Saturday, December 27, 2008

BOOM!

Are the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza are in response to escalating rocket attack from Hamas? So say all the articles on the events in all of the major news outlets I could find in American (and Canadian!) media.

Suppose we take this idea seriously, and suppose the media are taking this idea seriously. Why then can I not find a single mention anywhere of the Israeli death toll from these 300 rockets? Even if not a single Israeli died in those attacks, that would not excuse the attacks. But if the airstrikes are indeed a response, then there is a question of the proportionality of that response, and before that question can be addressed, we need some numbers.

I see that Hamas responded to the raids with dozens of rockets, killing one Israeli and wounding others (at least six) -- but that's it. No other Israeli casualties are mentioned. Have there been no other Israeli casualties, before the Israeli airstrikes? I would imagine so. So could we have a tally, please? I would like to be able to compare the figures: at least 230 Palestinian dead and 780 wounded, according to Haaretz (higher figures than the 225 / 400+ figures in the news over here), versus how many Israeli dead and wounded? (This site does not quite provide the right numbers, but could guide estimates.)

But this is a very silly line of inquiry, because the idea that this is a response to the rocket attacks is silly. It is not just false, it's not even trying to be true. For a clear hint at this in a major English-speaking media outlet, it looks like we have to go to the BBC:
So why is Israel acting now and with such force? Does it really believe it can stop the rocket fire from Gaza when previous Israeli governments have tried and failed, using every military means? Israel's prime minister says that is his objective: to protect Israeli citizens living close to the Gaza border. To achieve this, his defence minister, Ehud Barak, said Israel would continue, widen and intensify its Gaza operation.

But Israel's politicians are pursuing a parallel campaign, too - an electoral one. Israel holds parliamentary elections in just over a month's time. The Israeli public has a generally low opinion about how their government has handled what they call "Hamastan" - Hamas-controlled Gaza. Until it started talking tough, the hawkish opposition leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, was leading in the polls. Now the gap has narrowed.
(Netanyahu has some great talent there: causing military misadventures without even being in power.)

This is a scandalous idea -- perhaps it's not a focus of the American coverage because it's just so unthinkable in this country that military actions could be politically motivated. Still, I did find it mentioned in a single sentence buried at the end of this Time article. As for the rest of the article, it provides such gems as
Israel is prepared to ratchet up the pressure still further in the hope that it will force a workable ceasefire.
and
But Israel will need to move carefully. Air strikes that kill large numbers of Palestinian civilians are only likely to fuel support for Hamas, and ramp up international pressure to end the operation quickly.
Meanwhile the White House is blaming Hamas (which is almost half right), and sternly admonishes Israel to avoid civilian casualties, which is a bit like condoning the making of omelets so long as one is careful about the eggs.

But now let's look ahead to America's (and the world's!) glorious hope-filled future. Give us a taste of that magical hope dust, Barack!
"In terms of negotiations with Hamas, it is very hard to negotiate with a group that is not representative of a nation state, does not recognize your right to exist, has consistently used terror as a weapon, and is deeply influenced by other countries."
Oh, this is all going to get fixed like on January 21, I can feel it.

29 comments:

voter said...

Expecting proportional response sounds fair, but it really isn't. If Israel is limited to a proportional response, then its enemy has been given the ability to unilaterally dictate the level and timing of conflict.

Toby said...

Fair? If equal numbers of citizens are killed by rocket fire among Israelis and among Palestinians, would that be fair? Civilian deaths are never fair. But (most suppose) they can sometimes be justified, and proportionality is one of the standards of justification.

And "dictate the level and timing of conflict" sounds like the role of the aggressor in the conflict. You don't think Israel should allow Hamas to be the aggressor?

Do you suppose Israel should take upon itself the job of escalating the conflict? Because I think they are doing that presently -- so congrats.

voter said...

But (most suppose) they can sometimes be justified, and proportionality is one of the standards of justification.

It's one of your standards. I'm pointing out that it sounds reasonable at first, but when you think about it, this standard gives control of the situation to the weaker party.

And "dictate the level and timing of conflict" sounds like the role of the aggressor in the conflict.
No, it's the logical role of the stronger party in the conflict, whether that party is initially the aggressor or the defender.

Do you suppose Israel should take upon itself the job of escalating the conflict?
It should be an option on the table.

How many casualties should Israel find acceptable? Why?

In WWII, America escalated conflict and thereby ended it. In Vietnam, America adopted a proportionate response policy and the conflict dragged on.

Toby said...

Hi Voter,

It so happens that moral considerations often end up protecting the weaker against the stronger. But that's actually beside the point: the weaker party in this case consists of Hamas fighters, and their welfare is not in question at the moment. Israel could kill every one of the however many thousand Hamas fighters there are, without that triggering concerns of proportionality. (At least, under the traditional understanding. I'm inclined to be stricter, but let's set that aside for now.)

