Michael Walzer: Is Israel's counterattack in line with just war theory?





Israel is now at war with an enemy whose hostility is extreme, explicit, unrestrained, and driven by an ideology of religious hatred. But this is an enemy that does not field an army; that has no institutional structure and no visible chain of command; that does not recognize the legal and moral principle of noncombatant immunity; and that does not, indeed, acknowledge any rules of engagement. How do you--how does anyone--fight an enemy like that? I cannot deal with the strategy and tactics of such a fight. How to strike effectively, how to avoid a dangerous escalation--those are important topics, but not mine. The question I want to address is about morality and politics.

The easy part of the answer is to say what cannot rightly be done. There cannot be any direct attacks on civilian targets (even if the enemy doesn't believe in the existence of civilians), and this principle is a major constraint also on attacks on the economic infrastructure. Writing about the first Iraq war, in 1991, I argued that the U.S. decision to attack "communication and transportation systems, electric power grids, government buildings of every sort, water pumping stations and purification plants" was wrong. "Selected infrastructural targets are easy enough to justify: bridges over which supplies are carried to the army in the field provide an obvious example. But power and water ... are very much like food: they are necessary to the survival and everyday activity of soldiers, but they are equally necessary to everyone else. An attack here is an attack on civilian society. ... [I]t is the military effects, if any, that are 'collateral.'" That was and is a general argument; it clearly applies to the Israeli attacks on power stations in Gaza and Lebanon.

The argument, in this case, is prudential as well as moral. Reducing the quality of life in Gaza, where it is already low, is intended to put pressure on whoever is politically responsible for the inhabitants of Gaza--and then these responsible people, it is hoped, will take action against the shadowy forces attacking Israel. The same logic has been applied in Lebanon, where the forces are not so shadowy. But no one is responsible in either of these cases, or, better, those people who might take responsibility long ago chose not to. The leaders of the sovereign state of Lebanon insist that they have no control over the southern part of their country--and, more amazingly, no obligation to take control. Still, Palestinian civilians are not likely to hold anyone responsible for their fate except the Israelis, and, while the Lebanese will be more discriminating, Israel will still bear the larger burden of blame. Hamas and Hezbollah feed on the suffering their own activity brings about, and an Israeli response that increases the suffering only intensifies the feeding....

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