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Jus In Bello, and Ad Bellum

I have been avoiding writing about the war between Israel and Gaza because it is just too depressing for words. I’ve read a variety of pieces that I thought were insightful; here’s one by Gershom Gorenberg, here’s another, an interview with Yuval Diskin, in Der Spiegel.

But I do want to take this opportunity to clarify something in my previous post about the Gaza War. In Linker’s piece that I associated myself with, he says that “[w]ith Hamas and smaller jihadi groups hurling rockets at Israeli cities from the Gaza Strip, Israel is clearly justified in responding” and that the lopsided body count is not in itself evidence that there’s anything morally wrong with the Israeli operation. He then goes on to argue against the war from a prudential rather than a moral standpoint.

I agree with both of Linker’s points about the legitimacy of a response. Deliberately targeting civilians, which is what the rocket fire amounts to, is a war crime, full stop. It remains a war crime even if there was substantial provocation. Once you accept that, it’s very hard not to conclude that a response of some sort is justified.

But that still leaves something important out of the equation – namely, the larger context within which the war is taking place. That context imposes not only prudential constraints, but moral ones.

Israel’s stated goals for this operation are partly military and partly political. The military goal is to destroy, or at least dramatically degrade, Hamas’s war fighting capabilities – destroy tunnels, rocket-launchers, kill or capture operatives, etc. The political goal is to get the people of Gaza to blame Hamas for the destruction wrought by the war, and turn against the organization and a strategy of armed confrontation with Israel.

Leaving aside whether the political goal is likely to be achieved – I think the opposite effect is more likely – it should be clear, from the overwhelming preponderance of the decisions of the current Israeli government, just how limited its political horizon is. Israel does not have a strategy for settling the conflict. It has a strategy, good or bad, for managing the conflict within its current contours. Israel is fighting to preserve the status quo.

That’s the larger context within which the war is being fought. And that context has moral implications for how the war may be fought, inasmuch as we should not desire the status quo ante to be preserved, but the status quo amounts to imposed rule not merely without the consent of the ruled, but over the emphatic, furious, unequivocal refusal of that consent. That’s why it’s fruitless for Israeli spokespeople to talk about how “the IDF deserves the Nobel Peace Prize” for fighting with “unimaginable restraint.” What you’re fighting for – not merely your tactical objectives but your larger strategic objectives – have bearing on how fiercely you can fight. Another way of putting it would be: granting that you can fight very fiercely indeed for a just victory, what would such a victory look like in Gaza? Realistically, not in an imaginary world where Gazans have a different mentality than they ever have in the past, or than other peoples have had in comparable situations.

[Update: thanks to the readers who caught the typo in the headline.]

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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