Who is an Innocent Civilian?


Who is an Innocent Civilian?

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

Does this story seem familiar to you?

The society is on the brink of economic and social collapse. Democratic elections are held and the public decides to vote for an extreme, ideologically-based party that views Jews as its mortal enemy. The party is not satisfied with its election victory and within a short time frame carries out a putsch in which all opposition is violently banished from the political system.  With no internal opposition left to block it, the extremist party goes on a militaristic binge, and among other things it fires hundreds of lethal rockets into populated areas of what it considers to be its enemy. Ultimately, the people fired upon decide to fight back and eventually invade the attackers’ land, causing massive destruction of army and civilians alike – far more of the latter than died in the initial rocket attacks.

I’m sure you are asking why I am repeating what every one is quite familiar with – the recent and contemporary history of Hamas in Gaza and its actions against Israel. In fact, however, I am actually writing about quite a different scene: the rise of Nazi Germany, its attacks on Britain, and the subsequent allied invasion of Germany with the ensuing total destruction of its infrastructure, not to mention the deaths of millions of German civilians.

My point is not to draw a direct parallel between Hamas and the Nazis, although one could make a good argument of (too) many parallels and similarities. Rather, I wish to raise another question: “who is an innocent civilian?”

Israelis are scolded for attacking Hamas which came to power in democratic elections. Precisely! This is an extremist party that did  not take power against the wishes of the local population, but rather was elected by the Gazan populace, due (in part) to its implacable hatred of Israel and everything Jewish. The policy of rocket fire into Israel these past few years was not opposed by Gazans but rather was tacitly – and occasionally actively – supported by Gaza’s civilians.

Does this mean that Israel can indiscriminately fire at anything and everything in Gaza? To judge by the precedent of World War II (Dresden anyone? How about Hiroshima?) – and numerous other wars (Vietnam etc.) in which the West did precisely that – the answer would seem to be a resounding “yes”. However, from a “just [moral] war” perspective that Israel tries hard to adhere to, the answer is obviously “no”. Nevertheless, given that civilians elected and supported Hamas’s casus belli policy from the start, it is also clear that the principles of “just war” have to be modified when dealing with a population that was not held ransom by its own political outlaws but rather consistently supported and condoned the policy of indiscriminate rocket attack against Israeli civilian targets.

Gazan civilians are being shot in the crossfire of war? Perhaps if they would have acted from the start a little more civilian and had tried to dissuade their duly elected leaders from pursuing an immoral policy of shooting at Israeli non-combatant citizens (i.e. “just warfare” morality), they would not find themselves in the present bind. As to the rest of the world looking on in “horror”, bewailing the Gazans’ plight, they would do well to consider whether these “innocent civilians” are indeed not at least partly to blame themselves for the present carnage.

Jan. 13, 2009

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