Are The Activities of Hamas Morally Defensible?
The Reality Of War In The Middle East
By Professor Adam Hosein (Harvard University and The University of Colorado Boulder) and Professor Mahrad Almotahari (The University of Illinois Chicago).
April 1, 2015 Picture: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.
This article is part of The Critique’s exclusive The Great War Series Part I: Gaza, Isis and The Ukraine
“Electricity shortages increased […]. Shortages of fuel led to queues stretching several blocks at petrol stations […]. Garbage piled in the streets because the government couldn’t afford fuel for refuse lorries. […] The water crisis worsened: more than 90 per cent of Gaza’s aquifer was now contaminated.”
Hamas ceded control over Gaza to its political rivals in order to receive financial support in return. But the politicians in the West Bank failed to deliver. “For years”, Thrall observes, “Gazans had been told that the cause of their immiseration was Hamas rule. Now it was over, their conditions only got worse.”
On June 12 of the same year, three Israeli yeshiva students were kidnapped and murdered. Soon thereafter, Israel began its most extensive campaign against Hamas in the West Bank since the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Israel arrested 50 former prisoners that had been released in 2011 as part of an agreement forGilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas. Thrall observes that “Hamas saw the arrests as another violation of the Shalit agreement”.
Even still, Palestianian officials in the West Bank cooperated with Israeli efforts to track down the criminals responsible for the kidnapping and murder of the three students. Many Palestinians protested their leadership’s involvement in the Israeli campaign. Thrall reports, “As protests spread through Israel and Jerusalem, militants in Gaza from non-Hamas factions began firing rockets and mortars in solidarity. Sensing Israel’s vulnerability and the Ramallah leadership’s weakness, Hamas leaders called for the protests to grow into a third intifada.” Not long after Hamas issued the call, rocket fire from Gaza increased.
On July 6 Israel retaliated with bombings that killed seven Hamas militants. On July 7 Hamas officially took responsibility for the rocket launchings into Israel. On July 8 Israel initiated Operation Protective Edge, thus beginning the most recent war in Gaza.
Seven weeks later, the conflict was over. As of September 4, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or UNOCHA, reports that 2,131 Palestinians were killed, of whom 1,473 (or 69 percent) were identified as civilians, including 501 children. The conflict destroyed around 18,000 homes, displacing approximately 110,000 Gazans. Vital infrastructure was also ruined, leaving almost half a million residents of Gaza without access to water during the month of Ramadan. UNOCHA also found that 71 Israelis were killed due to rockets launched from within Gaza, 66 of whom were identified as soldiers and five as civilians. Undoubtedly, the impact of the most recent conflict in Gaza was intensified by a seven-year blockade prohibiting entry of certain goods into the region, including vital building materials, making repair of damaged infrastructure even more difficult. In June of 2010, the blockade was eased, but, according to a study conducted by UNOCHA, the situation wasn’t significantly improved.
A strong case has been made for thinking that Operation Protective Edge was disproportionate and, therefore, unjust. But Hamas too is far from innocent. On more than one occasion Hamas officials agreed to a cease-fire only to resume launching rockets on urban targets.
In light of all this, one might ask several questions.
(1) Do Palestinians (either in Gaza or the West Bank) have grievances of the kind that are in principle sufficient to justify using force (in particular, going to war)?
(2) Should Hamas in fact prosecute a war in light of these grievances?
(3) Are the means that Hamas uses and plans to use in war (e.g., rockets, civilian shields, tunnels near public buildings) just?
These questions are crucially distinct. But the distinctions are sometimes lost in the fray of public discussion about the Arab-Israeli conflict. To those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, it can seem that an affirmative response to the first question compels one to accept an affirmative response to the second question, or even the third. And to those sympathetic to Israel, it can seem that a negative response to the second question, and especially to the third, requires that one accept a negative response to the first. Thus it may appear as though one must either support terrorism or discount legitimate grievances. But let’s try to take these questions separately and see where we end up.
