Amid Gaza’s Horrors, It’s Not Enough for Israelis to Ask: So What Do You Propose?

The Israelis could conduct true negotiations to solve Gaza’s problems, while the Palestinians could opt for a nonviolent struggle.

David Enoch
A Palestinian man carries the body of a boy,who was killed by a shell fired by an Israeli naval gunboat,on a beach in Gaza City July 16, 2014.
A Palestinian man carries the body of a boy, whom medics said was killed by a shell fired by an Israeli naval gunboat, on a beach in Gaza City July 16, 2014. Credit: Reuters
David Enoch

The pictures of the horror and the stories of the brutality in Gaza are unbearable. No decent person could remain unmoved by so much suffering and pain — in many cases of innocent people, including children. But decent people dull their emotions; they often say: So what do you propose?

Not that this is an illegitimate question; people have a right not to be attacked. They have a right to demand that their country act to protect them from attacks; the state is responsible for protecting its citizens. Because of Hamas’ manipulations — for example, the use of human shields — and for reasons like the crowding in much of Gaza, Israel has no other way to meet this responsibility and cause fewer civilian casualties. In other words, if you have an idea about a different way, offer it. If you don’t, shut up.

One way to view the problems of this assertion is to consider the notion that nations have a right to self-determination. People have a right not to live under occupation, repression and a blockade, as well as personal and national degradation. People have a right to have hope and a reasonable standard of living. Leaders are responsible for making sure that their people are not denied these rights.

Because of Israel’s manipulations — the settlement policy, the unwillingness for true negotiations — and because of the economic, technological and military disparities, the Palestinian leaders have no way to guarantee these rights save terror, including the use of human shields. In other words, if you have an idea about a different way, offer it. If you don’t, shut up.

Most of us aren’t convinced by this assertion, and justifiably so. But why not? And how is it different from the similar contention about the brutal attacks on Gaza?

The problem in trying to justify terror is that when a certain goal appears just and a certain method appears best for achieving it, this method shouldn't necessarily be used. There’s a general principle: Some means — even though they’re best for achieving a goal — might be so evil that the goal should be dropped, as long as we’re not forced to pursue it. If the only way to promote freedom from repression is terror, this could be enough to justify dropping this legitimate goal.

Similarly, if the only way to protect ourselves from the rocket threat and maybe even the tunnel threat is to cause death, injury, suffering and destruction in Gaza, maybe we should drop the legitimate goal of preventing these dangers.

But maybe there’s no need to rush and forgo these goals. For example, the Palestinian side could hold a nonviolent campaign for national independence. And the Israeli side could conduct true negotiations to solve the problems of Gaza, not just defeat Gaza. The minute you look beyond the present moment, you discover possibilities.

One key task for leaders is to prevent tragic scenarios in which legitimate goals can only be promoted through horrible means. The Palestinian leaders sometimes appear to fail in this regard. The Israeli leaders have certainly failed at it. Their policies in recent years have brought about the current situation — the settlements, the blockade of Gaza, the delegitimization of the Palestinian Authority and its leaders, and especially the deliberate effort in recent weeks to shatter the Palestinian reconciliation.

I am not naive. Peoples and countries tend not to concede their strategic goals just because of the unforgivable moral cost of achieving them, especially when the price is lives on the other side, and when such efforts are made to deny their humanity and ignore their suffering. Israel will continue to cause indescribable suffering, which there is no way to view as proportional to its legitimate goals. And Hamas will continue to attack civilians and employ terror, like every other nation in a similar struggle. Not enough blood has been spilled, it seems.

But at least we should shirk the feeling of moral superiority, as if there were no resemblance between us and them, as if there were nothing to compare. Anyone who understands the horrors of Gaza and asks “so what do you propose?”— as if that were enough to bury the implications of these horrors — uses the same argument that the terrorists use.

The writer is a professor of philosophy and law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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