21 July 2014
The moral calculus of human shields
In Gaza, the charge against the Hamas government is that it is allowing its own civilian population to be killed as part of a media strategy, in order to inflame world opinion against Israel. Whether by embedding rocket platforms in residential sites or place like hospitals, or by telling civilians not to evacuate certain areas, as Israeli propaganda leaflets reportedly warn them to do, Hamas stands accused of cynical indifference to the lives of its constituents. For Hamas and its sympathizers -- or, to be more accurate, sympathizers with the Palestinian people, the reasoning is just as simple: Israel drops the bombs, so they are the murderers of civilians. If Israelis and their sympathizers are so concerned with the civilians of Gaza, they can stop dropping bombs. Of course, Israel is never going to let Hamas fire rockets at them with impunity, but Hamas can argue that that's not their problem. The Hamas leadership may feel sincerely that their strategy should checkmate Israel, that Israel's professed humanitarian sentiment should stay their hand if the people of Gaza stand between the bombs and the rockets. For the rest of us, the question is whether there's an objective way to assign moral responsibility for civilian deaths in Gaza. If Israel is bombing regardless of the presence of human shields, they are immediately responsible, but if the people are there because Hamas is telling them to stay, then Hamas has to share responsibility unless you want to argue that Israel has no right to defend itself against rocket attacks. If civilians in Gaza are actively volunteering to play human shields, then they share in the responsibility for their own deaths. The mistake is to attempt to calculate who the "real" bad guy is. That'll force you to go back in time. Israel is responsible because of military occupation and oppression; Palestinians are responsible because they've never convincingly renounced the objective of reclaiming all Palestine; Zionists are to blame for claiming any part of Palestine after Islam had claimed it all centuries ago; Arabs are to blame for rejecting the original partition deal of 1948 and attacking the Zionists, and then acting as if they still deserve their part of the deal. One note plays consistently: the two sides will not share the land. One or the other must dominate; to be poor neighbors of a Jewish state is as abhorrent to one as it is to the other to be the "tolerated" subjects of an Islamic state. Why the world still looks for good guys and bad guys in Palestine increasingly baffles me. I lean toward a simpler calculus: if each side has any share of blame for violence, regardless of proportions, then both are equally to blame, and both should be shunned by the rest of the world. But if the world feels responsible for the dead civilians in Gaza, and for the smaller number of civilian casualties in Israel, then maybe it should take responsibility for the "Holy Land" by taking the rule of it away from Jews and Muslims or Israelis and Arabs alike.