Emily Hauser reflects on these thorny questions:
Targeting enemy civilians is a war crime. Let’s not entertain any doubt about that. Hamas and other Palestinian militants have targeted Israeli civilians with rockets for years; the fact that these rockets are crude and their aim poor doesn’t mitigate the simple fact: Targeting civilians is a war crime. Trying to determine who “started” our current state of conflict is not quite so simple, though, unless we accept ideology as fact. For some Jews, the Palestinians started it by refusing to accept our nationalism as ascendant to theirs; for some Palestinians, the Jews started it, in precisely the same way.
If, however, we’re trying to uncover a chain of discrete events leading to the seemingly permanent state of war between Israel and Gaza, the waters are muddy. Did the latest round of rockets come in response to an IDF incursion, or the other way around? Did it start when Israel neutralized a terrorist infiltrator, or was that terrorist a farmer trying to gather crops? Both sides play into the provocation-response cycle, each conveniently forgetting that actions have consequences, often beyond those we first imagined.
Her bottom line:
I have lived under missile attack, and I have family under attack in the south right now. I do not for one moment doubt Israel’s right to self-defense. But even if we set aside the damage and forget the dead, if we remain incurious about the impact both might have on our enemy’s will to compromise – even if all we consider is sheer efficacy – how can we look at this history and believe that repeating past failures will keep the Jewish State safe? Are you safe now?
For Gobry, it is crystal clear that Israel has the moral high ground:
What I have not forgotten is the following: the State of Israel is a democracy with the rule of law and respect for human rights (yes, imperfect, unlike the United States and Europe, which, as we all know, are perfect); demonic hatred of Jews is a real and persistent fact of history and when left unchecked it always leads to atrocities; this demonic hatred is absolutely clearly distilled into the enemies of Israel; and most, most importantly this: if tomorrow Hamas, Hizbullah and other enemies of Israel dropped their weapons, peace would break out; if tomorrow Israel dropped its weapons, a genocide would break out.
There is, there can be, no moral equivalency. Sometimes there really are Good Guys and Bad Guys.
But not to Seumas Milne, who stresses the centrality of the occupation in driving the conflict:
The idea that Israel is defending itself against unprovoked attacks from outside its borders is an absurdity. Despite Israel’s withdrawal of settlements and bases in 2005, Gaza remains occupied both in reality and international law, its border, coastal waters, resources, airspace and power supply controlled by Israel.
So the Palestinians of Gaza are an occupied people, like those in the West Bank, who have the right to resist, by force if they choose – though not deliberately to target civilians. But Israel does not have a right of self-defence over territories it illegally occupies – it has an obligation to withdraw. That occupation, underpinned by the US and its allies, is now entering its 48th year. Most of the 1.8 million Palestinians enduring continuous bombardment in Gaza are themselves refugees or their descendants, who were driven out or fled from cities such as Jaffa 66 years ago when Israel was established.
Waldman argues that justifying Israel’s assault by referring to Hamas’s criminality is “no justification at all”:
It’s been said many times that no government would tolerate rockets being fired into its territory without a response, which is true. But those rockets do not grant Israel a pass from moral responsibility for what it does and the deaths it causes, any more than prior acts of terrorism have. In this as in so many conflicts, both sides—and those who defend each—try to justify their own abdication of human morality with a plea that what the other side has done or is doing is worse. We’ve heard that argument made before, and we’ll continue to hear it. But when we do, we should acknowledge it for what it is: no justification at all.
Actions are either defensible on their own terms or they aren’t. The brutality of your enemy makes no difference in that judgment. It wasn’t acceptable for the Bush administration’s defenders to say (as many did) that torturing prisoners was justified because Al Qaeda beheads prisoners, which is worse. And our judgment of Hamas’s lobbing of hundreds of rockets toward civilian areas tells us nothing about whether Israel’s actions in Gaza are right or wrong.
(Photo: A relative mourns during the funeral of Rani Abu Tawila, a Palestinian who was killed in an Israeli attack, on July 18, 2014 in Gaza city. Israel warned it could broaden a Gaza ground assault aimed at smashing Hamas’s network of cross-border tunnels, as it stepped up attacks that have killed more than 260 Palestinians. By Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty.)