Proportionality comes into play only when there is a risk of harm to civilians. It constrains the justifications which can be provided in defense of causing harm to civilians. Such justifications take the following form: there are some goals which are so imperative and urgent that they can (under certain conditions) justify some limited number of civilian deaths. The more important the goal, the more civilian deaths we can potentially accept in pursuit of that goal. But we cannot ever accept civilian deaths at a degree out of proportion to the goal we are pursuing.

So that's proportionality. It doesn't cover the weaker party to the conflict (Hamas); it covers people who are not participants in the conflict (the civilians of Gaza).

How many civilian deaths can be justified by any given goal? Well no one really has an equation to apply here. But in some cases it's pretty easy to judge that a certain goal is not worth a certain amount of harm to civilians.

In the case of Israel's current actions, things are made difficult because it's not totally clear what Israel's goals are. Here is one goal: preventing the rocket attacks which have persisted despite the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005. Those attacks killed about a dozen Israeli civilians. So the justification for the killing in Gaza is: "we want to prevent a continuation into the fugure of attacks which have killed an average of about 4 civilians a year, and thus we are justified in killing 100+ civilians now". Well, no, I'm tempted to say that that sounds just plain stupid, except it is really both stupid and evil: an underlying assumption is that the lives of Gazan civilians have much lesser moral worth than those of Israeli civilians.

But perhaps I'm not being fair to Israel's rationale. You seem to believe that there is a way to conceive of Israel's goals in this conflict, such that it might justify killing over a hundred civilians in just a few days. So, I suppose I'd like to hear that.

voter said...

So that's proportionality. It doesn't cover the weaker party to the conflict (Hamas); it covers people who are not participants in the conflict (the civilians of Gaza).

There are probably many Israelis who don't see such a sharp line of distinction. Isn't this understandable? If some group in the U.S. started lobbing rockets into Canada (when you lived there) and someone you knew died, would you not expect America as a whole to root out those responsible and put an end to the bombings?

Well, no, I'm tempted to say that that sounds just plain stupid, except it is really both stupid and evil: an underlying assumption is that the lives of Gazan civilians have much lesser moral worth than those of Israeli civilians.

I think there are many Gazans who feel that Israeli lives are worth less than there own. In general, people view those in their own group as more valuable than others.

Also, you're holding Israel to a higher moral standard than Gaza. Are Gazans animals who can't make correct moral judgments? If Israelis do consider themselves superior, you're reinforcing that belief.

But perhaps I'm not being fair to Israel's rationale. You seem to believe that there is a way to conceive of Israel's goals in this conflict, such that it might justify killing over a hundred civilians in just a few days. So, I suppose I'd like to hear that.

I'm not trying to justify Israel, but I have two points:

(1) I don't think you have grounds to condemn them.

(2) The practical reality is that when people from your country attack a stronger country, the response will be unpleasant.

You might do more good for Gaza civilians if you took to the streets and protested governments which allow terrorists targeting foreigners to exist within their borders.

If Israel received no attacks for ten years and its neighbors recognized its right to exist, do you think Israel would be an aggressor?

Toby said...

Hi Voter,

"Killing is wrong" is a default position. Unless the killing of these 100+ civilians is justified, it is to be condemned. So you're going to have to provide a justification if you would like to back up your claim that I'm wrong to condemn Israel's attacks.

You say it's understandable that the Israelis would devalue the lives of the people of Gaza. This is true. And, yes, it goes the other way as well. But all this goes to show is that this is a form of evil which can be easily understood, and is really quite common.

Those are the main points I'd like to make. Here are some responses to other things you said.

If some group in the U.S. started lobbing rockets into Canada (when you lived there) and someone you knew died, would you not expect America as a whole to root out those responsible and put an end to the bombings?

Yes. But if they failed to do so, it would not be right to go in and kill and wound hundreds of American civilians in response.

you're holding Israel to a higher moral standard than Gaza.

How's that?

Are Gazans animals who can't make correct moral judgments?

No.

The practical reality is that when people from your country attack a stronger country, the response will be unpleasant.

True. And it may be immoral. The practical reality is that people do immoral things.

You might do more good for Gaza civilians if you took to the streets and protested governments which allow terrorists targeting foreigners to exist within their borders.

Actually that wouldn't do any good at all. Israel is at least somewhat concerned with popular opinion in the west. They are certainly concerned with the opinion of American politicians. And American politicians are at least somewhat responsive to their constituents (more in theory than in practice, but a little bit even in practice).

If Israel received no attacks for ten years and its neighbors recognized its right to exist, do you think Israel would be an aggressor?

No. But this does not excuse or justify Israel's current actions.

voter said...

Justification would go something like this:

1) Israel, if unprovoked, is peaceful
2) Israel was provoked by the killing of its citizens by a neighboring country
3) Israel's goal is to diminish the enemy's capacity to attack
4) The enemy purposely hides its soldiers and weaponry among civilians, making it sure that civilian casualties will be high when Israel pursues its goal. The civilians in the enemy territory do not stop this practice.

