Friday, August 1, 2014

Gaza: a bare-bones moral assessment

The following attempts a systematic, unsparing look at the moral rights and wrongs of the Gaza war.  There's no discussion of international law, because laws can be morally good or bad, and whether something accords with a law doesn't tell us much about moral right and wrong.

People talk a lot about moral diversity but if any right is well-recognized across times and places, it's self-defense.  It's of course central to the Gaza conflict.

Self-defense needn't apply only to immediate, swift and obvious threats.   Suppose we live in the desert, and you gradually deprive me of water without which my crops will fail and I will die.  That is a threat to my existence, and I have a right to defend myself against it.

What that right allows me to do depends on my alternatives.  I'm probably obliged to choose the least destructive or harmful alternative available to me.   I can't go and kill you if just filling in your drainage ditch will put a permanent end to the threat.

This restriction on self-defense is often questioned.   If you are posing a mortal threat to me, some say I needn't make nice calculations about what response is least destructive.   So what alternatives need be considered before adopting a radical one is a bit uncertain.

Now apply these generalities, not simply to the Gazans, but to the Palestinians.  Their fates are inextricably intertwined.  It would be irrational for either party to suppose that, if one is the object of a mortal threat, the other isn't.

Are the Palestinians faced with such a threat?  That seems to be the case.   Its obvious manifestation might be the occupation, but it has deeper origins.  They relate to the founding principles and institutions of Israel.

Israel was founded as, implemented as, and intended as a 'Jewish state'.  The Israeli government and a very solid majority of the Israeli people are deeply committed to this idea.  What does that mean?

In this context 'Jewish' has a quasi-racial definition:  'Jews' from anywhere, whether or not they profess or practice the Jewish religion, are entitled to citizenship.  This kinship notion of 'Jewish' ultimately relies on whether or not your ancestors were considered Jews.   Since these ancestors too may not have professed or practiced Judaism, the criterion makes tacit reference to biological traits.  This distinguishes it from the citizenship criteria of other states whose rules grant entitlement to those whose parents had nationality based on their language or place of residence.

The theory is complemented by the reality.   Israel is a Jewish state in a sense which has nothing whatever to do with religion.  Its citizenship policies solicit and embrace immigration according to criteria which have nothing to do with belief, place of birth or language, but only with lineage.

So much for 'Jewish'.  What about 'state'?  A state, according to the conventions of political science, is an entity that holds a monopoly on violence in a certain geographical area.  That means that the state alone decides everything, including who lives and who dies, in the area it controls.  Whoever controls that state therefore has the power of life and death over whoever lives there.  In a Jewish state, it is Jews who control the state.   So in the Jewish state, Jews have the power of life and death over everyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, who lives there.  When Jews are selected on quasi-biological criteria, the Jewish state's operating principle is something very close to racial sovereignty.

What then of the non-Jews who live in Israel or in the occupied territories?  Within Israel, it does not matter what rights Palestinians receive at the good pleasure of the Jewish rulers or for that matter, the Israeli electorate. (After all, Jewish sovereignty implies, in Israel, the preservation of a Jewish majority.) Since the state is committed to maintaining Jewish sovereignty, it is committed to the preservation of Jewish sovereignty.  Non-Jews, whatever their rights, must therefore accept that their very life is in the hands of Jews.  Jews decide whether they live or die.  As for those Palestinians living in the occupied territories, their position is if anything worse.  They live under the full force of the state without enjoying even the fragile rights that they would possess as Israeli citizens.

Is living under Israeli rule a mortal threat to non-Jews?  Someone might reasonably suppose so.  In democracies, your life is said to be in the hands of an electorate to which you yourself belong, and this is supposed to mitigate the threat.  In Israel, belonging to the electorate does not mitigate the threat, because the state guarantees that you fall outside the ultimate decision-making process:  it guarantees that elections will not take sovereignty out of the hands of the Jews.

Someone might think this argument a bit over-dramatic, a bit too one-sidedly theoretical.  After all, nowhere is it written that Israeli Jews have the power of life and death over non-Jews:  that's just an inference from definitions of 'Jewish' and 'sovereignty'.  So if non-Jews are living under a mortal threat - which would of course activate rights of self-defense - that might require more than a look at Israel's principles.

If so, well, more is abundantly available.  It isn't primarily about the long history of violence, some of it initiated by Palestinians.  It's about land and resources.

Israel (and before it the Zionists), to an ever-increasing extent, have been after the land and resources that support the Palestinians' existence.  Perhaps at some point in the past, this objective wasn't enough of a reality to constitute a mortal threat.  That point was certainly passed with the start of the occupation or its accompanying settlement policy.  Before then, before 1967, it might be said that Israel left the Palestinians enough to live on, and had no intention to take more.   Today, and long before today, no one can say that.