On the first question, one significant factor is the blockade on Gaza and its continuing effect on Palestinian lives. Although the blockade doesn’t prevent certain food items from entering the region, international relief organizations report that the security buffer zone around Gaza made 46 percent of the arable land in the region unusable. As a result, many residents suffer from malnutrition. In fact, 61 percent of all Gazans are reliant on humanitarian aid. And an assessment issued by the World Health Organization reported that 65 percent of babies between nine and 12 months old suffer from anemia. If we widen our sphere of attention to include Palestinians outside of Gaza, then there are also serious concerns about the impact of the ongoing occupation and rise in West Bank settlement construction.
Are these concerns of the kind that could justify using force? The most familiar justifications for war concern the use of defensive force to resist aggression and occupation. And Israel has so far remained unwilling to send in sufficient ground troops to outright occupy the whole of Gaza. But the deprivations inflicted by the blockade may still provide a strong justification for the use of force, given their severity. The situation is complicated, however, by the fact that the harms inflicted on the residents of Gaza are just as much due to the Egyptian blockade of the Rafah crossing, the only way into Gaza by land that doesn’t involve passage through Israel.
Some authorities have suggested that Egypt maintains its blockade in order to ultimately destabilize Hamas’s control over Gaza, thus removing Iran’s foothold in the region. Egyptian officials, however, maintain that lifting the blockade on Gaza would involve a tacit recognition of Hamas’s legitimacy and thus harm the Palestinian Authority. This seems disingenuous. In any case, if the blockade justifies the use of force against Israel, it should justify the use of force against Egypt, as well, something few apologists for Hamas seem to be willing to countenance.
We’ll assume that Palestinians do have an in-principle justification for using force—a justification ultimately grounded in the severity of the harms they continue to endure from forced isolation. Does this mean Hamas should go ahead and pursue war with Israel? It should not.
The most obvious reason why can be seen straightforwardly by looking at what happened during Operation Protective Edge. Hamas has absolutely no chance of winning a war against Israel, let alone the combined forces of Israel and (despite recent tensions, still its firm ally) the United States. The result of war can only be yet more casualties and suffering for Gaza and the Palestinian people generally. [A point also forcefully made by Helen Frowe and Jeff McMahan]
Less discussed, perhaps, is that these facts also point to a more basic reason why Hamas ought not go to war. Consider, for a moment, a Hamas sympathizer who supports war despite knowledge of its inevitable costs and almost certain failure. Such a person might think (callously on our view) that desperate times call for desperate measures. But this simply overlooks the need to justify any such war to the people of Gaza, including those who don’t support war. Hamas fights in the name of Gazans, and its actions can (and too often do) subject nearly every Gazan to mortal risks. It should only do this with a sufficient mandate, giving it the legitimacy to actually represent the residents of Gaza. But no such mandate can credibly be claimed.
“Hamas has absolutely no chance of winning a war against Israel, let alone the combined forces of Israel and (despite recent tensions, still its firm ally) the United States. The result of war can only be yet more casualties and suffering for Gaza and the Palestinian people generally”
The last election won by Hamas was in 2006, and so 2015 (like 2014) is well beyond the expiry date of that seal of approval. The less official support that Hamas currently enjoys in some parts of Gaza also has dubious democratic relevance. In any case, what little procedural legitimacy Hamas had, it effectively relinquished last April when it agreed to cede control of Gaza to appointees of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Furthermore, Hamas has repeatedly manipulated public opinion through propaganda and fear mongering. The refusal to agree to a cease-fire might itself be viewed as a manipulative attempt to use Israel’s (enormous and disproportionate) aggression to situate itself as the only body able and willing to defend the people from unjust attack.
Moreover, the actions of Hamas have implications that go well beyond Gaza. For instance, they affect the ability of Fatah to negotiate an independent Palestinian state, the ability of Palestinians elsewhere to seek international condemnation of settlements, and so on. Of course, Hamas has still less of a claim to legitimately represent Palestinians outside of Gaza, despite their fundamental stake in these matters.