Therefore, the disporportionate enemy casualties are the enemy's own fault. They can avoid them in two ways:

1) Don't provoke Israel
2) Provoke Israel using conventional military formations

You're holding Israel to a higher moral standard by expecting Israel to care more about enemy civilians than the enemy does itself.

Toby said...

Hi Voter,

Your "justification" doesn't actually address the rightness or wrongness of Israel's military action at all. All you've shown is that Hamas has purposefully placed the civilian population of Gaza at risk. But this is not under debate: of course Hamas has endangered Gazan civilians, and of course they are wrong to do so.

But this does not excuse Israel in the slightest. Saying the civilian deaths are the fault of Hamas ("the enemy") leaves entirely open the question of whether Israel is also at fault.

Suppose a criminal is a standoff with the police, and takes a hostage as a body shied; a police officer then fires at the criminal, and kills the hostage in the process. Now, the criminal is to be condemned in any case. But the officer shares responsibility for the death, and may also be at fault. It depends on whether or not the officer's action can be justified. The officer's action cannot be justified merely by noting that the criminal is the one who endangered the hostage in the first place.

You're holding Israel to a higher moral standard by expecting Israel to care more about enemy civilians than the enemy does itself.

Here is the moral standard: do not engage in attacks which put civilians at risk. Hamas has failed by that standard. Israel has also failed by that same standard. The same standard applies to both Israel and Hamas.

voter said...

Your "justification" doesn't actually address the rightness or wrongness of Israel's military action at all.

I know. Since the Gazans themselves are the root cause of their own deaths, I don't look at Israel either to justify or condemn, as noted previously. I'm only using justification at your insistence.

But this does not excuse Israel in the slightest.
Yes, it does.

A big difference between us is that you draw a sharp line of distinction between the militants and the rest of the citizenry. I find that line to be very blurry.

To make your analogy more fitting, let's point out that the hostage approved of the goals of the criminal, hoped for the criminal's success, knew the criminal was coming and didn't alert the police, hates the police, and now that the police have arrived hopes that the criminal would escape. Not just the hostage, the whole neighborhood feels the same. They offer no assistance to the police and some of them actively hinder the police. The officer shoots and hits the hostage. Is he wrong? Maybe, but he's been put in an impossible situation by both the criminal and the hostage, so I'm not going to pass judgment on him.

Here is the moral standard: do not engage in attacks which put civilians at risk.

So Hamas can march freely on Israel if it has some civilians marching alongside the troops? No, that standard does not work in the real world.

Toby said...

Hi Voter,

I don't see how you decide that Hamas is the "root cause" of the situation. Why, because Hamas provoked Israel? Well, Israel similarly provoked Hamas (Israel was responsible for the biggest break in the 6 month ceasefire). And, before that, Hamas provoked Israel, and, before that... and before that.... And so on, back to the founding of the state of Israel (or maybe even further). Where exactly, and on what basis, do we stop along that chain of causes and say, "Right there is the root cause"?

I don't know, but it doesn't matter, because it's beside the point. Hamas is responsible for every civilian death it causes, no matter if it was provoked -- unless the killing can be justified, it is to be condemned. Similarly, Israel is responsible for every civilian death it causes, no matter if it was provoked -- unless the killing can be justified, it is to be condemned. If you accept one side of that equation, you have to accept the other. If you reject either side, you must reject the other also -- and thereby throw morality out the window entirely. Is this your position? There are some who look at this mess and say, "Ah, fuck the lot, why don't they should all just kill each other already" -- are you one of those?

Moving on, your extension of the hostage analogy moves it entirely out of contact with the reality in Gaza. Taking you at your word, you are attributing to Palestinians universal and unqualified support for, and collusion with, Hamas. Interpreting you somewhat more charitably, you're restricting these claims to just a large majority (what proportion?) of the populace. In either case, this is (a) completely unsupported on your part, and (b) actually false. Not even Israeli propaganda puts forth such fantastic falsehoods ("Yes, that missile blew up an old woman and her two grandkids hiding in a basement, but you know they were all willing human shields of Hamas").

Further, it's notable that in acquitting the officer on the basis that he is in "an impossible situation", you entirely omitted any reference to what the officer is trying to achieve, what risk the criminal poses to others. This is of course entirely consistent with your refusal to take considerations of proportionality into account. But, as even the stupidest police cadet knows, there must be justification for any use of police force.

So Hamas can march freely on Israel if it has some civilians marching alongside the troops? No, that standard does not work in the real world.

In the real world Israeli snipers would be able to deal with that situation just fine. The problem in Gaza right now is that the IDF is not using anything close to sniper-like precision.

voter said...

I don't see how you decide that Hamas is the "root cause" of the situation.
Actually I broadened it to Gazans - not sure if that's the right word - and I thought the reasoning for my conclusion was pretty clear: it's foreseeable that Israel will try to take out rocket sites; things near rocket sites will likely be damaged as well; Hamas puts rockets next to schools and in residential neighborhoods and the citizenry allows it.

Where exactly, and on what basis, do we stop along that chain of causes and say, "Right there is the root cause"?

Regarding civilians being killed today, we stop at the point that militants put weaponry next to schools and other civilian areas.

