Proportionality and Responsibility in the Israel-Hamas Conflict (guest post)


What do the “moral constraints that apply to defensive force” imply in a situation as complicated as the conflict between Israel and Hamas?

In the following guest post, Victor Tadros, professor of criminal law and legal theory at the University of Warwick, discusses the complexity of proportionality in the context of the current war between Israel and Hamas.

It is the first post in a brief series, “Philosophers On the Israel-Hamas Conflict.”

(Discussion welcome; see the comments policy.)


Proportionality and Responsibility in the Israel-Hamas Conflict
by Victor Tadros

Whatever the wrongs suffered by the Palestinians, the appalling terrorist attacks on civilians in Israel that began on October 7th cannot be justified as an act of resistance. They were intentionally inflicted on civilians; they had no prospect of improving things for ordinary Palestinians; and they were inflicted to further an abhorrent religious and political ideology by a political organization that only worsen the lives of those it claims to represent.

Those Hamas operatives who perpetrated these horrific acts are liable to punitive harm. That includes those who intentionally assisted or facilitated the attacks. Furthermore, those who currently threaten such attacks are liable to defensive harm. To this extent, those who assert Israel’s right to defend itself are right—Israel has a right to defend innocent civilians from ongoing terrorist attacks. But it has that right only insofar as, and to the extent that, it successfully defends civilians in a way that satisfies moral constraints that apply to defensive force.

Israel’s predictably violent response to terrorist violence is unjustified due to the intentions of the perpetrators (does anyone doubt it?) to inflict suffering on innocent Palestinians—to terrorize them, as collective punishment, or in vengeance. Its response is also already disproportionate. Even now, far more deaths have been inflicted in response than were lost in the original attacks. Of course, this alone does not show the response to be disproportionate. Harms that have already been inflicted can no longer be undone by a military response. They cannot contribute to the proportionality assessment. Violence can be justified only if it prevents future harm. But it is hard to believe that Israeli violence on the scale we are witnessing is justified by the need to prevent future violence by Hamas. Any future attacks that this might prevent, if indeed it prevents them, are unlikely to have a death toll that is sufficiently high to justify the deaths of thousands of innocent Palestinians, the destruction of substantial parts of the infrastructure in Gaza, and the displacement of over one million people, which will certainly result in many more deaths.

Proportionality is a complex matter, and I can’t set out the right view of what it involves here. But one rough and ready test that typically holds true is that the use of military force is proportionate only if the harms inflicted on non-liable people—innocent Palestinian civilians in this case—are significantly smaller than future harms prevented. The harms that are caused, and that weigh against the use of defensive force, include those that result from escalation. Some harms inflicted during the conflict will be the responsibility of those in conflict with Israel, including Hamas; but some harms inflicted by Hamas that result from the Israeli response will also be the responsibility of the Israeli government. The same thing is true for Hamas—the predictably violent response of the Israeli government is not only the responsibility of the Israeli government, but also the responsibility of Hamas.

The common political strategy of denying one’s own responsibility for violence by asserting the responsibility of one’s opponents rests on an illusion. When deciding whether and how to inflict violence, we must not only consider the immediate effect of our own actions, but the violent response that others will make to our violent acts. Harms that will be inflicted on civilians that results from their being used as human shields also count against the use of violence; the responsibility of Hamas for these deaths does little or nothing to reduce Israel’s responsibility for them (see my “Permissibility in a World of Wrongdoing” in Philosophy and Public Affairs for discussion).

Whilst Israel’s response is clearly disproportionate, what makes the response disproportionate and how disproportionate will it be? To answer these more challenging questions, we need to make comparisons. But what should compare? As Patrick Tomlin shows in the book he is currently writing, Violence in Proportion, we shouldn’t compare doing nothing, initially tempting though that may be. For doing nothing may not be a permissible alternative, and there may be other ways of preventing or ameliorating future harms that are relevant to determining whether and how disproportionate a violent response is. Nor should we compare the status quo—in this case, Israel’s conduct prior to the Hamas attacks. Its treatment of the Palestinians was unjustified, and cannot provide a baseline to compare the effects of intervention. And we should not compare what Israel would do were it not to attack—that would also almost certainly have been unjustified given the absurd racism of its current government. To determine whether the attacks are proportionate, or how disproportionate they are, we must compare the effects of the attack with some moralized alternative—compliance with duties of justice.

My responding to an attack in a way that harms innocent people, for example, is not proportionate if I could avert future threats in some other way, especially if that other way is not very costly to me, or if I am independently required to do the things that would avert those threats. That is so even if the threats posed are unjustified, and even if the harm will only be inflicted on those who are responsible for unjust threats. For example, suppose that I have stolen some territory from you, and am required to return it. If I don’t return it, you’ll intentionally kill me and 10 of my innocent friends. Your response, of course, is seriously wrong. Suppose I can keep the territory and prevent you from killing me and 10 of my innocent friends by killing you, but 5 of your innocent friends will be killed as a side effect. Doing that, let us suppose, would be proportionate were I unable to return the territory. But suppose that I can return the territory. If I do this, you will still be enraged and you will kill one of my friends. Now it is disproportionate for me to kill you and 5 of your friends. I’m required to return the territory. Preventing the death of my friend cannot justify my killing 5 of yours. The fact that I won’t return the territory, or wouldn’t do so, does nothing to make my response proportionate, even if returning the territory is costly to me.

In the Israeli case, the right comparison to determine whether the attacks on the Palestinians in Gaza is proportionate, then, is between that conduct and a baseline which fulfils its duties of justice—responding appropriately to the systematic violation of the rights of Palestinians by the Israeli government and its supporters that have been perpetrated for over 75 years. When we compare what Israel would achieve were it to do this, on any reasonable conception of what doing this involves, and what it will achieve by its violent response to the violence it has suffered, it is even more difficult to believe that the current military response is justified. When states are victims of unjustified violence in response to their oppressive acts, their first inclination should be to address their own violent history and respond to that. Only in the light of that can they assess what it is proportionate to do to address the violence of others.


[image: edit of M.C. Escher’s “Drawing Hands” by J. Weinberg]

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Circe
Circe
6 months ago

As someone who doesn’t work in the ethics of war, this seems all very commonsensical. I think (hope…) you will be preaching to the choir here. Perhaps this is a message it would be good to get out to various public venues. Good luck, if you go that route.

Will Brennan
Will Brennan
6 months ago

It is true that if you take any complex moral problem arising out of centuries of contested history, and then strip away all historical and moral complexity, you won’t have much trouble identifying a simple solution.

I don’t think the pre-October 7th background here is adequately summed up as “the systematic violation of the rights of Palestinians by the Israeli government and its supporters that have been perpetrated for over 75 years”, so I don’t see how this analysis proves much.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Will Brennan
6 months ago

Of course, there’s more complexity Will. But not sure why the complexity makes a difference here. It’s enough for the argument that Israel has obligations that arise from its own wrongdoing pre October 7th, and fulfilling those obligations would reduce the threats it faces, making a difference to proportionality. You didn’t suggest a reason to doubt this.

Philip Amswych
Philip Amswych
Reply to  Victor Tadros
6 months ago

This line of reasoning suggests that the complexity of the historical impasse is Israel’s responsibility and Israel’s alone. I don’t buy that.
As said it’s very complex and the actions of Arab nations and other 3rd parties (such as the UN) other the years are very much in the mix.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Philip Amswych
6 months ago

Nothing I wrote implied that. I made no claims about anyone else’s responsibility for the current political situation. Of course, many others – Palestinian leaders, the British Government in the mid twentieth century and since, members of the international community who facilitated the situation, political leaders in surrounding countries, are responsible for aspects of the current situation. But why is that relevant to the argument I made? As I said, it’s enough for my argument 1) that Israel is responsible for wronging the Palestinians; and 2) responding to those wrongs properly would reduce the threats it faced. Nothing in this argument depends on the claim that no one else is responsible, or that no one else has remedial obligations.

Molondas
Molondas
Reply to  Philip Amswych
6 months ago

This line of reasoning suggests that the complexity of the historical impasse is Israel’s responsibility and Israel’s alone. “

It suggests no such thing. It merely states that Israel has a responsiblity in this case, here and now, with these people with whom it is at war. This is undeniable. The proportionality of Israel’s response is a matter for Israel – hence its responsibility for past failures has to be part of the calculation.

JDRox
JDRox
6 months ago

Israel’s predictably violent response to terrorist violence is unjustified due to the intentions of the perpetrators (does anyone doubt it?) to inflict suffering on innocent Palestinians—to terrorize them, as collective punishment, or in vengeance.

