Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Responding to Hamas: a just-war perspective [Part II]

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 13, 2023

In my post here yesterday I argued that in the wake of the terrorist attacks by Hamas, a military response from Israel is morally justifiable—in fact obligatory—by the traditional standards of just-war theory. But as I cautioned, a just cause does not guarantee a just war.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, made the point in a statement today: “It is the right of those who are attacked to defend themselves, but even legitimate defense must respect the parameter of proportionality.” He might have added to that the parameter of discrimination; the Israeli response should target the Hamas militia members, not the innocent civilians of Gaza.

As I write, Israeli has instructed those innocent civilians to evacuate Gaza City immediately. In theory that sort of evacuation could minimize the danger to civilians. But in practice, it is virtually impossible to evacuate one million people from a heavily populated area in 24-hour window offered by the Israeli ultimatum. Where would they go? Where would they sleep the next night, and what would they eat? How could they safeguard their possessions, knowing that their homes might be reduced to rubble within the next few days?

And to complicate matters, Hamas has advised the civilians not to evacuate. Their presence is welcome to the terrorists; the women and children play the role of human shields, restraining the Israeli troops. In effect Hamas is doing its best to make it impossible for Israel to avoid civilian casualties.

So, sadly, there will be civilian casualties in Gaza when the Israeli troops move in. Palestinian publicists will be sure to call the world’s attention to those casualties, denouncing Israel’s excesses. And if there are excesses (as I fear there will be), they should be denounced. But while we should insist that Israel adhere to just-war standards, we should also be careful to avoid a double standard. Hamas bears sole responsibility for the blood shed in its raids into Israel. But Israel will not be solely responsible for civilian casualties in Gaza; that responsibility is shared by the Hamas leaders who insisted that civilians remain in place.

Every war begets propaganda campaigns, and we can be sure that both Hamas and Israel will circulate gruesome photos and frightening stories, telling—and often exaggerating or even inventing—tales of cruelty. But here too there is a revealing difference in approach. Ordinarily the propagandists report on the other side’s atrocities. In this case, Hamas sympathizers have already provided footage of atrocities committed by Hamas. The terrorists revel in the bloodshed, and flaunt their willingness to discard the usual standards of human decency—to say nothing of just-war standards.

Here is the crux of the problem: Israel will at least pay some attention to the moral expectations of the watching world, and thus to the standards of justice in warfare. We expect the Israeli military to conduct a proportionate and discriminating campaign in Gaza, and we will—rightly!—criticize Israel for any excessive use of force, any deliberate targeting of civilians. But we do not have the same moral expectations of Hamas; we know that they will shed blood indiscriminately, disproportionately, wantonly—as they already have done.

So Israel will move into Gaza soon, mindful of the criticism that will inevitably come. Mindful, too, that while its military planners focus on Gaza in the south, they must also be aware of the danger posed by Hezbollah in the north: another terrorist organization, guided by the same sponsors, the same ideology, and the same willingness to kill the innocent without remorse. Those military planners face an unenviable task.

War is hell, and a piece of hell is coming to Gaza. We can and should pray for all the poor people caught up in this ugly fight. We can and should demand that all combatants observe the fundamental rules of decency and obey the standards of international law. Regrettably, we know that some will not. Israel might fail to meet our expectations, and if so we should protest. But bear in mind that this war began because Hamas has already failed that test.

To say that Israel has just cause for war against Hamas does not imply that Israel has treated the Palestinian people fairly. The Palestinians have suffered a great deal—not only because of Israeli policies, but also because of the policies of the neighboring Arab states, which have been content to allow Palestinians to live in refugee camps for three generations. But terrorism will not solve the political problems of the Palestinians. The Vatican has long advocated a “two-state solution,” with Israel living in peace beside an independent Palestinian neighbor. But if that Palestinian state is governed by a regime pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state and the Jewish people, peace is impossible.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Oct. 14, 2023 5:39 AM ET USA

    Here we are about 1 week after the Lepanto anniv when Catholics defeated Muslim invaders, using the same weapons to do it. Aggressors set the rules when they begin. And today the weapons of war can be different, and they can include willing or non willing civilians. Not understanding that would be a mistake that Israel, our elder brothers and sisters in the Faith, cannot afford to make. They should do whatever it takes to win, and tell the world to walk a mile in their shoes before complaining.