Ghosts of Gaza

Gershom Gorenberg

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.

17 thoughts on “Ghosts of Gaza”

  1. Can Walzer and Margalit be right, and Sleeper as well? I think a more interesting question is, Can Walzer and Margalit be wrong, and Kasher and Yadlin as well? Because I think they’re all wrong.

    Walzer and Margalit are as guilty as Kasher and Yadlin at erasing distinctions:

    Conduct your war in the presence of noncombatants on the other side with the same care as if your citizens were the noncombatants.

    That is, a state has no special duty to protect its own citizens more than noncitizens. (And the quote they supply from the Haggadah is a truly bizarre choice of prooftext.)

    That’s not the worst part, though. Over the modern period, international law evolved in a concrete order of juridically equal sovereign states. It was based on reciprocity: it consciously disregarded theological or moral questions of just war, at the same time resting on a shared European cultural foundation. Walzer wants to do away with all that and base legal obligations not on reciprocal treaties between equals, but on abstract, supposedly universal norms which are vehemently rejected by some parties to the conflict, who have their own very different just war tradition.

    Walzer’s kind of moral and juridical absurdity is about a century old now. We can see how successful it was at preserving world order in the 20th century. Before that it had no precedent, not in the modern period and not even in the respublica christiana which came before.

    The good news is that there is an approach that’s moderately successful, but Walzer wouldn’t like it because it involves reprisals. Israel and other Western states should follow the model of the arrangements (hesderim) between Israel, Hizbollah, and Syria following Operation Accountability in the early 1990s. As a result of Israeli operations – reprisals, really – arrangements were created to protect noncombatants on both sides. States need to start with ad hoc approaches like this, and with luck, a real, concrete order can be built from the ground up, slowly, as it was in respublica christiana and later, again, after the Peace of Westphalia. Walzer’s empty normativism doesn’t lead to any solution.

  2. Sleeper seems to be very quick on the draw with criticism of Israel, in this article and others. You know, I would find him more credible, and others of his ilk not only if he aimed for even-handedness but if he evinced some unequivocal sympathy for the predicament of Israelis.

    It was suggested previously on this blog that commitment to Israel might preclude the adoption of rigorous historical standards.

    I think, ir0nically, I might make the opposite case; given how many preconceptions about Jews that most people bring to bear in their analysis of the conflict with the Palestinians, however unconsciously, some level of commitment to the continued existence of Israel may be a prerequisite for honest criticism of it.

  3. Excellent article Gershom. Indeed these questions won’t go away.

    I have to say that, from the outside, it looks as if Israel has been seized by collective episode of insanity. Without getting into or denying the wrongs of Hamas–which are pretty obvious and manifest–the mis-treatment of the Gazans by Israel, Egypt, the US and everyone is so obvious. It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry reading all the sophistry to justify it, but nowhere does it seem to be starker than is Israel.

    That you and other Israeli commentators (Uri Avnery is a favourite of mine) have such clarity of vision when all around you seem to be losing their heads is of great credit to you.

    The real change seems to be that you are now being joined by non-Israeli true friends of Israel; I am thinking of people like Yglesias, Kaufman, Hastings; constructive critics without any trace of the usual anti-Israeli agendas.

  4. On discussing the philosophical issues of ethics in war, do some Jewish and/or Israeli critics always seem to force themselves, or not quite force themselves, to adopt quite anti-Israel positions because of the relevance of the issue as a general inquiry into right or wrong or is it due to their own subjective antagonism to the policies of the Israel government per se, one which they borderline despise?

    For example, as far as I know, Obama is gung-ho on defeating the Taliban in and around Pakistan/Afghanistan.

    So, we have this in today’s NYTimes:

    “ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — …Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, claimed that 700 militants had been killed in the last four days of intense fighting — a far higher figure than the 140 or so reported by the military — along with 22 government troops. While it is clear that the fighting has been heavy, none of the casualty claims could be verified because aid agencies and journalists have been barred from the conflict areas.

    In the last 12 days, more than 360,000 civilians have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as having been displaced by the fighting, the Geneva-based agency said.

    The figure brought to over 900,000 the number of people registered as uprooted in successive waves of fighting in Pakistani since last August, William Spindler, a spokesman for the international refugee body, said in a telephone interview.

    Mr. Malik, the interior minister, vowed that the military offensive would continue until the militants were crushed. “The operation will continue until the last Talib,” Mr. Malik said, using the singular form of the word Taliban.

