Operation Cast Lead and the Ethics of Just War

By Asa Kasher

Was Israel's conduct in its campaign against Hamas morally justified?

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Editor’s Note:
On Saturday, December 27, 2008, after eight years of continuing rocket attacks on its territory by Islamic terrorist organizations, Israel launched a full-scale military operation against the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. Officially named Operation Cast Lead, it began with massive air-strikes against Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets, and continued with a ground incursion in which thousands of Israeli soldiers participated. After twenty-two days of fighting, Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire, which became effective on January 18, 2009.
While the political and military achievements of the operation are contested, the damage it left in its wake is undisputed. Ten Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians were killed. Due to the asymmetry of forces, the Palestinian side sustained especially heavy casualties: According to Palestinian sources in the Gaza Strip (whose credibility, it must be noted, is questionable), more than one thousand people were killed and much of Gaza’s infrastructure was destroyed. Humanitarian relief agencies estimate that nearly 100,000 Palestinians were left homeless.
The destruction caused by the Gaza operation, as well as the disturbing pictures of it broadcast around the world, incited violent international protest and a public debate within Israel itself. The most outspoken critics of the operation accused the Jewish state of engaging in excessive and indiscriminate aggression, as well as committing war crimes against the Palestinians. More moderate commentators questioned the necessity of some of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) actions during the fighting, and wondered whether the operation could have been brought to a close without causing such widespread carnage.
Though understandable and perhaps inevitable, this heated debate is unfortunately founded, in most cases, on insufficient and flawed information, semantic confusion, and the misuse of moral principles. The main purpose of this article, written by one of Israel’s leading philosophers, is to try to deal with some of these shortcomings. At the very least, it points us toward the proper moral, ethical, and legal standards by which the Gaza operation should be evaluated.
A properly functioning state should plan its actions carefully, execute them appropriately, and examine them scrupulously afterwards. A military operation is an important and complex act of state, and it is not exempt from proper planning, execution, and examination.
Whenever a state conducts a military operation outside of its borders, it engages in a political action. In a democratic state, the government must rigorously examine the political considerations and decisions that led to this action. A military operation also involves the deployment of armed forces and the cooperation of intelligence agencies. Each of these institutions is also expected to undertake a professional, methodical, and searching post-hoc inquiry into the considerations taken and decisions made in every professional locus of control that has had an effect on the operation—including those of operative planning, tactical performance, and intelligence. A responsible inquiry into these loci may then lead to a professional investigation of other loci of influence, such as those involved in capability building (i.e., developing military doctrines, practical training, etc.).
These political investigations and professional inquiries must pay special attention to every aspect of the operation that is related to moral and ethical values. Decisions, commands, and actions should be closely examined in order to determine whether they appropriately manifested the moral principles of the State of Israel, the ethics of the IDF and the General Security Service, and the laws to which Israel is subject.
There are two stages to such an analysis: First, one must determine the requirements that every military operation must fulfill in light of Israel’s moral principles as a Jewish and democratic state;1 the ethical codes of the IDF and the General Security Service;2 the laws that Israel must observe as a state in which the rule of law prevails; and the laws it must observe as a properly functioning state subject to both jus gentium (the “law of nations,” i.e., international norms which apply to all states) and jus inter gentes (the “law between the peoples,” i.e., treaties and agreements entered into by sovereign nations). Second, one must ascertain whether the decisions made, orders issued, and actions performed in the course of the operation fulfilled these moral, ethical, and legal requirements. In order to do this, one needs as reliable, full, thorough, and accurate an account of the relevant facts as possible. It is impossible to complete any moral, ethical, or legal evaluation of an operation before an investigation of its political background and an inquiry into the military’s professional performance are completed. During and after Operation Cast Lead, many people, both in Israel and abroad, made statements about it as if this kind of examination had already been completed and its findings were at their disposal. Since it is reasonable to assume that not a single one of them had a reliable, full, thorough, and accurate account of the facts, their assertions can carry no moral, ethical, or legal significance at this stage.

Asa Kasher is Laura Schwarz-Kipp Professor Emeritus of Professional Ethics and Philosophy of Practice at Tel Aviv University. He is editor of Philosophia: Philosophical Quarterly of Israel, published in English by Springer; co-founder of the Journal of Military Ethics, published by Routledge; and co-author of the first IDF code of ethics.

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