Monday, January 05, 2009

Like Cutting One's Fingernails

One of more maligned films in the Jewish world in recent memory was Munich. Munich told the story of the aftermath of the massacre at the Munich Olympics. As everyone is well aware, Israel recruited a team of assassins to kill the members of the Black September who plotted the massacre. The movie takes a number of liberties with the facts and is designed to get across the moral difficulties inherent in such forms of retaliation.

At the end of the movie the protagonist Avner, no longer the cockeyed idealist at the start of the movie, poignantly asks his handler what was gained from killing these men; after all they were quickly replaced. To which his handler responds "why cut my fingernails? They'll only grow back."

That's what Israel is essentially doing in this war. Israel cannot wipe out Hamas. Right now there is no other group that is capable of controlling Gaza and Israel has no interest in returning to Gaza. But Hamas was getting too powerful and was shooting too many rockets into Israel. So Israel decided to weaken Hamas so it would have a short respite until the next round comes in a few years. These are the realities of the Middle East where conflicts do not lend themselves to easy solutions.

That said, I don't understand what Israel intends to gain by launching this ground incursion. The loss of life and suffering on both sides (but especially in Gaza) that resulted from the ground operation cannot be justified if the sole gain is to weaken Hamas. Hamas was already greatly weakened by Israel's aerial campaign, and it seems to me that the utility of the ground campaign is outweighed by the substantial human cost. But I guess other people could have a different calculus.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Proportionality Revisited I

Just like during during the Second Lebanon War, much of the debate about Israel's conduct in this war revolves around whether Israel's strikes against Hamas are proportional. Generally left unexplained is: proportional to what? Additionally, the very idea of proportionality is difficult to understand. Why should a country respond in a manner that is proportional?

After my last post, in which I challenged opponents of Israel's decision to target Hamas to provide some realistic option, I've decided to lay out Israel's obligations in this war. In doing so, one must explicate the meaning of proportionality, which can only be done once the status of Palestinian civilians is clarified. I'll begin with the latter issue and show how proportionality is directly related to whether one believes Palestinian civilians are free targets:

Is There a Distinction Between Civilians and Combatants?

The civilian/combatant distinction has a long and venerable history. It goes back at least to the days of Hague Convention of 1907 and, at least in theory, has guided how Western countries have fought wars (of course theory is not reality). But what is the basis of the distinction?

We can conceptualize the distinction as follows: as a general rule people have the right to live. They should not killed arbitrary or indiscriminately; they only lose their right to live in certain circumstances. War is one of those circumstances. War is a suspension of the regular rules of daily life. War is a state of affairs when each party decides that trying to kill the other is preferable to the status quo.

While war has also been part of human nature for as long as human walked the Earth and outlawing war is essentially a fool's errand, we can make rules that limit the carnage. One such rule is to distinguish between people who are actively engaged in the fighting and those who remain on the sidelines. Those who engage in fighting (combatants) have chosen to forgo (for the most part) their right to life, while those who have chosen not to fight retain that right.

This distinction makes sense. It follows that someone who is actively trying to kill his neighbor bears the risk of his actions and give up his rights. By threatening his neighbor's life, he forfeits his usual protections. But someone who merely happens to live in the same country as those doing the fighting has not threatened his neighbor and accordingly preserves his rights.

How is this dichotomy relevant to Israel's war against Hamas? Essentially, unlike a normal country, Hamas does not have an army, and only has a military wing. Consequently, any member of its military wing, which includes its so-called police force, must be deemed a combatant and is fair game. Also important is that its military wing is inseparably fused to its political wing. As such, many, if not all, of its political members are combatants as well.

But Palestinians who are not members of Hamas are civilians (or combatants as members of other milatant groups such as Islamic Jihad). Those includepeople who support Hamas publicly or those who voted for Hamas. Given the very high exit costs in Gaza, civilians were faced with an election in 2005 between a corrupt Fatah and a belligerent Hamas, and the fact that most chose Hamas does not make them anymore combatants than the fact that a majority of Americans voted for Bush in 2004 makes them fair game because of the war in Iraq. While there is a fair degree of grey area here, support for combatants does not make one a combatant.

To keep this post short, I will deal with the proportionality issue in the next post.