    Pakistan launched the offensive under strong American pressure to reverse advances towards the capital by the Taliban, after the militants entered the adjoining districts of Buner and Dir.”

    and this:

    “KABUL, May 11 (Xinhua) — The joint Afghan and U.S. team who are investigating civilian causalities in eastern Afghan province of Farah, would also look into the using of chemical weapons, a spokesperson of United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said Monday. “On the specific issue of chemical weapons, we are aware of that reports and certainly it would be something that referring to. Joint investigation team will look into the possible report taking place in the province,” Haleem Siddique told a questioner in a weekly press briefing.

    Siddique noted that the safety and welfare of Afghan civilians must come first during the planning and implementation of any military operation. According to Afghan officials, over 147 civilians have been killed in an airstrike by international troops in eastern Farah province of Afghanistan while U.S. military said that the number is exaggerated. ”

    Is it possible that in a war against terror:

    a) civilians will always suffer?
    b) if they suffer, whose fault is it?
    c) can they avoid suffering? how?
    d) will certain countries be berated more for their behavior? is it because they are more right or because they are bigger and more powerful?
    e) if Big Country A is permitted certain behavior, can Small Country I follow along?

    and after we debate that, we can get close to the real questions:

    a) if Hamas was democratically elected to rule Gaza, and if there are no civic-sponsored campaigns to reduce either the terror against Israel outside or the terror against women, Christians, children, etc. inside Gaza, can the civilian population truly and completely be a “non-involved” population?

    b) is their truly no way for the “civilians” to disallow terrorists from operating in their vicinity – in their front/back gardens, the vineyards, their olive groves, their garages, their schools, their hospitals? are they so without power or without will?

  5. Terrorism is a tactic, not a tangible enemy, and waging “war” against a tactic is no less silly today than it was in 2002. It certainly came as a handy pretext for those who simply wanted to wage war though.

    Civilians will unfortunately suffer in *any* war, but that doesn’t excuse the parties from doing their utmost to reduce that suffering. That’s the explicit aim of the 4. Geneva Convention anyway. “War is hell”, while true, is a cop-out, since it’s real human beings who do the warring, and the notion of them shedding all responsibility because of the hellish circumstances they themselves caused is ridiculous.

    Which party’s fault it is when civilians suffer depends on the case, bleedin’ obvious as that is. The fact that Israeli soldiers are members of a proper state’s military and Palestinian militants are not makes no difference at all.

    In order to avoid suffering in war, civilians have basically only the option to flee the battlefield. To take on their own side’s forces to disallow them to operate in their vicinity might arguably turn them into combatants in their own right. But to flee the battlefield
    1) brings suffering in its own right
    2) is virtually impossible in Gaza
    3) is all too well remembered by the Palestinians for the reward it brought them in the 1948 war.
    I’ll assume you don’t have a habit of going out and attacking the Palestinians of, say, Turmus Ayya. But if your neighbours decided to do so, and were, as so often, in cahoots with the army, how exactly would you disallow them to operate from your vicinity? Elsewhere, are those residents of Bat Ayin who still possess human decency so without power or will to stop the terrorists amidst them? I think you know the answer.

    Finally, to attempt to differentiate between those Gaza civilians who are “sufficiently” opposed to Hamas and those who are not (because they haven’t sponsored a civic campaign against terrorism) for the purpose of declaring them protected persons in a war zone is a non-starter. Does that mean that all Israeli civilians who do not actively oppose the occupation, or who did not oppose Cast Lead are “involved”, and thus fair game? I don’t think so.

    Lastly, more to the point of the general topic, a significant number of articles in the 4. GC (esp. Section III, Occupied Territories: Art. 53, 55, 57, 59, 60 e.g.) gives explicit preference to occupied civilians over the occupying military.

  6. if Hamas was democratically elected to rule Gaza, and if there are no civic-sponsored campaigns to reduce either the terror against Israel outside or the terror against women, Christians, children, etc. inside Gaza, can the civilian population truly and completely be a “non-involved” population?

    Did you even read the article?

    The contrast between combatants and noncombatants is not a contrast between innocent civilians on the one hand and guilty soldiers on the other. Civilians are not necessarily innocent, in the sense of being free from guilt for evildoing. German civilians who were enthusiastic supporters of the Nazis were certainly not innocent in that sense. Innocence is a term of art: noncombatants are innocent because they do not participate directly in the war effort; they lack the capacity to injure, whereas combatants qua combatants acquire this capacity.

    Even granting your premise, are you going to poll the civilians of each neighborhood about their views on Hamas? After all, they only won a plurality of votes.

  7. Fiddler fiddles a bit and composes this:

    “I’ll assume you don’t have a habit of going out and attacking the Palestinians of, say, Turmus Ayya.”[thank you for your confidence and, in truth, I haven’t except once, way back before first Intifada, we had a spate of stone-throwing incidents so some 50 residents of Shiloh drove into Turmos-Aya on a Friday just before Mosque time. Yaakov Y., fluent in Arabic, explained tothem that they were engaging in a dangerous maneuver in letting their children get involved in violence. It helped. Not perfect but it wasn’t overtly violent on our behalf, well, less than what the Anarchists are doing today, and it did result in a lessening of tensions and damage].

