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Fri, Apr

Why Israel’s (Moral) Defenses Fail

WORLD WATCH

WAR VIOLATIONS - The October 7 murder of over 1,200 innocent Israelis, the rapes and other sexual violence that accompanied it, and the taking of hostages are morally despicable acts which should be, and have been, roundly condemned. This is an easy case. 

What is not perhaps as easy to grasp for many is the morality of the response by the Israeli government and the corresponding morality of the United States government in enabling that response through its financial and diplomatic support. To date, over 23,000 Palestinians have been killed, the vast majority innocent and including over 9,000 Palestinian children. In addition, millions of Gazans have been subjected to the threat of disease, dehydration, and starvation.

Five justifications for this carnage are often cited: 1) Israel has a right to defend itself, 2) Hamas initiated the latest round of violence, 3) there is no other way to eliminate Hamas, 4) the carnage is due to Hamas because Hamas uses the children and other innocents as human shields, and 5) by not bombing Gaza, Israel would be doing exactly what Hamas wants Israel to do. 

These defenses fall short of a moral justification of Israel’s actions. This becomes evident through one simple thought experiment. I will put this thought experiment in personal terms.

Thought Experiment: I have three daughters. Suppose a murderer viciously killed one of my daughters. As with most parents, I would be overwhelmed with grief and anger. Suppose, however, that sometime later the police tell me that they have found the murderer holed up in a school with 35 young children. Unfortunately, there are two, and only two, options. One is to bomb the school which would kill the murderer, but also most of the children. The second option would free the murderer and also the children. The police would continue to attempt to capture the murderer and to protect me and my other two daughters. (I am somewhat unsettled by this and not at all reassured.) The police ask me: Should the police bomb the school or let the murderer and the children go free?

Hamas should not be eliminated if the only way of doing so costs the lives of 9,000 innocent children and countless thousands of other innocent men and women, and subjecting millions to starvation, dehydration, and disease.

I would hope that I would have the moral clarity to choose the second option. I may want the murderer killed or otherwise incapacitated, but I would never be willing to sacrifice the children of so many other parents for this goal. It is not remotely proportionate and, for that reason, it is morally unacceptable. This is true even though 1) I have a right to defend myself and my children, 2) the murderer initiated the violence, 3) there is no other way to eliminate the murderer, 4) the murderer is using these children as human shields, and 5) I may be doing exactly what the murderer wants me to do. For me to kill so many innocents for my own protection or to exact retribution remains morally reprehensible.

Of course, in this story I am the Israeli government, the murderer is Hamas, and the children are Palestinian. And likewise, the choice of the Israeli government to carry out its bombing campaign is morally repugnant. This is true even though 1) Israel has a right to defend itself, 2) Hamas initiated the latest round of violence, 3) there is no other way to eliminate Hamas, 4) Hamas uses children as human shields, and 5) by not bombing Gaza, Israel may be doing exactly what Hamas wants Israel to do. 

Here is another way to put it. Suppose that, after the Hamas atrocity of October 7, the Israeli military had presented the Israeli cabinet with the following proposal: The Israeli military can degrade Hamas’s ability to attack Israel, and perhaps eliminate it. To do so, however, will require an operation that will kill 9,000 Israeli children.

Of course, such a plan would be rejected. Could any Israeli cabinet sanction the deaths of 9,000 Israeli children to prevent a future attack of the sort that killed 1,200? Again, such a plan would be grossly disproportionate and immoral, to say the least. Given this, it is equally morally repugnant to kill the same number of innocent Palestinian children for this same goal. One cannot simply replace Israeli children with Palestinian children and make an immoral act moral. 

Many people know this intuitively, which is why there have been so many calls for a ceasefire. Others have not yet thought through the moral issue of proportionality.

Let me be clear about the bottom line: Hamas should not be eliminated if the only way of doing so costs the lives of 9,000 innocent children and countless thousands of other innocent men and women, and subjecting millions to starvation, dehydration, and disease. The Israeli government would never do that to their own children and population for the goal of eliminating Hamas. To substitute other innocents is simply morally unacceptable. And the United States government, by extension, should not be supporting this slaughter through financial aid, through sales of military hardware, through vetoes at the U.N., or in any other way. Indeed, it should be working to end it.

Many people know this intuitively, which is why there have been so many calls for a ceasefire. Others have not yet thought through the moral issue of proportionality. These thought experiments, I hope, will cause some of those to rethink their positions. Indeed, one wonders where we would be if the government of Israel had chosen the moral path. We will not kill vast numbers of Palestinian children. We will not kill thousands of innocent men and women. We will not subject millions of innocent people to the threat of starvation, dehydration, and disease. We will strengthen border security. We will enhance the iron dome missile defense. We will, at whatever cost, act morally.

(Stephen Marks is Professor of Law and former Associate Dean at the Boston University School of Law. This article was first featured in CommonDreams.org.)