Interpreting you somewhat more charitably, you're restricting these claims to just a large majority (what proportion?) of the populace. In either case, this is (a) completely unsupported on your part, and (b) actually false.

What proportion? A large enough proportion that Hamas is able to set up rocket sites next to schools and in other places where retaliation is likely to cause hich civilian casualties. If the people weren't sympathetic, they wouldn't allow this.

Further, it's notable that in acquitting the officer on the basis that he is in "an impossible situation", you entirely omitted any reference to what the officer is trying to achieve, what risk the criminal poses to others.

The officer is trying to stop a killer who hates the officer and all his friends and family. That was obvious, the omission isn't notable.

In the real world Israeli snipers would be able to deal with that situation just fine. The problem in Gaza right now is that the IDF is not using anything close to sniper-like precision.

I thought the picture of troops marching on Israel was clearly something that precise sniper fire can't repel. Consider that case. Israel is under infantry attack. Civilians are mixed in with the infantry. The attack is too large to be repelled without harm to the civilians - rapid fire small arms, artillery etc. are required. Can Israel kill some civilians here? Why or why not?

Toby said...

Hi Voter,

Do you think that the people firing rockets out of Gaza into Israel are morally wrong to do so? If so, why?

I'll get back to your last comment later, but first I need to make sure you're not some kind of nihilist about the situation. I've been trying to discuss these issues in moral terms, but your responses make me wonder if moral considerations have any grip on you in this context. If not, I have to change my approach to this conversation entirely.

voter said...

Do you think that the people firing rockets out of Gaza into Israel are morally wrong to do so?
Probably.
If so, why?
Unprovoked attacks on another country are generally morally wrong. I say "probably" because we could debate whether the attacks against Israel are "unprovoked," but this should be enough to show I'm not some kind of nihilist about the situation. I see this morally too, but I think the primary immorality in the situation is placing weaponry next to schools and other civilian targets, then using those weapons, thereby provoking retaliation that will likely hurt their own civilians. I think people like you unwittingly encourage this behavior by focusing your outrage on Israel rather than Hamas.

Regarding my last post, let's fine tune the last situation a little: the infantry, with interspersed civilians, is marching on a military target. It has not killed Israeli civilians and does not intend to. The assault is still too large to repel by means so precise as to prevent Gazan civilian casualties. Is Israel justified in killing some of these civilians?

Toby said...

Voter,

What debate is there to "provocation"? Israel broke the 6 month ceasefire (on November 4, when no one, particularly on one in America, was paying any attention to what anyone else was doing).

At least since the founding of the state of Israel there has been no such thing as an unprovoked attack between Israel and the Palestinians. At least since that time, there has always been provocation aplenty going both ways. So if a provoked attack is thereby excused from moral evaluation, you must therefore suspend all moral judgment about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Is this right?

And this term, "primary immorality", what in the world does that mean? Does "primary" mean "most"? "First"? Whatever it is, it is apparently able to make all subsequent immorality not actually immoral -- that's quite a useful power it has. I suppose if Israel nuked the whole Gaza strip, that would still be excused by that "primary immorality".

As to your little story of Hamas invading Israel surrounded by civilians: yes, under certain circumstances the IDF would be justified in opening fire on such a force; but this fantasy has no bearing on the real situation, since Hamas is entirely incapable of putting together such an invasion force, nor do they have an evil-genius movie-villain capable of putting together such a devilish scheme.

Getting back to the real world, your defense of Israel seems to presuppose that all of its offensives are directed at apparent threats (rocket sites and the like). But by now it's laughable to suppose that its military strikes have been so discriminate.

voter said...

As to your little story of Hamas invading Israel surrounded by civilians: yes, under certain circumstances the IDF would be justified in opening fire on such a force
So we see that civilian deaths can be justified independent of proportionality.

Why are these civilian deaths justifiable? What general rule can we draw from these certain circumstances?

How about, Civilian deaths are justified when the civilians are located close to soldiers or weapons of an aggressor.

little story...fantasy...evil-genius movie-villain
Hmm, someone gets nasty when things don't go his way.

but this fantasy has no bearing on the real situation,
Neither did your policeman analogy, but I was willing to work with it to see where it went. Why do you feel the need to belittle my hypothetical scenario?

So if a provoked attack is thereby excused from moral evaluation,
I said an unprovoked attack is morally wrong. I did not say that a provoked attack is necessarily morally acceptable.

Come to think of it, you've challenged me on disregarding proportionality. I was working to my point above, that civilian deaths can be justified independent of proportionality. But you've never explained why proportionality is morally correct. Seems odd to me - it basically means that two wrongs make a right.

Consider this flight of fantasy. Hamas fires a rocket that kills two Israelis. Israel can attack the rocket site, but that would likely cause six civilian deaths. Or, Israel can fire across the border and kill two random Gazans. Which action is more morally acceptable, or the lesser of the evils?

Toby said...

Hi Voter,

You're right, some frustration did leak out in that last comment. I apologize; it wasn't meant for you.

