'War never solves anything" is a much-loved slogan of the peace movement. And excepting the fact that Nazism and fascism perished at the sharp end of a bayonet, perhaps the peaceniks have a point. After all, nothing demonstrates the moral superiority of military passivity like the genocides of Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur, ne c'est pas?
But even at its best, war is a dirty business. During one of the most morally sublime campaigns in one of history's most ethically defensible conflicts, the good guys inadvertently killed thousands of innocent bystanders. Yet should the Allies have refrained from invading Normandy because 20,000 friendly civilians would die during the campaign to liberate Europe? Would humanity have been better served by perpetuating French suffering under the boot heel of Nazi oppression?
Collateral casualties are a tragic consequence of even the most well-executed military campaigns. But we consign ourselves to pacifism if we set our moral threshold so high to preclude any action that might inadvertently cause non-combatant deaths. And in the cruel world we inhabit, the vulnerable irrelevance of pacifism is an engraved invitation for tyranny to run wild.
A less utopian view recognises those instances in which letting slip the dogs of war is the only moral course of action. While the sordidness of battle means we should never frivolously cry havoc, there are evils that can be suppressed only through military force.
Once we concede the legitimacy of armed conflict in some circumstances, the argument is then transformed into a debate about which ends justify which means. Most international lawyers and ethicists would agree that self-defence should rank high in the list of moral factors that legitimise a call to arms.
The right to self-defence is the crux of the Middle East crisis. It has been almost a year since Israel removed its troops and citizens from Gaza. And what have the Palestinians done with their new-found liberty? Rather than focus on the construction of their own society, the Palestinians elected a Hamas Government that is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.
Over the past 11 months, the jihadists in Gaza have put those words into practice. Since August 2005 they have launched more than 1000 Qassam rockets into the sovereign territory of Israel. And three weeks ago Hamas upped the ante by snatching an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid. By any reasonable definition these are acts of war.
Now the Palestinians in the south have been reinforced by their Hezbollah allies in the north. Two more Israeli troops were captured last week in an unprovoked attack from across the frontier with Lebanon. And during the widespread fighting that erupted in the wake of that Hezbollah foray, Israeli towns and cities throughout the Galilee have been hit by rocket fire.
Israel has responded forcefully to jihadist belligerence. But its wrath has been narrowly focused. By going after enemy rocket-launcher teams and strategic infrastructure targets, the Israeli military has tried to avoid inflicting non-combatant casualties.
Despite the best efforts of the Israeli army to hit only their armed antagonists, civilians have been killed by their fire. Those innocent deaths are a tragedy. But they are the direct result of the aggressive jihadist campaign to continue its war against the Jews by other means.
No nation can tolerate the intolerable by turning the other cheek to acts of military violence projected from beyond its borders. Like any other sovereign government, Israel's leaders have acted to protect their citizens from external attack.
But that task is complicated by the jihadists' habit of hiding behind the skirts of their own population. The law of war forbids combatants from using civilians to shield military operations. Yet why would people who blow up restaurants care about what the Geneva Conventions have to say? Besides, the Palestinians' outrage over civilian casualties might be a bit more convincing if they stopped recruiting child suicide bombers to do their dirty work.
The present bout of fighting constitutes just the latest chapter in an 80-year saga of violence that has brought the Arabs nothing but self-inflicted misery, poverty and dispossession. Innocent civilians on both sides are paying the ultimate price for the jihadists' unwillingness to compromise with Israel. This sad tale will end only when the Palestinians realise the path to their national redemption lies through conciliation rather than confrontation.
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