What has happened in Gaza reminds me of what happened when I moved to West Philadelphia in 1986. Soon after moving in, I was shocked to learn that police had dropped bombs on a nearby community of black radicals, killing eleven people. Here’s the story as told in Wiki:
In 1981, a radical community of black activists called MOVE relocated to a row house at 6221 Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia. Neighbors complained for years that MOVE members were broadcasting political messages by bullhorn at all hours and also about the health hazards created from piles of compost. On May 13, 1985, after the complaints as well as indictments of numerous MOVE members for crimes including parole violation, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms, and making terrorist threats, the police department attempted to clear the building and arrest the indicted MOVE members. This led to an armed standoff with police. The police lobbed tear gas canisters at the building. MOVE members fired at the police, and the police returned fire with semiautomatic weapons. A Pennsylvania State Police helicopter then dropped two one-pound bombs made of FBI-supplied water gel explosive, a dynamite substitute, targeting a fortified, bunker-like cubicle on the roof of the house.
The resulting fire ignited a massive blaze that eventually destroyed approximately 60 houses nearby. Eleven people (John Africa, five other adults and five children) died in the resulting fire. Ramona Africa, one of the two survivors, claimed that police fired at those trying to escape the burning house, while the police stated that MOVE members had been firing at police.
Mayor W. Wilson Goode soon appointed an investigative commission called the PSIC or MOVE commission. It issued its report on March 6, 1986. The report denounced the actions of the city government, stating that "Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable." No one from the city government was charged criminally.
In a 1996 civil suit in US federal court, a jury ordered the City of Philadelphia to pay $1.5 million to a survivor and relatives of two people killed in the bombing. The jury found that the city used excessive force and violated the members' constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Philadelphia was given the sobriquet "The City that Bombed Itself."
Note that in this case, the city didn’t justify its actions based on the argument it “had the right to defend itself.” Certainly the illegal activities of MOVE (like the behavior of Hamas) was a threat that justified some kind of defensive and/or punitive response. The city investigated itself, and found itself guilty, but imposed no penalties. Then a relatively impartial outside agency, the US federal court, investigated the city’s actions and determined that the city used excessive force and needed to compensate the victims.
I think similar argument could be made about Israel’s response to Hamas. Gazan rockets and mortars have killed 40 Israelis in 14 years. That’s 2.8 Israelis per year. During the recent attack on Gaza, Hamas rockets killed 4 civilians. This is tragic, since every life is precious, but hardly an existential threat to Israel. In response to this threat, Israel has killed thousands of Gazans (most of them innocent children and civilians) and inflicted billions of dollars in property damage. By the principle of proportionality, Israel or any country is required to do the least amount of force in order to counter a threat.
In fact, under just war theory (as espoused by the Catholic church, not the Quakers), a country engaged in a defensive war is obliged to meet the following requirements:
- It is necessary that the response be commensurate to the evil; use of more violence than is strictly necessary would constitute an unjust war.
- Once war has begun, there remain moral limits to action. For example, one may not attack innocents or kill hostages.
- It is obligatory to take advantage of all options for dialogue and negotiations before undertaking a war; war is only legitimate as a last resort.
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated (the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition).
Did Israel’s attack on Gaza meet these criteria? Was Hamas’ response to Israel’s actions legal or morally defensible? These are questions that should be answered by an international court of justice. It seems clear to me that both sides bear some measure of responsibility. Outside parties (such as the UN) need to help put this conflict into perspective and help both parties do what is necessary to bring about a just and lasting peace.
As a citizen of the US, I feel I need to do my part to insure that my country does not take sides, but does what it can to enable both parties to live together with dignity and justice for all. I believe that FCNL’s positions would go a long way toward making an enduring peace possible. As Kate Gould writes:
No one—Israeli or Palestinian—should have to live under constant threat of death. The U.S. must call for an immediate ceasefire to stop the killing. That will require engaging not only Israel but also Hamas. But the U.S. must also call on Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza that causes unnecessary suffering for civilians. Without an end to the blockade, the ceasefire will not last.
Violence and military force will never bring peace for Israelis and Palestinians. Military aid to Israel amounting to more than $3 billion per year creates a heavy moral obligation for the U.S. to ensure that this aid is not used in violation of U.S. law and fundamental human rights.