Violence can be justified only if it prevents future harm. But it is hard to believe that Israeli violence on the scale we are witnessing is justified by the need to prevent future violence by Hamas.

Preventing the death of my friend cannot justify my killing 5 of yours.”

Sorry to be negative, but these among the most important and contested claims in the debate, and you are just taking them for granted. I would have been pretty interested in seeing the reasons for accepting them.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  JDRox
6 months ago

There is a limit to what I could do in a single blog post. But let me try to offer some brief thoughts; I’ve written a lot more about these issues elsewhere. Let me know if you want to follow up and I could point you to where.

On intentions: I think that punishment is justified mainly by deterrence. As deterrence involves using a person in a way that harms them, it is generally very hard to justify; to justify it we normally need to show that the person harmed has a duty to serve the ends that they are harmed to serve at the relevant cost. And that is normally true only of culpable wrongdoers. This rules out collective punishment. It also rules out achieving ones ends by terror. And I take it to be obvious that vengeance against innocent people is unjustified.

I take it that the view that we can normally justify harming innocent people only in order to prevent harm to others is less controversial. Nothing can be done for those who have already been harmed. For the guilty, some think that we can harm people out of retribution (I don’t), but that isn’t relevant when it comes to harms to innocent people.

On killing the greater number of your friends to save a smaller number of mine; I take what I think is the majority view in the literature that agent-relative prerogatives that arise out of things like friendship are relevant when it comes to rescuing (I’d be permitted to save one of my friends from death rather than five of yours perhaps), but not when it comes to harming. There are, admittedly, some who doubt this (Jon Quong and Kit Wellman, for example). But even if you do, it’s doubtful that mere fellow citizenship is a strong enough bond to justify killing the greater number.

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Victor Tadros
6 months ago

Right, I wasn’t trying to defend collective punishment, I was questioning the claim that Israel’s intention was collective punishment rather than eliminating Hamas (for reasons of self-defense). On the killing calculation question, I thought we were talking about a case where you were going to *kill* one of my friends, and to save them I had to do something that would foreseeably but unintentionally result in the death of 5 of your friends. I don’t know the literature on proportionality, but I’ve always understood it to be sort of a vague requirement that things not be massively disproportionate. Here I didn’t necessarily disagree with what you said (5-1 is a pretty big difference), but I wasn’t sure if I agreed either.

Ter
Ter
6 months ago

“But it is hard to believe that Israeli violence on the scale we are witnessing is justified by the need to prevent future violence by Hamas.”

Far from preventing future violence, the Israeli response will guarantee it. Virtually every single Hamas leader has had at least one child killed by the Israeli military and, to date, Israel has managed to kill 1,500 children in its current war on Gaza (and thousands more since 2008). These are children who are no less innocent than children elsewhere.

Israel enjoys its sense of impunity in these and other crimes principally because of support from states who have protested meekly, if at all, against decades of violation of international law (the least controversial violation: all settlements are illegal under international law, moving civilians into occupied territories, etc).

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Ter
6 months ago

It is not necessarily a crime to do something that leads to innocent civilians being killed, it is a crime to target innocent civilians. Of course it is always a tragedy regardless of whether it is a crime.

Israeli
Israeli
6 months ago

“Israel’s predictably violent response to terrorist violence is unjustified due to the intentions of the perpetrators (does anyone doubt it?) to inflict suffering on innocent Palestinians—to terrorize them, as collective punishment, or in vengeance.”

“Violence can be justified only if it prevents future harm. But it is hard to believe that Israeli violence on the scale we are witnessing is justified by the need to prevent future violence by Hamas.”

Sorry, but I do doubt that. There are plenty in Israel, both the government and the population at large, that seek vengeance. But I take it that even if we did away with all such motivations, this current response by Israel, and the predictably imminent ground incursion, are militarily necessary to undermine Hamas in any long term way. What is the scale of violence that would suffice to prevent future violence by Hamas? It must be something significantly less, otherwise it wouldn’t be so obvious to you. Of course, that should go along with a genuine aim at justice, but I just don’t see how the actions Israel has thus far taken make the intentions so clear to you. And Hamas does need as a matter of justice, to humanity, to be done away with.

Preston
Preston
Reply to  Israeli
6 months ago

Israeli,
I agree with the post and disagree with you about the response thus far being disproportionate, and for the reasons given in the post.

But I have nothing to add on that, and we can agree to disagree.

I do want to address your question about the intentions of the actions taken. Why don’t we just look at the way that our leaders are speaking? We have our “centrist” President saying “there are no innocent civilians in Gaza” when asked about proportionate response and protection of civilians and thus “it is an entire nation that is responsible” (https://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog_entry/herzog-spars-with-foreign-journalists-over-retaliatory-gaza-strikes/)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant: “There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed, we are fighting human animals and *we are acting accordingly*.” (https://www.businessinsider.com/israel-gallant-announces-complete-siege-gaza-no-electricity-food-fuel-2023-10)

Members of the coalition have called for a “second Nakba” (the Palestinian term for the mass exodus of civilians in the Independence War), and the mass expulsion of all Palestinians to Egypt and Jordan (https://twitter.com/MisgavINS/status/1714183691574948036).

The intentions of the government appear pretty clear to me. I hope and suspect that in time (and international pressure) they will be more strategic about their response (which would require a political solution, not just “flattening” Gaza, as many Israeli coalition members have called for). But for the moment, I don’t think Victor needs a crystal ball to guess at the intentions of the current decision makers.

Israeli
Israeli
Reply to  Preston
6 months ago

Preston, you are in Israel, so you can easily see the attitudes of vengeance that sadly even many on the Israeli left are expressing. I do not deny it. What I do deny is that it is clear that an adequate and proportional response would be significantly different absent such attitudes.

Preston
Preston
Reply to  Israeli
6 months ago

I think this is definitely mistaken, but since you are Israeli and you are on a philosophy blog, we almost certainly know each other, so let’s wait and have this conversation in person some time.

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Preston
6 months ago

What are you saying the intentions of the (relevant subset of the) Israelis are Preston? It seems clear that the intention guiding their actions is not the indiscriminate death of Palestinians (Hamas and non-Hamas alike). So I guess I find it fairly plausible that their intention is to extinguish Hamas in the hopes that some less radical and more peaceful group will take over.

Preston
Preston
Reply to  JDRox
6 months ago

Hi JD,
I’m not sure what “relevant subset” you have in mind with your question. The upsetting attitudes that I am seeing, even in the highest levels of political power, range from outright advocating for something like ethnic cleansing (e.g. the “second Nakba” comment) to collective punishment of all Gazans (which I think my quote of President Herzog, as well as the complete food, water, and electricity blockade supports).

“Indiscriminate death of Palestinians” may be a bit strong to attribute to military and political leaders, but certainly if you are following some of the bombings that have occurred*, the deaths of innocent civilians don’t seem to be high on their calculus. That combined with the words that are coming out of their mouths does not instill a lot of confidence that they care much at all about innocent Palestinian lives.
I think if you aren’t here in Israel it is hard to capture the current ideological atmosphere. The national police chief threatened that anyone who shows support for Gazans (*Gazans, *not* Hamas) should be bused to Gaza. Obviously he can’t do that, but his point was that there is currently a “zero tolerance” policy for any Gaza solidarity actions.
A few days ago two men from a leftist group were detained by police for hanging signs that say “Arabs and Jews will get through this together”.

A leftist journalist (Israel Frei) was chased down by an angry mob and is now in hiding because he dared to say that he prays for Gazan civilians.

Things are not normal here. And as Israeli says, it is not so surprising to see it from ordinary people who are enraged and grieving from the horrible Hamas attacks – and almost all of us know people personally who were killed or kidnapped, by the way, its a small country – but to see political leaders speaking this way does not inspire confidence.

Preston
Preston
Reply to  Preston
6 months ago

* Forgot to add my footnote – My comment about the Israeli bombings that have occurred does *not* include the bombing of the Arab Hospital, which I am convinced was an errant Islamic Jihad rocket. I take it this is the received view, but I wanted to make that clear since I know many were (and some are) blaming Israel when it first happened.

