Pilgrim Muses: Has Israel Lost the War Against Hamas?

Pilgrim Muses: Has Israel Lost the War Against Hamas? May 8, 2024

Guest Contributor: Pilgrim

In the early hours of Oct. 7th, 2023, Hamas launched a barrage of 3,000 missiles from the Gaza Strip against the State of Israel, combined with ground attacks upon civilians and soldiers and the murder, mutilation and rape of innocent men, women and children. The resulting one-day death toll of 1,200 people in Israel represented the largest Jewish loss of life since the Holocaust. In addition to murdering civilians and raping women, Hamas seized 253 hostages, Global reaction was swift and widespread, with leaders of democratic nations simultaneously condemning Hamas while asserting Israel’s right to defend itself.

Today, seven months later, the Palestinian death toll stands at 34,500 as Israel continues its offensive on Gaza. A crippling blockade is leaving its population on the verge of starvation and plague. Vast swathes of Gaza lie in ruin, pushing 85% of the enclave’s population into internal displacement with a lack of shelter, food, clean water and medicine. At least 153 hostages remain in the hands of Hamas.

That narrative has now shifted. Israel is increasingly being accused by governments, the United Nations and by wider public opinion, of “collective punishment” on Gazan citizens and of deliberate “genocide.” 

What do we make of these claims? What rational, moral framework can we apply to try to make sense of the seeming senselessness taking place?

Just War

Let me say at the start that, in one sense, it’s always been a misinterpretation of “Just War” theory to say, ‘this is a just war’. All we can say is that, in certain cases, a state has just cause and a duty to defend its citizens by resorting to what would otherwise be an immoral action – i.e. the mass killing of warfare. There must be a just cause – but war itself is a moral failure.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines four conditions that must be met for a war to be considered just:

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; and

The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

The Catechism also discusses the conditions that must be satisfied while fighting a war for the conduct of the war to be just:

The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.”

Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.

Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.

“Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons—especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons—to commit such crimes.

Do these criteria help us?

Hamas’s and Israel’s Responsibilities

What is the limit of acceptable actions that Israel and Hamas can take once war breaks out

Moral responsibility for the civilians of Gaza during this war is not Israel’s alone. Hamas is a participant by virtue of inciting Israel into war and has responsibilities to minimize civilian harm.

Traditionally, protecting non-combatants was done by distinguishing military from civilians by uniforms, by bearing arms openly and by separating weapons of war and military personnel from civilian centers. In theory, this enables the adversaries to practice discrimination. Making this distinction between participants and civilians is easier in war between states. However, with the arrival of proxy wars through insurgent terrorist groups, with modern ‘total war’ and with the power of modern weapons, these break down.

Hamas

Hamas deliberately eschews these requirements, as the terrorist raid on October 7th highlighted, and, in so doing, fails in its moral and legal requirement to protect innocent civilians. It owns a double responsibility. Firstly. for not wearing the uniform; and secondly, for intentionally using civilians as captives and human shields. Hamas thus bears a direct responsibility for civilian casualties in all but those cases where Israeli soldiers fail to limit harm to non-participants or where they deliberately harm civilians.

Israel

By failing to provide means of distinction between military and civilians, Hamas limits the actions that Israel can take. However, despite Hamas’s tactics, there remain ways for Israel to identify targets. This invokes the principles of proportionality and military necessity.

Just war permits Israel to target Hamas despite the potential for harm to non-participants, providing that doing so is necessary to achieve defined military ends. To remain just these actions must invoke all reasonable measures to limit harm to non-combatants, and must also be proportionate to a specific military aim being pursued.

Questions for Israel

Israel’s original intention for counter attacking Hamas – its “jus ad bellum,” i.e. the conditions under which states resort to war – was to rescue the hostages and eliminate Hamas because of its ongoing threat to Israel. It was not revenge for the horrors of October 7th, 2023, although that was the immediate cause. It was about the damage that Hamas could do in the future given it stated intent to annihilate Israel and the savagery and depravity of this attack.

