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Conflict in Palestine: Injustice, disproportionality and illegal conduct


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

If your opponent is not a state, but a people whose land you have systematically appropriated and effectively forced into a ghetto, you can get away with almost anything.

In his landmark book Just and Unjust War: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, the political theorist and philosopher Michael Walzer explained, (somewhere in the foreword) that he wrote parts of the book in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Mishkenot Sha’ananim can be translated as “peaceful place” or “place of tranquillity”. The story goes that the name was inspired by a Biblical passage (Isaiah 32:18): “My people will abide in peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings and in peaceful resting places.”  

Out of an interest in Jewish migration and settlement in Palestine, I once visited Mishkenot Sha’ananim. It was, indeed, a place of tranquillity. It was, also, one of the earliest examples of foreign settlement on Palestinian land — outside the walled city of Jerusalem. Mishkenot Sha’ananim was built by the British banker Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) in 1860, with money donated by a US businessman, Judah Touro (1775-1854).

I found it curious, and slightly ironic that Walzer, a progressive thinker with socialist tendencies, would slip into the comfort of the Zionist state, to write a book on ethics in war. That was more a sign of my naiveté. I assumed, wrongly, that someone with his values would oppose the wilful destruction of Palestinian homes, and have nothing to do with Zionism. This befuddlement was increased when I met and had lunch with Shlomo Hillel, who died at the age of 97 earlier this year, himself (at the time), somewhat of a leftist, but a serious hero of the Zionist movement. These things are rarely simple. 

After my visit to Mishkenot Sha’ananim, I took a walk down a hill to a village called Silwan. The village reminded me a little of the difference between Sandton and Alexandra. I will get back to a story of Silwan below.

Let me pause, briefly, and say that I promised myself almost 30 years ago (between 1991 and 1994), that I would never write or say a word about Zionism. My decision was spurred by an insult by a former Democratic Party (predecessor of today’s Democratic Alliance) member. A small group of us were dining at the home of Robin Carlisle. I was told: “You fucking intellectuals hide your anti-Semitism behind anti-Zionism.”

I saw no value in continuing the discussion that evening, and never again returned to the topic (of Zionism). I have remained quiet, as a writer, an academic and a public intellectual, about Zionism — notwithstanding the horrors I have witnessed. But, I felt a shuddering in my chest when I saw footage on Friday of Al Jazeera and the BBC’s Gaza offices being bombed. Still, I will not write about Zionism. It’s not that I don’t have views on it. It’s just that my views are intensely radical, and in normative terms, they are improbable. 

The ethics of war in the 21st century

I will focus, then, (broadly) on Walzer’s “just war” thinking, on the ethics of war, and include some of my own conclusions. It’s a big subject, and cannot be done full justice in a short space. Nonetheless, what we are seeing in Palestine at the moment is a state fighting a war against a “non-state actor” — and with directed attacks on civilian targets. 

Among the best examples of non-state actors is the employment of an estimated 100,000 private military contractors (at least 30,000 on armed active duty) that operate largely independent of the sovereign jurisdiction of a state. These “non-state” actors sometimes demonstrate a vast array of state-like military capabilities and judicative capacities. Put differently, and as Isis has demonstrated, they have the (self-awarded) power to serve as judge, jury and executioner. 

In confrontation with non-state actors, states can get away with almost anything. In the case of the Zionist state, I have no doubt that there will be no international accountability or sanction — in part because the International Court of Justice is likely to fail in any attempt to bring them to account. Also because Washington will stand with its closest Middle Eastern ally. But overall because nobody in power can get themselves to say anything critical of Zionism, out of fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. 

Just cause

One of the elements of the “just war” theory is that the reason for going to war has to be just. In the case of the Zionist state, that goes out of the window. Since the Nakba, the settlers have simply taken whatever property they wanted, and driven Palestinians into veritable townships — not unlike Alexandra, while developing (beside it), places like Sandton. It is not inconceivable that there would be claims that “states have a right to defend themselves”. There is little wrong with that, except where the state itself was built on injustice in the first place. Who would have told the indigenous Americans not to fight against the European settlers, after they (the Europeans) unilaterally declared independence in 1776? 

