Thursday, November 27, 2014

Ethics in Gaza

MELBOURNE – Is Israel’s military action in Gaza morally defensible?

Different answers to that question are possible. Some depend on answers to prior questions about the founding of the state of Israel, the circumstances that led to many Palestinians becoming refugees, and responsibility for the failure of earlier efforts to reach a peaceful solution. But let us put aside these questions – which have been explored in great depth – and focus on the moral issues raised by the latest outbreak of hostilities.

The immediate trigger for the current conflict was the murder of three Jewish teenagers in Hebron, on the West Bank. Israel, blaming Hamas, arrested hundreds of its members in the West Bank, though it has never explained the basis of its accusation.

The Israeli government may have seized on the outrageous murders as a pretext for provoking Hamas into a response that would allow Israel, in turn, to invade and destroy the tunnels Hamas has dug from Gaza into Israel. Though Israeli leaders claim to have been surprised by the extent and sophistication of the tunnels they discovered, Israel’s military briefed the government on the tunnels more than a year ago, and the government created a special task force to consider how to deal with them.

Hamas responded to the West Bank arrests with a barrage of rockets that reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, though without causing any injuries. Israel then began its air attacks, followed by a ground invasion. At the time of writing, more than 1,600 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians, by Israeli air and ground strikes. Three Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket or mortar fire from Gaza, and 64 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the ground invasion began.

In firing rockets at Israel, Hamas invited a military response. A country subject to rocket attacks from across its border has a right to defend itself, even if its own actions can be construed as having provoked the attacks, and the attacks themselves are relatively ineffective. But a right of self-defense does not mean a right to do anything that can be construed as a defensive act, regardless of the cost to civilians.

Despite calls in some Israeli media for Gaza to be bombed “back to the stone age,” the Israeli government seems to accept that that would be wrong. Israel has taken some steps to minimize civilian casualties by warning Palestinians to evacuate areas that were about to be targeted.

Hamas, by contrast, has shown no interest in avoiding civilian casualties, either in Israel or in Gaza. The whole point of firing rockets at Israeli cities is to inflict civilian casualties, and the fact that the rockets have largely failed to do so is due to their inaccuracy, Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile-defense system, and perhaps some good luck. Hamas’s strategy of launching rockets from residential areas and storing them in schools clearly reflects its leaders’ willingness to put Palestinian civilians in harm’s way in order to confront Israel with the grim choice of killing civilians or allowing the rocket attacks to continue.

So, whatever moral objections to Israel’s actions over the past month there might be, there are even more serious objections to be made against Hamas. In contrast to previous episodes, Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have been very restrained in their criticism of Israel, though perhaps less for moral reasons and more because they regard militant Islam as a graver threat than Israel to their own regimes.

But to say that Israel’s actions are less clearly wrong than those of Hamas is not to say much. Israel has legitimate military objectives in Gaza: to stop the rockets and destroy the tunnels. It should be pursuing those objectives while showing the utmost concern for Gaza’s trapped civilians.

In a recent article, Fania Oz-Salzberger, writing from Tel Aviv while rockets were being intercepted overhead, urged her government to send medical supplies to the villages of Gaza. Since then, the Israeli military has set up a field hospital on the border with Gaza to treat wounded Palestinians.

That is a positive step, but it is outweighed by repeated instances of Israeli airstrikes and shelling that appear to have needlessly killed civilians, from the four boys killed on a beach on July 16 to the 20 Palestinian civilians killed while taking refuge in a United Nations school on July 30. These incidents are reminiscent of past NATO operations in Afghanistan, in which there was manifestly less care taken to safeguard the lives of local civilians than there would have been if the lives of NATO troops, or their civilian compatriots, had been at risk.

Some will shrug and say, “War is hell.” But between the untenable extremes of pacifism and the elevation of war to something beyond morality, there is a middle ground that seeks to minimize the unquestionable evil of war. We can acknowledge that Israel has made some efforts to do that, but we must still say: It is not enough.

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    1. CommentedSergey Zavyalov

      Waleed Addas – I’m sure you would much rather have every last Jewish woman and child thrown into the sea, as declared by the Hamas charter, but that will never “never again” happen.

      If you want the injustice of the Palestinian people to stop, then you should side with Israel and demand that Hamas disarm, and their charter burned. Only then can peace be negotiated.

        CommentedWaleed Addas

        Sergey Zavyalov -- Don't put words in my mouth. We lived together for many centuries and we flourished and developed one of the greatest civilizations. Why can't we do it again?!

