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NO MORAL ABSOLUTISM IN WAR

Updated: May 25

What We Can Learn About Strategy and Morality From The Israel and Hamas War?

By Monte Erfourth – May 18, 2024


(Figure 1.  Socrates arguing for morality with Ares, the God of War.)

 

INTRODUCTION

The discourse on foreign policy, especially in ideologically and morally complex contexts, necessitates a nuanced understanding beyond binary moral judgments. Historical precedents, such as World War II alliances and Vietnam War compromises, highlight the intricate balance between moral ideals and strategic imperatives. This balance is crucial in the anarchic international system, where pursuing strategic objectives often involves morally ambiguous strategic decisions. Contemporary debates, particularly regarding the Gaza conflict, underscore the tension between moral absolutism and pragmatic statecraft. This article examines the limitations of moral absolutism in war, focusing on the Israel-Hamas conflict to illustrate the necessity of strategic calculation in achieving a more equitable and peaceful international order.


ETHICS, LAW, AND MORALITY 

Applying morality to war navigates between the realism that suspends morality during conflict and pacifism that rejects war's morality. Just war theory mediates this, setting conditions for justified war while imposing moral constraints on conduct. Morality, influenced by cultural, religious, or personal values, represents beliefs about right and wrong. Ethics, systematically studying and applying these beliefs, provides tools for decision-making in practical contexts.

Just war theory divides into jus ad bellum (justification for war) and jus in bello (conduct within war). It assesses the justness of a war's cause, proportionality of means, and discrimination between combatants and non-combatants, aiming to mitigate war's horrors and limit its scope.[1]

International humanitarian law, evolved from customs, treaties, and religious teachings, regulates warfare and protects non-combatants. The law’s principles aim to mitigate war's horrors, protecting individuals not actively involved in hostilities and regulating the conduct of those who are:[2]

·      Distinction (differentiating combatants from non-combatants),

·      Proportionality (limiting attacks based on military advantage),

·      Necessity (requiring actions essential for legitimate objectives),

·      Humanity (prohibiting unnecessary suffering),

·      Neutrality (protecting non-participating states).

 

HAMAS THE TERRORIST ORGANIZATION & GOVERNMENT

Hamas, established in 1987 with the aim of eradicating Israel, has evolved from a militant group to a governing entity in Gaza, albeit one that continues to engage in hostilities against Israel. Its ideological foundation is rooted in a militant interpretation of Islam, advocating jihad as a form of resistance. Despite a revised manifesto in 2017 that signaled a provisional acceptance of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, Hamas maintains its non-recognition of Israel's legitimacy.[3]

The group has been implicated in violations of international humanitarian law, including indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and the use of human shields, which have drawn international criticism. However, the UN has not designated Hamas as a terrorist organization, focusing instead on Israel's actions. Governance in Gaza under Hamas has been authoritarian, with significant restrictions on political rights and civil liberties. Despite this, a majority of Palestinians surveyed support Hamas' actions against Israel, reflecting a complex interplay of sympathy, resistance, and governance challenges.

The framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by groups like Hamas often manipulates historical narratives, portraying it as a colonial confrontation. This overlooks the indigenous Jewish connection to the land and the repeated rejections by Palestinian leadership of opportunities for peace and statehood. The ongoing conflict underscores the deep-seated challenges to achieving peace and the divergent perspectives on resistance, governance, and the path to resolution.

Hamas invokes militant Islam to spearhead a Sunni extremist movement supported by Shiite Iran due to mutual opposition to Israel. Hamas's propaganda maintains its popularity, legitimizing its rule in Gaza and criticizing the Palestinian Authority's governance and collaboration with Israel. The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) indicates strong Palestinian support for Hamas's actions against Israel and a majority blaming Israel for Gaza's suffering.