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Preston
6 months ago

Thanks for this thoughtful reply Preston. I’m not in Israel so a lot of what you said was new information for me. And it certainly supports your position! I do grant that there is a *lot* of evidence for your view (including the statements from officials you’ve quoted). But I guess I just think that actions betray intentions* more than words, and the actions of the IDF seem to me to convey a fairly significant amount of concern for the lives of Palestinian civilians, or at least for international law (and hence the *total* evidence supports my view, even granting the extent of the evidence for yours). Most importantly, the Israelis don’t seem to have targeted civilians, and have made some significant efforts to warn civilians to leave areas that are soon to be bombed, etc. If the Israelis didn’t care about innocent Palestinian lives, they could (arguably) achieve their goal of eliminating Hamas with *much* less loss of Israeli life by just carpet bombing Gaza. (Something that I think would be horrifically wrong, just to be clear.) Since their actual strategy is a long way from that, that indicates to me a pretty substantial amount of concern for innocent Palestinian lives. Of course that is compatible with it being true that they should have more concern for innocent Palestinian lives, even much more. But in any case, Israeli military actions make much more sense if their intention is to destroy Hamas than if their intention was ethnic cleansing or collective punishment.

*Intentions of whom? The reason I used the vague phrase “the relevant subset of” is that I at least mean to be talking about the people making the decisions (which is a vague group), since it is their intentions that determine the intentions behind the actions of the IDF. (Or so I would argue.)

giulia
giulia
Reply to  JDRox
6 months ago

“the actions of the IDF seem to me to convey a fairly significant amount of concern for the lives of Palestinian civilians, or at least for international law”

I would say that the actions of the IDF (and the Israeli state authorities more broadly) convey the very opposite of a significant amount of concern for either the lives of Palestinian civilians or for international law. 
The decision to cut off water and electricity from the Gaza strip is a first salient example. Access to drinkable water is a basic human right; its impediment violates that right. Cutting off access to water, fuel and electricity furthermore constitutes a direct cause of downstream harms, for instance by limiting the proper functioning of hospitals (inter alia, there are neonatal units with incubators that may switch off at any moment) and by forcing people to drink non-potable water (there are already first reports of cases of leptospirosis and diarrhea; there is a genuine risk of a cholera epidemic in the medium term). Depriving civilians of drinking water (and access to food, fuel, electricity) is most definitely not in line with international law. And its enactment is at odds with a concern for the lives of those civilians.

Another salient example: Israel’s repeated “warnings” and orders, directed at the inhabitants of the northern part of the Gaza strip, to evacuate their homes and move towards the south in order to escape planned bombings of northern Gaza — these lack credibility as illustrations of ‘concern’ for civilian lives, given that the IDF is *also* bombing the southern part of the strip; and their compatibility with international law is very much called into question, if not (I would say) outright belied, by the concurrent closure of the borders into Israel and Egypt. The combination of these means that those who do attempt to flee northern Gaza *cannot in fact* escape the threat of airstrikes, much less reach safety of any sort. Note that this much has been explicitly acknowledged and stated by the UN, among others.

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  giulia
6 months ago

My point is a limited one: things could be much much worse for Palestinian civilians, and the extent to which they’re not indicates a corresponding amount of concern for the lives of Palestinian civilians. Just to pick a rather salient example: when Hamas attacked Israel, they truly demonstrated no concern for the lives of Israeli civilians, since they intentionally killed as many Israeli civilians as they could (modulo the goal of taking some hostages). That is manifestly not what Israel is doing, whatever their other shortcomings may be. And so, to some significant extent, Israel’s actions betray concern for the lives of Palestinian civilians. This is perfectly compatible with that level of concern being too low: again, my point is a limited one.

giulia
giulia
Reply to  JDRox
6 months ago

Thanks for your response.
I’m afraid I’m going to keep pushing here, because I strongly disagree — among other things — that your point is ‘a limited one’. And that’s because granting that the Israeli government’s actions betray ‘a substantial amount of concern’ for Palestinian lives (and, as you said earlier, for international law), together with the claim that the actions of Hamas betray a nonexistent concern for Israeli lives, implicitly puts the Israeli government on a higher moral plane than Hamas. And if we grant this, then when it comes to the question of whether either party’s actions may be justified (however weakly) we will correspondingly be led to a differential verdict: some justification for the actions of the Israeli government, no justification for the actions of Hamas. And both this, and the attached differential moral evaluation, go to the heart of the issue here.

This is why I think your point is not one of limited scope. Now concerning again your claim that Israeli actions betray a ‘significant concern’ for Palestinian lives (and in any case more concern than that betrayed by the actions of Hamas).* Your argument, as far as I can make out, is more or less the following: Had Israel wanted to, it could have done much worse; Israel isn’t doing the absolute worst it could do; not doing the absolute worst one could do betrays a measure of moral concern towards those affected by one’s actions; therefore, Israel’s actions betray a measure of concern towards Palestinians.

I think there are at the very least two major worries with this.
1) You could make the same argument about Hamas. I’m quite sure many of us have sufficient imagination to countenance even more horrific and abhorrent (yet possible) scenarios than the already horrific and abhorrent scenario that unfolded on October 7th. I would definitely reject any serious attribution of concern for Israeli lives on Hamas’s part.
2) More importantly, extrapolating from the fact that a state actor is not doing its absolute worst, that that state actor displays moral concern for those affected by its actions, seems to me indefensible. We’re either left with a concept of ‘moral concern’ that is pretty much vacuous; or we should similarly reason that, say, the apartheid governments of South Africa and the segregationist governments of the US had some measure of concern for the lives of Blacks and African Americans since they didn’t carry out a systematic and complete massacre of the same.

You also seem to allude to a second sort of consideration for thinking that the actions of the Israeli government may betray something other (better) than the intention to harm Palestinian civilians: namely, that the former are compatible with Israel’s sole intention being that of eliminating Hamas members. I have two things to say about this. 
1) I don’t see how one can extrapolate this explanation by merely looking at the actions of the Israeli forces. I think, rather, that this explanation enters the realm of relevant alternatives because the Israeli authorities say that this is what they’re doing (intend to do). But this means that their words do serve as a guide to intentions, and if so then their other utterances (for instance, those reported by Preston above) should also be taken into account. 
2) I don’t see how cutting off water, fuel, electricity and food supplies from the entire strip can be reconciled with this explanation. As I said above, no drinkable water means disease and death; no fuel/electricity means lifesaving medical machines (e.g. incubators, dialysis machines) switching off which means, again, death. In both cases, it means first and foremost, and again inevitably, death of civilians. It’s slower than death by shooting, but death nonetheless. 

*For the record, I strongly disagree with you on the point that we should look to actions, more/rather than and in isolation from words, to discern intentions. Public utterances made by state authorities and powerholders should most definitely be taken at face value and so, when they express intentions, we should most definitely take them seriously as conveying intentions. But that’s for another debate.

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  giulia
6 months ago

Thanks for the response giulia.

As a general point, I think it’s important to see that my point can be limited but still controversial, if not wrong. Obviously, I don’t think it is wrong, but I do understand it is controversial. Still, I am not arguing that Israel’s actions are justified, just that they seem inconsistent with the claim that “military and political leaders [don’t] care much at all about innocent Palestinian lives.” I think morality demands that we care quite a bit about innocent lives, and so one can care a significant amount without caring enough. This may well be the case with the Israeli government. (Perhaps you will say that this makes my account of moral concern vacuous. But perhaps we are just talking past one another: I’m not taking “showing moral concern” to be the only bar to clear, even if it is an important bar to clear. Caring about other people is an important bar to clear–if you don’t care about others something is seriously wrong with you–even though one can care about others without caring enough to be even a minimally decent person.)

It’s true that the example I used indicates that the Israeli government’s actions in this case have been morally preferable to those of Hamas. Given the facts, I find that plausible. But (a) that isn’t really critical to my argument, and (b) note that it is consistent with the Israeli government being much more blameworthy than Hamas when we look at the whole ledger. (I don’t think that’s true, but my point is simply that I’m not making any claim or argument about the whole moral ledger.)

I would put my argument above this way: if the most self-interested thing for A to do is x, or the thing A most desires to do is x, and A does y instead, and where the most salient difference between x and y is that fewer innocent lives of kind z die in y than x, then that is strong evidence that A cares about innocent lives of kind z. And I think this obtains: in the immediate aftermath of October 7th, I think the Israelis wanted, and the world would have had sympathy with, an immediate ground invasion that would have resulted in the deaths of many more innocent Palestinians than the status quo. But instead Israel has tried to give innocent Palestinians time to flee. Of course I know that not all, perhaps most, won’t be able to flee. But it does seem plausible that Israel’s strategy will result in at least 10% fewer innocent Palestinian deaths.

I’m not sure there’s a parallel argument for the claim that Hamas cares about innocent Israeli life. Yes, I can imagine Hamas committing even worse atrocities, but that wouldn’t have been in their self-interest (I would say that they subverted their interests by the atrocities they committed already), and unless Hamas members are of almost unimaginable depravity, I don’t think they wanted to commit worse atrocities than they did either. But if I’m wrong and a parallel argument demonstrated that Hamas cares about innocent Israeli life, great, I hope they do.