    2. CommentedWaleed Addas

      This last assault by Israel on Gaza and the intriguing silence of the sane world to let it happen -and at such horrific scale - is one of the lowest points in human history. From my readings, Israel does not mean well at all to end this old conflict and its latest action is yet another evidence of its arrogance to sabotage any lasting peace effort. It now looks more like Israel has dug its own coffin with its own hands as the Abrahamic prophecy "that its days are numbered" will soon come as this continued global injustice of the Palestinian people cannot continue for long.

    3. CommentedThinking Indian

      Going through the postings, I find- many readers think this article is unfair to Israel and a quite a few think it is too pro-Israel. Mr Singer, this indicates, you are generally right.

    4. CommentedWendy Brezin

      There was no "immediate trigger" in the current hostilities. There were, however, over 12,000 bombs incessantly dropped on Israeli civilians since 2005. This bombing campaign started before any blockade. Hamas says their bombing is justified by the Hamas charter which presents the Arab-Israeli conflict as an inherently irreconcilable struggle between Jews and Muslims and uses religious texts as justification for fighting against and killing the Jews, whether they are in Israel or elsewhere.

      You also say that Israel should be "showing the utmost concern for Gaza’s trapped civilians." If you understand that Hamas bears the burden of the civilian casualties, and that it is legitimate for Israel to stop the rockets and destroy the tunnels, then what moral solution can you propose?

      You can sit safely removed from the realities of the war, but the civilians in Gaza and the civilians in Israel cannot do the same. What options do you offer Israelis? Or do you believe Israelis’ do not have the right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into our playgrounds?

    5. CommentedRodrigo San Jorge

      Mr Singer, given the IDF's high number of aborted missions - having calculated the cost of civilian life - I would have to say Israel IS "showing the utmost concern for Gaza's trapped civilians" wouldn't you?

    6. CommentedJuan Gabriel Gómez Albarello

      To commend Israel because of setting a hospital to take care of the wounded is very naïve. There are at least three reasons why such is the case: one, it would be very difficult for a civilian victim in Gaza to seek relief from the very hands of those who inflicted her wound; two, such a person may reasonable believe that, after being helped, it would be the object of questioning about Hamas, Hamas' strategy, etc; three, following from this previous reason, and setting aside the discomfort of being interrogated, that person may reasonable expect to be treated as a collaborator and thus find that her life would become impossible in her previous home. We always look for arguments to build an impartial stance - but appealing to ludicrous observations of this sort doesn't help much.

    7. CommentedBrent Beach

      This article appears to be drawn largely from the Frank Luntz Global Language Dictionary. As such, it will persuade those already persuaded, and mean nothing to anyone else.
      That an ethicist would talk himself into a pretzel to make these points, perhaps in the same vein as a lawyer defending a serial killer, is expected and perhaps necessary, but is none the less disagreeable and will have no effect on the verdict of humanity.

    8. CommentedRob Russell

      Here is a copy of the Declaration

      Balfour Declaration 1917
      November 2nd, 1917

      Dear Lord Rothschild,

      I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

      "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

      I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

      Yours sincerely,

      Arthur James Balfour

        CommentedBrent Beach

        I wonder of Balfour thought that "in Palestine" would some day be taken to mean "all of Palestine"?
        I wonder if Balfour and the UK Cabinet of the day would have signed that declaration had they been aware of the consequences.

    9. CommentedJeremy Bowman

      Like Singer, I am a consequentialist, so I try to anticipate what would happen in the future if Israel were extremely careful about civilian casualties.

      It seems to me a brutal fact that Israel's nuclear deterrent would not work as a deterrent if Israel showed too much concern in this area. More specifically, if Iran were armed with nuclear weapons and its government was contemplating following through on its threats to annihilate Israel, it might be deterred from doing so if it were convinced that Israel would surely and inevitably retaliate. But if it looked to Iran as if Israel has the weaponry but lacks the stomach to use it — with its inevitably huge cost in civilian deaths and great loss of international approval — it would be much less likely to be deterred from doing so.

      To deter future enemies that may well be armed with nuclear weapons, Israel must send a grim warning: “we really don’t care all that much about how popular we are, or if many civilians die. If you hit us, we will hit you back as surely as night follows day”.

