Israel has every right to defend itself against Hamas’s war crimes – but it must find a just peace

15 October 2023. By Nigel Biggar for The Telegraph.

An ‘Iron Wall’ will never make the Jewish state safe. The last 100 years shows it will only make some Palestinians nihilistically violent.

Hamas’s attack on Israel has given fresh voice to the view that a just political end legitimates the use of any military means whatever. Rivkah Brown, founder of the Jewish anti-Israel site Vashti and commissioning editor at the left-wing Novara Media, has blithely opined that “the struggle for freedom is rarely bloodless and we shouldn’t apologise for it”. At the School of Oriental and African Studies the student Palestinian Society has declared that “the Palestinian people have the right to resist occupation by any means necessary”. And at the University of Kent, law lecturer Dr Shahd Hammouri has asserted that “resistance by the Palestinian people by all means available … is a legitimate act”. 

No, it is not. According to just war thinking, some of which is now enshrined in international law, violent means are only justified when governed by a just end or goal. That’s because a cause can be defeated as much through its supporters’ betrayal as its enemies’ triumph. The basic ground of morally justified violence is defence of a humane cause. But if the manner of their fighting dehumanises its defenders, then the cause is lost. The means have corrupted the end. 

A just end should govern military means in two ways: by being discriminate and proportionate. Being discriminate involves intending to kill only combatants. This is mainly because the killing of unarmed people cannot directly serve the military purpose of forcing armed enemies to stop fighting. But it’s also because, if we deliberately kill non-combatants — say, to terrorise combatants into surrendering — then we’ll make ourselves into the kind of people who will stop at nothing. We’ll even slit the throats of infants. 

Nonetheless, the rule of discrimination permits the unintentional killing of non-combatants. That’s because war can seldom be fought without endangering civilians, and some wars ought to be fought. So, where an important military objective cannot be hit without risking civilian casualties, and where the chosen means minimise that risk, the attack may proceed. Consequent civilian deaths are ‘collateral damage’ — strictly beside the military point, but terribly, tragically unavoidable.

During the 1944 invasion of Normandy, the Allies relied heavily on bombing from the air, partly because the British were scraping the manpower barrel and needed to conserve troops on the ground. But the bombers killed 30,000 French civilians, not because they intended to, but because they lacked more accurate technology for bombing Nazi sites. And the war against Hitler had to be prosecuted.

Israel’s retaliation against Hamas has already killed over sixteen hundred Palestinians, including many non-combatants. Surely there are many more to come. But Israel is normally scrupulous in trying to minimise civilian casualties. And their large number alone is no symptom of military immorality.

Some might argue that, while discriminate, Israel’s retaliation is disproportionate, supposing that she may only cause as many Palestinian deaths as Hamas has caused Israeli ones. Only an eye for an eye. But that numerical understanding of proportion is too crude. The morally just aim of fighting a war is not to inflict an equality of misery on the unjust enemy, but to render them incapable of further injustice. If that can be done by inflicting fewer casualties, it should be. But if it can only be done by inflicting more, it may be.

A better way to understand proportionality is in terms of means being proportioned to their end. Israel’s urgently justified end is the destruction of atrocious Hamas. Proportioned means serve that goal efficiently — causing only such damage as necessary and refusing the distractions of vengeful rage.

But there are urgent ends and long-term ones. This is not the first time that Israelis have been killed by Palestinians and it probably won’t be the last. It is probable that Hamas will be severely punished, but not eradicated. It will live to fight another day — just as it did in 2014. Meanwhile, the running sore of Arab displacement during Israel’s foundation awaits a just solution. To be fully proportionate, Israel’s military response to Hamas needs to be part of a larger strategy for securing that. 

In 1923 the dissident Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky candidly admitted that Jewish and Arab claims upon Palestine were irreconcilable. His solution? That a Jewish state should erect an “iron wall”, against which the Arabs would eventually tire of knocking their heads. Then they’d compromise and make peace. Hamas’s recent assault has proven Jabotinsky terribly wrong. Far from making them tired, a hundred years of fruitless head-banging have made some Palestinians insanely, nihilistically violent. If Israel wants peace, it will need more than an iron wall.   

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the University of Oxford and author of In Defence of War

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