Israel is under attack, and has a right to defend itself. But
the argument "They fire rockets at us; so we fire back" is not
enough. A morality of equivalence is not enough in determining
whether a war is just.
Classically, there are six criteria for a Just War. The first
three demand that there must be just cause, good intention, and
legal authority. Israel can claim all those, although lawful
authority is incomplete; Israel may be a democracy, but many
Palestinians in the region are second-class citizens, and there is
no wider authority from the United Nations.
But there are three other criteria that are more problematic.
Every other way of resolving the problem must have been tried
first. There must be a reasonable chance of military success. And
the means used must be in proportion to the end that the war seeks
to achieve. On these, Israeli conduct is questionable.
It is not necessary to kill people to defend yourself. The Iron
Dome defensive rocket shield shows that. The fact that some
Israelis are sitting on the heights, eating popcorn, watching the
"entertainment" below, as Gaza is bombarded is also an effective
demonstration of the imbalance of power. And the key area on which
the Israeli case founders is proportionality.
More than 1000 Palestinians have died, compared with 56
Israelis, only three of them civilians. More Palestinian children
have been killed than Hamas fighters. The paucity of the argument
that ordinary people just have to move out of the line of fire
(after warnings that a bombardment is imminent) has been exposed by
the shelling of the UN shelter, despite UN officials' giving the
Israeli military the co-ordinates of the shelter no fewer than 12
Responsibility grows commensurately with power. The Israeli army
is the most powerful in the region. The country is backed by the
world's greatest power, the United States. Its Secretary of State
may harbour private doubts, as was shown when a microphone picked
up John Kerry's off-air sarcasm about Israel's self-justifications,
but Washington continues to support Israel politically and
There are interesting parallels on power and responsibility.
Democracies have more responsibilities than dictatorships, just as
adults have more responsibilities than children; tit-for-tat does
not work in parenting. States have more responsibility than
individuals, which is why the terrible fiasco over botched
executions in the US has such resonance: the victims' families may
demand "an eye for an eye", but the state has a higher moral
purpose than vengeance. It is also why it will not wash when Rome
says "the percentage of paedophiles in the Church is no greater
than in the general population": we expect the Church to be better
than the world to which it preaches.
In Gaza, it is by no means certain that the policy of
bombardment has a reasonable chance of success in Israel's stated
objective of ending Hamas rockets. Uprisings in the occupied West
Bank suggest that things could get worse before they get than
All this suggests that Israel has passed a tipping-point, and
stands increasingly condemned in the court of international public
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics
andMedia at the University of Chester.