For some years now, it has been clear that Israel intends to keep building settlements and therefore to keep confiscating Palestinian land and resources.   Is it also clear that non-Jewish inhabitants of Israeli-controlled territory have no ultimate say in the matter.  It is clear that the 'internationally community', cowed by Israel and paralysed by America's UN veto, will do nothing to stop the process.  It has also been abundantly clear the Israel is committed to supporting the process with the very effective violence it has placed in the hands, as it likes to say, 'of the Jewish people'.   Finally it is clear  that sentiment within Israel itself has no prospect even of moderating the pace of expropriation.

This doesn't add up to absolute certainty that the Palestinians are faced with a mortal threat.  Who knows?  maybe peace, love and understanding will break out tomorrow, just as, perhaps, the person holding a knife at your throat may suddenly break down in tearful remorse.  However it's more than enough for rational Palestinians to perceive, with ample justification, just such a threat.  This threat is particularly ominous because it originates from a state that has proclaimed rights of racial sovereignty over the Palestinians. In these circumstances, the right to self-defense is very extensive.  The threatened person may use whatever means he has, including violence, in his defense, provided only that he has no grounds to believe there's a readily available alternative.

How specifically does this apply to current events?  Palestinian actions against the continual menace of the settlements and the occupation must be judged according to whether the Palestinians have rational grounds for believing there are less violent and indiscriminate alternatives readily available.   The alternatives must also be at least as effective in countering the threat, that is, in slowing Israel's relentless expropriation drive.

I leave that argument to others.  Ideally these others would be both experts in asymmetric warfare and intimately familiar with Palestinian realities.   Given the increasing savagery of Israeli policies, Israel's apparent immunity from international sanction, and above all the truly enormous disparity of Israeli and Palestinian power, I would not bet on the fortunes of those who presume to moralize about Palestinian conduct.  What's clear is that even if some Palestinian attacks prove to be unjustified, Israel has no right to a violent response.  You may be unjustified in attacking me, but I have no right to violence if I can simply withdraw from the scene.  Indeed Israel's continual and illegitimate appeal to violent self-defense, coupled with its increasingly savage appetite for collective punishment, only add weight to the Palestinian perception of a mortal threat.

This assessment is based on the narrowest of moral assumptions, a basic right of self-defense.  It makes no appeal to human rights, which Very Important People formulated in the past century and which they love to apply 'even-handedly' to both sides.  It doesn't consider other rights, such as resistance to non-lethal oppression.  Still it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Israel hasn't a shred of justification for its actions.


  1. Everyone knows what "self-defense" means, and therefore what self-defense is. But few seem to know what Professor Neumann's post is saying. Since what the post says is obviously true (i.e., clearly follows from our common understanding of "self-defense"), this failure to know must be a refusal to know. Discovering the truth here does not require more information but rather overcoming our refusal to know. It requires us to acknowledge what we all know to be true - an act of philosophy. For years when discussing Israel/Palestine I found myself engaged in more or less sophisticated debates concerning history, law, sociology, etc. These debates have become a mini-industry occupied by pundits and so-called "experts" - as if ordinary people like me were not qualified to comment or to question. It was only when I read The Case Against Israel that I understood the irrelevance of all of those peripheral issues and debates to the decisive barebones moral questions, and furthermore, understood that the entire edifice of debate is directly or indirectly designed to evade those moral questions. Thank you.

  2. I don't disagree with your assessment of the Palestinian population's situation. Certainly they are under threat and certainly self defense is reasonable. The maximum amount of damage the Palestinians are capable of delivering is far short of what is normative in war. So while there are particular acts that might be highly questionable (ex: Dolphinarium discotheque suicide bombing and even more questionable the subsequent parade) the Palestinians have a right to self defense.

    The real question isn't the moral right. The more serious moral question is whether this is the best policy. I think you rightly assert that the international community has no intention of applying enough pressure to stop the policy. At the same time the Palestinians have no ability to apply enough pressure to stop the policy. Which means the resistance isn't self defense it is simply pointless destruction, on par with vandalism.

    So let's examine realistic cases:

    a) Israel intends to take the land and expel the Palestinians regardless of their acts: In which case the most moral action would be to negotiate leaving in a way of maximum benefit for the Palestinians.

    b) Israel is willing to tolerate a peaceful colonial relationship but that failing will expel or kill the Palestinians. In which case the Palestinians should have an internal dialogue about whether they prefer living under a peaceful colonial relationship or leaving, hoping that in future generations something more equitable might be possible.

    c) Israel wants all (or almost all) of mandate Palestine incorporated into the Israeli state but is willing to tolerate a policy of assimilation. Expulsion is not mandatory. In which case I'd argue assimilation makes the most sense.

    d) Israel wants a Jewish ethnocracy but is willing to tolerate a large peaceful 2nd class citizenry in which case the Palestinians need to determine if that's an acceptable midterm solution until such time as possible one of the other alternatives might make more sense.

