The current Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears to touch on issues of morality on at least two levels.
The primary dimension concerns the morality of targeting civilians. The arguments are familiar. Israel, its supporters, and many in the West--particularly the United States--contend that there is a substantive and moral difference between its insistence on deliberately targeting only terrorists and its efforts to avoid injury to Palestinian civilians, on the one hand, and the readiness of Palestinian terrorist organizations to target Israeli civilians, on the other. In reply, Palestinian terrorists frequently argue that, in effect, all Israelis are past, current or future soldiers; or they claim that, as the weaker side militarily, they have no alternative.
By and large, I believe that the distinction between Israeli and Palestinian attitudes toward targeting civilians places us on the cutting edge--regarding moral values--of a war of civilizations. This argument characterizes not only Israel's war, but that of the United States as well, in confronting Islamic radical suicide terrorists who deliberately target American and other civilians. But it has to be tempered with due consideration for topical and tactical factors. Beyond everything else, here in Israel/Palestine we all know that eventually we are going to have to find a way to live with one another as neighbors, no matter what the moral legacy of war in the eyes of each side.
This brings us to a second dimension of ethics and morality: what is and is not permissible in the public debate and in non-governmental activities concerning the war. In Israel we have two striking recent examples.
First, several weeks ago 27 Israel Air Force pilots, most of them not even in active reserve duty, published a statement alleging that the IAF was in fact not maintaining its own standards for avoiding civilian casualties. The IAF, the pilots alleged, had in effect crossed the line and was knowingly and willfully endangering civilians in its efforts to target terrorists in crowded urban areas, primarily in the Gaza Strip. Most of the Israeli public, and nearly the entire security establishment, rejected the protest, and argued that such a blanket and public refusal to obey orders was a violation of the military code; many also deemed it an unethical politicization of the military (the pilot protesters also argued against the occupation) and an unhealthy precedent for soldiers with right wing sympathies who might in future disobey orders to dismantle settlements. But because IAF pilots are held up as an elite corps, it was clear even to many angry critics that this group of "refusalists" could not easily be ignored: they were sending a message to the public about the country's morals that at least had to be given due thought and consideration, and that might be more important than the protesters' decision to ignore the legal niceties.
The second Israeli example is the so-called "Geneva agreement" to end (at a virtual level) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that was reached last week by Yossi Beilin, Yasser Abed Rabbo and their supporters and colleagues. Leaving aside for the moment an analysis of the agreement's contents (which can only be undertaken seriously once they are released to the public), many of its detractors in Israel argue that it was somehow immoral, unethical, or even illegal for a group of Israeli citizens who oppose their government's policies to draw up a "virtual" peace agreement with the Palestinian enemy. It is also alleged that it was improper for foreign governments, led by the Swiss, to engage in financing and sponsoring such an endeavor.
It is relatively easy to refute the protests regarding the legality or morality of Beilin's action: Beilin is a politician, and all's fair in (Israeli) politics. Likud politicians, when out of power, hold secret meetings with our Arab neighbors in an effort to influence election results, and brazenly lobby in Washington against Labor government policies. Beilin, who has registered a number of unofficial agreements with senior Palestinian leaders over the years, some when Labor was actually heading the government, would also presumably argue that his is the only effective way to move the process forward, and that the goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace justifies his tactics. Besides, Beilin made little effort over the past two years to hide what he and Abed Rabbo were trying to do; the protests emerged only when he succeeded in delivering an agreement.
This brings us, in conclusion, full circle to the issue of moral differences between Israeli and Palestinian society. Beilin (or Ami Ayalon, coauthor of another, shorter, formula for peace) never asked Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for permission. But his Palestinian counterparts to agreements over the years were in all cases emissaries of leader Yasir Arafat. Indeed, in some 15 years of track II diplomacy with Palestinian counterparts, I have rarely met one who did not acknowledge that, one way or another, Arafat or his senior lieutenants were in the picture and sanctioned the meetings.
