The rhetoric of condemnation

I find myself increasingly frustrated with the rhetoric of condemnation. In particular, I find the way people use “war crimes” and “genocide” to be lazy and evasive of the actual questions that need to be answered in order to address the situations that provoke those accusations.

To be very clear, I am not to in any way exonerating, defending, minimizing the many atrocities that attract those labels. They are reprehensible actions that anyone ought to find abhorrent. But those atrocities occur in the context of histories and unfolding events for which “just don’t do that” is nowhere near a sufficient answer. Speakers often use the accusations to place themselves on the side of virtue and the accused on the side of evil, without owning up to the consequences they would require of those they admonish.

Whatever some treaty or document held up as “international law” does or does not say about the matter is immaterial. Situations actually need to be addressed, and “international law” as it stands is far from being a system to which states or nonstate actors could simply agree to conform and then expect that their rights and vital interests will be protected.

There are disputes. They have to be addressed with solutions that antagonists can be persuaded at least to live with. Until such solutions are found, there will be conflict. When the terms of conflict create conditions in which the alternative to war crimes is unacceptable to any or all the parties, then war crimes will be committed.

Both the Palestinians and the Israel provide rich examples. The intentional slaughter of 1300 civilians for dancing one morning or waking up in their homes is obviously a war crime, regardless of any right to resist occupiers or claims that their presence on the territory is illegitimate. However routine it has become, every time Hamas launches a missile from Gaza towards Tel Aviv or some Israeli town, they are committing a war crime. Hamas does not carefully target its rockets toward military objectives in a manner calculated to ensure that any civilian "collateral damage" would be proportionate (whatever all that slippery language is supposed to mean). Yet given the actual balance of power and armaments available, if even the desultory missile barrages are taken off the table, Hamas would have no plausible means to prosecute their cause other than on terms set entirely by the Israelis. Symmetric military-to-military warfare against Israel, waged from bases segregated from Gaza’s civilians, would lead to a quick extermination of Hamas' soldiers. It would, very mercifully, spare civilians on both sides, but it would do nothing for the Palestinian cause.

Hamas should not slaughter and kidnap civilians. If you are not still reeling from the horror of what happened last Saturday, I am. Hamas should not even lob missiles at towns, whether or not the “Iron Dome” will manage to intercept them. But if all we do is condemn the war crimes, then we are saying morality compels the Palestinians to accept complete and total impotence to prosecute what they believe is a just and urgent cause. So of course they choose to commit war crimes.

It is absolutely a war crime for Israel to cut off food, water, and power from the civilians of Gaza. But if we accept as given that Israel must extirpate Hamas as a military force from Gaza, then the logistics that support those who will fight and kill Israeli soldiers are the same logistics that support the civilian population. A ground invasion of a densely built urban landscape deeply familiar to its defenders will cost the lives of many Israeli soldiers no matter what. But fewer Israelis will die if the force they fight is depleted and exhausted before the battle begins. When you are at war, ours versus theirs is a more salient concern than civilian versus soldier. The outcome and toll of war is largely a function of logistics. In this case, Israel controls the logistics of the opposing force. To refrain from war crime, it would have to literally feed the snipers who will await its soldiers. Unsurprisingly, Israel chooses the war crime.

Depending on where the balance of your sympathies lie, it is easy — and it is accurate! — to highlight the criminality of either side. If your view is that, however regrettable, the status quo ante plight of the Palestinians was in some sense acceptable or tolerable or redressable by better means, then it is easy to condemn them for war crimes. If your view is that Israel could and should simply cease its occupation, whatever exactly that would mean in practice, then you can just condemn the settler state’s crimes and demand that it accede to a Palestine “free, from the river to the sea”.

But if you think either of these things, you are a fool. Most people are not so foolish, and understand that the Palestinians have been in a cruel, impossible, and unjust position for decades, and also that if Israel were to simply relinquish its authority and lay down arms, civil war and bloodbath would be immediate. It doesn’t matter which side you accuse of war crimes, even if you are right. Of course you are right. But you are helping nothing but the cause of your own self-righteousness. Or worse, you are helping one side gird itself for and justify new atrocities against the other.

If you want to do some good, you have to actually help unravel the thorny circumstances under which each side understandably views the commission of war crimes as superior to the alternative, despite all of our righteous condemnation. Israel should have a government that offers real hope of progress for the Palestinians, rather than one that buys the support of fascists by continually dispossessing Palestinian residents of the West Bank, and buys the support of many others by promising safety while keeping the dispossessed out-of-sight and out-of-mind like factory-farmed poultry. The Palestinians should have governments that are meaningfully accountable to their publics, with legally enshrined regular elections, rather than one mafia that finds patrons for its terrorism and another mafia that finds patrons by collaborating.

I have no tablets with solutions to bring down from Mt. Sinai. I do have suggestions. Israel should not invade Gaza at all, after all, but should offer clear conditions for the kind of government to which it would cede sovereign control of Gaza’s borders, and define milestones that would define incremental progress toward that goal. Obviously one of those milestones would be complete exclusion of Hamas’ current leadership. Israelis who do not wish their country’s role in the world to be fuse of the apocalypse should replace the Netanyahu catastrophe quickly. A new government should commit to naturalize and enfranchise willing Palestinian residents of the West Bank. Settlement has succeeded at changing the facts on the ground, so creating a Palestinian state there would be very challenging. Letting Gaza become a Palestinian state while integrating the West Bank allows Israel to be what most Israelis want, simultaneously a Jewish state and a liberal democracy. Palestinians who prefer their own state could look forward to and help to build a well-governed city-state in Gaza. Jewish Israelis who fear differential birthrates might soon overwhelm them should work to integrate and grant opportunities to Palestinians so that they too experience a demographic transition. Regardless of how a demographic horserace works out, integration does the most important work. Just in case, it might be wise to better entrench protection of minority rights into the structure of the Israeli state.

Perhaps all of this is hopelessly naive. I look forward to your counterproposals. Naivety at least is more constructive than uselessly self-righteous condemnations of war crimes.