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Just war theory and the war against Hamas

Is Israel rightly fighting this fight that’s right to fight?


Israeli soldiers patrol a road near the border between Israel and Lebanon on Oct. 16. Associated Press/Photo by Francisco Seco

Just war theory and the war against Hamas
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When asking whether Israel is fighting a just war justly as it responds to the Hamas terror attacks, it’s important to be clear about the framework by which we’ll take our bearings. At its moral center, the just war tradition is an exercise of justice against unwarranted aggression. It helps to guide the political sovereign—that authority charged with the care of the political community—in determining when, in the last resort, the discriminate and proportionate use of military force is the only means likely to protect the innocent, right wrongs, or punish evil. The goal must be the restoration of order, justice, and peace.

The first part is easier than the second. For example, the intentional torture, rape, kidnapping, setting aflame, and murder of civilian men, women, children, and infants by Hamas was an abomination. In response to such atrocities, the just war tradition presumes a two-fold obligation of justice. Israel is duty-bound to seek justice by punishing Hamas, vindicating the victims, and defending itself and its citizens from further harm.

What does it mean to say justice requires victims to be vindicated? Ignoring injuries and leaving them unacknowledged is to hold the victims in contempt. To vindicate must also mean giving the victims support, including righting wrongs where possible, repairing damage where feasible, and assuring the living that the future will not repeat the past.

This brings the punitive aspect into view. A just war is appropriately punitive in several ways: It is a retributive response to a specific wrongdoer for specific wrongs. It responds with that degree of indignation appropriate to the offense, and it manifests this response in penalties that both overturn any advantages the wrongdoer gained through his crime. While the goal of punishment includes the reformation of the wrongdoer, in the first instance, the primary purpose of punishment is to constrain the wrongdoer, to render him incapable of ever perpetrating his crime again, to deter wrongdoing by others, and to secure the wellbeing of victims.

Given this vision of justice, it’s clear Israel is right to fight.

Hamas has made a policy out of both targeting enemy civilians and recklessly jeopardizing its own people.

But is Israel rightly fighting the right fight? Some observers say “no.” Considering both the campaign of airstrikes against targets nestled in population centers and the cutting off of electricity, water, food, and other critical resources into Gaza, critics charge that Israeli Defense Force tactics violate just war’s prohibition against harming the innocent. They point to the requirement of discrimination, which insists that only combatants—those who mean harm—are legitimate targets in warfare. But important clarifications need to be made.

Since at least the time of Thomas Aquinas, just war thinkers have asserted a morally relevant distinction between intending and merely foreseeing the consequences of voluntary actions. Our actions, including tactics in war, can have two effects, one that we desire and intend and another that is merely incidental (or even unavoidable) to our desired end. In the present fight, it’s true that both airstrikes and besiegement bring harm to noncombatants. But it is also true that there is every reason to believe Israel does not directly desire these harms. History provides ample proof of the lengths Israel goes to protect the innocent, even amid Hamas’ longstanding practice of using residential buildings, mosques, churches, schools, and hospitals for staging operations, storing munitions, or even for launching missile strikes.

The practice of hiding among the innocent reveals yet another truth. Hamas has made a policy out of both targeting enemy civilians and recklessly jeopardizing its own people. They have a zeal for spilling the blood of Israel’s innocent and yet no regard for protecting their own. Recall that Israel has made clear that the only precondition for ending the siege of Gaza is the return of their kidnapped people. And yet Hamas persists in their criminal abduction.

Citizenship is a common destiny. The choices of leaders fall on the led. Israel has long been a shield to her people, and they flourish—Arab and Jew alike. Hamas has made a shield of its people, and they perish. For the sake of justice on both sides of the Gazan border, Hamas has proved itself to be a terror organization and an idea whose time has come to its end.


Marc LiVecche

Marc LiVecche is the McDonald Distinguished Scholar of Ethics, War, and Public Life at Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He is also a non-resident research fellow at the U.S. Naval War College in the College of Leadership & Ethics. He is the author of The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury.

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