I agree that both words and actions are relevant to determining intentions, I just think that actions matter more (in most cases at least). But yes, words matter too, and not just a trivial amount.

I also agree that in normal circumstances cutting off water, food, and electricity to an innocent civilian population as a military tactic would not indicate much concern for innocent life. And maybe that’s true here: I’m somewhat inclined to think that it is. But this verdict is complicated by the fact that Israel’s only doing this until the innocent civilian hostages are released, not as a military tactic. Or so they say. If the innocent civilian hostages are released and Israel continues to cut off water food and electricity, I’ll condemn them and adjust my credence that they care about innocent Palestinians accordingly.

Preston
Preston
Reply to  Preston
6 months ago

“Israeli” (who I have spoken to offline and I assume wants to remain pseudonymous) pointed out to me that Herzog did not say “there are no innocent civilians” in Gaza. Instead, he said, in response to a question about protecting innocent civilians in Gaza:
“First of all, we have to understand that there is a state. There is a state, in a way, that has built a machine of evil right at our doorstep. It is an entire nation out there that is responsible. *It’s not true*, this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not aware – it’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up, they could have fought against Hamas…”

The “It’s not true” sentence got widely paraphrased in the media, in context, as “there are no innocent civilians in Gaza”. But given that our discussion concerns trying to infer the intent behind the words, Israeli rightly pointed out that its important that we get it right.

(I stand by what I said in my other comments, but that factual clarification is important.)

Daniel
Daniel
6 months ago

“Harms that will be inflicted on civilians that results from their being used as human shields also count against the use of violence; the responsibility of Hamas for these deaths does little or nothing to reduce Israel’s responsibility for them.”

Can future deaths that would be impermissibly caused by Israel if it doesn’t attack count in favor of attacking? e.g if we could establish that the alternatives were (i) an invasion causing 20,000 Palestinian civilian deaths, or (ii) the overthrow of the Netanyahu government with a more bloodthirsty one which kills 50,000 Palestinian civilians, how would the additional 30,000 civilian deaths factor into the proportionality calculation? [Apologies if you answer this elsewhere].

“[O]ne rough and ready test that typically holds true is that the use of military force is proportionate only if the harms inflicted on non-liable people—innocent Palestinian civilians in this case—are significantly smaller than future harms prevented.”

How much of a cosmopolitan must one be about justice as a general matter to accept this claim?

JTD
JTD
6 months ago

Israel may well be the number two enemy of the people in Gaza. But it is pretty clear that Hamas is the number one enemy of Gazans. After winning power democratically they then killed off the more moderate opposition parties and have since ruled as authoritarians, refusing to hold any further elections and using extrajudicial killings, violence, and cronyism to suppress any opposition to their rule. Their conservative Islamist ideology leads them to violate many basic human rights of Gazans (women have an inferior position to men and homosexuality is outlawed).Their leaders live lives of luxury in Qatar, amassing tens of millions of dollars in personal wealth by controlling the flow of goods into Gaza and then taking a massive cut from this. Meanwhile the people of Gaza live in poverty. Furthermore, Hamas doggedly persists in trying to important weapons into Gaza, and using these weapons to attack civilian targets in Israel, even though the predicable response to this is that Israel and Egypt impose a blockade on Gaza that badly hurts the Gazan economy (even if you think the blockade is wrong, you must still admit that Hamas wrongs Gazans by pursuing immoral actions (targeting civilians) that will provoke this response). Hamas also intentionally embed their military assets in civilian areas, and launch attacks on Israeli civilians from those locations, resulting in the death and destruction of Gazan civilians and civilian infrastructure from Israel’s self-defensive retaliation (again, even if you think the Israeli retaliation is wrong, you must still admit that Hamas wrongs the Gazans by performing unjustified acts that will predictably result in Israeli strikes against Hamas targets that kill Gazan civilians). Hamas’ record of using Gazans as human shields shows an utter disregard for Gazan lives. Finally, Hamas continue to fire thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel even though between 10% and 30% of those rockets misfire and land in Gaza, leading to further civilian deaths and destruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza. In fact, in recent years, for every one Israeli civilian killed by a Hamas rocket there are eight Gazans killed by Hamas rockets that misfire (showing that for Hamas one Israeli life is more valuable than eight Gazan lives).

In short, there is a massive toll of human suffering that Hamas has inflicted on Gazans in their 17 years of rule. It is very likely that, if Hamas continues to rule Gaza, a further massive amount of suffering will result. These are crucial facts to consider in assessing Israeli’s military response to the October 7 terrorist attacks. Israel claims that their aim is to eliminate Hamas from Gaza. If they can succeed in this, and the power vacuum in Gaza can be filled by more moderate groups committed to a two state solution (such as Fatah) then a tremendous amount of future human suffering could be avoided. The situation of the 2.1 million people in Gaza would be massively improved under moderate Palestinian governance. The situation of Israeli civilians, who have lived with the threat of, and died from, Hamas rocket attacks in recent decades would also be improved.

Given this, the relevant questions to ask are:

  1. What is the likelihood that Israeli military action will succeed in eliminating Hamas from Gaza and replacing them with a more moderate group?
  2. What is the likely negative effects (civilian deaths, destruction of civilian infrastructure) of such military action?
  3. Given these likelihoods, does the expected value of Israel pursuing this military action outweigh the expected value of them not pursuing this military action?
  4. Even if the expected value of the Israel’s military action aimed at eliminating Hamas outweighs the expected value of them not taking such military action, among the various forms of military action Israel could take, are they taking the course of action which has the highest expected utility?

These are not easy questions to answer. Regarding (1), it seems to me that successfully eliminating Hamas and replacing them with a more moderate group that would significantly improve the lives of Gazans is unlikely. But I really have trouble saying anything more definite here. For example, are the chances of success here 40% or >10%?

Regarding (2), there would clearly be large negative effects, including civilian deaths in the tens of thousands.

Regarding (3), the future suffering that continued Hamas rule will cause is very substantial, so the good of eliminating them and replacing them with something more moderate would outweigh tens of thousands civilian deaths (compare the widespread acceptance of the moral justifiability of the battle of Mosul, where estimates of civilian deaths are between 5 and 40 thousand). However, once we add the likelihoods in (1) and (2) this equation becomes much more complicated. I’m inclined to think that the answer to (3) is “no”. But I think that no one can answer this question with confidence as there is so much we don’t know.

Regarding (4), I am confident that the answer is “no” simply because I don’t see how the human cost of cutting off electricity and water to Gaza is outweighed by the small military advantage that might bring. Assessing the way Israel is conducting the airstrikes against alternative ways of striking Hamas is much harder to do and I am not sure what to say about this.

Noah
Noah
Reply to  JTD
6 months ago

Re 1: We should also be aware of the history of foreign governments trying to replace extremist governments with moderate ones by military intervention. In short, it usually doesn’t work out.

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Noah
6 months ago

Yes, that’s right. But a key difference between this case and the other cases you refer to is that in this case there is a more moderate alternative to Hamas–Fatah–that many Gazans would accept as a legitimate alternative to Hamas. This is because: (1) Fatah lost to Hamas by only a few percentage points in the 2006 election and may well have beaten Hamas in a follow-up election four years later, but the follow-up election never happened because Hamas killed off Fatah in Gaza in the 2006 Gazan civil war, and (2) the Gazans see themselves as one with the Palestinians of the West Bank and hope to one day form a single state with their West Bank brethren, and Fatah has political control in the West Bank.

Given this, I think the biggest problem with (1) is how hard it would be to successfully remove Hamas from Gaza so that Fatah could come in and take control without a massive civil war breaking out. If Hamas were successfully removed from Gaza, I think that it is likely that Fatah could take control of Gaza, be accepted as legitimate by a plurality of the people of Gaza, and a period of relative peace could follow.

Hey Nonny Mouse
6 months ago

Tadros writes, “the appalling terrorist attacks on civilians in Israel that began on October 7th…had no prospect of improving things for ordinary Palestinians”

That may be right, but I’m not sure. While the bad PR has been massive, people are talking about the Palestinians again and some of that talk has been about wrongs Palestinians have faced.

I don’t want to believe that terrorist attacks on civilians can be an effective political tool, but that might be wishful thinking.

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
6 months ago

I think it might be more helpful to have an analysis that asked what the Israeli government should or can justifiably do, given certain basic political realities it now faces, rather than an analysis that assumes implicitly that those realities don’t exist and that Israel’s “first inclination” now should be self-criticism of its own past actions toward the Palestinians. I understand that there’s a place for ideal theory, but this framework seems very divorced from the political realities and pressures of the moment.

