The View

War ethics under threat of annihilation

Israeli flag.


Professor of urban and regional planning

Published May 27, 2021

headshot of Ernie Sternberg.
“There should be no doubt that it was Hamas’ intransigence, militancy and genocide instigation that finally erased the green line. ”
Ernest Sternberg

Even before the missiles stopped falling in Israel, self-styled progressives were eager to pronounce judgment on Israel’s behavior in war. Let’s leave aside the accusers’ strange indifference toward great world crimes, say the Iranian, Hizballah, Russian and the Assad regimes’ mutually waged genocide against Syrians. In the world’s court, Israel is the one in the dock.

So, let us go ahead and judge just Israelis. They are the descendants of refugees from Russian pogroms, of the shattered remnants from the Holocaust, and of Jewish refugees from Iran, Ethiopia, a dozen Arab countries, and later the Soviet Union. World War II ended in Europe, but in the British colony dubbed with the imperial Roman name “Palestine,” the war against Jews continued. Just three years after the Nazis forced starving Jews into the forced winter march out of Auschwitz, Arab fighters besieged Jerusalem, cut off water supplies, massacred travelers who tried to bring aid, and blockaded food deliveries in a bid to starve out the Jews. 

That 1948-49 war reached stalemate at the “green line,” which would become merely an armistice boundary because of Arab combatants’ insistence that it not be turned into an official border. There is no room to recount here the armed infiltrations, boycotts, terrorist attacks and planned wars through which Israel’s enemies then violated that line with the aim of Israel’s eradication. The line was finally breached when Israel took control of Gaza and the West Bank after the 1967 Six Day War.

Jump to 2007, when Israel unilaterally ended its occupation of the Gaza strip. Here was the opportunity: Gazans could become a peaceful society, living tolerantly alongside Israel, building trade and prosperity for Palestinians. But the response by the strip’s ruler, Hamas, was a document redolent with Nazi-style hatred: the world’s first modern national charter explicitly dedicated to the destruction of a neighboring people. Hamas would go on to stockpile weapons, build attack tunnels, launch missile barrages and send civilian-clothed militants (aka terrorists) to kill Jewish civilians. It even broadcast cartoons to children to teach the killing of Jews.

Much like Hitler in his final days, when his Nero plan was ready to see all Germans killed for failure to protect the Reich, the Hamas leaders have exhibited cruel indifference toward Palestinian life. Theirs is an ultimate hatred that rather sees its own children sacrificed than its enemies allowed peace. For guns and dollars, Hamas even collaborates with Iran, the prime international mover in the deaths of a half million Sunnis in Syria, and the displacement of millions more.

Hamas was for years less effective at killing Jews because Israel built a fence that blocked the killers’ movements. At the start of this century, after murderous terrorist attacks (immediately after President Clinton’s attempt at a peace deal) coming from the West Bank, that Gaza fence’s relative success at stopping attacks convinced Israel to build another fence in the West Bank. Gaza’s rulers demonstrated that even the end of Israeli occupation would do nothing to ameliorate the group’s deadly hatred. There should be no doubt that it was Hamas’ intransigence, militancy and genocide instigation that finally erased the green line.

Hamas’s 3,000 or so missiles launched indiscriminately against Israelis are, as has been widely pointed out, each a double war crime, for having been launched from civilian locations at civilian locations. So, now that we are about to judge just Israel, let’s state the ethical standard by which we can justly do so. Your neighbors amass weapons, train killers, send bombs and repeatedly promise your destruction. But your investments in defense and training for your family mean that they manage to kill just one of your children. You choose to respond through careful targeting, aiming at shooters hiding in a civilian lair. You build the most precise possible technology to spare the noncombatants with whom your enemy has cruelly surrounded its shooters.

What is your responsibility to protect your family while maintaining ethical proportion? How much should you cede your own safety for the sake of enemies ready to break moral laws to eliminate you? In the long and storied history of human warfare, no country facing any remotely similar enemy has done more than Israel did two weeks ago to reduce enemies’ reduce civilian casualties. To judge Israel outside the context of unrelenting war is to perpetuate the ancient antisemitic tradition of depicting Jews as demons and judging them by standards applied to no others.