 

ISRAEL'S MORAL CHALLENGE

Israel faces a moral dilemma in defeating Hamas while striving for peace with Palestinians through democratic and legal approaches. As a parliamentary democracy with a multiparty system and independent institutions, Israel guarantees political rights and civil liberties for most citizens, though systemic disparities persist. In contrast, Gaza, under Hamas's authoritarian rule, severely constrains residents' rights and freedoms.  Freedom Watch gave Israel 74/100 points on the freedom scale, while Gaza received an 8/100.[4]

Despite Israel's advantages and efforts to maintain peace, it has used political, economic, and sometimes violent coercion, violated laws, and detained Palestinians without charge. Withholding humanitarian assistance and razing villages, towns, and cities is particularly difficult to justify morally. These actions contribute to the ongoing conflict and complicate the pursuit of peace. However, Israel's commitment to democratic principles and legal frameworks offers a foundation for addressing the moral challenges in resolving the conflict.[5]

The central moral question is: How does a democracy live with a neighbor that wants to kill all of its citizens and does not want to compromise?

 

A TRINITARIAN COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF ISRAEL AND HAMAS

In 1982, Harry Summers Jr. published an influential study, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Presidio Press). Summer’s study further developed the linkage between his "remarkable trinity" of war (violent emotion, chance, and rational policy) and the social trinity of people, army, and government. It appears in the introduction to Summers's asserts that Clausewitz’s aim was to develop a theory that maintains a balance among the trinity of war—the people, the government, and the Army as the essential basis for military operations.  The people's passion would invigorate the army, the general’s skill and boldness would champion “chance” or risk of loss, and the government’s sound policy would benefit the nation's good.

Violence and emotion (irrational forces) are directly linked to the concept of moral forces in war. This highlights that war is uniquely characterized by its use of organized violence, setting it apart from other human interactions. The element of chance and probability (non-rational forces) reflects the importance of military genius and the creative spirit in navigating war's unpredictability and challenges—often called "fog and friction.” This aspect also includes operational ideas like the "center of gravity." Lastly, the component of war's subordination to policy (rational forces) pertains to the relationship between ends and means, emphasizing that war is an extension of policy.[6]

Analyzing the conflict between Israel and Hamas through Clausewitz's trinitarian lens—comprising the people, the government, and the army linked to violence, policy, and military skill offers a theoretical framework for understanding the dynamics at play from both perspectives.

From Israel's Perspective:

  • The People: Having experienced multiple conflicts, the Israeli populace generally supports measures deemed necessary for national security. This includes actions against Hamas, perceived as a direct threat.  They have the passion to fight.

  • The Government: Israel's government, tasked with ensuring the nation's security, views Hamas as a terrorist organization that undermines peace efforts. It seeks to protect its citizens and maintain sovereignty through a robust defense policy. Its rationality has weak spots, but there is an accepted logic to policy.

  • The Army: The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are a highly advanced military entity focused on deterring and responding to threats from Hamas. Their operations are aimed at neutralizing perceived threats and safeguarding Israeli territory.  While largely successful operationally, they are losing the information war.

From Hamas's Perspective:

  • The People: The Palestinian people in Gaza, represented by Hamas, see themselves as resisting occupation and fighting for their rights and self-determination. This perspective fuels support for Hamas's actions against Israel. There is a willingness to fight by Hamas and a willingness to suffer by the Palestinians in general.

  • The Government: Hamas, acting as the de facto government in Gaza, positions itself as the defender of Palestinian rights. It views its struggle against Israel as a legitimate resistance movement.  Their policy is largely irrational.  Hamas cannot kill all the Jews, and they are largely unwilling to give much through negotiation.

  • The Army: Hamas's military wing conducts operations against Israel as a form of armed resistance. These actions are framed as necessary for the liberation of Palestinian territories and people.  The generals can inflict suffering, but even with a lot of luck, they cannot defeat the IDF.

 

Israel faces accusations of violating international laws of war in Gaza, including disproportionate use of force, indiscriminate attacks, and collective punishment. The accusation that Israel is "colonizing" Palestinians has garnered mass appeal amongst Muslims and some progressive Western groups.

In Israel, the populace, government, and military collectively navigate a complex relationship with Hamas, influenced by enduring conflict and the imperative of national security.  Despite the typical varying viewpoints, the Israeli people, government, and military are a generally united trinity. The Majority of Israel’s public recognize the need to conduct a legal defense of their nation but that taking a very hard line against Hamas' aggressive posture is no vice. The government and IDF understand the people's will and, as a democracy, attempt to balance assertive defense with the quest for peace.[7] This underscores Israel's commitment to safeguarding its sovereignty and the well-being of its people amidst international scrutiny and the challenges of a longstanding conflict. The IDF has used skilled generalship to conduct combat operations that have devastated Hamas as a fighting organization.  However, chance has not always favored the IDF, which has been severely criticized for its conduct in the war, given the impact on non-combatants.