If the current military response is unjustified in terms of the amount of harm to civilians it is causing (and I think it likely is), then what would be a more justifiable response that would cause less harm to civilians and also respond to the understandable feeling in the Israeli public that the continued presence of the military wing of Hamas in Gaza is not tolerable? Maybe there is not a good answer to this question available, but I think at least it should be asked.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
6 months ago

Louis, Of course, there are other questions to ask, but we have to work out what the good questions are. The one you ask seems to be: conditional on the Israeli government continuing the systematic rights violations of Palestinians by continuing the blatantly unjust policies of the last 75 years, what is the least unjust remaining option that involves destruction of the military wing of Hamas in Gaza? This doesn’t seem a good question. The answer to it will not tell us anything important about proportionality, for the cost to human life in removing Hamas may be too great to justify removing it, even without Israel responding adequately to its past wrongs.

I also think that failing to attend to options based on responding to historic injustice is a serious moral failing, though. It normalises what is seriously wrong, and fails to address the most likely avenues to achieve justice, security and prosperity for everyone in the region.

Finally, asking how governments should respond to what people believe to be intolerable really can’t advance our thinking about the problem. Otherwise wrongful killing doesn’t become permitted because the Israeli public won’t tolerate anything less. And its hardly as though the government is inclined to be restrained but is forced into action by the public mood!

Jill
Jill
Reply to  Victor Tadros
6 months ago

 asking how governments should respond to what people believe to be intolerable really can’t advance our thinking about the problem.”

This seems to suggest the Israeli public are somehow being unreasonable at not willing to tolerate these attacks. Are you actually suggesting that the Israeli public should just be willing to accept that a terrorirst organisation can barge in an murder and kidnap hunderds of civilians in cold blood in their own homes anytime they wish?

Hammas hasn’t gone anywhere and there is absolutely no reason to think they won’t attempt further attacks of this sort again.

Of course, Israel is not entitled to endagner (let alone target) Palestinian civilians for the sake of revenge of collective punishment, but surely they have the right to take steps to ensure further attacks such as this don’t happen again. And while I’m all for steps that involve a longer term just political resolution of the conflict, it’s incredibly naive to think that there is any such solution that can be achieved in the sufficiently near future to ensure a minimal amount of security for the Israeli public.

krell_154
Reply to  Jill
6 months ago

Are you actually suggesting that the Israeli public should just be willing to accept that a terrorirst organisation can barge in an murder and kidnap hunderds of civilians in cold blood in their own homes anytime they wish?”

O course he is, because. remember – ”Israel has been systematically treating Palestinians unjustly for the past 75 years”.

He says this as if the situation is so simple and the fault of one side alone.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  krell_154
6 months ago

It’s a bit depressing to have to repeat again and again that none of my arguments depend on the absurd claim that the situation is the fault of one side alone. The fact that others are at fault does nothing to cast doubt on the claim that Israel has been systematically treating the Palestinians unjustly for 75 years. And, honestly, the claim that it has been should be uncontroversial. Everyone has a duty to respond to their own wrongdoing; the fact that others have acted wrongly too doesn’t relieve one of such a duty. Can you find an argument, based on the idea that others are also responsible for the situation, that bears on the question whether Israel’s response to the abhorrent attacks on 7th Sept is disproportionate? If you can’t I don’t really understand the point of these replies; perhaps to move us away from an actual analysis of proportionality to something more personal. If that is the point, I find it pretty objectionable, not least because we can’t make progress with our thinking about these topics in a way that guides us to a just solution if we constantly move away from substantive debate to impugning the motivations of people involved. There is far too much of that in this debate already, and its a shame that you decided to add to the problem in this way.

Keith M
6 months ago

“Israel’s predictably violent response to terrorist violence is unjustified due to the intentions of the perpetrators (does anyone doubt it?) to inflict suffering on innocent Palestinians—to terrorize them, as collective punishment, or in vengeance.”

I agree with JD Rox that this empirical claim cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, I doubt it’s true, much less so self-evidently true that could simply be asserted as beyond doubt.

What we do know is that Israel is knowingly killing far too many civilians, and that some of its leaders spoke in blustering terms of revenge and punishment while the October 7th bodies were buried. But such talk is typical of leaders of attacked countries. The question is whether Israel is firing and bombing in places for the deliberate purpose of adding to the civilian death toll, rather than aiming at Hamas targets which – as nobody has ever disputed – are typically embedded in densely populated areas and buildings.

Does the country as a whole actually hope for, or value, the death of Palestinian civilians in the path of its weapons, or merely view them as a regrettable side effect? How do you establish this? Certainly not by the outcome. The Goldstone Report in the wake of Operation Cast Lead made that mistake, based on the places and people bombed, only to have to recant later, admitting the evidence was consistent with Israel merely knowingly, but not intentionally, bombing where civilians are present. Would the present airstrikes be called off if there weren’t civilians in their path? Would the absence of civilian death be regretted? Not by many Israelis, I’m quite sure, who would prefer to be able to remove Hamas with no innocent Palestinians killed at all.

I am not hairsplitting. The demonization of an entire community (“Israel intentionally…” “The Palestinians intentionally…”) is part of what leads us down this path in the first place. Let’s please try to be more careful, especially when the evidence is so thin.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Keith M
6 months ago

You’re right that I should have been more careful here. The violence is perpetrated by state actors, orchestrated by the Israeli government, so attributing it to Israel is, I think, fine. Of course, this does not imply that all citizens of Israel have the relevant intentions – clearly not. Compare – the UK went to war in Iraq with the intention of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. I take it that this statement is unobjectionable, and the fact that many UK citizens, perhaps the majority, had no such intentions does not tell otherwise. So what ‘the country as a whole’ thinks or wants has no bearing. But then there is the question of what members of the government and members of the IDF intend. I did not claim that civilians were being intentionally targeted in the bombings. I claimed that inflicting suffering on the innocent Palestinians is intended. I find it completely clear that members of Israel’s government intend them to to suffer through the violence being inflicted the quotes in Preston’s reply above are surely enough to establish at least that.

Keith M
Reply to  Victor Tadros
6 months ago

Thank you for the clarification. This is helpful, but my point was mainly that the blustering statements of Israeli figure heads and the body count in Gaza are insufficient evidence of what Israel is actually directing the bombers to do. It’s especially insufficient for showing that they’ve been ordered to shoot at civilians regardless of whether there are Hamas targets hiding behind them, as has been Hamas’s modus operandi. The exact same evidence was used in the UN-backed Goldstone report, which was later found to be mistaken on this very point, as Goldstone himself was forced to admit years afterwards.

Again, that Israel means to harm civilians, rather than simply hitting them as a side-effect of its anti-Hamas bombing, is a very complicated empirical question and the evidence is difficult to assess, firey quotes notwithstanding. And I say this as someone who does not consider knowingly killing thousands of civilians to be justified, simply because it’s not intended or (as in Hamas’s killings) valued and desired. But justified or not, the difference matters.

giulia
giulia
Reply to  Keith M
6 months ago

I read the OP’s references to Israel’s intentions/actions as references to the intentions/actions of Israel’s government and relevant state authorities; I don’t think there is any reasonable sense in which those assertions can be understood as referring to (much less demonizing) the intentions/actions of an ‘entire community’ (Israeli citizens) or ‘the country as a whole’. We should, indeed, be careful.

Brett Davis
Brett Davis
6 months ago
Cospito
Cospito
6 months ago

Whatever the wrongs suffered by the Palestinians, the appalling terrorist attacks on civilians in Israel that began on October 7th cannot be justified as an act of resistance

I am curious to know how the attack could have been different as to be justified as an act of resistance.

and they were inflicted to further an abhorrent religious and political ideology by a political organization that only worsen the lives of those it claims to represent.

I fail to see what does the ideology of the attacker has to do with it. Would the attack be justified if it were carried out by progressive Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries?

Last edited 6 months ago by Yazan Freij
Noah
Noah
Reply to  Cospito
6 months ago

I am curious to know how the attack could have been different as to be justified as an act of resistance.

Perhaps not intentionally targeting, murdering, and kidnapping innocent civilians would be a start.