I think you misunderstand what is meant by "proportionality". You seem to think that it means that Israel gets a coupon to kill a Palestinian civilian every time an Israeli civilian is killed. But that isn't how it works. I tried to explain this much earlier, and I'm going to copy and paste that with some extra comments which will hopefully make it clearer.

There are some goals (the elimination of great evils) which are so imperative and urgent that they can (under certain conditions) justify some limited number of civilian deaths. The more important the goal, the more civilian deaths we can potentially accept in pursuit of that goal. But we cannot ever accept civilian deaths at a degree out of proportion to the goal we are pursuing. No goal is so important as to legitimize an unlimited amount of harm.

If the goal is to eliminate a threat to the lives of civilians, then that places a firm limit on how many civilian deaths can be caused in pursuit of that goal. This is morbid arithmetic, but if a military action aimed at eliminating such a threat threatens more civilians than are threatened by the threat itself, then the cure (even if it should succeed) is worse than the disease: that is, the action is immoral.

But there are also other sorts of threats which might provide (again) a limited justification for harm to civilians. For example, maybe if a soldier's own life is under threat. Or if the sovereignty of a state is under threat (suppose an enemy force just wants to enslave a population -- that could still warrant a military action which causes civilian deaths on the other side). (Depending on how you want to fill in the details of your thought experiment, it might fall into one of those categories. I'm not sure. But under certain versions of the scenario, civilian deaths could be excusable even if the invasion force (with its civilian shield) was not primarily targeting civilians.)

So proportionality does not mean that you tally a civilian death for a civilian death. The basic moral insight it captures is this: even supposing that it is sometimes permissible to cause harm to civilians, that can be done only in pursuit of a sufficiently pressing goal (eliminating a greater evil); and any given goal can justify only a finite amount of harm to civilians. That is the basic idea underlying proportionality.

Do you reject that basic idea? If you do, then you end up with moral absurdities, like the idea that really it would be all right to nuke the whole Gaza strip. Actually, you didn't answer my question about that proposal, so perhaps you don't think it's such a bad idea. But you tell me.

OK, so that's proportionality. I hope it's clear enough now; we've had a whole conversation about it without having a common understanding as to what we're actually talking about. (Oops.)

Note that this is just one criterion on which (says I) Israel is clearly unjustified in its assault on Gaza. There are at least two others: first, that Israel did not attempt in good faith to find other solutions to its conflict with Hamas; second, that this military action is obviously incapable of bringing a long-term resolution to the conflict, and is in fact going to perpetrate it, such that the dead civilians have been killed to no real purpose.

OK, addressing other comments you made:

Civilian deaths are justified when the civilians are located close to soldiers or weapons of an aggressor.

Without any further limitations? Suppose the weapon is pathetically ineffectual, and has (say) a 0.4% chance of taking a life. Suppose there are 30 civilians who will be certainly killed if you try to blow it up. Is it still (definitely?) justified?

Hamas fires a rocket that kills two Israelis. Israel can attack the rocket site, but that would likely cause six civilian deaths. Or, Israel can fire across the border and kill two random Gazans. Which action is more morally acceptable, or the lesser of the evils?

The former action has a closer semblance to acceptability, since one could at least make an attempt to justify it, while there's no way to even try to do so in the latter case. But neither case is actually acceptable.

Incidentally, which of the two cases do you think more closely matches Israel's offensive in Gaza? Are you still convinced that Israel is restricting itself to targeting actual threats (rocket sites and the like) in Gaza? If you discovered that this was not so, would that change your evaluation of the situation?

voter said...

OK, so that's proportionality.

Not completely. I agree with your basic idea as far as it goes. Hoever, one of my main points has been the responsibility of a people to protect its own civilians and minimize civilian deaths by separating weapons, soldiers, and direct support from the civilian population as much as possible. The failure to do so, or worse the intentional use of civilians as shields, should also be a factor in determining the number of justified deaths - i.e., to increase, perhaps greatly, the number of acceptable civilian casualties. I feel you ignore or pay lip service to this factor. Thoughts?

Toby said...

Hi Voter,

one of my main points has been the responsibility of a people to protect its own civilians and minimize civilian deaths by separating weapons, soldiers, and direct support from the civilian population as much as possible.

True. Hamas and other organizations in Gaza have failed the civilian populace of Gaza.

The failure to do so, or worse the intentional use of civilians as shields, should also be a factor in determining the number of justified deaths - i.e., to increase, perhaps greatly, the number of acceptable civilian casualties.

No. If Israel is thinking of blowing up a target, and there are civilians in the area, the risk to those civilians counts against the military action, whether or not their presence is part of some terrorist plan. As far as Israel's responsibilities go, it doesn't matter if terrorists put those civilians there on purpose, or if the presence of the civilians is contrary to the plans of the terrorists. The lives of the civilians are worth the same in either case. Therefore Israel's obligation to avoid harming them is the same.

