Monday, January 5, 2009

War is Hell

The SJ Merc published an interesting letter (1/4/09, 12A) about the current Middle East war:

The similarity between the Native American Indians and the Palestinians is that in the case of both people, lands were taken from them by violence, and their people were decimated so that someone else could establish a new nation on their land. The difference between them is that Native American Indians eventually gave up, accepted their fate and moved to reservations. The Palestinians have never given up, and they still want their land back.

Bob Christensen
San Jose

I am a fervent believer in non-violence, but as an attorney, I also accept the legal principle of self-defense. This principle states:

Use of force is justified when a person reasonably believes that it is necessary for the defense of oneself or another against the immediate use of unlawful force. However, a person must use no more force than appears reasonably necessary in the circumstances.

Force likely to cause death or great bodily harm is justified in self-defense only if a person reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.

The following line, from above, strikes me as pivotal: "However, a person must use no more force than appears reasonably necessary in the circumstances." Its essential meaning is that self-defense must be proportionate.

The Gaza Strip, because it is densely populated, presents an interesting moral question. When dealing with one of the most densely populated places in the world, how does a country attack and defend itself proportionately? If it uses ground troops in an effort to avoid indiscriminate bombing, it will sustain more deaths on its side. On the other hand, if it uses air attacks, it will knowingly kill many more civilians than necessary, but with fewer losses on its own side.

Palestine is also presented with difficult moral questions. It appears its neighbor is continuing to annex more Palestinian land through settlements, an action both the U.N. and the U.S. have opposed. Palestine's weaponry is not as sophisticated as its neighbor's, so attacking only military installations would be impossible or futile. If, however, it is completely non-violent, then it will lose more land and civilian lives as Israel builds more settlements and protects those settlements with force. Malcolm X once pointed out that nonviolence isn't always wise: "Concerning nonviolence: It is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks. It is legal and lawful to own a shotgun or a rifle. We believe in obeying the law." (Of course, both Israelis and Palestinians could use this Malcolm X quote to justify their actions.)

In the end, neutral observers are left with a Catch-22 situation. When confronted with a Catch-22 situation, any ethical action must involve extricating both sides from the Catch-22. This means creating an environment where each side has viable options. What makes this goal so complicated is the presence of religion (i.e., Jerusalem) and an absence of products that can create substantial trade.

Palestinians, being generally poor, cannot afford high-margin Israeli products, which are generally marketed to developed countries. While Palestinians can function as laborers for the generally more affluent Israelis, even this potential economic cooperation is complicated because of the limited land in Israel and Palestine. The fact that land is limited creates disincentives for Israel to treat Palestinian workers as anything more than short-term, throw-away workers. Just as Palestinians oppose the building of settlements on their land, Israel will most likely never accept substantial Palestinian immigration or permanent settlement. As a result, Israel is forced to treat Palestinian workers as means to an end, rather than an end in itself. When the best-case scenario violates Kant's rule, we can see why this situation is so complex. (In contrast, America has vast tracts of land and liberal citizenship laws, allowing America to more easily accept and assimilate Mexicans.)

I have always believed economics is the key to any successful relationship, because it causes each side to be useful to each other, which leads to a natural interest in each side's long-term health. After all, one cannot sell products to a dead man, no matter how great the product, or how much money the dead man has.

From my non-expert angle, I see peace only when the following occurs: one, territorial boundaries are firmly established and protected (temporarily) by a strong, neutral third-party; and two, Palestinians become more affluent through trade--which requires them to manufacture products needed in neighboring countries and to be able and willing to trade with Israelis and other neighbors.

Update on January 6, 2009:

A U.N. school has been hit by an Israeli mortar:

Also, according to CNN, "A Hamas rocket penetrated farther than ever before into Israel on Tuesday, landing in the town of Gadera, about 23 miles (36 kilometers) north of the Gaza border, the Israeli military said. On Monday, a rocket hit a kindergarten in Ashdod, about 16 miles (26 kilometers) north of Gaza." The school was vacant at the time, so no civilian casualties were reported.

Bombing any densely populated area will knowingly result in civilian casualties. Thus, no matter how civilized a society is, and no matter how much it strives not to target civilians, bombing densely populated areas is an automatically uncivilized course of action. Call me an idealist, but I just can't wrap my head around the concept of "collateral damage." I agree with Mohandas K. Gandhi when he said, "What does it matter to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?"

Idealism aside, the question still remains: "How can the world persuade Hamas to stop firing rockets?" Hamas has agreed to several cease-fires, which shows that it will respond to various incentives. If the British were able to persuade the Irish Republican Army to disarm, especially after bombs like this, there must be a way to persuade Hamas to disarm as well. The alternative is more civilian deaths on both sides, more images Hamas will use to recruit more men, and more pain and suffering on both sides.

Here is one idea to reduce civilian casualties: prior to an attack or war, Israel should offer safehouses on its own soil. All children under 18 years of age and all women would be able to cross the border into the safehouses. These Palestinian residents would be returned after the war or attack was over. I am not an expert on war, but there must be some way to mitigate civilian casualties so that schoolchildren are not at risk.


"I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it." -- President Dwight D. Eisenhower


Update on January 8, 2009: Charlie Rose interviewed Bob Simon with a special focus on the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The result is an informative primer for anyone searching for answers on how to improve Israel-Palestinian relations:

Readers who prefer a transcript rather than video should scroll down and hit the "Transcript" tab (located next to "Comments").

More info: here is a NY Times op-ed, from the Palestinian perspective ("What You Don't Know about Gaza").

Update on January 10, 2010: here is a WSJ op-ed (this link doesn't appear to work, so you may want to google ALAN M. DERSHOWITZ, July 3, 2009, "Has Obama Turned on Israel?"). Dershowitz agrees with and quotes Yousef Munayyer: "'Obama should make it clear to the Israelis that settlers should feel free to grow their families as long as their settlements grow vertically, and not horizontally,'" he wrote last month in the Boston Globe. In other words, build 'up' rather than 'out.'"

Also, here is an interview with Mr. Olmert (NYT, by Ethan Bronner, 9/29/08):

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview published on Monday that Israel must withdraw from nearly all of the West Bank as well as East Jerusalem to attain peace with the Palestinians and that any occupied land it held onto would have to be exchanged for the same quantity of Israeli territory.

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