Monday 27 May 2024

Israel Should Have Fought This War Very Differently, But Thousands Of Innocent Palestinian Civilians Were Always Going To Die

Human psychology seems to drive us to pick a side in conflicts and then go all in. Hence a disappointing number of those observing the Israel-Hamas war even from a safe and comfortable distance argue not only that one side is in the right, but that it can do no wrong and that the other side is entirely evil. This tribalism also encourages the reduction of sides to 'us' and 'them', despite the fact that wars are always between political organisations, not peoples. 

Objectivity is the attempt to apply the same moral standards in the same way to all sides. In my view the recent ICC indictments of leaders of Hamas and the Israeli governmentICC indictments of leaders of Hamas and the Israeli government reflect an attempt to do just this. It is obviously true that Hamas started this war, and that it deliberately committed many atrocities against civilians, but that fact doesn't make any and all actions by the Israeli military justified. 

Here I want to focus on a point that many passionate critics of the war seem to be missing. This is the mistaken belief that there was some way for this war not to result in the deaths of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians. Once Hamas launched its initial attack, it was inevitable that Israel's government would use military means to try to prevent it from doing such things again. Since Hamas is deeply embedded in a heavily populated urban environment, mass civilian casualties were inevitable (and probably expected and intended by Hamas). 

Let me justify both those claims in turn.

1. An Israeli Military Assault on Hamas in Gaza was Inevitable

Hamas deliberately set out to challenge the Israeli government's ability to guarantee its population's freedom from political violence. This is apparent in all sorts of things, from the assault force's focus on clearly civilian targets to the gratuitous cruelty ordered of its soldiers and recorded on their bodycams for later publication. 

It is not conceivable that any government could refuse such a challenge. 

On the one hand, negatively, any government that publicly recognised that it could not protect its population from such attacks would immediately lose its political legitimacy. Its claim to be the ultimate authority over a particular territory would be shown to be false. 

On the other hand, more positively, a government has a positive moral responsibility to protect the population under its rule, and is allowed - and indeed required - to use violence to achieve that, if necessary. And in this case a violent response to Hamas' challenge was necessary. 

Suppose Israel's government was not ruled over by someone dependent on racist far right parties to stay in power, and was not dependent on staying in power to keep himself from being personally imprisoned for his various corruption crimes. Suppose Israel's government was instead led by people of great moral strength and enlightenment, committed to protecting its population while upholding the law of armed conflict (and the spirit of that law). Such a government would be unmotivated by any emotional need for vengeance, and also unmotivated by any instrumental political motives (such as a need to satisfy constituents' emotional demands for vengeance in order to retain power).

Would such a morally ideal government have opted for peaceful negotiations with Hamas rather than military invasion? 

I think not. The key problem is that Hamas' core aims are incompatible with security for the population of Israel. There is simply no possible deal that would satisfy Hamas and leave Israelis safe, and therefore there is no possible peaceful end to their conflict. As the failure of all previous peace deals demonstrates, no agreement that is possible between these parties could end the war (only pause it at very best) because it would be ultimately unsatisfactory to one side or the other, and hence unsustainable. 

The only outcomes compatible with the Israel government's moral obligations to its population are for Hamas to radically reduce its core demands or for Hamas to lose its capabilities to inflict mass violence on Israeli civilians. 

The former strategy had been tried in the past. Israel permitted Hamas to establish unchallenged tyrannical rule over a population of 2.4 million people and permitted vast flows of donations and 'customs' revenues to fund the organisation. The hope was that Hamas might be sufficiently satisfied by those real political gains to drop its more fantastical goals (except as a ritual rhetorical exercise, like EIRE's claim to N. Ireland up until 1999). Obviously that didn't work. 

Hence the only alternative open to the Israeli government was to reduce Hamas' capabilities to inflict mass violence on Israeli civilians. That meant attempting to destroy (most of) Hamas' existing military equipment and forces in Gaza, and also the infrastructure and resources (such as rocket factories) by which they could produce more.

2. There Was No Way To Attack Hamas Without Killing Many Civilians

A civilian occupied urban landscape is the most difficult terrain for any army to fight in. Even with the most modern technology, it is very difficult to accurately identify and successfully strike military targets, and to do so without harming civilians. Thus, dislodging an entrenched opponent requires large numbers of ground forces, who will themselves be in great danger and in need of fire support. 