The conduct of war

The concept of jus in bello (justice during the conduct of war, which is separate from jus ad bellum, reasons for war, or its prevention) rests on two important principles about fair and just conduct during warfare that insist on discrimination between legitimate and illegitimate targets. Discrimination and proportionality establish rules of just and fair conduct during warfare.

The principle of discrimination defines who are considered “legitimate” targets in war, and the principle of proportionality concerns how much force is morally appropriate. However, if your opponent is not a state, but a people whose land you have systematically appropriated, and effectively forced into a ghetto, you can get away with almost anything. In the field, or on the battleground, there are no judges or courts of law to hold soldiers accountable. 

This is closely related to the principle of proportionality. This has to do with how much force may (morally) be applied in pursuit of a war’s ends.

Consider Washington’s virtual destruction, and the consequent carnage in Iraq in pursuit of a single person, Saddam Hussein. Then consider Washington’s invasion of Afghanistan, the compounding of misery in that country, in pursuit of one person, Osama Bin Laden.

Consider, now, the way the US carpet-bombed Laos (during the 1960s and early 1970s, with more than 50,000 people killed or injured by US bombs, 98% of them civilians. There is also a debate over whether it was actually necessary to drop nuclear bombs on Japanese cities at the end of World War 2 or for the firestorm over Dresden.

These are near perfect examples of disproportionality in war, with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs considered to have been driven more by Washington demonstrating its might to the former Soviet Union.

The ethics of war in the 21st century

In the early 21st century, disproportionality was a defining feature of George W Bush’s proclamation in 2001 that the US was to embark on a global war on terror. Couple this with the US’s ability to “mark” any organisation as “terrorists,” and we reach a position where anything goes. I was unfortunate enough, in December 1985, to cover a story of the old South African Defence Force assassinating a couple in Lesotho simply because Pretoria considered them to be “terrorists”. Not dissimilarly, any Palestinian may at any time be called a terrorist, which provides sufficient basis to be killed.

The principle of proportionality is not just philosophical. It is detailed in the Geneva Convention’s Additional Protocol I, and lays down a “basic rule” prohibiting all intentional attacks on “the civilian population and civilian objects”. This rule is extended to “incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, [and] damage to civilian objects”.

Even in instances when attacks are not aimed at civilians or when it “may be expected to cause incidental civilian loss or damage which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”. 

There’s a lot more that can be said about the just and unjust war and the current conflict in Palestine. Let me end, though, with the story of the village called Silwan, down the road from Mishkenot Sha’ananim, where Walzer wrote parts of his seminal work on just and unjust war. 

The boy in the village of Silwan

After I visited Mishkenot Sha’ananim I went to a village called Silwan. It was a shockingly unequal place, as explained above. The Palestinian part of the village was neglected while the settlers (some of whom came from countries around the world) were pampered and privileged. But let me have Moriel Rothman, an American Israeli with Rabbis for Human Rights and the Solidarity Movement, tell the story of a boy, Suhaib Alawar (14), in Silwan

It’s 12 March 2012.

“Someone is pounding on the door. It is 3:45 a.m. The pounding gets louder. The father goes to open the door, and immediately they enter: two men dressed in civilian clothes, flanked by police officers bearing heavy guns. They go straight towards the boy, who has pulled on a baggy sweatshirt and stepped out of his room, snake their hands under his arms, and take him. ‘He will only be gone for a few hours,’ they say. ‘Don’t worry.’ Outside the house, the boy’s hands are tied with plastic packaging bands and he is pushed into the police car. He does not understand much Hebrew, but he knows enough to understand the officer who leans close to him and whispers: “Fuck your mother.”