    “But if your neighbours decided to do so, and were, as so often, in cahoots with the army, how exactly would you disallow them to operate from your vicinity?” [well in one unjust case that I know, the person not arrested who was involved was forced basically to leave as he had not social support. and I would agree to your “so often” throwaway]

    “Elsewhere, are those residents of Bat Ayin who still possess human decency so without power or will to stop the terrorists amidst them? I think you know the answer.” [i don’t because I don’t know any terrorists of Bat Ayin. the latest in the investigation offically seen in the media is this: “Two Israel Defense Forces soldiers suspected of firing gunshots during a clash with Palestinians near the Gush Etzion settlement of Bat Ayin while on leave about 10 days ago, have been transferred to an open prison in their units.
    The troops were forbidden access to weapons, they cell phones were taken from them and they are not allowed to talk on the phone.” so, at the very least, they are “suspected terrorists” and since so far, we know of no dead Arabs but one Jewish child with his head crushed with a pick-axe, your remark is not only heartless and immoral, but misleading. You are so far south of Jerusalem that you lack any sense of decency, not to mention political sense.

  8. I don’t mean the soldiers who fired shots but the settlers who have attacked Um Safa daily. Are they not terrorists just because they haven’t killed anyone so far? The murder of the boy was a terrible crime, and the suspect has been apprehended. Why is it heartless etc. to suggest a mob attacking the suspect’s village is equally beyond the pale?

  9. Daily?

    Have you been there.

    The village is basically unapproachable due to a fence. What mob’s have attacked the village? Or are your eyeglasses on backwards: the Jews walk to the area they claim they have a right of development (now, if you can disprove that, i’ll surely support the legal rights of the true owners) and they get stoned by Arabs heaving rocks over the fence. Are we talking about the same thing here?

  10. If David Shulman (who was there) is an “Arab source”, then yes.
    But that’s entirely beside the point, which is that civilians usually have little or no chance to deny an area to an organised, dedicated military, no matter if regular or irregular, even more so if Hamas, or other militant groups, as you claim, have so little regard for the lives of Gaza civilians. So the failure of civilians to assert their space against those militants can’t even be counted as “involvement”, even if indirect, passive “involvement” (how do you prove that in real time?) had any bearing on their status as non-combatants, which it doesn’t.

  11. Gentlemen, let us, in best Talmudic fashion, tighten the exigencies…..

    You have assumed a worst case scenario, where one terrorist is surrounded by multiple innocents….

    Therefore, I am assuming a best-case scenario in which one innocent is surrounded by myriad terrorists…

    and the consequent question is the same…do I shoot a rocket into that crowd, KNOWING that the many, or the ONE, innocent is likely to die…..?

    What’s that you say? Has the grim arithmetic of body-count has suddenly become inapplicable?

    I did not pull this idea out of my tin-foil hat….

    because, in the whole of Sodom, 10 just men would have sufficed to keep the entire population from sudden destruction….!

    And suddenly my argument has become a religious rant because the precedent for it comes from the Torah, and I don’t want to steal somebody else’s idea!

  12. “deadly maze of tunnels, booby traps and sophisticated roadside bombs”
    Oh, yeah, we all remember the horrible causalties the IDF suffered when the troops entered that “deadly maze”…

    Come on, wake up, only because it’s written in the NYT doesn’t mean that its true. I’m sure Hamas prepared some nasty suprises for the troops, but we know now they weren’t deadly.

  13. They were every bit as deadly as described–good intelligence and training allowed soldiers to avoid most of the booby traps. The most deadly trap of all, which the soldiers avoided, were several “dolls” left innocently lying around—-and I’m sure had some Palestinian child picked up those disguised bombs, her resulting death would be clearly laid at the IDF’s door by you and your fellow PIDAPIs (People-In-Denial-About-Palestinian-Intentions) because in your lexicon, Israeli can do nothing right and everything Israel does is wrong. Of course, this callous piece of Hamas engineering went unremarked except in passing by the press corps–or don’t bombs disguised as toys count as a war crime?

  14. In regards to the thought of Avishai Margalit, you may find the recent interview published at Barcelona Metropolis (where I am an editor) of interest:

    Even with the position of Walzer and Margalit as noted above, Margalit’s position is not uncontroversial:
    “There are, then, examples of societies that are relatively decent to their own members but that behave indecently towards others. Does that mean, though, that the society in question is indecent? I’d say no.”

    Thanks for your blog.

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