Just war theory is arguably at the heart of both the international normative and legal order, and Western political thought about the justified use of military force. Certainly, just war theory is woven into the UN Charter, humanitarian law and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) particularly. In recent years, there were vigorous just war-based discussions over the legitimacy of the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, and the bombing of Libya, among others. It is something of a surprise therefore, that there is currently no similar vigorous discussion over whether the present attack on Gaza meets the criteria of a just war. Such a discussion is clearly in order, and has important implications for international politics.
Just war comes in various forms, but at its core it is based on seven key principles. These principles state that in order for a war to be just,
1. The war must be fought for a just cause.
2. The war must be declared by a lawful authority.
3. It must be fought for a right intention.
4. It must be a last resort after peaceful alternatives have been tried.
5. It must have a reasonable chance of success to avoid prolonging suffering.
6. The force used must be proportionate.
7. Innocent civilians should not be harmed.
In short, wars should be fought only for a just or legitimate cause, and the war itself must be conducted in a just manner. The argument is that in order for a war to be considered just (or legitimate), it should adhere to all of these seven principles. If we apply these criteria to the current attack on Gaza, it is clear that it does not come close to meeting the criteria of a just war. In fact, it is probably fair to suggest that it is one of the most unjust or least legitimate wars fought in recent years, as every single one of the seven principles of just war is either utterly violated or at least highly questionable.
First, it is questionable whether this war is being fought for what most would recognise as a just cause. There is enough evidence to suggest that it is a war of revenge for the kidnap and deaths of the Israeli teenagers, and/or an attempt to disrupt the unity agreement between Hamas and the PA in order to delay further talks on substantive issues surrounding the occupation and a two-state solution. It can also be argued that it is being fought for largely domestic political reasons, rather than for the achievement of genuine long-term peace and security. This is certainly a valid conclusion given that the attack has failed to stop Hamas rockets (as the previous operation in 2012 also failed to do) and its utterly predictable outcome will be to strengthen Hamas leadership and control of Gaza. However, I am willing to concede that on this point Israel could potentially argue that it is attacking in national self-defence which would be a just cause under current international law. At the same time, there are clearly moral and legal limits to the national defence justification. Israel could not legitimately drop nuclear bombs on its neighbours simply by claiming the necessity of self-defence, for example.
Second, in the current international system, it is normally expected that the UN Security Council is the primary legitimate authority for authorising the use of force. In this case, as in previous cases, Israel has ignored the UN and acted unilaterally. States that unilaterally go to war are usually sanctioned in some way. Russia, for example, is currently being sanctioned for using force in the Ukraine. Again, however, I am willing to concede that this could be an arguable point and Israel does have the right to decide by itself when it goes to war – a right the US also claimed in the war on terror. However, if states are free to choose when to go to war themselves without UN authorisation, this has serious implications for the international order and undermines the role of the UN Security Council in maintaining international peace and security.
Third, just war theory states that wars must be fought for the right intention, meaning that they are fought out of a genuine desire for peace, justice and the good of all. Saint Augustine, the original just war theorist, argued that just wars should be fought with love. There is very little evidence, particularly in the light of both the actions and the attitudes of Israeli leaders and many sections of the Israeli public, that this is anything else but ‘mowing the lawn’, revenge, collective punishment and blood-letting, most likely for continued Palestinian resistance to settlements and the illegal and disproportionate siege of Gaza. Once again, however, I am willing to give the Israeli government the benefit of the doubt on this particular principle and not assert that they are necessarily fighting this war with malign intentions.
On the fourth and one of the most important principles, however, there is no doubt that Israel is in violation of just war precepts. In no way, shape or form can Israel claim that this was the last resort after peaceful means had been attempted. Gaza is completely surrounded and contained, and Hamas and the Arab League have in the past and more recently offered a basis for talks. Israel could have easily re-started serious negotiations, especially after the unity pact between Hamas and the PA eliminated one of the last objections Israel had previously made to re-starting the peace talks. Hamas has offered a ten-year truce if Israel would ease the blockade of Gaza. At the very least, this could have been the basis for serious talks, which if after a few months of honest negotiations had failed, then Israel might have been able to argue that this war was a last resort. Given what we know about the lead-up to, and the context of, this war, no one can seriously argue that it meets the condition of last resort.