One can, of course, argue about Arafat's motives in directly or indirectly controlling these contacts: advancing peace, fragmenting the Israeli polity, "knowing" the enemy, maintaining his dictatorial grip--or perhaps all of the above. But the pilots' protest and the Geneva agreement are first and foremost hallmarks of Israel's open and vibrant civil society. Prime Minister Sharon, who values public consensus regarding his policies, has no alternative but to take notice.
It is hard to find parallels in Palestine, where the "moral" argument usually consists of the blanket determination that Israel is morally in the wrong and Palestine in the right.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
In general, it is difficult to refer to any armed or violent conflict as "moral" in the sense that usually one party if not both overstep the line of what is considered appropriate behavior. Further, the narrative of a conflict often rests on the definition of what is moral in the eyes of the beholder.
From its inception, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was no different, with immoral behavior spurring a tragedy that devastated the Palestinian people. Our conflict began when Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine intending to establish a political entity for the Jewish people on this land--land already home to Palestinians. One of the strategies employed by these immigrants included the forceful taking of land belonging to Palestinian farmers. Then in 1948, 800,000 Palestinians were expelled and fled from their land, becoming refugees. Jewish militias carried out a series of massacres intending to frighten villagers with a dire fate if they remained. Finally, once the land had come under Jewish control, 400 Palestinian villages were entirely demolished to prevent their inhabitants from returning. This erasing of the landscape was not the result of an earthquake or nature taking its course, but the willful act of human beings against an entire community.
For three decades, Israel tried to deny that this injustice was intentional, until Israeli historians, the "new historians", documented with the help of records released from Israel's archives that many of these massacres were carried out in order to generate terror and thus cause Palestinians to leave their land for other destinations. Today, we are reaping the seeds planted in Israel's birth. All that has happened since occurred in the context of this historic injustice, which was conducted with the tacit support of the British Mandate government and later, that of the United States.
Born from this rocky soil, Palestinian engagement has also wavered between the poles of acceptable resistance and immorality, as it were. During the sixties, when the Palestinian people and leadership found themselves dispersed and desperate to remain on the agenda, some attacks targeting civilians (Israelis and westerners) were tried with the intention of attracting the world's attention. This worked in practice but failed in strategy, as such activities only earned the Palestinian people a very negative reputation from which they suffer yet today. In the late eighties, a different tack was tried in the form of the intifada, or uprising, in which Palestinians used boycotts and strikes and peaceful public demonstrations to try to rid themselves of the Israeli occupation and correct the injustice they had experienced.
Unfortunately, the negotiations that resulted from the intifada still did not bring Palestinians closer to their objective of ending the occupation and a just resolution for the refugee crisis. This failure brought Palestinians to the next phase of the Palestinian struggle that used illegal tactics--during the peace process itself. Here we saw vicious and immoral attacks by both sides against the civilians of the other. In 1990, Israeli soldiers killed 23 unarmed Palestinians that had come to protest a right-wing Israeli demonstration at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque. In another case, 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron were killed by right-wing Israeli Baruch Goldstein, whose memory is still revered at a shrine erected in the Hebron settlement of Kiryat Arba.
But that period was also the beginning of the phenomenon of suicide bombings and the engagement of Islamist groups in their violent struggle with Israel. Although suicide bombings inside Israel have always been condemned by the Palestinian leadership, both because they are seen as "dirty warfare" and because they contradict the leadership's political program, which advocates the two state solution and therefore opposes armed attacks inside the borders of Israel, the two sides seem to be inexorably caught in the grip of uninhibited violence against the other.
Recently, there have been calls from both sides for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians to stop targeting civilians. But only during the several weeks of tenure of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas were Palestinian militants convinced to stop attacks, and subsequently there was a marked drop in attacks on civilians on both sides. Unfortunately, that respite ended with the renewal of Israeli assassinations of Palestinian activists, and with it Palestinian reciprocity.