“The refusal to agree to a cease-fire might itself be viewed as a manipulative attempt to use Israel’s (enormous and disproportionate) aggression to situate itself as the only body able and willing to defend the people from unjust attack”
Finally, considerations of process aside, the actual policies of a political entity can also affect its legitimacy. At various points, Hamas has performed many functions that are essential to supporting the lives of people in Gaza, such as they are. These services, though, must be contrasted with the relative indifference to Palestinian lives shown by Hamas policies with respect to Israel. A state that massively disregards the interests of its people cannot claim any rights to rule over them or act in their name. These considerations (each of them drawing on traditional elements of just war theory) strongly indicate that the answer to the second question is definitely ‘no’—Hamas should not go to war at all. It follows, then, that the particular kind of war that Hamas has been trying to fight cannot be justified.
But even if one were to answer ‘yes’ to both the first and second questions—even if Hamas would be justified in fighting a war—it would still not follow that its methods are acceptable. And these methods can in fact be independently condemned. Take, for instance, the use of rockets on civilian targets within Israel. Or consider the placement of various weapons in schools, mosques, hospitals, and other civilian locations within Gaza. These tactics are morally objectionable in themselves, given that they evince an intolerable disregard for the wellbeing of innocents. We therefore have conclusive reason to answer our third and final question with a firm ‘no’, even if we respond positively to the first and second questions.
“The use of rockets on civilian targets within Israel or the placement of various weapons in schools, mosques, hospitals, and other civilian locations within Gaza are morally objectionable in themselves, given that they evince an intolerable disregard for the wellbeing of innocents”
Before concluding, we would like to raise some questions about where all of this leaves us. Plausibly, Palestinian grievances are substantial enough to justify (in principle) the use of forceful resistance, but Hamas isn’t in a legitimate position to lead that resistance. Nor, for that matter, is the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas was elected in 2005, and there have been no new elections since. Surely his mandate has expired.
Furthermore, there are credible charges of corruption targeting many PA institutions, and even Abbas’s family has been accused of shady dealings. Has Abbas managed to keep his hands clean? We don’t know. But sometimes the semblance of impropriety is enough to delegitimize the authority of a politician, if it sufficiently erodes public trust.
Finally, the PA failed to live up to its end of the bargain when Hamas agreed to yield control over Gaza just before Protective Edge was initiated. Under the administration of Fatah appointees, the living situation for the average Gazan became much worse. With all of this in view, it appears that the Palestinians are a people with a right to forceful resistance, but with neither an acceptable means of doing so nor a leadership that can justifiably exercise that right. Does this predicament impose any special responsibilities on outside parties (such as the United States and Israel) that have an interest in the plight of the Palestinian people?
“Palestinian grievances are substantial enough to justify (in principle) the use of forceful resistance, but Hamas isn’t in a legitimate position to lead that resistance. Nor, for that matter, is the Palestinian Authority. It appears that the Palestinians are a people with a right to forceful resistance, but with neither an acceptable means of doing so nor a leadership that can justifiably exercise that right”
These points help to underscore that, as former New York Times journalist Moriel Rothman-Zecher puts it, “What is happening in Gaza and throughout the occupied territories is not primarily a humanitarian issue, although there are devastating humanitarian side effects: It is a political issue.”
Palestinian suffering is not due to simple bad luck, but to injustice. And this affects both the strength and nature of the obligations of outside parties. Since the blockade has been a source of injustice, Israel and Egypt have an especially strong obligation to end suffering in Gaza, and this means not just providing immediate humanitarian aid, but ending the conditions that give rise to the injustice. And since Palestinians aren’t themselves in any position to enforce that obligation, there’s a heightened duty for other parties, especially supporters of Israel and Egypt, like the U.S., to urge that it be discharged.
One part of a long-term just solution involves better representation for Palestinians, in Gaza and elsewhere, and outsiders must take account of this, too. For instance, there’s a credible case that Israel has repeatedly aided the rise of Hamas in ways that subvert democratic representation, initially by supporting Islamism in the region as a counter-weight to the PLO, and more recently through actions that enable Hamas propaganda efforts.
We would like to close with an honest admission: any full analysis of Middle East policy, especially as regards Palestine, must bring in tools from political science, international relations, sociology, economics, and probably half a dozen other specializations, including moral and political philosophy. So we can hardly solve these problems on our own. But philosophical tools can help us disentangle questions about justice and responsibility that one might easily run together.