When Hamas, a quasi-state claiming to represent the Palestinians, launches rockets that predictably kill or maim everyday Israelis, destroy property, and cause fear among civilians, it is committing terrorism. Regardless of the legitimate grievances Palestinians have, it is wrong to use deadly violence in a way that inevitably hurts the innocent. This is the moral principle toward which we should hope all humanity strives.
When the Israeli state, claiming to represent the Israelis, launches bombs at densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods, killing and injuring many civilians, this too must be condemned. The right of self-defense against aggressors does not entitle one to inflict collective punishment or even to be criminally reckless with the lives of innocent third parties. Nothing entitles one to be so reckless. We have all sorts of fundamental rights in life—not to be enslaved, not to be killed, and to pursue peacefully a living and our happiness. And the right of self-defense. But self-defense does not include the right to hurt innocent people any more than the right to feed one’s family entitles one to steal.
For many years, the U.S. government has supported foreign governments in their militarism. Americans should have a particular interest in what these governments do. It is of course a disgrace that the U.S. has backed such awful dictators as Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak.
Very consistently, U.S. policy has been to support Israel financially, diplomatically, morally, and militarily. Israel uses U.S.-provided hardware to bomb Palestinian communities. America’s perceived one-sided support for Israel was one of the major grievances named by Osama bin Laden in explaining why al Qaeda attacks the United States. Israeli policy should thus be of special interest to Americans in our national foreign policy discourse.
As with the rest of American diplomacy, there is very little dissent in the mainstream on this issue. During their foreign policy presidential debate, Obama and Romney competed strenuously over who would be more unwaveringly pro-Israel. That was the extent of the debate: not what the right position is, but which one of them held that same position more firmly.
Critics of Israel are sometimes accused of singling out Israel. I’m sure some of them do. And some appear to have bad reasons for doing so. But there are good reasons to carefully scrutinize the close allies of your own government, whose policies you might have a marginal chance in changing. This becomes even more important when all conventional discourse is silent on or supportive of the status quo of mass violence that has failed to bring peace and incites terrorism. Moreover, if out of general principle, regardless of the excuse, you don’t approve of governments occupying communities where they’re not wanted, putting up checkpoints on internal main roads, choking off commerce and suppressing cultural exchange—if you don’t approve of blockades, restrictions on exports, or governmental attempts to stop private individuals from transferring small arms—you should be unhappy that your government backs these policies by proxy.
We often hear that we should defend Israel because it is a liberal democracy, at least compared to the Muslim theocracies nearby. But that shouldn’t temper our critique of the government’s policies in the occupied territories. Liberal states have often been guilty of some of the greatest crimes in foreign policy. On the eve of the American Revolution, one of the central colonial criticisms of the British Empire was that it acted hypocritically, championing human rights at home while treating foreigners with a much lower moral standard.
This is true of U.S. foreign policy in general. Americans like to believe their government defends something akin to the relative liberty we associate with America at home. Yet U.S. foreign policy has often conspicuously stood in sharp contrast with the values espoused at home. It has been characterized by firebombings, torture, massacres of villagers, and alliances with some of the most brutal states in modern history. Often, the victims’ humanity is dismissed in mainstream political discourse as if their lives don’t matter as much as our lives do.
The collectivism of war is one of the most wicked forms of tribalism in our time. Most Americans recognize that Muslim terrorists are guilty of regarding innocent people as a disposable means to an end. But they are not alone. U.S. and Israeli leaders do this too. The United States deliberately killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians through sanctions in the 1990s. Today, Israeli politicians and important public figures use crazed language calling on the government to “flatten Gaza” or “send it back to the Middle Ages.”
I’m not saying there is a simple solution for the Middle East. But it should be obvious that just as Hamas’s rocket attacks are an immoral and ineffective way to defend the Palestinians, Israel’s provocations and reactions, which tend to kills dozens of times as many people, are also immoral and counterproductive. Whether the goal is seen as self-defense or to maintain an illegitimate occupation, the Israeli government has committed human rights abuses that in practice do not serve to defend anybody. The U.S. government should not force taxpayers to finance any of this, and so long as it does, Americans ought to be particularly critical.