        CommentedJuan Gabriel Gómez Albarello

        If i understand your argument well, it can be summarized as follows: the Palestinian people are the instrument through which Israel would show Iran and any other country whose intent would be to damage or destroy Israel that such an objective carry a high price. That is, Palestinian people are a means to this end, something that an axiological approach would scold. Given that you're a consequentialist, you might have nothing to worry about. Frankly, this position shows the limits of consequentlialism. Everything said about proportional use of force, with the intent of avoiding unnecessary suffering, could be dispense with. Moreover, one can argue that the purpose of applying international humanitarian law to armed conflicts is to make peace become less difficult. If no one shows restraint, then the wound would make any agreement to end the hostilities evaporate. Al this reasoning applies, of course, to Hamas' actions which are as reprehensible as those of Israel.

    10. CommentedSergey Zavyalov

      George Moukazis – I believe the context is ethics. You want it to be occupation, but there is no occupation by Israel. Reason why there is no occupation by Israel, Palestinians have representation in the Israeli Parliament; they are provided with free electricity, water, and monetary allocations from tax collections and even decide on the education and development policies in their neighborhoods. How is all that occupation? The only occupation is the one being imposed by Hamas against their own people. Hamas decides who lives, Hamas decides what is built and where and Hamas implements their policy of unending poverty for their Jihad propaganda.

    11. CommentedThomas Bullemore

      i did not like this post as well. The immense principle begging it asks for, makes almost impossible to discuss impartiallly about the current state of affairs. Answers to those questions (i.e. about the legitimacy of Israel in the Mid East, or whether Hamas is a consecuence of israeli occupation, etc.) permeate the whole discussion.

      To my view, it was absolutely forseeable that a vast amount of casualties would be innocent civilians alien to the conflict (82% out of 1.800, a third of which are children). Ergo, Israel facted in those casualties, and considered it fine to keep on forth. That is the conduct of a war criminal.

      Merely “not intending” the civilian deaths, while knowing that they will occur, is not a position that can be vindicated by Israel’s condemnation of terrorism.

    12. CommentedSergey Zavyalov

      Seems like the whole lot of you are glorifying terrorism under the context of “guerrilla war against Israel”, and even if your point makes Hamas actions against Israel ethical “which it doesn’t”, Hamas actions against their own population are totally void of any type of ethics.

        CommentedQuasimodo 5000

        Aren't the Palestinian Arabs kept penned up in their refugee zones by their own leaders? Aren't they offered up as permanent sacrifices in the Arab war against the Jews? Doesn't the UN run schools and shelters in these camps as allies of the Arab refugees? Wouldn't it be wiser to complete the partition and resettle the refugees elsewhere, such as the Kingdom of Jordan? Wouldn't it be more useful for the Arab countries to promise peace and demand peace and envision a future in which all peoples could flourish? These the questions that need attention -- assertions that killing is bad are tendentious.

        CommentedGeorge Moukazis

        Seems to me that you forget the context. The context is occupation. It would be good to remember that. The question, then, is whether an occupied population can be characterised as terrorists if acting in resistance.
        The unrefined and indiscriminate labelling is too simplistic to have any normative weight, unfortunately. The characterisation of Mandela as a terrorist by leading western countries is an example of simplistic thought.
        Unfortunately for you,

    13. Commentedrichard Nozick

      I felt this article, unlike the article by IAN BURUMA ("Why Bomb Civilians") was excellent. It is appropriately critical of excessive loss of civilian life due to Israeli actions while crediting Israel for taking some steps to minimize this and importantly pointing out the intentional attacks on civilians by Hamas. This asymmetry is an important distinction that explains the difficult predicament faced by Israel.

    14. CommentedGeorge Moukazis

      Professor Singer is utterly confused. Swallow knowledge of Just War Theory, indifference about the fact that the ethical evaluation shall be done in the context of continuous occupation and, when it comes to jus in bello considerations, totally neglects the moral challenges of guerrilla war. Hope he writes a new article about the issue, so as to be more balanced and thorough.

        CommentedRichard S. Stone

        I am finding it difficult to believe that Professor Singer is "utterly confused." Indeed, it seems unlikely that he is at all confused on this issue. But it is entirely possible that he has a different view on the issue than you do. I find myself more on the side of Prof Singer: This is a "war" or "conflict" or "confrontation" that Hamas has begged for, and gotten, repeatedly over the years. With generally a lot of sympathy and approval from the various usual suspects. Sadly, this time, Hamas miscalculated horribly. As usual the civilian population paid the price, which is the usual situation too. So usual that we might even consider it part of the over-all plan, part of the purpose, not some regrettable by-product. It is not collateral damage, it is a designed result.

