Saturday, July 15, 2006

Israel's use of force

I cannot begin to express my dismay at the headlines of the last few days -- first the news that Israeli troops had entered Lebanon, then the news that Israel had imposed a naval and air blockade upon that country. I've been reading the New York Times, a paper that is friendly to Israel (as I am), yet my mind is still reeling at these actions. An entire country, under blockade, after the provocation of the killing of Israeli soldiers.

I ask myself, why? What is going on? What is the need for actions that are causing more casualties among the Lebanese and Palestinians than among the Israelis? Under what authority or rationale can this be okay?

For some years now I have been considering the idea of proportionality in Just War doctrine. A fundamental moral principle of our society is that if violence is to be returned in kind, at least the damage of the original wrong should not be exceeded. That is not our highest morality, nor is it really even a moral ideal -- it is just the least that we can expect of moral individuals and societies. The idea in its most basic form is rooted in the Bible, where ancient Israel was enjoined that an eye for an eye was proper redress; this was the idea of proportionality; the command that redress would stop there and not descend either into an endless cycle of violence or a successful act of vengeance upon a weak party by a strong.

I am no history expert, but when I do judge the wars of the past and the present I ask which side has lost the most people, and in what ways. It appears to me more clearly than ever that most wars are unjust on both sides; and that a party to a war is clearly in the wrong if it takes more lives than it loses. The chief exceptions to this rule, I think, occur when an invaded country takes up arms to defend itself against an aggressive party successfully, such that the invasion becomes more costly in human lives to the invader than to the defender. In other words, you can take more than a life for a life and do so justly, if the other party is directly responsible for losing their own lives. If they throw themselves against your defenses, there would be no shame in incurring fewer losses than the aggressor loses. See for instance, the Soviet Union's unjust invasion of Finland in 1939, a war which Finland won at a lower human cost than the Soviets incurred.

But if the exception does not apply, and you take more than a life for a life through offensive actions such as large-scale incursions or blockades, then you are no longer fighting a defensive war, which is the only kind of war that can be just. Then it is right to call the strong aggressor wrong when it tries to pass off its war as defensive, as so many unjust parties do (as indeed the Soviet Union did in 1939). This must hold even when the provocation or opening use of force may belong to the other party. It is a question of proportionality. If you start bringing death directly to more people than your own party has lost, such a war can be called defensive only in the sense that your party is reacting defensively to an unjust provocation -- and forcing the other party, of course, to react subsequently in their own defense. Such a cycle of violence may be seen as defensive by each party, but it is far from a just war.

I am unusually frightened by this turn of events in the Middle East. With fundamentalist parties (Hezbollah and Hamas) elected to power in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories, and more such parties ruling Syria and Iran, I have no trouble understanding Israel's fear. It looks to me somewhat like those days before June 1967, when a coalition of Arab nations were spewing threats at Israel from all sides and then blockading Israel's ports -- a clear act of war hitting the vitals of a society and not a mere provocation (which it why it is dismaying that Israel, a country I have defended countless times in heated arguments, and visited personally, is now the one blockading Lebanon). Yet Israel's opponents in the past -- and I could be wrong about this -- do not seem to me quite so dangerous as the fundamentalists of today. On that score, perhaps, I am wrong, and simply frightened about current fears while sanguine about past events that I never experienced.

In fact, I do hope I'm wrong.

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