War Fair: THE ETHICS OF BATTLE (Michael Walzer, 07.19.06, New Republic)
It is an important principle of just war theory that justice, though it rules out many ways of fighting, cannot rule out fighting itself–since fighting is sometimes morally and politically necessary. A military response to the capture of the three Israeli soldiers wasn’t, literally, necessary; in the past, Israel has negotiated instead of fighting and then exchanged prisoners. But, since Hamas and Hezbollah describe the captures as legitimate military operations–acts of war–they can hardly claim that further acts of war, in response, are illegitimate. The further acts have to be proportional, but Israel’s goal is to prevent future raids, as well as to rescue the soldiers, so proportionality must be measured not only against what Hamas and Hezbollah have already done, but also against what they are (and what they say they are) trying to do.
The most important Israeli goal in both the north and the south is to prevent rocket attacks on its civilian population, and, here, its response clearly meets the requirements of necessity. The first purpose of any state is to defend the lives of its citizens; no state can tolerate random rocket attacks on its cities and towns. Some 700 rockets have been fired from northern Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal a year ago–imagine the U.S. response if a similar number were fired at Buffalo and Detroit from some Canadian no-man’s-land. It doesn’t matter that, so far, the Gazan rockets have done minimal damage; the intention every time one is fired is to hit a home or a school, and, sooner or later, that intention will be realized. Israel has waited a long time for the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government to deal with the rocket fire from Gaza and the rocket build-up on the Lebanese border. In the latter case, it has also waited for the United Nations, which has a force in southern Lebanon that is mandated to “restore international peace and security” but has nonetheless watched the positioning of thousands of rockets and has done nothing. A couple of years ago, the Security Council passed a resolution calling for the disarming of Hezbollah; its troops, presumably, have noticed that this didn’t happen. Now Israel has rightly decided that it has no choice except to take out the rockets itself. But, again, how can it do that?
The crucial argument is about the Palestinian use of civilians as shields. Academic philosophers have written at great length about “innocent shields,” since these radically exploited (but sometimes, perhaps, compliant) men and women pose a dilemma that tests the philosophers’ dialectical skills. Israeli soldiers are not required to have dialectical skills, but, on the one hand, they are expected to do everything they can to prevent civilian deaths, and, on the other hand, they are expected to fight against an enemy that hides behind civilians. So (to quote a famous line from Trotsky), they may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in them.
There is no neat solution to their dilemma. When Palestinian militants launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible–and no one else is–for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counterfire. But (the dialectical argument continues) Israeli soldiers are required to aim as precisely as they can at the militants, to take risks in order to do that, and to call off counterattacks that would kill large numbers of civilians. That last requirement means that, sometimes, the Palestinian use of civilian shields, though it is a cruel and immoral way of fighting, is also an effective way of fighting. It works, because it is both morally right and politically intelligent for the Israelis to minimize–and to be seen trying to minimize–civilian casualties. Still, minimizing does not mean avoiding entirely: Civilians will suffer so long as no one on the Palestinian side (or the Lebanese side) takes action to stop rocket attacks. From that side, though not from the Israeli side, what needs to be done could probably be done without harm to civilians. […]
Until there is an effective Lebanese army and a Palestinian government that believes in co-existence, Israel is entitled to act, within the dialectical limits, on its own behalf.
Too bad we couldn’t get Mr. Walzer for yesterday’s discussion, but we were fortunate enough to get to use one of his essays in the book.