The attack on Gaza also fails the fifth principle of just war, namely, that it should have a reasonable chance of success to avoid prolonging suffering. In fact, we know with a very high degree of certainty that this war will fail to destroy Hamas, and fail to prevent Hamas from firing rockets into Israel in the future. We know this because not only does Hamas continue to manage to fire off hundreds of rockets, despite weeks of Israeli bombing, but an identical attack on Gaza in 2012 failed to stop Hamas rockets. It is likely that, as in 2012, the day before this attack ends, Hamas will again fire off a number of rockets just to prove it hasn’t been beaten yet. Not only that, as in 2012, at the end of this war, when thousands are dead and Gaza city is nothing but rubble, we all know that Hamas will be stronger than ever. In sum, this war is producing untold suffering for no discernable strategic success, and therefore cannot meet the principle of reasonable success.
On the sixth principle of just war – proportionality – there is again no doubt that Israel is acting unjustly. This is obvious from the daily images of destruction and the hourly casualty figures, and in the comparison of military capabilities between Israel and Hamas. Hamas has managed to fire around 2,500 rockets towards Israel, which has resulted in 3 Israeli civilian casualties. As tragic as these deaths are, in response, Israel has killed well over a thousand Palestinians and destroyed thousands of homes, as well as mosques, schools, hospitals, the power station and other vital infrastructure, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. This amounts to killing more than 300 Palestinians for every Israeli killed, and has resulted in untold amounts of suffering. No one can possibly suggest it is a proportionate use of force.
Finally, just war principles prioritise the non-targeting of civilians. Once again, in no possible interpretation of the current situation could Israel claim to be making an effort to avoid civilian targets. As its own defence spokesperson claimed, Israel’s drone and satellite surveillance systems are so sophisticated they were able to detect the make of guns carried by Hamas militants disguised as Israeli soldiers. Given this, it is inconceivable that they can’t see when they are blowing up children playing football on a beach, or in a school yard. With the most sophisticated surveillance system in the world, we are apparently meant to believe that Israel has nonetheless accidentally killed over a thousand civilians, or worse, that they somehow deserved their horrible death. In addition, we only need to observe the indiscriminate anti-personnel weapons being used by Israeli forces in the densely populated areas of Gaza to see that this principle is being violated every hour. And the broader strategy of blowing up thousands of buildings in one of the most densely populated areas of the world where people have nowhere else to flee also guarantees a high civilian body count. And the argument that all these civilian deaths are because Hamas is using human shields is no longer credible.
In sum, it is plainly obvious that this is far from a just war. It violates four of the seven principles of just war outright, and may also arguably violate the other three. The only reasonable assessment is that this in fact, a deeply unjust war, a disproportionate massacre of a largely defenceless people. It is exactly the kind of war of aggression that just war theory was designed to prevent or mitigate, and by engaging in it, Israel is behaving like a rogue state. By its actions, Israel is saying that it does not hold to just war and does not care to be bound by just war principles in its use of force. Moreover, the Israeli government knows this all too well, which is why they have gone into high gear to try and shape public debate and media coverage about the attack. The point is that on this assessment, supporters of just war – such as many of the world’s Christians, the R2P proponents, most Western leaders, the UN, the EU – have a duty to condemn this war and point out that it violates the normative international order which we have been trying to establish since WWII. They ought to stop aiding and abetting such illegitimate, rogue behaviour and instead impose sanctions like they did (albeit reluctantly) in South Africa in the 1980s. It is a double standard and it undermines the international normative order when our leaders insist that they support the principles of just war and the legitimate use of force, but then remain silently complicit or openly supportive when Israel fights an obviously unjust, illegitimate war.
Of course, as critics will point out, just war is more of an aspirational wish-list than anything else, and few wars ever conform to it. My point however, is that just war theory has been vigorously used to defend other wars as recently as during NATO’s bombing of Libya, and it forms the normative basis for R2P, humanitarian law, and other aspects of the international legal order. It is also used as a rallying call for imposing sanctions on states like Russia, who it is argued, are engaging in an unjust war. The fact that no Western leader, and few IR scholars or pundits are discussing the Israeli attack on Gaza in terms of just war theory suggests that they have given up on it, or that they believe it only applies to some states and not others. The project of making just war the normative heart of international politics, it seems, is dead. By not speaking out on Gaza, we have quietly given up on the project of a rule-based international system.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, the smashing of Gaza is a painful reminder that we no longer truly believe in universal human rights, rule of law, or justice. That is what the actions of our leaders and sometimes our fellow citizens tell us, because if we truly believed in these values, we wouldn’t allow our leaders to remain silently complicit. I’m beginning to wonder if we ever did truly believe in those values, and where we go from here. If our leaders and societies are no longer committed to just war principles, what does this say about us, and where do those of us working for a just and peaceful international order look to find ways of limiting violence and war? Are we headed for another era in which civilians are once again considered fair game in war? How do we stop the mass killing of civilians from being normalised once again? Answers on a postcard, please…