I don't entirely understand the thought that Israel's moral obligations to civilians change depending on whether a terrorist organization has placed those civilians in the line of fire. Perhaps the idea is: if we can blame the terrorists for the civilian deaths, that eliminates the possibility of blaming Israel for them as well. But it is of course possible for both sides in a conflict to fail to live up to their respective moral obligations. Even if your enemy is unambiguously evil, that doesn't release you from your own moral obligations in the slightest.

I think that's obvious, but I'm not sure if it's so obvious to you. Again, do you think it would be morally permissible for Israel to nuke the whole Gaza Strip?

And another "again": Are you still convinced that Israel is restricting itself to targeting actual threats (rocket sites and the like) in Gaza? If you discovered that this was not so, would that change your evaluation of the situation?

voter said...

No. If Israel is thinking of blowing up a target, and there are civilians in the area, the risk to those civilians counts against the military action, whether or not their presence is part of some terrorist plan.

That gives Hamas - or anyone, terrorist group or recognized nation - freedom to attack Israel without fear of reprisal. All they have to do is keep sufficient civilians around. It also seems inconsistent with your answer on the hypothetical attack - are you changing your answer on that one?

Even if your enemy is unambiguously evil, that doesn't release you from your own moral obligations in the slightest.

If your enemy conscripts unwilling troops and forces them to fight, are you allowed to kill them? If so, why?

Again, do you think it would be morally permissible for Israel to nuke the whole Gaza Strip?

No, I don't. Again, I agree with your statements on proportionality as far as they go. But, I think you've oversimplified it and are ignoring important factors.

Are you still convinced that Israel is restricting itself to targeting actual threats (rocket sites and the like) in Gaza?

I disagree with your definition of "actual threats." Carrying out these attacks takes people with leadership, organization and technical skills; and contacts with other parties like funders and weapons suppliers. Capturing or killing some of these people is as important as taking out the immediate threats.

But it is of course possible for both sides in a conflict to fail to live up to their respective moral obligations.

I don't think that Israelis being slaughtered - as they would be if they upheld your moral standards - would get much comfort from knowing that college kids now approve of their morals.

Toby said...

Hi Voter,

That gives Hamas - or anyone, terrorist group or recognized nation - freedom to attack Israel without fear of reprisal.

It's true that people who aren't willing to do wrong will often be exploited by those who are. Cheaters often win--at least, with respect to worldly pursuits. And if that price seems too high to you, well, that's your choice.

But Israel does not actually face any such choice. The situation is not "kill or be killed", it is "kill and give rise to a new generation of people who want to kill you". The disproportionate offensive on Gaza has done nothing to secure the safety of people living in southern Israel. The ceasefire did that fairly well, but it wasn't politically useful for the upcoming Israeli elections, it didn't heal military pride wounded in Lebanon in 2006.

It also seems inconsistent with your answer on the hypothetical attack

I don't see how. I grant that in some situations civilians can be sacrificed in addressing a sufficiently large military threat. But the number of civilians which can be sacrificed (if necessary) in order to stop a threat doesn't change depending on whether or not your enemy is deliberately using them as body shields. If the enemy is doing that, then that makes him a worse person, but it doesn't change what it's right or wrong for you to do.

If your enemy conscripts unwilling troops and forces them to fight, are you allowed to kill them?

Yes, because they're directly attached to the weapons which are firing at you. It is quite normal for troops to be on the battlefield only because they've been forced to be there.

Carrying out these attacks takes people with leadership, organization and technical skills; and contacts with other parties like funders and weapons suppliers.

And schools, hospitals, civilian dwellings where there is no evidence whatsoever of involvement in terrorism? There's no need to debate over whether Israel's response was disproportionate -- there are candid admissions that it was disproportionate, and that that was part of the plan. Proportionality is part of international law, but I hear that those considerations are written up so vaguely as to be useless in practice -- so I guess Israeli officials can be frank about this without worrying about the consequences. But they might have to worry about the evidence of the use of white phosphorus in urban areas, and the use of civilians (waving white flags) as target practice. War crime definitions are little clearer there. Still, probably nothing will happen.

I don't think that Israelis being slaughtered - as they would be if they upheld your moral standards

Yes, it really is a miracle that Israel has survived Palestinian terrorism for so long without regularly doing what they did in Gaza just now.

voter said...

And if that price seems too high to you, well, that's your choice.

We're not talking about my choice, or your choice. We're talking about choices of Hamas, Gazans, and Israel.

The disproportionate offensive on Gaza has done nothing to secure the safety of people living in southern Israel.

You don't know that. If Hamas' organization was damaged, safety was increased. Periodic incursions help to keep Israeli casualties low. If left unchecked, attacks that kill 3 now might kill 50 in ten years as Hamas becomes more effective.

Yes, because they're directly attached to the weapons which are firing at you.

So you're releasing Israel from it's moral obligations, at least slightly.

How about a soldier driving a truck full of weapons to the front line? A civilian doing the same? How about a carfull of civilians purposely driving near the truck?

