There is a predictable tendency on the American left (or maybe just in human beings generally)—a kind of reflexive opposition, a knee-jerk criticism of whatever powerful people say or do. The United States has supported Israel, sold it weapons, and generally sided with it diplomatically since the late 1960s. And so the Democratic Party, academia, and left-wing activists have grown increasingly pro-Palestine and anti-Israel.
For example, during the latest wave of fighting between Israel and Hamas, Democratic representatives drew direct parallels between the Palestinians and the Black Lives Matter movement, arguing that Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip was akin to white American police officers murdering unarmed Black civilians. Pro-Palestinian protesters and mobs unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic violence against American Jews in recent days, apparently under the theory that American Jews are responsible for Israel’s actions, and if Israel is guilty of the moral equivalent of murdering George Floyd hundreds of times over, violent reprisal is justified.
That amounts to a strange understanding of just war theory, no matter how one finesses it. Let us set aside the obvious grotesquerie of ascribing responsibility for Israel’s actions to American Jews, which echoes the standard anti-Semitic trope of treating Jews as an untrustworthy fifth-column ultimately loyal to Israel rather than the nation of their citizenship. Let me focus instead on the just war argument between Israel and Hamas.
Hamas is a terrorist organization that deliberately murders civilians and says it wants to destroy Israel. On the other side, Israel has a right to defend itself, full stop. If you are tempted to add a “but” to that sentence, stop a moment and read Jonah Goldberg’s column on the subject. Israel was fighting to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilian populations.
As a scholar who recently wrote a book on just war theory, I have carefully weighed the evidence and believe Hamas to be [spoiler!] unjust, appallingly wrong, and morally abhorrent. Hamas’ American apologists are making excuses for terrorism.
Hamas is in the wrong no matter what you think of the Palestinians’ cause. If you sympathize with the Palestinians, you should hate Hamas. Hamas is the greatest enemy of the Palestinians. It hijacked the cause of Palestinian autonomy for its jihadist ideology and made it essentially impossible to support Gaza without being complicit with terrorism.
Critics may suggest that Hamas is waging a just war for Palestinian independence against Israeli occupation. Even if true—which it is not—it would still be unjust for Hamas to deliberately target civilians. Hamas unleashed nearly 4,500 rockets on Israel during the 12 day conflict, fired indiscriminately against civilian populations, with the potential to kill thousands of Israelis. Murdering civilians is bad, and having a just cause in war doesn’t change that.
But for the sake of argument, let’s consider the case for a Palestinian war against Israel. Does Palestine have just cause? A just cause for war typically involves self-defense or the defense of peace, justice, and the common good against some kind of aggression.
Of which of these was Israel guilty in 2021? Save the historical argument for a moment: in 2021, Israel does not occupy the West Bank or Gaza, having withdrawn from those territories in 1995 and 2005, respectively; recognized the Palestinian Authority as the governing authority of Palestinian territories; and engaged in repeated negotiations to end the Israel-Palestine dispute. Israel did not initiate the recent round of violence in 2021.
Under these conditions, the Palestinians are not fighting for self-defense, and political violence is not remotely a last resort for their cause. War is supposed to be a last resort, not an ongoing threat while on-again, off-again negotiations sputter along decade after decade as one side continues to vow the eradication of the other.
Only if you think that Israel’s very existence is a standing aggression against the Palestinians can you conclude that the Palestinians have a right of war against them today. Not even the UN, notorious for its rote condemnations of Israel, agrees with that sentiment. The UN voted in 1947 to approve a partition plan that would create the states of Israel and Palestine, implicitly affirming that the existence of one was consistent with the other.
Israel’s existence is not an aggression, and Palestinian statehood does not constitute a just cause for war.
The lack of sovereign statehood for Palestine was originally the fault of neighboring Arab states, who rejected the 1947 partition plan that would have created the state of Palestine. The Jewish Agency for Palestine accepted it, an early recognition by a predecessor of the Israeli government that Palestinians should have a state. Jordan and Egypt subsequently administered the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, for the next 20 years, and never moved to give Palestine independence. Palestine could have happened at any time from 1947 to 1967, likely with Israeli support or acceptance.
Whether Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank after 1967 might constitute a just cause for war is irrelevant considering Israel’s subsequent withdrawals. It certainly did not justify Palestinian terrorism against Israel during those years, which is never justified.
We should also note that whatever rights the Palestinians had against Israel after 1967 are the same they had against Jordan and Egypt beforehand. Yet the Palestinians only resorted to violence against Israel, which suggests that Palestinian sovereignty was not their sole motivation. Palestinian violence against Israel after 1967 was clearly motivated by a belief that Israel was simply illegitimate at some fundamental level, and therefore that any violence was justified, separate from the detailed legal questions of the status of the West Bank and Gaza. That stance considerably weakens whatever case they may have had from 1967 to 1995
The strongest case that can be made for a Palestinian right of war is based on narrow and contested historical grounds. In 1948, amidst the first Arab-Israeli War and Israel’s declaration of independence, some 700,000 Arabs left or were forced from their homes in territory that would become Israel. These refugees lost their homes, property, and communities, an event commemorated by Palestinians as the Nakba, or “The Catastrophe.” Just war theory has long affirmed that recovering stolen territory or property is a just cause for war. Does the Nakba qualify?
That depends on our reading of history—and history on this subject is notoriously ambiguous. It is unclear the extent to which the Arab exodus was the result of Israeli compulsion and intimidation, how much was voluntary, and how much was actually encouraged by Arab leaders. The ambiguity itself undermines the Palestinian case for war, as war should be reserved for cases of clear-cut wrongdoing. (Regardless, if the Palestinians have a right of war because of the Arab exodus of 1948, it would be a war for compensation, not independence, which is not at issue in the Nakba.)
Just prior to the Nakba, something similar was happening a few thousand miles away in what became India and Pakistan. After the British drew a line of partition to create a Muslim state of Pakistan out of the largely Hindu subcontinent of India, tens of millions of people left their homes and relocated to the country where their religion predominated. The event was a bloodbath. Sectarian violence erupted across northern India as civilians massacred each other in an orgy of mutual ethnic-cleansing.
There are similar stories across Eastern Europe after World War II as borders were adjusted, refugees relocated, and random violence ruled ungoverned spaces in the wreckage of war. None of these events have ever been cited as grounds for a future war by one party against the other.
I am not suggesting with these comparisons that population movements in wartime are morally neutral, nor that we whitewash past wrongs. But if past events, especially those in the chaos of war and state failure, become the causus belli for another war, then every war will lead to the next, and there will never be peace, let alone justice.
Just war should aim at a better peace. It is unclear how a Palestinian war against Israel would do that in Palestine, Israel, or the region. The peace and order of the Palestinian territories is now largely in the hands of Palestinian leaders, who have largely proven to be either corrupt or murderous. And whatever the wrongs of the past, they are not best solved through another war.