        Hamas was counting on this carnage, not trying to avoid it it. Israel obliged in the destruction, probably, and correctly, thinking that Egypt was tired of Hamas. Egypt, I imagine, would cheerfully eliminate the leadership, if not all the "fighters" of Hamas, without regret. And ISIS gives us some idea why.

        The point is that Hamas is simply a way for its leaders to live large. These Islamic "rulers" in Iran and elsewhere have the same venal aspirations as in some Western countries and in Russia: to enrich themselves and their friends. Putin and the leader of ISIS and Hamas and Morsi and Mubarak and the Saudi princes are all the same sort. Arguing about which one has the moral upper hand is as enlightening as fish in a bowl arguing about the rectitude of their feeding schedule.

        CommentedChris Gwartney

        and yet again, Mr. Ethics shows himself to be anything but. Mr. Singer, are you living in a vacuum? I feel compelled to repeat what the previous two posters have said... Pete, you are "... totally neglecting the moral challenges of guerrilla war..." and you have inexplicably turned to an "... ethics of intent...". Could you, Mr. Singer, weigh in on your thoughts about the ANC or the use of guerrilla by Zionists throughout history? You might imagine that someone reading your post would suspect you of an unfounded pro-Israel bias in this issue. It also seems you have been subject to some propagandizing. That Israel does what it can to spare innocence is no longer regarded as fact. Note the condemnations by the U.N., the international community, and now even the co-perpetrator of the violence, the United States. Please, Mr. Singer, clarify your position on the use of guerrilla warfare. This post smacks of a heavy bias.

    15. CommentedChris Ball

      It's surprising to see Professor Singer switch to an ethics of intent, when claiming that there are more serious moral objections to 3 civilians dead vs. >1000. (And not just mentioning that we should *consider* intent, but seeming to claim that intent overrules any other parameter, by saying "So, whatever moral objections to Israel’s actions over the past month there might be, there are even more serious objections to be made against Hamas".)

      Are we to believe that the ultimate method for assessing the ethics of an act is to probe the intent of the actor? If not, what does that sentence mean?

    16. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      There is a very great problem when discussing ethics, or moral questions. Not only regarding the Middle east bot regarding the whole global world.

      We have no idea what they mean.

      We have no absolute coordinates, guidelines what we should aspire to.

      All of us, individually, nationally make self-centered, self-serving calculations, we can always justify our own actions dismissing those of others.

      Until we build a completely new attitude towards each other, creating a new perception of reality where instead of only seeing myself, my own profit, reward I start to see the collective and its goals, prosperity, we will have no chance of solving any problems, we will continue sinking back into barbaric, self-destructive times.

      The only way we can escape from our "egoistic prisons" is through education, changing the values of society, and using the practical method of "circles", round table discussions, workshops where from the people of the street to world leaders we can learn and immediately experience how to rise above our own thoughts and desires and take on the thoughts and desires of others.

      Only in such circles can we find common, mutual points we can use to raise ourselves above mutual rejection, differences and hatred.

        CommentedAnthony Warren

        I think the root of the ethical question here is the difference in worldview between the Judeo/Christian idea of a person's fate being entirely in his hands, and the Islamic idea that a person's fate is decided upon their birth.

        From this lens it is possible to see that Hamas sees no issue with the use of civilians or 'protected' persons as a part of their strategy to annihilate Israel. Dead civilians were merely meeting their fate, nothing anyone could do can alter that.

        Recast this way the ethical questions become simple.

        The Geneva Conventions specifically state that the use of protected persons does not create areas that are off-limits to the prosecution of war.

        Israel, takes as much care as is reasonable to try to keep civilians from dying, but in the reality of Gaza, Hamas could care less about who is killed.

        World opinion has in-fact made the death of Gaza civilians an advantage for Hamas. They don't care about the deaths, but they know that those deaths put pressure on Israel from people who frankly have no idea what it is like to spend generations under continual attack from enemies scant miles away.

    17. Commentedhari naidu

      "Cash, Weapons and Surveillance: the U.S. is a Key Party to Every Israeli Attack" By Glenn Greenwald 4 Aug 2014,


      #If there is any doubt, the dispatches (above) revealed by Greenwald are morally and ethically damning to US, Israel and other's involved.
      The fundamental political issue at hand is the Israeli blockade of Gaza...and illegal occupation of Palestinian land. Why not therefore agree to UN demilitarization of Gaza, and two-state solution based on 1967 boarders of a sovereign Palestine?

        CommentedAnthony Warren

        This is a canard. The borders of Israel legally are those set out in the British Mandate. No other borders exist legally other than those 'suggested' by the UN in various General Assembly resolutions that carry neither moral nor legal weight.