I grant that in some situations civilians can be sacrificed in addressing a sufficiently large military threat. But the number of civilians which can be sacrificed (if necessary) in order to stop a threat doesn't change depending on whether or not your enemy is deliberately using them as body shields.

The point is that the number of acceptable civilian casualties can be considered a function of the military objective, rather than a function of our own civilian casualties. That way of looking at it eliminates both the nuclear bomb problem and the loss of existence problem.

Yes, it really is a miracle that Israel has survived Palestinian terrorism for so long without regularly doing what they did in Gaza just now.

If Israel announced policies that you accept as moral, they wouldn't survive for long.

There's no need to debate over whether Israel's response was disproportionate -- there are candid admissions that it was disproportionate, and that that was part of the plan.

And the reasoning was expressed in one of your entries.

You draw a distinct line between military and civilian that many people don't see so clearly. Some of my questions above get at this blurring.

voter said...

I've been approaching this with common sense and logic. I just did some research and found this on the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC):
http://usmilitary.about.com/cs/wars/a/loac.htm

It seems to be tailored to the US Air Force, but other than those references should be generally applicable. Excerpts, with my comments in italics:

Three important LOAC principles govern armed conflict—military necessity, distinction, and proportionality.

Military necessity requires combat forces to engage in only those acts necessary to accomplish a legitimate military objective. Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives.

Hamas clearly violates this when it lobs rockets at civilians. Israel has a necessity to stop those attacks. Israel may have violated this in particular incidences, but overall Israel is in much better standing.

In applying military necessity to targeting, the rule generally means the United States Military may target those facilities, equipment, and forces which, if destroyed, would lead as quickly as possible to the enemy’s partial or complete submission.

By this standard, taking out the leadership is a legitimate aim.

Distinction means discriminating between lawful combatant targets and noncombatant targets such as civilians, civilian property, POWs, and wounded personnel who are out of combat. The central idea of distinction is to only engage valid military targets.

That's why the nuclear approach is ruled out.

Distinction requires defenders to separate military objects from civilian objects to the maximum extent feasible. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to locate a hospital or POW camp next to an ammunition factory.

That's been one of my main points.

Proportionality requires a balancing test between the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated by attacking a legitimate military target and the expected incidental civilian injury or damage.

This presumes that the defenders have spearated military objects from civilian objects to the maximum extent feasible. If not, higher collateral damage is justified.

Targeting Personnel. The LOAC protects civilian populations. Military attacks against cities, towns, or villages not justified by military necessity are forbidden.

One of your Israeli quotes refers to this in saying that they consider some towns to be military targets.

Although civilians may not be made the object of a direct attack, the LOAC recognizes that a military target need not be spared because its destruction may cause collateral damage that results in the unintended death or injury to civilians or damage to their property.

Speaks for itself.

The LOAC specifically describes objects that shall not be the targets of a direct attack...However, if these objects are used for military purposes, they lose their immunity. If these protected objects are located near lawful military objectives (which LOAC prohibits), they may suffer collateral damage when the nearby military objectives are lawfully engaged.

I have to conclude that breaking the rules on the other guy's part does ease your moral obligationsto an extent.

Toby said...

Hi Voter,

This is an area where law (especially the enforcement of law) will regularly fall short of morality (as I noted with respect to international law). Still, I'm in agreement with the LAOC, as far as it goes. You think it contradicts what I've said due to a misunderstanding.

You seem to think that the section on "military targets" says that the rules governing proportionality can be weakened under certain circumstances. But it says nothing of the sort. As the document notes, there are three main principles: military necessity, distinction (or discrimination -- the section on "military targets" pertains to this), and proportionality. These are three independent restrictions on military activity. None of them cancels out the others. If an operation abides by two of the principles, but fails a third, then it is illegal.

An attack can be disproportionate without being indiscriminate, and vice versa. If a military operation only kills civilians when they're too close to military targets, then the principle of discrimination is not violated -- but it could still be the case that the number of civilians killed was too great to be justified by the goal of the operation, in which case it was disproportionate, and the operation is illegal under the LAOC. Similarly, an operation might kill just a small number of civilians, small enough to remain proportionate -- but if those civilians were killed by an attack not aimed at a military target, then that is still indiscriminate, and so illegal under the LAOC.

I hope that's clear enough. But I now see I've been running together two accusations: that the assault on Gaza was disproportionate (as the numbers show), and that it was indiscriminate (as in using civilians as target practice, raining white phosphorus down on urban areas, using military force as a means of "shocking", aka terrorizing the civilian populace...). Both accusations are true, but they are importantly different, and I shouldn't mix them up.

Here is an easy way to get a grip on Israel's obligations to the civilians of Gaza: imagine those civilians are not Palestinians, but rather Israelis. (Or even Americans, or Russians, or Tuvaluans, or whatever.) The precautions Israel would take in that hypothetical scenario are probably about the same as what they are morally obliged to take in actuality.

You note that the line between combatant and civilian is blurry. And indeed it is. But some are clearly on one side rather than the other. For example, the fighters shooting at Israelis are combatants; the children hiding under tables in their apartments and in UN schools are not.