Cospito
Cospito
Reply to  Noah
6 months ago

So if Hamas only killed hundreds of soldiers and no civilians at all, would that be considered a legitimate act of resistance that deserves nothing but admiration ? I am asking because I have the feeling that people here do not recognise at all that Palestinians have a right to armed resistance under International law since they are under occupation. Of course, this right does not extend to harming civilians.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Cospito
6 months ago

The IRA largely avoided targeting civilians, and I think that made it substantially easier for a peace process to take place. Or put another way: if the IRA had killed 1500 people in an attack in London in the 1990s, I don’t think there’s much chance that the Good Friday Agreement would have happened. One doesn’t have to regard IRA terrorism as legitimate or admirable (I don’t think it was either) to recognize that the way they conducted the conflict mattered for eventual conciliation.

I think the ANC also generally avoided targeting civilians, though I don’t know the history nearly so well. Again, I think the politics of the fight against apartheid would have played out very differently if they had orchestrated mass killings of civilians.

(I don’t think Hamas’s actions would be permissible under international law even if they only attacked military and political targets, since hiding among civilians and failing to clearly separate your forces from them are also war crimes, but I do think it would change the politics significantly.)

Cospito
Cospito
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

So Palestinians have a right to armed resistance against Israeli occupation, but even if they only attack soldiers, they would be commiting ‘war crimes’ unless they clearly separate themselves in an outpost which makes them exposed to the occupying force to exterminate them . Yes David, I am sure that this was what the Yugoslav partisans, the ANC and all anti-occupation and anti-colonialist groups in history have done. And I am sure that treating armed groups in territories under occupation as if they were standing armies of sovereign nations and expecting them to ‘separate’ from civilians makes total sense. At this point one has to ask :How should Palestinians exactly cash out their legally-enshrined right to armed resistance?

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Cospito
6 months ago

You were discussing the Palestinian’s rights under international law. International law requires combatants to distinguish themselves from the civilian population. I don’t think that’s controversial: it’s in the Geneva conventions, and affirmed by the ICC. The law of armed conflict does not have a get-out clause where you’re allowed to break its requirements if it’s militarily unfeasible to succeed otherwise.

If you want to say that as a moral matter it’s acceptable for an insurgent force not to distinguish their combatants from civilians, that’s a separate issue, on which I haven’t commented and don’t intend to. But “this violates international law” is not a synonym for “this is immoral”.

krell_154
Reply to  Cospito
6 months ago

Well, those are the military law standards. You may not like them, but that’s how they are.

Josh Sheptow
Josh Sheptow
6 months ago

Prof. Tadros claims that instead of trying to destroy Hamas, Israel should “respond appropriately to the systematic violation of the rights of Palestinians.” I assume Prof. Tadros refers principally to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But that occupation was a justified response to the relentless history of unprovoked terrorism and wars launched against Israel by its neighbors. That said, I’ll set this aside, as here is not the place to debate the larger Israel-Palestine conflict.

 

Instead, I’ll just ask what it would mean for Israel to “respond appropriately”? As I’m sure Prof. Tadros knows, in 2005 Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza, ending its occupation there. So what happened? Did there emerge a democratic state in Gaza, one that respected the rights of its citizens and lived in peace with Israel? No. The Palestinians elected an Islamic fundamentalist death cult (Hamas) who’s stated aim was to destroy Israel and which predictably seized all power shortly thereafter.

 

So again, what would it mean for Israel to “respond appropriately”? Would it mean that Israel should lift the blockade on Gaza – a blockade that was put in place only after Hamas took power? Should the Israelis let Hamas trade with the world regardless of its terrorism, and its stated aim of destroying Israel? In fact, something very much like that happened in South Lebanon. There, as in Gaza, Israel withdrew its military forces (in 2000). The difference was that in Lebanon there was no blockade; Hezbollah was free to trade with the world. So what happened? Did Hezbollah seek to build a technology hub, an economic powerhouse, living in peace with its neighbor? No. They built a terrorist army far stronger than Hamas, with hundreds of thousands of precision missiles aimed at Israel. Is there any doubt that this would happen if the Gaza blockade was lifted?  

 

Perhaps “respond appropriately” means that Israel should end its occupation of the West Bank? Maybe this time, if Israel walks away, the state that emerges would be democratic, rights-respecting, and seek nothing but peace. Alas, the history of Gaza and South Lebanon strongly suggests otherwise.   

 

Israel may determine that the cost of destroying Hamas is too great – for their own forces and for the Palestinians living there. But given the history, it should be their choice to make. 

Cospito
Cospito
Reply to  Josh Sheptow
6 months ago

I assume Prof. Tadros refers principally to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But that occupation was a justified response to the relentless history of unprovoked terrorism and wars launched against Israel by its neighbors.


That’s just false. The West Bank and Gaza were occupied by Israel in the Yom Kippur War in 1967 which it started against the Arab countries.

As I’m sure Prof. Tadros knows, in 2005 Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza, ending its occupation there.

Again, that’s not accurate. Although Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 as part of its disengagement plan, it still retained control over the airspace and the coast as well as almost all of the water, electricity sources. Effectively, Gaza is still considered an occupied territory by the United Nations.

Perhaps “respond appropriately” means that Israel should end its occupation of the West Bank? Maybe this time, if Israel walks away, the state that emerges would be democratic, rights-respecting, and seek nothing but peace. Alas, the history of Gaza and South Lebanon strongly suggests otherwise.  

Failing to see that occupation is the root cause of all of this violence is just baffling. You might think that Israel can maintain the status quo where land thefts, house demolitions, arbitrary detentions (with no trials) and killing of innocents are almost a daily occurrence, but history tells us otherwise

Laura
Reply to  Cospito
6 months ago

Sorry if this is pedantic but do you mean the Six Day War in 1967, which started between Israel and Egypt and then involved other states? Yom Kippur war in 1973 was started by a surprise attack from Syria and Egypt. Tangential to the main issue in the thread but hopefully it helps to clarify.

David Wallace
Reply to  Cospito
6 months ago

“ That’s just false. The West Bank and Gaza were occupied by Israel in the Yom Kippur War in 1967 which it started against the Arab countries.”

(i) I think it’s controversial whether the 1967 war was aggression or anticipatory self-defense
(ii) I think it’s uncontroversial that the 1967 war was the Six Day War, not the Yom Kippur war (which Israel definitely didn’t start)

Keith M
Reply to  Cospito
6 months ago

Sorry, but occupation may be *a* cause, but far from obviously *the* root cause of all this violence, at least when it’s Hamas violence. Hamas has never been shy about its agenda, which includes the elimination of Israel as an unholy, non-Islamic state on holy ground. Hamas launched a wave of suicide bombings in the 1990s expressly to block the creation of secular a two-state solution under the Oslo Accords, which the Palestinians generally supported but Hamas opposed. At the time, Hamas was as opposed to a negotiated end to the occupation as it was to the occupation, and to any other alternative to a Muslim theocracy in all of Palestine. If you look back, their operations at the time were strikingly similar in form and style to the October 7 attack, just on a much lower scale, because they had far fewer weapons and soldiers.

Israel’s ill-conceived choice to blockade Gaza a few years after it completely withdrew from the strip, ending its occupation, was largely a reaction to Hamas taking over and declaring a state of war with Israel. It’s not the reverse.

Unfortunately, the extremists on both sides have become far more powerful now, sidelining those who have always pushed for a two-state solution. So Hamas’s initial effort to sabotage a negotiated end to occupation has apparently worked, and this latest attack, and the ensuing counterattack, will only entrench it, sadly.

Cospito
Cospito
Reply to  Keith M
6 months ago

The two-state solution has been sidelined first and foremost by the conesuctive Israeli governments (including the more moderate ones) who kept a policy of continuous land grabbing and settlement expansion in the West bank (where the PA is in charge which does recognise Israel and accepts a two-state solution). Such policies of course have driven many Palestinians towards Hamas since they saw that Israel was not really serious about creating a Palestinian state. The Oslo accords failed because Israel was never serious about peace and the whole raison d’etre of creating the Palestinian Authority was to transfer to it some of its duties as an occupying force and not as a prerequisite of creating a Palestinian state.

Keith M.
Reply to  Cospito
6 months ago

Your claim that Israel is entirely and solely (really?) to blame for the failure of the Oslo process, supposed to culminate in two states, simply ignores the entire Israeli peace camp, and the successive Palestinian rejections of official two-state offers. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli Right Wing extremist precisely because he was too prepared to create a Palestinian state and well on the way to doing so. The next Labor Party Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, was thrown out of office because his sincere offer of two states, brokered by Bill Clinton, was rejected by Arafat, who instead launched the Al Aqsa Intifada, driving Israelis to the Right, and against Barak. Still, PM Ehud Olmert reached a two-state proposal with Palestinian counterpart Sari Nusseibeh a few years later, but which couldn’t get widespread support. Either all of these people, including the assassinated Rabin, were faking it, secretly all on the right, or there were genuine and sincere territorial compromisers on both sides (including Ahmed Qurei on the Palestinian side, for example).

