As with the past two Gaza invasions, supporters of Israel have relied upon three central arguments to justify the destruction of Palestinians’ lives and means of life. None are sound and all need to be publically contested.
The first and most widely deployed argument is that Israel is simply exercising its right to self defence. This is the most common argument because it is the most plausible, seems to conform to international laws and norms, and involves the fewest number of odious moral implications. Here is the argument: Hamas is using Gaza as a base to launch rockets at Israel. Israeli cities and civilians are endangered by the rockets. As a sovereign nation Israel has the right to self-defence. The right to self-defence includes the right to decide the most efficacious means of self-defence. Only a ground invasion can ensure the safety of Israeli civilians from Hamas rocket fire. Therefore, a ground invasion is necessary.
A corollary of this argument relates to the civilian casualties in Gaza. The corollary asserts that Hamas is responsible for all Palestinian deaths, because Hamas started the conflict.
This argument appears sound because there is in fact a right to self-defence under international law. There are also norms concerning proportionality, however, which the scope and violence of Israeli operations arguably violate. However, arguing about the finer points of international law is not the most effective line of criticism, because, as history proves, international law in effect means whatever those with the power to enforce it decide it means. Hence, we need to expose the problematic assumptions that underlie the right to self-defence argument.
The first assumption is that Hamas is the cause of the conflict. Hamas is not the cause of the conflict; they are not initiating military operations, they are reacting to an embargo on life goods and the imprisoning of an entire people by Israel. They have said that their goal is to end the siege of their life space. No people could reasonably be expected not to resist conditions such as Israel has imposed upon the people of Gaza. One can debate both the wisdom and the legality of rocket fire into the territory of a militarily superior nation, but it is not possible to plausibly deny that the cause of the rocket fire is the inhuman conditions of life that the Israeli blockade imposes on Gazans. People are safest when they give their neighbours no cause for violence. I am much less likely to fight with my neighbour if I do not barricade his driveway. If I barricade his driveway, beat him up the first time he asks me to remove the blockade, reinforce the blockade with concrete the second time he asks me to remove it, and burn his house down the third time, I could hardly pretend to not be responsible if he should, the fourth time, decide to respond more forcefully towards me. I might plead self-defence, but really, I am defending myself from the predictable consequences of my own actions. Hence, because the blockade is the real cause of the violence, and Israeli’s have built and maintained the blockade, they bear ultimate responsibility for the state of war between Gaza and Israel, the self-defence argument fails. If the blockade were ended (and a comprehensive peace agreement reached) Gazans and all Palestinians could get on with building intrinsically valuable lives in which the energy used to sustain historical enmities and hatreds is sublimated. Israeli’s too, for that matter.
The second argument is far more problematic, but much loved of Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird. Baird often argues that Israel should never be criticized, whether for its military incursions, its apartheid wall, its collective punishments, its detentions, or any other indignity or abuse it decides to heap upon the Palestinians, because it is a democracy. This argument rests on a category mistake. The category mistake is that Baird uses a political structure as moral justification for life-destructive outcomes (the death of Palestinian children) that would otherwise be judged immoral and criminal. Democracy is nothing but a form of government, a structure of rule, a way of taking collectively binding decisions. It is not, in and of itself, a justification for the outcomes of the decisions it takes. If the mere fact that a decision were taken democratically were sufficient justification for its outcomes, then nothing that a majority supported could ever be morally wrong. But the justification of political decisions, their moral legitimacy, depends upon the life outcomes for the people affected. A decision to bomb and shell densely populated areas in full knowledge that there will be innocent civilian casualties is wrong because it knowingly and necessarily destroys innocent life. That it has popular support does not make it morally correct. Democracy is a political form, whether it is good or bad depends upon the degree to which those affected by its decisions are enable to lead good human lives.
Two brief addenda. It is questionable whether Israel can be both a “Jewish state” and a liberal democracy, at the very least religio-ethnic exclusivity is in tension with the liberal ideal of equal citizenship. Arab citizens have the same formal rights as Jewish citizens, but how can they be equal in a state that identifies itself as essentially Jewish? The issue is complex and I leave it to others and to a different time to resolve. My point is only that the issue of Israeli democracy is more problematic than it might appear. If the question of Israeli democracy is more complex than it first appears, then the question of Hamas’ political illegitimacy is even moreso. The Western media typically play down the fact that Hamas was democratically elected in the 2006 elections to the Palestinian parliament. So maybe it is not true, for either or both of these reasons, that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.
The final, and by far the most odious and dangerous argument in support of Israel asserts that there is “no moral equivalence” between Israeli deaths from Hamas rocket fire and Palestinian deaths from Israeli fire. The only way this argument could be true is if Israeli lives are worth more than Palestinian lives. Equivalence implies equality of value. By definition, then, inequivalence (which is what “no moral equivalence” entails) means inequality of value. Inequality of value means that one of the two poles of comparison is worth more than the other. If there is no moral equivalence between Palestinian and Israeli deaths, then Israeli deaths are worth more, i.e., are morally worse than, Palestinian deaths. If death is bad because life is good, and some deaths are worse than others, then, by implication, some lives are better than others. If the living and the dead are sorted into reified groups (‘Israeli,’ ‘Palestinian’) and this sorting is mapped onto to the inequivalent valuation, then the conclusion is that Israeli lives are worth more than Palestinian lives. And that is, quite simply, a repetition of the most odious and inhuman racism that has periodically infected human history.
Let us now put all three arguments together and see the hell to which it leads. If we accept that a) Israel has an unlimited right to self-defence, b) whose exercise is legitimated by its being a democracy, and c) is therefore entitled to kill Palestinians whose lives are worth less than Israeli lives, then we are led, logically, to the conclusion that if a majority of Israeli’s so agreed, their right to self-defence would entail the right to destroy the entire Palestinian people (their lives are not worth as much as the lives of Israelis they might kill, the right to self-determination is not constrained by extraneous factors but only the democratic decision of the people of Israel).
Sadly, political discourse in Israel is degenerating towards such conclusion. An Israeli news outlet reported that Knesset member Ayelet Shaked: “a well-known Israeli politician and parliament member, recently said mothers of all Palestinians should also be killed during the Israeli assault on Gaza. She called for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes.””
If, as I hope, you reject the exterminist logic implied in Shaked’s comment, or openly asserted in a ruling of Rabbi Dov Lior, reported in Haaretz, that ” “deterrent measures to exterminate the enemy” were allowed by Jewish religious law, then you need to rethink the soundness (should you have been tempted by them) of the 3 arguments above that open the door to it.