Where there is violence, there are bound to be atrocities, and if we have learned anything in our history, it is that violence between Palestinians and Israelis stems from the lack of a political solution that will ensure our future and address the wrongs of the past. The only way to end the suffering of both peoples is through political engagement that has the power to demonstrate to both publics that there is a peaceful means by which Palestinians can end the occupation, which is the source of all their problems, and through which Israelis can achieve the objectives of integration, peace and security.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He was formerly minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet and has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The Israel Defense Forces' moral code of warfare
by Shlomo Gazit
About 60 years ago I was a member of the Jewish underground in Eretz Yisrael/Palestine. I was a member of the Hagana, and in 1944 I was conscripted into the Palmach, the Hagana's standing unit that was at the command of the elected institutions of the Jewish Yishuv, or community.
In 1945 I was dispatched on my first military action, a demonstrative act of sabotage at 10 locations along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railroad. We considered our military struggle to be a legitimate one: we sought to end the British Mandate and establish an independent and sovereign Hebrew state. In the short term we had two objectives: we demanded annulment of the "White Paper" and the British lands act, along with entry into the country of hundreds of thousands of Jews who had survived the Nazi extermination camps.
We were convinced that we were waging a legitimate and moral struggle. The British called it acts of terrorism. It was a classic example of the difficulty of finding an agreed definition. To my mind the definition was pure and simple: the key to distinguishing between a legitimate struggle and acts of terrorism is not the strategic objectives of the perpetrator; rather, it lies in the tactics of warfare and the targets that are hit.
Recently we were once again confronted with this issue in the case of a letter signed by 27 Israel Air Force (IAF) pilots, who declared that they would refuse in future to take part in military actions against targets located in populated areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They refused to engage in any offensive action that could inadvertently end up in injury to innocent civilians.
I can understand the writers' spirit. But I completely reject their collective refusal to obey orders. This refusal is primarily political, not moral.
Since the insane slaughter carried out by Border Patrol soldiers in Qafr Qassem (October 1956), the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has openly defined what constitutes a clearly illegal command. According to this definition, not only is it unnecessary to carry out such a command, but anyone who does carry it out cannot claim immunity because he was "only obeying orders".
I share the IAF pilots' political outlook. I too want the Israeli occupation to end, with the vast majority of the settlements removed and a political agreement accepted by both sides. Yet despite the 36 years that have elapsed since June 1967, there was nothing illegal or immoral about the IDF conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and we should not confuse a political debate with illegal acts of disobedience.
Unlike Palestinian terrorism that is consciously, deliberately and almost exclusively directed against innocent Israeli civilians, not a single military task assigned to the Israeli security forces has been consciously and with forethought intended to injure civilians. Sadly, the hiding places of Palestinian terrorists are almost always located in the midst of heavily populated urban areas.
Some 60 years ago, at the height of World War II, we witnessed countless military acts that were deliberately directed against innocent civilian populations. Nazi Germany started it when its planes indiscriminately bombed the cities of Poland, and continued with similar bombings of cities in Holland, Belgium and France, followed by the brutal blitz of British cities. The Allies' acts of revenge in bombing Germany and later Japan were no different. Both were clearly illegal acts under the IDF's code of ethics.
I have been involved in Israel's wars since November 29, 1947. All these wars, without exception, were hard and cruel. Yet I am proud that I never was concerned over an issue involving our moral code of warfare. There were--and I fear will be in future--unintended acts of aggression; not a few soldiers at the local level have exceeded orders and violated recognized moral norms. But never was a command given to strike deliberately at civilians.
Despite my differences of opinion with the government's policies, I'm satisfied that this same government maintains the moral code of warfare of the IDF and of the people of Israel at a high level.
Major General (res.) Shlomo Gazit was Israel's first Coordinator of Government Operations in the Administered Territories (1967-1974), and Head of Military Intelligence (1974-1979).
The overwhelming and ongoing atrocities have left most Palestinians with little space and peace of mind to ponder and intellectualize over the moral question of our resistance; most of the time our reactions to events are instinctive and emotional. Those few who still consider the moral, political and strategic aspects of the Palestinian struggle may find themselves at an impasse due to all the contradicting factors: the cruelty of war that hurts the conscience and boggles the mind.
