Just War and a path to peace

The partisan coverage the sad events in the Holy Land reminded me of the traditional ‘Just War’ analysis which distinguishes ‘Jus ad Bellum’ (Just cause for going to war) and ‘Jus in Bello’ (Just conduct of a war).

It is striking that both sides claim as their casus belli the failure by their opponents to observe the rules of war. Sadly, despite citing the enemy’s harm to innocent civilians as the justification for taking up arms, they then proceed to claim that the dreadfulness of their opponents justifies disregarding the rules of war.

The moral double standards are at least as much in evidence in the west, as on the ground. The initial attacks by Hamas were justified (or even celebrated) by those focusing on wrongs done by Israel, woke’s bien pensant commentators (including the BBC, BLM, and seemingly all of Harvard university) tell us it is wrong to focus on Hamas’s disregard for Jus in Bello, because it victim-blames and deflects from the ‘nobility’ of the Jus ad Bellum. The Anglo-American-European establishment sees the horrors of Hamas terrorism, and insists that we must ‘Stand with Israel’ by which they mean not only that we should offers sympathy for their loss, and agree that the attack constitutes a good reason to go to war against Hamas (which is largely uncontroversial), but also that we should accept Israel itself disregarding the rules of war.

However angry we are, and however tempting it is to need to ‘hit back’, it is essential that we cleave to Jus in Bello as a non negotiable. Gaza is home to over a million children, they are the ones who have suffered most from Hamas (and previously the PLO/Fatah) failing to put the welfare of their civilians first. Hamas has an army of c30,000 (Times of Israel estimate from 2021), that is under 1.5% of the population of Gaza. Indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, and imposing a siege denying Gaza’s water/food/fuel guarantees inflicting 98.5% of the harm on non-soldiers. For every Hamas soldier, there are 49 children, 25 women, and 24 civilian men.

The most relevant international law seems to be Article 33 of the Geneva Convention on reprisals/collective punishment (No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed) , which was ratified by Israel in 1951, and Article 2 of the 1980 Protocol III on Incendiary Weapons which restricts use of phosphorus weapons and bans their use in places ‘within a concentration of civilians’. The Washington Post’s reporting suggests breaches of these laws.

Being ‘the good guys’ involves not doing bad things. And, to Israel, this sometimes seems like unfair discrimination: why are people more outraged when Israel hurts innocents, than when Saudi Arabia in Yemen, or China in Tibet hurts civilians? But, rather than seeing it as unfair, I think that the expectation of civilised conduct by Israel reflects the opposite of ‘The Tyranny of low expectations’. In education, ‘The Tyranny of low expectations’ involves making allowances for disadvantaged minorities, and not expecting them to excel, which can be a self-fulfilling prophesy that disadvantages the very people that ‘the allowances’ were expected to help. Internationally, we in the west expect ‘countries like us’ to abide by certain standards. We were shocked when America post 9/11 used torture. When I read “Papillion” I was horrified that France in the twentieth century employed torturers to punish common criminals. The revulsion at Idi Amin in Uganda torturing opponents was different, because, at some level, such conduct by an African dictator in the 1970s, while dreadfully wrong, was not surprising, whereas when France or the USA tortures it is going against the fundamental values one associates with the countries. Similarly we feel shame and bewilderment at notionally Christian Lebanese militias massacring hundreds, possibly thousands, in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982. We expect better of Christians. We also expect high standards of Buddhists, from what we understand of their religion, it is about not harming other sentient beings, which makes it difficult to understand Sri Lankan Sinhalese attacks on the Tamil minority in 1983 and the subsequent civil war.

Despite Hamas & some Likud-coalition voices that call for disregarding the rules of war, and urge ‘their side’ on to wipe out their opponents, the differences between the Abrahamic religions do not have to lead to an agenda of annihilating ‘the other’. The Hamas hatred agenda is sometimes not just against Israel and its government but against Jews everywhere, Hamas official Fathi Hamad in 2019 was calling on the Palestinian diaspora to engage in genocide "Seven million Palestinians outside, enough warming up, you have Jews with you in every place. You should attack every Jew possible in all the world and kill them.” Harvard Professor Jemma Decristo goes even further, calling for the murder of the children of any journalist deemed to be ‘Zionist’. The idea of academia involving debate between ideas is dead. On the other side Former Israeli PM Naftali Bennett was enraged last week and attacked a journalist “Are you seriously asking me about Palestinian Civilians? What is wrong with you?”, not simply seeing innocent children as unworthy of consideration, but deeming concern for the children to be a madness, as does Ariel Kallner who in the Knesset called for a second ‘Nakba’ to drive Palestinians out of Gaza (echoing the 1948 ethnic cleaning of Christians & moslems).

Elements of both sides seem to see ‘the other’ as less than human (worrying echoes of Rwanda’s Hutu government describing Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’ to incite the 1994 genocide, and the 1935+ German policy classifying Jews initially as second class citizens, then as subhuman). But that does not make the problem impossible to solve. Similar passions were once unleashed in factional wars between different Christian denominations. Roman Catholic rulers burned protestants, Cromwell’s puritans imprisoned Roman Catholics and confiscated their land. Medieval Christians choosing to torture their fellow Christians over theological differences is now bewildering, and seen as not at all Christian by most who profess the faith. So let’s not fall into the trap of taking at face value the claims of atrocity-committing fanatics that they represent ‘true Islam’ or ’the interests of the Jews’. These are merely the latest incarnation of people seeking power by claiming to advance the will of the almighty, while their actions do the opposite.