The UN's focus on Israel's actions and its failure to recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization complicates enforcing the law of armed conflict. Israel contends its military operations are self-defense against Gaza threats, striving to avoid civilian casualties despite the complexities of urban warfare.

Since the October 7, 2023, offensive against Israel, Hamas has been implicated in multiple breaches of the law of armed conflict, a set of principles aimed at safeguarding human dignity and minimizing suffering during warfare. Notably, Hamas has engaged in the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israeli civilian areas, failing to differentiate between military objectives and civilian entities, thereby contravening the principle of distinction—a fundamental tenet of international humanitarian law. Furthermore, Hamas has employed tactics that endanger its own civilian population by situating military assets within densely populated areas, such as schools and hospitals.

This strategy breaches the principles of distinction, proportionality, and necessity, which seek to limit civilian harm. Additionally, the taking of hostages by Hamas constitutes a grave violation of the Geneva Conventions, marking it as a war crime. Moreover, the utilization of rape as a tactic by Hamas represents a severe infringement of international law, including the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, categorizing such acts as war crimes and significant violations of the conventions.[8] These actions should draw substantial international scrutiny and criticism towards Hamas, but condemnation has been muted.  Chance has favored them in this instance.

Hamas has pursued a path marked by violence and the deliberate targeting of civilians, fundamentally rejecting the principles necessary for building a democratic state, or at least one that recognizes human and individual rights. The international community has underscored that participation in the democratic process requires renouncing violence, recognizing Israel's right to exist, and disarming, as stipulated in the Roadmap toward a two-state solution.[9] Despite these clear prerequisites for peace and statehood, Hamas and its military wing have continued their struggle against Israel, not aligning with the broader aspirations for peace and democracy. Polls indicate that the Palestinian people support the violent struggle against Israel and eschew a democratic path to statehood.  Like Israel, the Palestinians retain a fairly united trinity. However, their policy is irrational, and chance cannot save them from losing operationally.

Hamas’ stance not only challenges the principles of democratic governance, including the protection of minority rights and the commitment to recurring free and fair elections, but also hinders the Palestinian people's aspirations for a lasting statehood. The path forward for Hamas, as the de facto government, involves abandoning its terrorist roots and embracing a relationship with Israel that respects the principles of democracy and peace. This would align the aspirations of the Palestinian people and the international community's requirements for a peaceful resolution.  But Hamas leadership won’t adopt this strategy as long as they believe the only path to security is the destruction of Israel, and the Palestinian people of Gaza generally support this cause.  There is no chance of a Hamas general defeating Israel in direct combat, so whatever luck that commander can exploit is likely off the battlefield, not on it.  While unified as a trinity, they are also united in their collective irrationality, as Clausewitz conceived.

Through Clausewitz's trinitarian analysis, it becomes evident that both Israel and Hamas are engaged in a conflict where the interplay of the people, the government, and the army shapes their strategies and actions. Given both sides' deeply entrenched positions and motivations, this framework underscores the complexity of achieving a resolution.  Both clearly feel a sense of moral superiority and are willing to ignore law and ethics as needed to advance their military and political objectives. 

 

CONCLUSION: MORAL ABSOLUTISM & THE ENDS OF STRATEGY

It can be argued that morality and ethics are purely logical, theoretical, and too abstract for war.  War and survival are far more primal.  Both the Jews and the Palestinians must justify their cause with a cloak of righteousness.  That’s primal, too.  Both believe they have moral arguments and unusually tight Clausewitzian trinities, largely because both see themselves locked in an existential battle.  Both are bound to the land and history and deeply engrained religions, and those elements are perfectly developed for a perpetual conflict.  Can both sides claim with conviction that they hold the superior moral ground?  Yes, both have claim to a more absolute moral truth, but only Israel is attempting to meet at the intersection of morality and ethics, and that’s the law.

The ethical quandaries posed by Israel’s use of disproportionate force, indiscriminate actions, humanitarian suffering, and collective punitive measures are profound, particularly when faced with an adversary that has consistently dismissed legal norms, aimed for the annihilation of the Jewish nation, and spurned equitable peace proposals for an extended period. Such measures, even under these circumstances, remain ethically contentious. The dilemma for a democratic society, especially one like Israel, is how to respond to a belligerent entity that not only fundamentally opposes the existence of the Jewish people but is also governed by forces that have seized power through coercion and subsequently stifled the voices of their own populace.