    Etc... The problem with the violence morally is that it doesn't do anything of use. What it does do is make genocide or ethnic cleansing more likely as Israelis are moving from being bigoted against the Palestinians to genuinely hating them. Arguing for inequality isn't politically correct but in this case I think it makes the most sense, unless they want to leave. The power disparity is simply too great.

    1. "a) Israel intends to take the land and expel the Palestinians regardless of their acts: In which case the most moral action would be to negotiate leaving in a way of maximum benefit for the Palestinians."

      I don't want my normal internet handle associated with this thought (Mostly post on 972mag), but I have been wondering for a while what would happen to Israeli Jewish society if they no longer had the Palestinians to kick around. Most likely scenario: A brief Middle Eastern Jewish uprising/insurgency that is quickly crushed or bought off. But what if in the long-term it could lead to deeper conflict among Jewish Israelis? Maybe the most damaging thing the Palestinians can do to Israel is to give them exactly what they want.

      "What it does do is make genocide or ethnic cleansing more likely as Israelis are moving from being bigoted against the Palestinians to genuinely hating them."

      Two comments on Palestinian violence: We can't know if any military assets are damaged by the rockets, because the military censor won't divulge that information. 2) During the first intifada, the NGO Save the Children estimated 6500-8500 children suffered gunshot wounds (cited in Mearsheimer and Walt) with most not taking part in stone-throwing demonstrations. And this without suicide bombings and rockets. Just the fact Israelis consider throwing stones a get-out-of-jail-free card and the fact a child was shot proof he was throwing rocks, should tell you how much Palestinians can do to earn their goodwill. There's no such thing as an unjustified Israeli act of violence. Every Palestinian killed by the IDF did something to merit the action.

      On the other hand, I have been wondering what would happen if the Palestinian factions acceded to every demand of Israel, up to and including renouncing the right of return and recognizing it as a Jewish state, just to get the siege of Gaza and occupation of West Bank over with. My instincts say the IDF will find some excuse to continue the status quo (or worse) regardless of what the Palestinians agree to.

    2. I'm assuming you meant Mizrahi and Sephardi not just Mizrahi. Anyway I think you are a bit late. The Mizrahi and Sephardi who remember the 1950s discrimination are in their 70s. Aryeh Deri is 55. Those minorities have seen six decades of steady improvement. The Sephardi are now well represented by Likud which has been the dominant party for years. The issues with the Ashkenazi elite have been successfully addressed by Israeli democracy, an effective democracy for the Jewish population. There aren't really major policies they would want changed nor is there any reason to have an uprising to change policy they could just speak to the plethora of powerful politicians who represent their interests. That's like talking about an Irish uprising in the United States.

      On the other hand, I have been wondering what would happen if the Palestinian factions acceded to every demand of Israel, up to and including renouncing the right of return and recognizing it as a Jewish state, just to get the siege of Gaza and occupation of West Bank over with.

      I do too. My belief is that opens the door for a policy of assimilation to be enacted and there is peace. I think Israel has shown a willingness for at the very least a classic colonial relationship with the Palestinians and from there more becomes possible as tempers cool. But there is no way to tell. If ultimately even that wouldn't solve the problem as per your theory then there is nothing the Palestinians can do, game over get out while the getting is good.

    3. Of course it's hazardous to predict the distant future but the history of states like Israel suggests as it goes from one victory to the next, the misadventures of racist territorial expansion will only increase. One day we might find an Israeli population of 15m demanding lebensraum across the river (And Transjordan was supposed to be part of the Jewish national home in Zionist mythology). Likewise, that could lead to Israel's final defeat, but I doubt Israeli expansion will be checked in the long run simply by a Palestinian surrender.

    4. Well OK I think we simply disagree here. I believe the expansion into the West Bank was a driven by:

      1) The location of Israel was chosen based on the location of historic Judea
      2) 1949 Armistice lines didn't include most of historic Judea
      3) The thing the Palestinians most want is Jerusalem which is the city in the world most strongly associated with Jewish history.

      That's not going to repeat for future expansions beyond Mandate Palestine. So I don't think they will be compelled towards expansion. Which means unless there is avery good reason to expand further they won't. Even the Israeli right has mostly never expressed any interest beyond the Jordan river. Israel easily relinquished the Sinai and seems to like their southern border. The only contested border is possibly going a big further North (Litani river) and I suspect that has a lot to do with how things in Lebanon play out over the next century. I think Mandate Palestine is it for Israeli expansion for at least a century or two.

      Most states existing today a nation states. Most nations don't want a hostile foreign nation in their territory.

      So I disagree that Israel is unusual.