Finally: If Hamas' organization was damaged, safety was increased.

That's a big "if". How was Hamas' organization damaged? The IDF talking points on this question sound like they're from a parallel universe. The assault did provide some inspiring martyr-figures for the next generation of terrorists -- but what else?

Here's something that increased safety in southern Israel: the ceasefire. In the two months before Israel threw it out the window on Nov. 4 (brilliant timing), a total of two rockets were fired from Gaza -- neither from Hamas. Hamas had actually managed to keep the ceasefire -- not perfectly, of course, but better than average for the region. If an end to the rockets is what the Israeli leadership wanted, then it could have tried negotiation with Hamas. Hamas was willing, as were (as I recall) a majority of Israelis. But an end to the rockets is not what the Israeli leadership wanted. They wanted to wipe away the shame of Lebanon 2006, position themselves as tough guys for the Israeli election, and who knows what else.

voter said...

Here's what it boils down to:

Say a military target has killed 10 Israeli civilians and Hamas has shown the intent to use it again. If it were placed (as required by the LAOC) as far away as possible from civilians, it could be destroyed with the loss of 2 Gaza civilians. However, Hamas has put it near a school, and an attack on it could cause 50 civilian deaths.

You think the attack isn't justified, because 50 is disproportional to 10.

I think the attack is justified, because 2 is not disproportional to 10.

Is this a fair assessment of your position?

voter said...

Here's a quote from Hillary which is along my line of thought:

"It is regrettable that the Hamas leadership apparently believes that it is in their interest to provoke the right of self-defence instead of building a better future for the people of Gaza."

Toby said...

Voter,

The LOAC explanation of proportionality refers to the "expected incidental civilian injury or damage". You somehow transform this into "incidental civilian injury or damage which would be expected if the enemy were following all the rules on their end" -- but this hypothetical construct is not what the LOAC is talking about, and it's not what proportionality means.

As for comparing the 10 to the 50 -- no, this is not how it works. I explained before: it is not as if Israel gets a coupon for a dead Palestinian citizen every time an Israeli citizen is killed. One obvious problem with that arithmetic would be that it looks backwards rather than forwards. Any attack which only looks backwards is mere reprisal and revenge, not a justified use of force.

Anyway, I think we could dream up circumstances in which I would agree that the attack is justified. Suppose the killing of the 10 yesterday was just a trial run for a weapon that will kill 1000 tomorrow; suppose negotiation is not an option; suppose the attack which kills 50 is certain to destroy the threat. Well, now the attack is looking justified, but it is not looking much like Israel's assault on Gaza.

Now, as for Clinton's comment, I would expect any statement on this issue by anyone in the White House to include a good number of absurdities. In this case, she's actually too easy on both sides. "Regrettable" is much too tame a word to describe Hamas' strategy with respect to Israel. And Israel's response is not plausibly construed as self-defense.

voter said...

Interesting article today:
http://www.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSTRE50R4IL20090128

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt aired its grievances against Iran, the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas and the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, saying they worked together in the fighting over Gaza to provoke conflict in the Middle East.

"(They tried) to turn the region to confrontation in the interest of Iran, which is trying to use its cards to escape Western pressure ... on the nuclear file," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in an interview with Orbit satellite channel broadcast Wednesday.

voter said...

You somehow transform this into "incidental civilian injury or damage which would be expected if the enemy were following all the rules on their end"

Yes, I transform this by noting other parts of the LOAC, like distinction, which affect proportionality. I disagree with your view that these rules are rigidly independent.

As for comparing the 10 to the 50 -- no, this is not how it works. I explained before: it is not as if Israel gets a coupon for a dead Palestinian citizen every time an Israeli citizen is killed. One obvious problem with that arithmetic would be that it looks backwards rather than forwards. Any attack which only looks backwards is mere reprisal and revenge, not a justified use of force.

That's why I noted that "Hamas has shown the intent to use it again."

Suppose the killing of the 10 yesterday was just a trial run for a weapon that will kill 1000 tomorrow; suppose negotiation is not an option; suppose the attack which kills 50 is certain to destroy the threat.

Suppose Hamas moves the threat to a location where its destruction would likely result in 3000 civilian deaths, rather than the 50 at its current location. Is the attack justified?

Toby said...

Voter,

Reread the section on proportionality in that LOAC document. It speaks pretty plainly. There is the word "expected"; there is no "except" or "unless" clause. Nothing in the section on distinction negates anything in the section of proportionality. If there was something that was supposed to do so, it would do so explicitly. Look up other law of war or just war documents, and you'll find the same thing. You may want the LOAC to say something different, but it doesn't. If you want to maintain your view, you should reject the LOAC. I won't mind--you're the one who brought it up, not me.

Suppose Hamas moves the threat to a location where its destruction would likely result in 3000 civilian deaths, rather than the 50 at its current location. Is the attack justified?

No. Time for a new plan.

And it is good of you not to specify the ethnicity of the civilians, since that is morally irrelevant.