Crises have a way of disturbing the mind twice over. First, there is the anxiety and anger and distress from the initial event, and then there is that of people’s reaction to it — the moral confusion in the wake of what should be clear.
Granted, much of the world’s response to the unspeakable events on 7 October has been appropriate and level-headed. The elected governments of the Western world are all almost entirely behind Israel. However, as is always the case whenever Israel trades blows with its radical neighbours in the Gaza strip, the streets of Western capitals filled up with Palestinian flags with conspicuous readiness. Some of the protesters were Islamists, but others seemed to be their predictable liberal apologists.
As the bodies of innocent Israelis were still being counted, and the details of the horrors were still emerging, many NGOs and commentators seemed to want to move all too hastily to “root causes” and “context”. A coalition of Harvard university student groups released a statement saying, “We hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for the unfolding violence.” In the US, members of the so-called “Squad” of anti-Israel Democrats wasted no time in calling Israel an “Apartheid state”. All of this is part of a long-standing and widespread Israelaphobia in mainly progressive leftish circles, which is by now very familiar.
Many people attribute this solely to anti-Semitism. Whilst this can account for much of the hatred towards Israel, somehow it has never quite satisfied me. Many of those I know who have come out with ill-conceived statements like “the Jews are doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to them” are not anti-Semites. Some of them have even been Jewish.
Before I go on, I should make clear that there is nothing wrong with sympathising with the plight of the Palestinians. There is also nothing wrong with caring about the fate of civilians in wartime, and thus being angry with Israel if it does not sufficiently mitigate civilian casualties. Israel is not above criticism or indeed condemnation. My point is that the level of scrutiny and condemnation Israel receives is wholly disproportionate and morally confused.
I believe much of this confusion can be attributed to a fixation on power imbalances, with a fetishisation of victimhood — mostly visible on the identitarian left, but by no means limited to it. Such a worldview looks for a context to locate the archetypal downtrodden underdog, and it finds it readily in Palestine. Such ideologues see the massive power imbalance in Israel’s favour, and they believe that this alone demonstrates that the Palestinians deserve support and that Israel deserves none. They believe that the Palestinians’ relative weakness is itself evidence of their oppression — just as many of the same people believe that disparate outcomes within their own societies are themselves evidence of structural prejudice.
However, a power imbalance by itself says very little about the appropriate moral framing of a conflict. The values and intentions of the respective sides matter. What does the one side do with its power, and what would the other side do if they had it?
Were the situation reversed, Israel would surely face an existential threat
Does Israel abuse its power? Absolutely, sometimes it does. It expands its settlements in the occupied West Bank, effectively making territorial encroachments on its neighbours and leaving Palestinian communities cut off from one another. Some crackpot Israeli settlers bully and harass Palestinian communities, with apparent impunity. However — and here is the key point — such abuses would be dwarfed by what the Palestinians would do to the Israelis were power reversed. Hamas, which does not represent all Palestinians, but is a powerful and potentially dominant faction amongst them, enshrines in its charter its intention to destroy the Jewish state. Last Saturday, the group followed through on that stated intention fairly convincingly, with the biggest atrocity committed against the Jewish people since the Holocaust. Even with a monopoly on force, Israel faces an endemic security threat. Were the situation reversed, or even equalised, it would surely face an existential one.
A reductionist attitude to conflict is also the basis for a profound misunderstanding of the ethics of war, which most commonly emerges on the topic of casualty rates. A friend recently sent me a meme (which is, of course, the best way to understand a complex conflict) stating that Israel has killed more Palestinians in the last week than Hamas has killed in the last three years. Comparisons like these are often wheeled out by journalists and commentators, the implication being that this asymmetry is itself overwhelmingly incriminating to Israel. Again, asymmetrical casualty and civilian casualty rates, horrible though they are, must be understood in context. Is this, for instance, because a larger country is preying on its smaller neighbour and terrorising its population into submission, as Russia is to Ukraine? In that case, I join you in condemnation. This is not the case when it comes to Israel and the people of Gaza, however.
The asymmetry of casualties here can largely be attributed to the combined facts that Hamas is simply incapable of killing more Israelis — although evidently not for want of trying — and Israel is incapable of not killing civilians in its wars with Gaza. This is because Hamas embeds itself in the civilian population and launches attacks from residential areas. In times of war, for the Israeli state to fulfil its duty to protect its citizens, it must tragically kill many of its enemies’. Hamas has made it this way — deliberately and cynically. This cynicism should matter.
The Palestinians have good reason to feel aggrieved, and we should seek to understand their rage and resentment and vengefulness fairly, with due sympathy. There is more to conflicts than the balance or imbalance of power, though, and there is more to Israel than its strength. The Jewish state should not be vilified simply for winning. After all, what choice does it have?
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