Is Israel aiming for a realistic, achievable goals? Rescuing hostages is a clear and potentially achievable end. But is eliminating Hamas possible? How do you reduce civilian casualties in the face of Hamas tactics? Is her present strategy producing more chaos? Is her approach encouraging future terrorist attacks on her. Is there an alternative approach that can be taken that will remove Hamas?

As the war goes on and civilian deaths rise questions increasingly surface about Israel’s conduct of the war –  her “jus in bello,” i.e. the conditions that must be met or avoided while fighting for the war to be just. The connection between her wider goal of eliminating Hamas and staying within the bounds of moral and international law, is becoming increasingly strained if not broken.

Considerations and Conclusions

Hamas, the de facto government of Gaza, is made up of tens of thousands of fighters, has many civilian functionaries and a vast physical infrastructure embedded within the civilian population. Truly destroying such an entity cannot reasonably be accomplished through force of arms alone.

The Israeli government describes civilian deaths as a regrettable but inevitable consequence of waging a war to eliminate Hamas. Reports indicate that the IDF has significantly damaged Hamas’s infrastructure. Israel has killed or captured around one third of Hamas’s fighting force, destroyed at least half of its rocket stockpile, and demolished somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of its tunnel network under Gaza. The more the war goes on, the higher those numbers will become – as will the deaths of non-combatants. As significant as these achievements are none come close to eliminating Hamas. The group has very deep roots in Gaza – ones that could only be permanently removed by a post-war political arrangement in Gaza – assuming one is possible.

Did Israel have a loose understanding of what the war was about? It seems the stated aim of “destroying Hamas” was maximalist and open-ended, without clarity about how it could be accomplished or what limit there might be on the means used in its pursuit.

When Israel began its ground offensive in Gaza, it concentrated the fighting in northern Gaza Strip – instructing Palestinian civilians to flee to the south to stay out of harm’s way. Today, Israel is considering a major military ground and air offensive in the southern city of Rafah where huge numbers of Palestinian civilians have fled with nowhere else to go. Israel cannot wage war justly when Gazan civilians truly cannot escape.

Just war cannot be ethically waged without having “reasonable prospects for success.” If the objective behind the killing is impossible, or extremely implausible, and predictably entails huge civilian casualties, then the bloodshed is immoral, if not illegal.

In previous wars with Hamas, Israel’s primary objective had been degrading Hamas’s military capabilities and deterring future attacks. These limited aims were accomplished through discriminate military means. If your war aim is the complete destruction of your adversary, then the military advantage of every strike is a greater contribution to that aim. Given the physical layout of Gaza, this inevitably sets a path toward killing tens of thousands of civilians.

The IDF is facing a profoundly challenging operating environment with few true, if any, historical parallels. Yet this does not absolve Israel of its decision to adopt a maximalist war aim or the unusually brutal tactics that followed from it. These were choices Israeli leaders made.

The outline offered by Israeli leadership early in the war of “destroying Hamas” can only realistically be accomplished by replacing its regime in Gaza. Putting in place a new one and removing her responsibility for day-to-day life there. Regime change is the only conceivable way Israel can deliver on its objective. Yet Israel has no clear plan for what comes next. Without a post-war plan, Israel risks something worse than failing to defeat Hamas: bolstering it.

The entire point of the attack on October by Hamas was to provoke a massive Israeli response. The goal being to create a visceral response from Israel that would be seen as so disproportionate that the violence Hamas carried out would be pushed to the side and Israel would be seen as the irrational actor.

In the long run, making Israel look like the depraved side serves two strategic goals for Hamas. First, it puts the Palestinian issue back at the top of the Arab and international political agenda. Second, it convinces Palestinians that Israel must be fought with arms, and that Hamas, rather than the more peace-oriented Fatah, should be leading their struggle. Israel is playing right into Hamas’s hands. The current Israeli approach is less likely to destroy the militant group than to strengthen it.

Pray for peace in the Holy Land.

Thank you!

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