“Just” War and the Public Responsibility

It shouldn’t have taken this long, but finally two men with world-renowned credibility (and, I might add, also two men with a strong pro-Israel background, uncompromised by their balanced view of things) have taken up the argument (Article in Hebrew only) against the notion that Israeli soldiers are more important than Arab civilians.

Blogger Jerry Haber raises the question (English translation of the article is at that link) that Michael Walzer and Avishai Margalit do not-whether the Gaza war was justified or not. But there’s another question that needs to be asked, and on some level, it’s even more disturbing.

As the destruction rained down on Gaza, Israeli leaders kept repeating the mantra that this would not “be another Lebanon.” We heard that the lessons of the Winograd Commission were learned and that Israel would conduct this war differently.

Indeed, the lesson of Lebanon was learned. The message that came to the Prime Minister’s office and the halls of the Knesset was sent by the Israeli public’s deafening silence for most of that war. The handling of the war was criticized, but only at the end, when Israel sent its troops deep into Lebanon for a pointless last battle which cost the lives of about a dozen Israeli soldiers did a serious protest erupt.  The push for the Winograd investigation came after the war, and was focused on the loss of IDF lives and the perceived failure of the war.

Only the hardcore left in Israel had protested the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006. But when those soldiers were killed, protests suddenly sprang up in the mainstream of Israeli society. That was the lesson the Israeli leadership learned from Lebanon. It was the vindication, for them, of Professor Asa Kasher’s contention that “our” soldiers are more important than “their” civilians.

The lesson learned was to keep the media out, and to make sure Israeli casualties were kept to a bare minimum. That lesson resulted in the Gaza war.

This is the moral degradation of Israeli society that a century of conflict and 42 years of occupation have brought about. To be sure, irredentism, war and terrorism on the Arab side is a major ingredient in this degradation. But even under those circumstances, this didn’t have to happen.

As many people are warning of the death of the two-state solution, a warning that should be given the utmost attention, those of us who still care about Israel’s moral and social well-being-that is, those who care that Israel survive in something other than mere form-need to also come to its aid now. We must call out the barbaric behavior demonstrated in Gaza, and we need to make it clear that the success or failure of an Israeli military venture is not measured only by how many Israelis are killed, but also by how much damage Israel does to innocents.

Gaza was not just a failure of Israeli leadership. The crimes of Hamas are severe, and Israel needed to act in some way (whether or not that meant war). But the level of civilian damage was terribly high enough that it seems very likely that, even if Israelis weren’t trying to harm civilians, they weren’t trying hard enough not to. And that was as much due to the indifference of the Israeli public as it was to the callousness and cynicism of its leaders.

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