Indeed, there were sincere two-staters on both sides, just as there were rejectionists on both sides. To blame one side alone is obvious propaganda. And settlements and land grabs, abhorrent as they are, were never an obstacle to genuine territorial compromise, as when Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt or withdrew all settlements and military bases from Gaza. And they wouldn’t be now, either, if both sides returned to support a two state solution and accepted the offers made. It is, really, the only hope.

Michel
6 months ago

I have to say, the level of discussion of intention upthread is pretty disappointing for a bunch of philosophers on a philosophy blog.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Michel
6 months ago

Your discussion of intention in this reply, in contrast, is outstanding!!!! (Sorry for the sarcastic reply, but I just couldn’t resist!)

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 months ago

Proportionality is a complex matter, and I can’t set out the right view of what it involves here. But one rough and ready test that typically holds true is that the use of military force is proportionate only if the harms inflicted on non-liable people—innocent Palestinian civilians in this case—are significantly smaller than future harms prevented.

If (as seems right here), ‘proportionate’ is to be interpreted in line with the law of armed conflict, this is an odd criterion: it seems to imply that military force is proportionate only if used by a combatant whose war is itself justified. But law of armed conflict is supposed to distinguish lawful from unlawful acts, even when applied to combatants whose war is itself unjustified.

(An analogy: suppose the Russians discover that Zelensky is visiting a forward command post and try to kill him. He’s a legitimate military target, so it’s legal for them to do so provided it doesn’t lead to disproportionate civilian casualties. If they just carpet-bomb the whole town the command post is in, that’s pretty clearly disproportionate; if they drop a precision munition on the command post and kill Zelensky, a bunch of soldiers, and Zelensky’s civilian secretary, that’s proportionate; in the middle are more complicated cases. But we can’t analyze any of that in terms of ‘harms prevented’, because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is itself massively harmful and shouldn’t be happening in the first place.)

I had understood that the proportionality requirement is that harm to civilians in an attack is not disproportionate to the concrete military goals achieved in that attack, without any prejudice as to whether those military goals are themselves morally justified. What am I missing?

Michael Kates
Michael Kates
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

I assume that Prof. Tadros agrees with the “revisionist” view of just war theory, as advanced by, say, Jeff McMahan, which denies the moral equality of combatants. Accordingly, if one side to an armed conflict is prosecuting an unjust war, then none of their war aims can be proportionate, since the aims they intend to achieve in war are unjust and thus do not count in a proportionality assessment.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Michael Kates
6 months ago

That’s very helpful; thanks.

Matt L
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

For what it’s worth, while the “revisionist” approach has gained a lot of ground among philosophers (it migth well be the dominent approach now – at least it’s very prominent) my impression is that it’s much less common among international lawyers, and has very low, if any, uptake and support among people like military lawyers or people likely to try to make decisions on the ground or enforce rules of war. Maybe that just means all of those people are wrong, but it does seem worth noting that this is an area where at least some philosophers are pushing a view that is outside the mainstream of others working on the topic.

Victor Tadros
6 months ago

I wanted to offer a response to several comments about what is required of Israel in response to past wrongdoing that might help to reduce the conflict. I think it’s a pretty big failure of imagination to think that the only, or even the most important, elements of responding to wrongs perpetrated against the Palestinians is restricted to the extent to which Israel controls Gaza and the West Bank. There are many other aspects to responding to the wrongdoing, given its effects. Acknowledgement, understanding, compensation, return of property, obviously. In my work on Israel/Palestine I defend the right of return of Palestinians, which is obviously controversial, and responses are required to the destruction of the cultural lives of Palestinians. See‘The Persistence of the Right of Return’ (2017) 375 Philosophy, Politics, and Economics 375-399.‘Inheriting the Right of Return’ (2020) 21 Theoretical Inquiries in Law 343.‘Responding to Cultural Wrongs in Palestine and Israel’ in Bulow, Frowe, Matravers and Thomas Heritage and War(OUP, 2023).

But perhaps the most important first step towards a just solution is this. Political institutions in Israel are central to the futures of Palestinians both within and outside Israel, and decisions made through those institutions have led to systematic violations of their rights, both within and outside Israel. But Palestinians have no political power whatsoever in these institutions. Israel calls itself a democracy, but Palestinians are effectively excluded from any democratic control over the institutions that determine their lives. Those in Israel have the vote, but because they are a minority they have no de facto political power. There will never be a Palestinian in office in Israel under the current political structure who will help to determine the future of Palestinians in Israel or outside Israel under the current political arrangements. Imagine a comparable statement about black people, in the UK or the US; we would not tolerate that situation. Jewish people decide for Palestinians how their lives will go, both in Israel and the territories, and Palestinians have no reason to think that these decisions will seriously consider their interests.

One thing that would help to build confidence that political institutions in Israel will respect their rights in the future, which is surely central to responding to past wrongs as well as to securing peace, is to secure their democratic equality. And that can only be done through structured power sharing in Israel. Structured power sharing is required simply for reasons of democratic justice but it is especially required because it is key to reducing conflict between Israel and the occupied territories. It will also, we might hope, lead to less extremist government in Israel that will result from people working together from different communities. Of course, there is no way that this will in fact happen, and comments on this thread seem to suggest that many people who think about the conflict don’t think much about the kinds of political reform that are needed to secure peace. the focus is on how much territory and control over that territory the Palestinians should get, whilst political institutions in Israel remain as they are. But there is only a bleak future for Palestinians where the political institutions governing Israel remain unreformed. And providing people with a bleak future through political domination will only result in extremism and violence.

Cospito
Cospito
Reply to  Victor Tadros
6 months ago

I am quite sure that many of the ‘enlightened’ philosophers commenting here would have supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and justified all of its atrocities as ‘necessary’ to curb the violence committed by the indigenous population while forgetting or underplaying the root cause of such violence. One at times forgets that being a philosopher by no means makes one immune from racist biases.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Cospito
6 months ago

Doesn’t it matter to the comparison that the ANC was not, in fact, carrying out the kind of indiscriminate massacres of South African white civilians that Hamas carries out against Israeli civilians? (As I understand it, the ANC actually declared that it would conform to the Geneva convention, and mostly did so.)

That’s not to comment on the degree to which the situations are analogous in other respects, but this seems a strong and important disanalogy.

Cospito
Cospito
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

Your reply to another comment of mine above clearly stated that you are against even solely attacking soldiers and refraining from harming civilians. At this point, you might as well admit that you don’t believe, contra the International law, that Palestinians have a right to armed resistance in any shape or form. So any issue regarding targeting civilians or not is merely a red herring.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Cospito
6 months ago

I haven’t said anything about what I’m for or against, only what is legal or illegal under international law (see my reply to your comment above).

Victor Tadros
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago
  • One thing I took from reading about twentieth century atrocities is that people are morally fragile. Participants in the worst atrocities were often pretty morally normal not long before committing those atrocities. Thinking about this also led me to the conclusion that we have an obligation, owed both to potential perpetrators and potential victims, not to create the conditions where people commit such atrocities. This is not at all to deny that people are responsible for these atrocities when they perpetrate them. That is quite consistent with a duty of justice to create conditions where people won’t. Our inclination to hold perpetrators responsible, and we are right to have it, shouldn’t blind us to examining the social and political causes that result in people being responsible for atrocities.

One thing I find especially unhelpful in the political reaction to the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas is the tendency to do as though we must make a choice between attributing responsibility to Hamas for the massacre and exploring and responding appropriately to the wider political and historical context that gave rise to it, as though doing the later is somehow to exonerate murderers. The idea that there is such a choice to make is just a fiction resting on a simple philosophical mistake – that being responsible for conduct is inconsistent with social causes of conduct.

So, in challenging Israel to respond appropriately to its injustices in the light of the atrocities perpetrated on 7th October is not to deny the responsibility of the perpetrators, or to claim that they are no morally worse than the ANC. The moral gravity of their acts, and their responsibility for them, is not a reason against creating the conditions where they are less likely to occur in the future. Quite the contrary.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Victor Tadros
6 months ago

I had a political point in mind more than a moral one: the security situation in present-day Israel is very different than in 1980s South Africa, because the insurgent groups fighting Israel pose an immediate and large-scale threat to its civilian population in a way that was not true in South Africa (and, to some extent, because that threat is tied to eliminationist statements of policy). That substantially shapes what it is plausible to persuade the Israeli government to do.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

Well, this Israeli government will wrongly kill many innocent Palestinians, and continue and expand the systematic violation of their political and territorial rights. And I’m afraid there is no hope of persuading them to do otherwise, nor is there any serious political will in the international political community to do much to pressure them to do better. If your question is ‘what is the best that we can (who exactly?) can persuade this Israeli to do? My answers are all in the realm of degrees of extremely serious wrongdoing.

