soldiers is no different from its duty to protect its civilians, and certainly greater than its duty to keep from harm the civilians of the country or entity it is fighting.
Whether such philosophic reasoning affects the orders that commanders give and the way that soldiers behave in the field is another question. But you don’t have to have read a philosophic text to be influenced by it. Ideas filter into a society and change expectations.
So it’s worth understanding what’s flawed in Kasher’s reasoning. Michael Walzer and Avishai Margalit do the work for us in a recent essay, which takes apart an article by Kasher and Gen. Amos Yadlin.
According to Kasher and Yadlin, if terrorists are located among civilians, “the terrorists shoulder the responsibility for their encounter with the combatant” – in other words, if lots of Palestinian civilians are hurt or killed while Israel hits terrorists, it’s the terrorists’ fault. Kasher and Yadlin also argue that “a combatant is a citizen in uniform” – meaning that Israeli soldiers are civilians themselves. Why should Israel endanger these uniformed civilians to reduce harm to the other side’s civilians?
Walzer and Margalit respond:
Their claim, crudely put, is that in [a just] war the safety of “our” soldiers takes precedence over the safety of “their” civilians.
Our main contention is that this claim is wrong and dangerous. It erodes the distinction between combatants and noncombatants.which is critical to the theory of justice in war (jus in bello). No good reasons are given for the erosion…
Once the distinction is removed, everyone is a target, and the way is open to total war – to a war against an entire community, not just against its combatants. War may be hell in every case, but this is the road to the deepest circles of hell. Say Walzer and Margalit:
The crucial means for limiting the scope of warfare is to draw a sharp line between combatants and noncombatants… We should think of terrorism as a concerted effort to blur this distinction so as to turn civilians into legitimate targets. When fighting against terrorism, we should not imitate it.
As they also point out, Israel has also placed military installations in the middle of cities. The argument for bombarding Gaza could as easily be an argument for bombarding Tel Aviv, and it is wrong in either case.
Though the ethics of reporting on a war may not be as obviously about life and death, they are also important. Reporting changes public opinion and political decisions. So I belatedly recommend Jim Sleeper’s post, “Gaza Needs a George Orwell Now.”
Sleeper is extremely critical of how Israel behaved in Gaza. But he demands that progressive critics avoid a common, dangerous failing: Avoiding reporting on the other side’s offenses. Orwell, he says, avoided that trap in Spain: He described the sins of the Stalinists on the Republican side as well as the sins of Franco’s fascists.
Sleeper quotes a New York Times piece that described the “deadly maze of tunnels, booby traps and sophisticated roadside bombs” that Hamas created in Gaza, the deliberate imperiling of Palestinian civilians by their supposed defenders. An Orwell is needed, he says, to tell the story more fully, bitingly, without regard for anyone’s political orthodoxies.
I don’t agree with all of Sleeper’s phrasing. Despite my criticism of the war, I don’t think that “Israel in Gaza can be likened in some ways to the fascists in Catalonia.” But he is right in his call for a chronicler who cares about people more than political categories.*
Can Walzer and Margalit be right, and Sleeper as well? Certainly, because in war both sides can be wrong. It can be true both that Hamas put civilian lives in danger, and that Israel should have kept a stricter standard for avoiding harm to non-combatants. That’s why the questions won’t go away.
Addendum and clarification: I should have quoted the full sentence from Jim Sleeper’s post:
If Israel in Gaza can be likened in some ways to the fascists in Catalonia, can Hamas be likened to Stalinists who seemed (and sometimes were) heroic but carried a dreadful poison of their own?
His intent, he explains to me, was to say that even those harsh critics who would go so far as to liken Israel to the Spanish fascists should report what the other side did. I misread that criticism as his own.
On a separate point, my comment on the need for an Orwell is not aimed at daily journalists and agency staffers who covered the Gaza fighting. Rather, it was intended for those writing a longer, expressive and more personal account: To be progressive does not mean to be Manichean. One side’s offenses do not absolve the other side.