In assessing the Palestinians' resistance, one must take into consideration the troubled context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The occupation of Palestine started with an ideology that denied the very existence of the Palestinian people and pursued a colonial agenda asserting divine claims to acquire the "land without the people." It was in order to gain recognition as a national group, thus defying the colonial agenda, that Palestinians resorted to hijacking in the seventies.
Still today, Palestinians have no state or conventional army. We are subjected to curfews, expulsions, home demolitions, legalized torture, and a wide variety of human rights violations. There is a glaring contrast between the level of official responsibility and the systematic nature of the violence exchanged between Palestinian individuals and the state of Israel. The media has attributed our search for freedom to “terrorism”, thus making the Palestinian the international prototype for the terrorist. This impression has shaped Western public consciousness and resulted in an international bias that tends to convey instances of violence against Palestinian civilians in neutral language, reducing Palestinian losses to mere statistics, while using emotional language and visuals to describe Israeli losses.
The negotiations with Israel have given us nothing but promises of autonomy over our impoverishment, implementing what is acceptable to the mighty and treating facts established illegally as the basis for a settlement. Most missing in this peace process was an honest peace broker. The United Nations has been unable to take steps to ensure the implementation of Palestinian rights. The world has offered not a single remedy for the numerous wrongs Palestinians have endured; the American veto in the Security Council has been used repeatedly against the broad consensus calling for an international monitoring presence in the West Bank and Gaza. The relentless denial of Palestinian rights without an effective international response has left us acutely aware that self-help is our only hope. We are facing a brutal occupation with bare chests and empty arms.
International law gives a people fighting an illegal occupation the right to use “all necessary means at their disposal" to end their occupation, and the occupied “are entitled to seek and receive support" (I quote here several United Nations resolutions). Armed resistance was used in the American revolution, the Afghan resistance against Russia, the French resistance against the Nazis, and even in the Nazi concentration camps, or more famously in the Warsaw Ghetto. Palestinian resistance varies from that which is non-violent and widespread: simply continuing to live, study, pray and plant in occupied land despite all the odds, to active resistance and the use of violence. This violent resistance can be defensive (and to my mind morally acceptable), such as the resistance of the fighters of Jenin refugee camp as Israeli death machines approached, or in the form of unacceptable offensive acts, such as the bombing of Israelis celebrating a Passover meal. In all these cases, it is individuals that choose their form of resistance; the choices they make should not color the entire nation. And, as we have seen, both peaceful and violent resistance is met with profound state violence from the Israeli side. The death of American activist Rachel Corrie is evidence of that.
Violent resistance arises from an inhuman military occupation, one that levies punishment without fairness, denies the possibility of livelihood and diverts the prospects of a promising future. The Palestinian people have not gone to another people’s homeland to kill or dispossess. Our ambition is not to blow ourselves up in order to terrify others. We are asking for what all other people have and deserve, a decent life in a homeland.
What is most troubling about the critiques of our resistance is that they seem to care little about our suffering, the withholding of what we once possessed, and the violation of our most basic rights. Our murder leaves those critics cold. Our peaceful, everyday struggle to have a decent life leaves no impression. There is outrage and condemnation when some of us follow the instinct of retaliation and revenge. Israeli security is deemed more important than our livelihood; Israeli children more human than ours; Israeli pain more inflammatory than ours. They dismiss us as terrorists, enemies of human life and civilization. And so I emphasize, it is not for their sake that we must revisit our resistance, but because we care about Palestinian morality and morale.
To submit to injustice is incompatible with psychological health. Resistance is a right, a duty and a remedy for the oppressed. It is important, however, to design limits for the use of arms. Palestinian resistance must be explored and assessed from the perspectives of law, morality and politics, taking timing and context into account and with sensitivity for widely-shared norms of behavior. Palestinians need to be creative in providing effective peaceful alternatives for resistance that can invite the progressives of the world to join our struggle. The strength of the Palestinian plight lies in its moral, humanitarian characteristics; we should find moral, humanitarian means to protect that strength.
Samah Jabr is a writer and medical doctor in Jerusalem.
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