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Palestinian civilians aren’t to blame for Hamas

By
From page A8 | August 04, 2014 |

Israel is a democratic state that is trying to respect human rights while defending itself against an adversary, Hamas, that does not. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is obviously right to say that the killing of Palestinian children is something Hamas desires as part of its strategy. My sympathies are therefore entirely with Israel, and against not just Hamas but those Westerners who fling terms like “genocide” against the Israeli government.

Yet even just causes can lead their partisans astray. Increasingly I’m seeing supporters of Israel make the argument that there are no true “civilians” among Palestinians – that because many of the residents of the Gaza Strip once voted for Hamas, they’re essentially participants in its terrorism.

That argument is wrong and dangerous, and it ought to be repudiated.

At a recent pro-Israel rally in New York, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner said, to cheers, “When you are part of an election process that asks for a terrorist organization which proclaims in word and in deed that their primary objective is to destroy their neighboring country and not to build schools or commerce or jobs, you are complicit and you are not a civilian casualty.”

Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist and legal scholar, wrote similarly in the Wall Street Journal: “On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations.”

He allows that some Gazan casualties must have been civilians, and some must have been “children whose parents are not card-carrying Hamas loyalists.” He concludes that “our sympathy should be reserved” for those victims: “The impossibility of identifying them, and saving them, is Israel’s deepest moral dilemma.”

And in Haaretz, the historian Benny Morris complains that Israel has shown “no willingness to exact a heavy price in blood from the enemy’s civilians.”

If we don’t hold a firm understanding of why civilians should be treated differently than combatants, we can end up in indefensible positions. I see no way to interpret Rosenbaum’s comment except to mean that we should have no sympathy for children who are killed if their parents were Hamas loyalists. That’s a disgusting sentiment.

The just-war tradition of thought treats civilians differently in that just military action can never be designed to kill them. Their killing can only be tolerated, in that tradition, as an unintended byproduct of military action – and that evil can be tolerated only if the military action is likely to accomplish a good proportional to it. (It may be that Morris, his infelicitous phrasing aside, doesn’t intend any inconsistency with that tradition. Other remarks in his op-ed suggest that he merely means that Israel should be willing to tolerate more Palestinian civilian casualties, rather than that it should welcome more of them.)

This intellectual tradition isn’t based on sentimentality about civilians. Its conclusions don’t turn on any judgment of civilians’ political or moral beliefs, which in many cases may be odious. Civilians may even be complicit in some sense in the evils of war – for instance, by voting in a war-making government. Yet they’re noncombatants because they’re not involved in warfighting in any direct way, and their killing can’t be justified as an extension of the principle of self-defense.

Thus American civilians can’t justly be targeted for acts of war that their government conducts overseas. They don’t become combatants even if many or most of them vote for politicians who start wars, even unjust wars. One point of having rules of war is to impose a degree of separation between judgments about which wars are justified and judgments about what can be done in them — so that people and governments who disagree about the justice of a war can nonetheless agree on norms about its conduct.

Supporters of Israel often say it represents the cause of civilization: of human rights and freedom. The rules of war are a civilizational achievement worth defending. We shouldn’t throw them away, or throw away their moral underpinnings, for ill-considered theories of collective guilt.

Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics for 18 years, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a resident fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.

 

Ramesh Ponnuru

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 11 comments

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  • SteveAugust 04, 2014 - 8:53 am

    If you as a people, were herded into a "concentration camp," which is what Gaza has become, subject to personal search and seizure at any time day or night, wary of having your home destroyed whenever Israel feels like it wants to attack, who might you vote for in an election?

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • CD BrooksAugust 04, 2014 - 9:18 am

    Steve, I'm no expert on the subject but I don't believe that's a fair representation of Israel. Hamas is like the little bratty kid that just keeps goading them and ruthlessly killing people. Israel could easily obliterate them and take over the region if they chose to. But they have not.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • JimboAugust 04, 2014 - 10:57 pm

    The fact is there are peace seeking people on both sides who we seldom ever hear about, but far more innocent Palestinian have been killed that did nothing wrong. Far more. There is no excuse for the excessive death toll.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Rick WoodAugust 04, 2014 - 11:48 pm

    J: I can't square war and "excessive death tolls." The only choice to make is whether we are backing the right side. If we are, then I don't think we have a right to second guess our side's tactics. The objective of a war is to force the other side to give up. That means whatever it takes to make the combatants stop fighting. If our country goes to war, we civilians should not expect to be safe if the enemy can reach us. In a democracy, we are responsible for our country's decision to go to war. We can reject that government at the first opportunity, and that might absolve us of a mistaken war, but while a war is in progress, we are exposed. It's a continual disappointment to me that we returned Bush/Cheney to office in 2004 when we knew by then they were wrong about WMDs in Iraq. At that point, we "bought" the Iraq war and missed our one opportunity to rise above our government's gross errors. But we failed. John Kerry was an utter fool when he said that he would still have voted for war had he known then what we knew in 2004 about the WMDs. That's what fear of being labeled a "flip-flopper" will do to a person.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • JazzAzzAugust 04, 2014 - 12:37 pm

    War is HELL, and civilians suffer most of the casualties. Just look at the tens if not hundred of thousands of German civilians killed in Allied Bombing, 50,000 in one night I believe in WWII. That's the way it is, and Israel never starts any of this, ALWAYS Hamas or another. Over 3000 rockets fired, but taken out mostly by the IRON DOME so far, thankfully, since these rockets aimlessly are trying to kill as many ISRAELI CIVILIANS as possible, not military sites. Israel NEVER STARTS it, but IMO sure as heck should FINISH IT ONCE AND FOR ALL, making them ALL EXTINCT!!!!!!

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Rick WoodAugust 04, 2014 - 11:33 pm

    How do you explain then the moral high ground you want to take as an American when we dropped two atomic bombs on Japan to end WWII?

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Time For TruthAugust 05, 2014 - 6:32 am

    There was no moral high ground for America dropping the bombs... Truman was a mentally deranged cowboy who did exactly what he was told to do by his handlers... the people who benefited by his very decision. The Emperor, and the Empire, had already been broken... the only benefit from dropping the bombs was to the banks, the military-industrial complex, and the corporations that rebuilt Japan (that America paid for). The American people didn't benefit as they paid and paid and paid while living on a knife's edge of nuclear Armageddon for decades after. There was no moral high ground... just a program to make banks and corporations richer and our government the world-class thug at home and around the world that it has become.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Rick WoodAugust 05, 2014 - 8:16 am

    So Mr. Ponnuru wants to hold Israel and Hamas to standards higher than we hold ourselves. That's what's known as hypocrisy.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • rlw895August 05, 2014 - 8:22 am

    TfT/StR: I'll leave it to people who experienced WWII to respond further to your views on what motivated the US to drop atomic bombs on Japan. Even today, most Americans understand that decision better than you do.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • @ rlw from StRAugust 05, 2014 - 8:37 am

    Please never mention my "name" again.... it creeps me out....besides you have a habit of attributing things to me that I did not write..... Illuminati tactics ..... you sir are "N0" !!!!! Gentleman and "WE", all of us are NOT amused...

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • rlw895August 05, 2014 - 8:40 am

    Only if you promise to use your "name" on everything you write.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
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