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Victor Tadros
6 months ago

This point about “structured power sharing” is interesting. I hadn’t thought a lot about this aspect of the situation.

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Victor Tadros
6 months ago

Those in Israel have the vote, but because they are a minority they have no de facto political power.

C’mon, we need some more premises here.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  JDRox
6 months ago

I agree – sometimes minorities have political power, but I take it that you agree with the conclusion that Palestinians exercise almost no significant or meaningful political power through state institutions in Israel, and there is almost no prospect of this changing.

Aaron
Aaron
6 months ago

There’s much about this post that I find objectionable. I’ll limit myself to the final two paragraphs. Tadros draws an analogy to a case that is so sketchily drawn and so abstract that it is irrelevant as it stands. It would need to be filled in with a lot more detail for any judgment about that case to have any obvious relevance to the real-world case we’re dealing with. And when we do, it seems to have the opposite implication.

Here’s one way we might add more “color” to the case: suppose the person issuing the threat is a member of the KKK—a white supremacist who would kill as many black people as he could, if he could get away with it—and that the thief is in fact black. The KKK member, taking advantage of the theft as a pretext to do what he’d want to do anyway, threatens to kill the thief and 10 of his innocent black friends. The thief can defend himself and his friends without returning the stolen object, but 5 of the KKK member’s innocent friends will be killed as a side effect. Alternatively, he can return the stolen object, but the KKK member will still be enraged—and since he is anyways motivated to kill as many black people as he can—he’ll kill one of the thief’s innocent friends (or children). What should we say now? Is the thief responsible to return the object and let his innocent friend/child be killed? That seems to me pretty hard to defend, even if you agree in spirit with Tadros’s view. There might be a counterfactual or even causal connection between the thief’s (wrongful) continued possession and the loss of additional innocent lives. But there’s no such connection between the wrongness of the continued possession and the loss of additional innocent lives. The KKK member is not actually motivated by the wrongness. He’s motivated by racism. The wrongness doesn’t figure in to the explanation of the loss of additional innocent lives. 

Hamas is relevantly like the KKK member. Their aim is to eradicate all the Jews, at least those “from the River to the Sea,” and probably all Jews everywhere. (They are apparently also motivated to rape, mutilate, behead, burn, and otherwise torture us Israeli Jews, but let’s set that “detail” aside.)  They are genocidal bigots who will kill as many Jews as they can, and will use any Israeli wrongdoing (real or invented) as a pretext to do so. So whether or not Israeli wrongdoing plays a causal role in the loss of additional innocent lives, it’s not the wrongness of the Israeli wrongdoing that plays that role. 

(I also think the analogy is beside the point. It’s simply not true that Hamas would murder fewer Israelis if Israel ‘fulfilled its duties of justice’. We certainly haven’t been given any good reason to think so. I myself think that we have every reason to believe that they’d murder more Israelis if Israel does what most members of the international community seem to think it’s required to do. But I don’t see the point of debating this empirical question here.)

  

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Aaron
6 months ago

I don’t think that your extra details make any difference to the conclusion Aaron. Why don’t you think that the thief is required to give back what he has stolen, and refrain from killing 5 innocent people? How do the motivations of the KKK person figure in the case in a way that could possibly justify killing 5 to save 1?

Aaron
Aaron
Reply to  Victor Tadros
6 months ago

Well, let’s consider another case. Suppose he hadn’t stolen an object at all. He did nothing wrong in fact. But a KKK member just doesn’t want him to live in his neighborhood. He wants him to get out. The KKK member is threatening to kill him and 10 innocent friends; he can defend himself but only at the expense of 5 innocent KKK member’s friends being killed as a side effect; but if he picks up and moves out, then the KKK member will be somewhat less enraged, and only kill one of his friends. Is he obligated to move out *and* lose his friend? I take it not. And I take it on your view, as well, the answer is he’s not. Otherwise why do you need to figure out what Israel’s duties to correct past injustices are? Even if Israel were morally pristine, they wouldn’t be permitted to unintentionally “kill the 5”, so long as there were something Israel could do–like shut down and go elsewhere and get another bloody nose on the way out?–which would lead to fewer civilian casualties in total. (I actually just don’t know what your view would be if you dispensed with the baseline you propose, but you’d have to replace it with something else.)

And now: I don’t see the morally relevant difference (for these purposes) between that case and one in which there was wrongdoing, but where the wrongness–the fact that the person acted wrongly, or the wrongness of the action–had nothing to do with additional deaths of the innocent. So the motivations of the KKK member matter insofar as they render the wrongness causally irrelevant.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Aaron
6 months ago

I agree, of course, that even had there been no past wrongdoing Israel must bear some costs to reduce the overall number of casualties. It is unjust that it must bear these costs, though, and that counts against the requirement to bear them. In comparison, in the past wrongdoing case, there is no complaint about bearing the costs, because justice demands that they are born anyway.

But I just don’t understand your last paragraph. Why should it matter whether the wrongness was the cause of the threat or not? The argument is just: justice already requires Israel to do some act independently of the threat. If that act would also partially meet the threat, there is no complaint against performing it. So nothing short of that is an appropriate baseline for assessing proportionality (and, as you point out, possibly more must be done). Nothing in that argument relies on the idea that the threat was the product of the wrongness; it only relies on the idea that the threat would be partially met by addressing the wrongness.

Skeptical
Skeptical
6 months ago

“Israel has a right to defend innocent civilians from ongoing terrorist attacks. But it has that right only insofar as, and to the extent that, it successfully defends civilians in a way that satisfies moral constraints that apply to defensive force.”

I assume that the right to defend Israli civilians means a right to take actions that a reasonable person could believe would reduce the threat of terrorism to Israelis. Would an Israeli invasion of Gaza meet this standard?

Suppose Israel launches a ground invasion and that

  1. Attacks on Israel coming from both Hamas and West Bank residents increase in response,
  2. Attacks on Israel coming from Hamas, West Bank residents, and Hezbollah increase in response,
  3. Israel succeeds in destroying Hamas, but at the cost of creating even more and more virulent anti-Israel sentiment amongst Palestinians while failing to build a viable moderate state to replace Hamas,
  4. Israel succeeds in destroying Hamas, but at the cost of (3) and also increasing support for extreme/fundamentalist movements in various majority Muslim countries (see the massive protests), enabling some of these movements to take power (imagine an Iran-type regime in Turkey or Egypt),
  5. Israel gets into an extended quagmire in Gaza (and possibly also in Lebanon), while having to deal with unrest in the West Bank,
  6. 5 and in addition, Israel is forced to withdraw from Gaza having failed to eliminate Hamas (similarly to its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2006), that is, Israel loses,
  7. Any combination of the above, and also, due to a massive civilian death toll and/or atrocities committed, Israel’s long-term support in the US and other Western countries declines to the point that US military aid to Israel is compromised.

Then there’s the fact that Israel’s PM is a crook and Gallant gives every impression of having not engaged in a thorough and sober cost-benefit analysis before choosing the present course. There are recent reports that the Biden admin is disturbed by Netanyahu’s lack of a plan for Gaza. There was another war, 20 years ago, that also involved counter-insurgency, required state-building, and was launched without an intelligent plan.

Skeptical
Skeptical
Reply to  Skeptical
6 months ago

I forgot to add another risk of full-scale invasion: undermining negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/10/13/hamas-gaza-israel-saudi-normalization-deal/

I don’t agree with Netanyahu’s strategy of trying to improve relations with neighboring Arab states while giving up on peace with the Palestinians. However, if we’re talking about Israeli security, long-term, conflict with the Palestinians and with its neighbors is much worse than conflict with the Palestinians alone.

Olga Penka
Olga Penka
6 months ago

I’m curious about the concept of innocence. Say, in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the West was slow to assist Ukraine with weapons (for various reasons) and even now shows reluctance to provide long-range weapons, for fear of harm to civilians in Russia. But are those civilians truly innocent? Did they not trade in freedoms for financial security, for a time, and allow for Putin’s dictatorship to grow and prosper, thus leading to more and more outrageous acts of hostility? Asking as a Russian ex-pat, btw. In that same line, let’s say your neighbor who’s land you’ve stolen, decided to kidnap your wife and daughter in retaliation. He then sexually assaulted them and shared videos of said SA with 10 of his friends who then gleefully cheered him on for job well done. Still innocent? Or complicit? Respectfully,