Operation Protective Edge and Just War Theory

I teach Just War Theory (JWT). I defend it strongly as a necessary moral guideline for world politics in classes full of cynical students, Israeli-raised students, many of whom went through the grinding machine of the occupation (themselves grinding Palestinians in check points, night arrests, and the like); students who speak fluently the language of power. But at times I myself see the dark, the political abysses in which JWT becomes almost nothing but a scholastic exercise, like debating how many angels (or for that matter, demons) can dance on the head of a pin.

Think of the recurrent explosions of violence in Gaza/Israel, which in its current phase is called by Israel “Operation Protective Edge.” The recurrence of the violence has a fundamental importance that should not be overlooked in applying JWT to Operation Protective Edge. How in terms of JWT to evaluate the justness of the Israeli operation? Can it be at all just, with all the Palestinian victims, so many of whom are noncombatant civilians? But can it be at all unjust, when Israelis are facing intensive missile attacks? Arguably, JWT provides us moral tools to normatively evaluate the operation. In its jus ad bellum dimension JWT establishes six strict principles ‎for determining if and when a war is just: 1. just ‎cause, 2. right intention, 3. legitimate authority, 4. last resort, 5. probable chances of ‎success, and 6. Proportionality. All look very clear, so how is it that the Israeli operation is seen so differently around the word? Think of the harsh accusations in Public Seminar as compared to official statements by world leaders. Yes, political leaders can be cynical sometimes, but the purism of some moralists is no better normative teacher than cynicism; those purists who hold the too easy high moral ground look at the world from a nowhere point that allows them to see nothing.

Surely Israel has a just cause to defend itself against missile attacks, and the other JWT criteria can also be met. Even, I’ll immediately add — risking being ostracized by moralist academics who are my community, to whom I want to belong — with regard to the crucial criterion of proportionality. One should not count bodies to decide if a war is proportional or unproportional, just or unjust (in the time of writing this piece almost 40 Israelis were killed, the great majority of whom were combatants, as compared to more than 800 Palestinians many of whom were noncombatants). Counting bodies can fit the biblical imperative of eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (or it may be suitable to General Westmoreland and his likes, who substituted PR for strategy). To be proportional a war, or operation, should not be excessive as compared to the threat imposed on the state. And being attacked by hundreds of lethal missiles calls for harsh measures, even like the ones conducted by Israel.

So why am I doubtful of Israel’s acts? It is the aforementioned “recurrent” that rings the alarm bells for me. This operation is the third in the past six years that Israel conducts in Gaza. Preceding the current Operation Protective Edge were Operations Cast Lead (2008-2009), and Pillar of Defense (2012). How should we account for this recurrence? What has Israel done following the previous rounds of violence to stop the future ones? Nothing whatsoever.

It still besieges Gaza and prevents decent life from the Palestinians. Observing that, I hate what I see when looking at the mirror. I hate myself, hate my country, and hate what it has become and what it represents. From here the easiest step is to condemn the operation, judging it as unjust, maybe even a war crime, a repeated series of war crimes. Thus I can happily join my peers and the high moral ground they occupy. But then my look wanders to my kids (and yes, mentioning kids is always manipulative. But then again: 1. they are indeed my kids, and I care for them. And 2, both sides manipulatively use kids, their tragedies and shattered dreams and lives). I see my kids and remember that they have the moral right to be defended against harm, and that it is their country that owes them this defense; yes, the same country that I feel has betrayed me and my values. The State of Israel owes my kids (and other Israeli noncombatant civilians) defense and security against that which is so terribly wrong, namely the Palestinians firing of hundreds of missiles targeted at Israeli civilians; something which is so terribly wrong that it surely amounts to a war crime.

So then what? What is it that I expect my country, namely the State of Israel, to do? Nothing less than defend its citizens, and if necessary with another harsh military operation. And here I find myself part way with the purists among the moralists. I find myself lost in uncertainty, and as having no trust in moral theory that offers no real effective guidelines. Because on the one hand, it is clear that Israel did not pursue all possible measures beforehand to avoid the necessity to resort to a military operation. Hence, the condition of war as last resort is not really met. But on the other hand, it is doubtful if Hamas offers any real prospects for the success of such diplomatic measures, and Israeli citizens, kids and adults alike, deserve to be defended against missile attacks, no matter the reason they were launched.

It is here that the right of self-defense comes to life. It is here where just cause joins hands with the other criteria to justify Israel’s action. But it is here also, where just war theory becomes an immoral instrument, a rally-round-the cause; a legitimizing instrument of war in which people from both sides perish, mostly Palestinians, who are trapped between the hammer and the anvil, between the Hamas and IDF.

Does it mean that JWT has lost its relevance in our world of power politics? This is a far too sweeping conclusion. JWT is still very much relevant and rightly so. But maybe like any theory it needs condition scopes, and perhaps intractable conflicts like of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are beyond its scope (this is mostly true regarding jus ad bellum not jus in bello, that dimension of JWT which stipulate the rules prescribing permissible military conduct). The purpose of JWT is to decrease the number of wars by limiting the circumstances in which we deem war as necessary, hence permissible. But intractable conflicts, which by definition are continuously unresolved (unresolvable?), do not lend themselves to this functionality of JWT. They go on erupting in vicious cycles, almost blind to rational calculations and moral evaluations. It is with those kinds of intractable conflicts that JWT loses its functionality and breaks down. When JWT is supposedly employed in intractable conflicts, it is often to rhetorically serve as a masquerade of permissibility and legitimacy. JWT provides excuses that dress immorality in moral clothes and provide justifications to what is unjustifiable.

JWT enables leaders on both sides to excuse themselves from even attempting to resolve the intractable conflict. Instead of investing the political resources and political will that are needed for the difficult task of addressing the sources and reasons of the conflict, the leaders prefer using JWT to inflict evermore harms on the other side. And opportunities are abundant; from rockets launched at noncombatants to targeted (and not so targeted) assassinations. The spectrum of acts is indefinite and so is the never ending temptation of retaliation and revenge dressed in robes of just causes. Israel besieges Gaza, Hamas (and/or other splinter groups) launches rockets at Israel, which launches and relaunches its never ending operations.

Therefore, the leaders of both Israel and Hamas are, ‎if not war criminals through and through, at least political crooks leading their peoples to misery and doom under the moral guise of JWT, instead of under its critical gaze.

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Piki Ish-Shalom

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