Despite the oppressive governance in Gaza, the support for Hamas among the Palestinians persists, underscoring the complexity of the situation. Given the inextricable ties between these communities, the cessation of hostilities does not equate to a return to normalcy. In navigating this intricate landscape, Israel is compelled to pursue strategic objectives that ensure its security and the well-being of the Jewish nation while also striving for a political resolution that addresses the aspirations of the Palestinian people. This journey necessitates actions that, while potentially morally questionable, aim to achieve a morally positive outcome for both parties involved. In this endeavor, adherence to democratic principles and legal frameworks is paramount, distinguishing the moral stance of a democratic entity from that of a terrorist organization, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of its cause.

Applying just war theory is also instructive. Israel’s justification for war is obviously self-defense, and its conduct within war has been partially restrained by law and ethics.  Clearly, destroying so much of Gaza is immoral and illegal, and denying food and water to civilians is also immoral and illegal.  However, Hamas made the choice to hide and fight among their people, making military action morally hazardous for Israel.  Israel is making an attempt to incorporate legal considerations into its strategy by allowing some aid to civilians and attempting to mitigate civilian casualties. Parts of the government are trying to broker peace with other regional powers’ assistance. This indicates some ethics are present.  Israel should expand and capitalize on these moral underpinnings to pursue peace or at least more justly prosecute military operations.  This is a winning strategy because it sets conditions for peace, not continued conflict.

Israel pulled out of Gaza almost twenty years ago and left the Palestinians to decide how to govern themselves.  Hamas can claim resistance to Israel as their justification for war, but was attacking Israel really necessary?  There were other viable means of statecraft and strategy; violence was not the only or best option.  Hamas is conducting the war immorally and illegally.  Hamas attacked Israel with the intent to harm civilians and take hostages, won’t return the hostages, won’t aid its own people, continues to use its people as human shields, continues to fire rockets into Israel indiscriminately, and negotiates in bad faith.  It’s very difficult to see a moral, ethical, or legal framework in their strategy.  But it is clear that this is an infeasible path for statecraft. That is not to say that Hamas has no claim to moral legitimacy; they do as a nation that wants to live and thrive.  What is lacking is the rationale for war and the application of violence in an effective and justifiable way. It’s a losing strategy.

The Israel-Hamas conflict underscores the complexity of applying morality, ethics, and law to war. While moral perspectives differ, international law provides a definitive standard. Despite the entrenched morally oppositional viewpoints over Gaza, both sides must uphold the laws of war that are essential for conducting ethical warfare. Israel's path to peace with Palestinians involves addressing its moral dilemmas, adhering to democratic and legal principles, and striving for justice and humanity in its actions. By balancing strategic imperatives with moral considerations, Israel can work towards a more equitable and peaceful resolution. As a powerful democracy, Israel is in the position of responsibility to be the moral leader to a peaceful resolution.  But there is a warning here that must be made.  A position that asserts Israel’s absolute moral authority is detrimental to recognizing the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause and would significantly hamper strategies aimed at peace. In short, avoid hubris and choose rationality.

 


 

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-hamas (This section is from this reference)

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Matt, it's hard to look at the Middle East with lens other than realism. There are few who seek higher minded goals like democracy or human rights. Most regimes are autocratic and there is a certain expectation for this type of governance among the people. Except Israel. They stand alone. The absence of those goals for human betterment leaves only power to dominate the political landscape. I hope for a better future, but expect power to dominate unitl the people want something better.

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I really enjoyed reading this well written essay. I spent about an hour writing a comment, but it started to look like a dissertation (deleted) What is notable here is that realism has been alive and well since the Peloponnesian War. In the Middle East today, the realpolitik is between Iran and Israel on a four front campaign. Hamas, Hezbulloh, Hudithi’s, and militants in Syria and Iraq. Israel still has vivid memories of the meticulous industrialization of genocide only 70-years ago, and this ensures that the UN Resolution of 1947, Partition Plan will never happen. 

The strong will do what they can, and the weak do what they must. Thucydides

Love the graphic. .

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