Consider the Battle of Mosul (2016-7), in which around 5,000 ISIS soldiers dug in among 1 million civilian hostages held out for more than 8 months against an Iraqi government force of some 100,000 supported by US and allied artillery and airstrikes. The liberated city was almost completely destroyed and tens of thousands of civilians were killed or injured, along with 4-5,000 Iraqi government soldiers.

Hamas was (and remains) deeply embedded in a densely populated urban environment, and it uses the civilian human population quite deliberately as part of its asymmetric warfare strategy. Extrapolating to the greater size of the population in Gaza, it seems that mass civilian casualties were inevitable simply due to the nature of urban warfare. 

Thus, even a morally enlightened Israeli government committed to defeating Hamas in a manner consistent with the (spirit of the) laws of armed conflict would not have been able to avoid killing a great many Palestinian civilians (including, given the demographics of Gaza, a great many children). Indeed, even an Israeli government that was dedicated to liberating Gaza from the tyrannical rule of Hamas (i.e. one that identified protecting Palestinians as a positive, not merely a negative duty) would have killed a lot of innocent civilians. 

3. Israel's Government Is Responsible For Its Immoral Choices

Up to now it might seem that I have been echoing too closely those partisan apologists for the IDF who claim that Israel has had no choice and has done no wrong: all the deaths in the war are the responsibility of Hamas alone. But this obviously skates too quickly over the moral agency of the Israeli government. (Indeed it is striking how much of what passes for public debate about this is concerned with a zero-sum contest over moral agency, in which only the bad guys are allowed to be capable of responsibility for their actions.) 

The actual Israeli government has certainly made decisions that depart significantly from those that the hypothetical morally ideal Israeli government would have made. In particular:

  1. The IDF's lack of care with targeting and choice of weapons have led to many civilian deaths that could and should have been avoided. (We know these deaths were avoidable because the IDF showed it was capable of much greater discrimination in previous conflicts. The present conflict has resulted in more Palestinians killed than in all Israel's previous wars combined.)
  2. The Israeli government has also showed a marked lack of care about the survival needs of the civilian population of Gaza. This includes not only failing to supply their humanitarian needs (for food, water, medicine, etc), but also actively preventing others from supplying these, or allowing them to escape the war zone for safety and shelter in that rich first world country next door.
  3. In combination with explicit statements from various Israeli governing politicians, one gets a powerful impression that much of the suffering of Gaza's civilians is intentional rather than accidental, that the population as a whole is being deliberately punished for the actions of the Hamas organisation. This is a classic category mistake that is nevertheless very popular during wars. It is also a war crime.

Moreover, the Israeli government has maintained its commitment to its deviations from what a moral government would do despite sustained and increasingly loud international criticism. Even if Israel's leaders genuinely didn't know better, they have had plenty of time and opportunities to recognise and correct their moral mistakes.


To conclude, the leaders of Israel's government do not deserve to be held morally accountable for all the terrible consequences of their actions. The deaths of large numbers of Palestinian civilians is not evidence in itself of the wickedness of Israel's government. Once Hamas launched its attack, it was inevitable that Israel would go to war with it, and hence inevitable that many Palestinian civilians would die. Whether or not to go to war with Hamas was not Israel's choice to make.

It is also mistaken to blame Israel's government for the continuation of the war, as if they were the only one fighting it. Wars can be started unilaterally, but ending them requires the agreement of all parties (or their complete elimination). The IDF is not the only actor here - Hamas is still managing to lob missiles into Israel, after all. Moreover, the parties can only come to a sustainable deal if they reduce their core demands to something that the other side can accept. The Israeli government's core concern with protecting its population from mass violence is not one it can or should give up. 

However, the leaders of Israel's government do deserve to be held morally accountable for the terrible consequences of the gap between what they chose to do and what a fully moral government would have done in their place. The question is whether this gap is so large that it amounts to the highest level 'mass atrocity crimes' of war crimes and crimes against humanity as the ICC prosecutor believes. I think they probably do.