The Israel-Palestine war is now more than four months old—it is an ethical quagmire and landmines abound for anyone offering an opinion about it. The conflict is a confusion of history, politics, and religion. This blog post attempts to find clear ethical positions but ends up with shades of gray.
Ethics rationally examines good and bad. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, ethics belonged to philosophy, but in the Abrahamic traditions, religion and revelation subsume ethical concerns. The God of Israel delivered the Ten Commandments from on high. This complicates ethics. As a branch of philosophy, ethics is governed by reason through argument, but when ethics is revealed, how can you argue? Even more, revealed ethics promises special insight into right and wrong. Therefore, religious folks assume they are more ethical than non-religious folks, a position that history hardly bears out. The specificity of Christian ethics is debatable since Christian ethics derive from general morality. This is likewise the case for Jewish and Islamic ethics.
I incline toward the philosophical view of ethics and suspect revealed, religious ethics. In examining the Palestine-Israel question, emotions run high, as do loyalties and religious claims. But rationality attempts to drain emotion out of ethical questions by abstraction, reducing them to their elemental points. Some find this insulting since it ignores their emotions or claims or traditions, but critical examination of any question requires such a move.
Anti-Semitism is real and Christians are complicit throughout a complicated history. For most of Christianity’s history, it has been a bearer of anti-Semitism, often a promoter. In examining any issue connected to the State of Israel, we confront the question, is criticism of Israel inherently anti-Semitic? On December 5, 2023, Republicans in the US House of Representatives offered a motion that “clearly and firmly states that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.” So quickly does politics entangle ethics. In a debate, a charge of anti-Semitism cripples the opponent. On the face of it, criticism of the Israeli government’s policies is not inherently anti-Semitic but where is the line? Where does anti-Semitism begin?
Gaza along with the West Bank are the two Palestinian territories. The history of Gaza since its modern creation after the British mandate is tortured and twisted. Egypt took control in 1948, then Israel captured it in the 1967 war, and finally in 2005, Israel withdrew its military force, dismantled its settlements, and blockaded Gaza. In 2006 Hamas won the elections. No elections have occurred since. Gaza is technically a polity, although sometimes identified as a territory. “A polity is an identifiable political entity, defined as a group of people with a collective identity, who are organized by some form of institutionalized social relations, and have a capacity to mobilize resources.” As a territory, whose territory is Gaza? Neither independent nor dependent, it is a no-man’s land.
On October 7, 2023, Hamas fighters from Gaza launched a surprise attack against the State of Israel. Even this barest statement of fact is ethically charged. Many news accounts noted that Hamas is a terrorist group, branded as such by the US government. “Terrorist” reflects an ethical judgment: one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Were those pseudo-Indians who dumped British tea into Boston harbor patriots or terrorists? It depends on your point of view. Hamas is also the government of Gaza. Which is it, a terrorist organization, a legitimate government, or both?
One way to decide would be by its behavior. The surprise attack began with rockets targeting Israel, many of which were intercepted. Over three thousand Hamas fighters, or terrorists, depending on your ethical judgment, broke through the border between Gaza and southern Israel, attacking civilian communities and military bases. The Israelis were caught off guard, despite their vaunted intelligence operations.
Was the attack itself justified? According to just war theory, an unprovoked attack is unjust. Remember the contortions the Bush administration went through to justify its attack on Iraq? Bush tried to prove that Saddam Hussein’s supposed but non-existent weapons of mass destruction provided provocation for the US attack.
Gaza has often been described as an open-air prison. With Egypt’s cooperation, Israel controls all access to Gaza. As a polity, Gaza is hardly an independent state. Israel had even allowed the buildup of Hamas by Qatar to weaken Fatah, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The national aspirations of the Palestinian people have been frustrated at every point. As a matter of Israeli policy, settlements in the West Bank have continuously expanded, in violation of international law, but Israelis refer to them as “facts on the ground,” meaning they are permanent. All the while Israel has stalled negotiated peace talks. The Netanyahu government’s policy has opposed a two-state solution.
Was an attack ethically justified? From the attackers’ point of view, surely. How else were they to gain statehood, freedom, and independence? A strong case can be made that an oppressed people have a right to fight for their freedom if all other options have been exhausted.
Hamas titled their attack “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood,” which names the cause for their attack. The second most important religious site in Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Haram al-Shari (the Temple Mount for Jews and Christians) has been a point of conflict for years. Hamas had accused Israelis of "desecrating" the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a common complaint among Palestinians. They also pointed to the continued growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as well as settler violence on Palestinians and the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Hamas specifically noted that they took hostages to exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Do these charges represent sufficient provocation? Taking civilian hostages for exchange is unethical under any circumstances.
Was how Hamas attacked ethical? Hamas fighters attacked military bases and Israeli communities. Targeting civilians is clearly unethical, although civilian casualties are often considered collateral damage in military operations. Almost 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed, 766 of whom were civilians. Hamas also took 253 hostages, including a significant number of women and children. Exact numbers are not yet available. Widespread sexual assaults, rapes, and brutal murders with mutilation were also reported. While it can be argued that the attack itself was ethically justifiable, the way the attack was carried out cannot.
Did Israel have a right to respond militarily? President Biden has repeatedly stated that Israel has a right to defend itself. Nations have a right to be secure within their borders. But the enormous asymmetry between the military resources of Israel and the Palestinians puts a large burden on Israel in its response.
Israel called its offense “Operation Swords of Iron,” with the stated goal of eliminating Hamas, freeing the hostages, and gaining control of Gaza. It declared a state of war, but on whom? Hamas? Gaza? The Palestinians? To date, Israel’s attack on Gaza has killed some twenty-seven thousand people and wounded more than seventy thousand, a majority of whom have been children and women, that is, non-combatants.
Ethically, what constitutes a proportional response? Ancient Hebrew law struggled with this very question: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25). This law set proportionality at equality—neither more nor less. Its authors aimed to limit vengeance.
Israel has claimed the high number of non-combatant deaths results from Hamas fighters hiding within the civilian population, an aspect of all urban warfare. The large number of dumb bombs does not indicate great care in avoiding civilian deaths. Are twenty-seven thousand deaths proportional or vengeance? The court of world opinion was appalled early on at the horrific nature of the Hamas attack, but now in light of the high number of civilian deaths and casualties it is siding with the Palestinians.
Religious claims or claims of revelation in the domain of ethics are dangerous. Religion and revelation grant the believer a special status that ignores the claims of others. Where is the space for conversation and argument if the answer is already revealed?
Ethics is a rational exercise about good and bad. It does not solve political problems, but it should throw light on how we make judgements. In the case of Israel and Palestine, there is plenty of blame to go around from the beginning, whatever you take to be the beginning. There are few innocent or objective observers, but that does not excuse us from asking hard ethical questions, even if clear answers remain elusive.
Simon Blackburn, Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics (Oxford: University Press, 2002). This is one of the best introductions to ethics available. It deals with how to think about ethics, as well as the history of ethics. It has the added advantage of being very short.
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