        Israel does not want the land granted to them by the Mandate but does not agree with any of the other proposals for borders until the condition that it be able to live in peace is in place.

        Since 1948 and the invasion of Israel by its warring Arab neighbours only two Arab states bordering on Israel have made peace treaties with it.

        It is up to Palestine to act in good faith and demonstrate that it can live in peace with Israel. Until then there is no moral imperative on Israel to do much of anything but continue to defend itself from the constant attacks of Palestine and its supporters both regionally and globally.

        Peace first, borders second.

    18. Commentedallan siegel

      Prof. Singer is definitely in an ethical muddle or merely obfuscating his true sympathies rather than actually dealing with an ethical question. The real clue to his position is the opening sentence: "Is Israel's military action in Gaza morally defensible?" and what about Hamas's action cannot a similar arguement be made to justify its position? Was not the resistance of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto morally defensible? Is Gaza something than a ghetto with its strictly controlled access in which Israel (by its own admission) seeks to minimize and carefully regulate the caloric intake of the inhabitants? Isn't resistance against such conditions morally defensible?

        CommentedSergey Zavyalov

        No Allan, Hamas actions are not morally defensible because they teach hatred against the jews and call for abductions of Israeli’s whenever possible. They will even take dead bodies of killed soldiers for the same purpose.

        Hamas actions are morally indefensible because of the meat-shield tactics against the local Gaza population that elected them in good faith of social welfare programs, but instead got poverty and death at the hands of their elected government.

        Hamas actions are morally indefensible because they are terrorist organization and a death cult.

    19. CommentedSergey Zavyalov

      Author writes very carefully not to choose sides, but from the second paragraph shows that like the rest of the media, he does not take into account the propaganda Hamas preaches around the world, and including in the US.

      Hamas clearly states that IDF soldiers and Israeli citizens should be kidnapped at every possible chance; hence the Israeli response against Hamas in the WestBank after the kidnappings took place, for it was Hamas doctrines that brought about these abductions and this conflict. Just like it is Hamas doctrines that now continue to solicit a heavy toll against their own populations for the clear purpose of Jihadipaganda being fed all over the world to ignorant media and people foolish enough to show sympathy to terrorists.

      I too am against the heavy collateral damage being forced on the Palestinians, but I have come to terms that the only way to prevent further unjust loss of civilian life in Gaza is to exterminate Hamas from its territory and confiscate all their unity government funds for purpose of rebuilding and re-educating the Palestinians against Political Islam with Egyptian and UN oversight.

    20. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      The children of this divide would grow in anger and in pain, the seeds of retaliation are being sown. The question is not on whose side we are in, the truth is that we are all on the losing side; war begets war and the true tragedy lies in the construction of moral positions that serve the narrow ends of intellectual vanity. We are collectively wrong when for being right we have to kill each other.

    21. CommentedCris Perdue

      What would be a successful, peaceful outcome for the situation in Gaza? To use Lincoln's words, what would a "just and lasting peace" look like on the ground? Would it be simply the status quo without shooting?

      If not, it seems to me that given Israel's overwhelming military power and physical control of the situation, it would be more than appropriate for Israel to propose something that others could support as a dignified and tenable result for those stuck there as refugees for the last 55 years or so.

    22. CommentedNaomi white

      "the Israeli military has set up a field hospital on the border with Gaza to treat wounded Palestinians." .. ha, ha.

    23. CommentedNaomi white

      Prof. Apologist you need to read a few history books. Avi Shlaim would be a good starting point.

    24. Commentedhari naidu

      UN Chief: Gaza School Attack 'A Moral Outrage And A Criminal Act'
      NASA is on side of Israel Intelligence and has even supplied targets in Gaza and funded Israeli intelligence, according to released info from Greenwald (Snowden's interlocutor).

      Spiegel is reporting Israeli's have also monitored Kerry's telephone calls during last year's peace talks on two-state solution.

      So, the morality of the Israeli war crimes will come out when Bibi & Co have to answer ICJ (The Hague).

    25. Portrait of Michael Heller

      CommentedMichael Heller

      Was this article by Peter Singer successfully utilitarian? It seems to be a bit of a philosophical muddle. When it comes down to it, the question is - whose side are you on? I'm on the side of the rational underdog with a principled prospect of prudent progress and probity. In an irrational premodern region, that's undoubtedly Israel.

    26. CommentedVelko Simeonov

      Why am I not surpirsed of the findings in this article. The fact that the palestinians are kept in a defacto open-air prison, not relevant!