Despite often bloody crusades in the more distant past, the Holy Land in the nineteenth century saw peaceful coexistence of the Abrahamic religions. Arguably it was fraternal coexistence within the semitic peoples, the distinctions being more theological than genetic. The Christians of the Holy Land, like Christ himself, being ethnic Jews that embraced the new covenant. And the Mohammedans as much the descendants of Jews and Christians that took to the crescent (not always voluntarily) as of the conquering Islamic neighbours. I am no Quranic scholar, but most schoolboys learned about the Crusades, and Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1187, when, after the city surrendered, his troops did not abuse the Christian population, or tear down churches, despite several holy Muslim places having been violated by Christians during their control.

The most optimistic, and light-filled take I have read on the situation came from Naomi Wolf, an American Jewish feminist campaigner and commentator:



Okay, so I was challenged below: "Read the Bible! God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people." So....I may get crucified for this but I have started to say it – most recently (terrified, trembling) to warm welcome in a synagogue in LA: Actually if you read Genesis Exodus and Deuteronomy in Hebrew – as I do – you see that God did not "give" Israel to the Jews/Israelites. We as Jews are raised with the creed that "God gave us the land of Israel" in Genesis – and that ethnically 'we are the chosen people." But actually – and I could not believe my eyes when I saw this, I checked my reading with major scholars and they confirmed it – actually God's "covenant" in Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy with the Jewish people is NOT ABOUT AN ETHNICITY AND NOT ABOUT A CONTRACT. IT IS ABOUT A WAY OF BEHAVING.
Again and again in the "covenant" language He never says: "I will give you, ethnic Israelites, the land of Israel." Rather He says something far more radical - far more subversive – far more Godlike in my view. He says: IF you visit those imprisoned...act mercifully to the widow and the orphan...welcome the stranger in your midst...tend the sick...do justice and love mercy ....and perform various other tasks...THEN YOU WILL BE MY PEOPLE AND THIS LAND WILL BE YOUR LAND. So "my people" is not ethnic – it is transactional. We are God's people not by birth but by a way of behaving, that is ethical, kind and just. And we STOP being "God's people" when we are not ethical, kind and just. And ANYONE who is ethical, kind and just is, according to God in Genesis, "God's people." And the "contract" to "give" us Israel is conditional – we can live in God's land IF we are "God's people" in this way – just, merciful, compassionate. AND – it never ever says, it is ONLY your land. Even when passages spell out geographical "boundaries" as if God does such a thing, it never says this is exclusively your land. It never says I will give this land JUST to you. Remember these were homeless nomads who had left slavery in Egypt and were wandering around in the desert; at most these passages say, settle here, but they do not say, settle here exclusively. Indeed again and again it talks about welcoming "zarim" – translated as "strangers" but can also be translated as "people/tribes who are not you" – in your midst. Blew my mind, hope it blows yours.


The devil whispers otherwise to us, but we can not ‘do good’ through evil actions. Many evil acts begin with the assumption that we are good ex-officio, and that what we have chosen as ‘the good’ is so entirely aligned with the almighty’s agenda, that anything we do to advance it must be his will. Such a position is one that the devil finds easy to manipulate. Once the goal is vast enough and important enough (advancing God’s plan), why be constrained in what you do to get there? The dilemma is sometimes put as “Would you torture a child of Hitler’s in front of him, if you knew that it could stop him committing genocide & WW2?”, but this is the devil’s question, despite what he is saying, the only certainty is that if you torture Hitler’s child, you become a torturer.

Those calling for ‘total war’ and a rules-free, morality-free annihilation of ‘the other’, implicitly think that total victory is possible, and that there need be no meaningful negotiation. They hold out the mirage of total domination of the land, an ability to enjoy it without needing to share it. This will never occur. Only a negotiated peace can work. If Hamas murdered every Jew in the holy land, they would not be the triumphant rulers of a thriving Jerusalem & Jaffa in which everyone accepted sharia law and thanked Hamas for their deliverance. The Jewish diaspora, and their allies, including majorities in many Christian countries, would not look on quietly. Nor would Ariel Kallner’s wished-for second Nakba bring anything other than more of the strife sown by the first Nakba. Hamas, Kallner, and their ilk, have been seduced by the Devil.

When considering “Why should we behave with restraint when confronted by an enemy that wishes to wipe us from the land?”, I am reminded of the story of the boy who comes home to his father and complains that, while on the tube, he gave up his seat for a businesswoman who did not even say thank you. His father consoles him “You should not worry about such trifles. You give up you seat not because she is a Lady, but because you are a Gentleman”.

The choice is ‘who are we?’, and the answer lies in our actions. Or, as it was put in the Holy Land, c2,000 years ago (Matthew 7:16) “By their fruits ye shall know them”.

This followed “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” My guess is that today’s false prophets are those painting a picture of victorious peace achieved by ethnically cleansing ‘the other’. They do not have a natural majority: most Israelis don’t celebrate the Nakba, or want a second one, and would be happy with a safe and peaceful existence on the basis enshrined in Israel’s accession to the UN in 1949. And most of the Christians & Moslems in Gaza, and East Jerusalem/West Bank, want noting more than to get on with peaceful lives, living in harmony with neighbours who respect their position on the land, and unmolested by the government (Likud or Hamas or Fatah): a 2016 study by Pew research into attitudes in Israel found that 79% Of Christians & 62% of Muslims have friendships outside their religion. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2016/03/08/israels-religiously-divided-society/ Coexistence is not an unrealistic pipe dream, and peace has its own momentum. In Ireland, the peace is flawed, messy, and unjust, but a return to the 1970s/80s strife is unimaginable, mothers simply will not let their children be sacrificed

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