Suhaib was held for 30 days (released on 5 April) and “after being beaten with a chair, held in solitary confinement, taunted with a knife, forced to stay awake, and otherwise abused, the boy is released from prison… And his punishment continues: He is under house arrest, indefinitely, and is not allowed to go to school. He is afraid that he will miss the end of his 9th grade year… After the police stormed into his house and arrested him, he was driven to a facility called ‘Room 4’.”

Explained Suhaib:

“The interrogator asked me if I knew why it was called Room 4. I said I did not, and so he told me that it is called Room 4 because this is where you Arabs leave on all fours, crawling like a baby after we’ve finished with you”. There, the interrogators handcuffed Suhaib and hit his head, both with fists and with keys, calling him names and taunting him as their blows rained down. He was then made to sign a document in Hebrew stating that he had not been physically abused. Suhaib, who cannot read Hebrew, signed the document…”

Suhaib and millions of Palestinians who have had to make way for settlers for more than 100 years are no longer citizens of a state. Often branded as “terrorists” for fighting back against settlers who appropriate their land, they can be maimed and killed, with no recourse to law. DM


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All Comments 12

  • The only way to balance the books is to isolate Israel with economic sanctions as with South Africa under the Nationalist government. I’m not sure the western powers have the heart or the courage to do this. Halting the promotion of “ group areas acts” currently in place is a good way to start.

    • Of course that turned out so well for us. Twenty-seven years later, in random order, we have an educated population, little poverty, no pit latrines, murder and rape are rare events, no homophobia and xenophobia, piped water for all, reliable electricity, etc. Sanctions are indeed the best option.

    • You are wrong as Zionism is Jews moving back to their homeland as promised to them by God.
      Ezekiel 11:17
      ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again’

  • HAMAS is a fundamentalist organization
    Their goal is to destroy the State of Israel
    HAMAS: “There is no solution for the Palestinian problem except by Jihad”
    Their objective is to kill all Jews
    April = 44 rockets fired into Israel
    May = 3,100+ rockets fired
    Israel has retaliated in self defence

    • Self defence?? 20 of your eyes for one of mine? The best future for Israeli residents will be for the Israeli government to end occupations, end all discrimination against Arabs, and make a genuine peace with all its neighbours and residents.

      • Jews want peace – HAMAS is preventing it by refusing to negotiate a TWO STATE SOLUTION.
        Familiarise yourself with the HAMAS doctrine & realise the problem is HAMAS, not Israel.
        HAMAS wont stop until they’ve either killed all Jews or driven them from the country.
        Israel is forced to defend itself.

  • I do wish to express my views very shortly. HAMAS is a certified terrorist organisation. I would under no circumstances, wish to live under and be governed by Hamas which is allied to ISIS.
    I value my freedom as a woman, my freedom of choice, be it religiously, be it in a sexual orientation, freedom of movement, etc. etc. I must back Israel’s attacks on HAMAS and only HAMAS.
    If there is ever to be peace, the Palestinians and Israelis, through dialogue must live side by side. Dialogue , not guns , not the extremists on both sides, must be encouraged and forced on both sides.
    I do wish to add that being Jewish does not imply agreeing with nor underwriting all of Israel’s political decisions. one can criticise Israel and not be anti-semitic.
    We must face the fact that as a long as HAMAS rules peace will be very difficult if not impossible.
    Another important point is that there is a growing majority of Israelis and Palestinians who wish for PEACE AND DIALOGUE . They must be supported by the world. Stop the hate.
    I do also wish to add that I am unable to understand that Hamas has the money to invest in their enormous arsenal of rockets, but does not have the means to vaccinate their people against the Covid-19 nor educate their youth?
    Please let us all stop attacking ONLY Israel when the Palestinians also share some guilt.
    time for the Palestinians to put education and dialogue first, do what Israel has done, become rich in scienctific discoveries to benefit mankind, encourage cultural growth, farming etc. etc.

    • You and the likes of Jacques have obviously drunk the ‘koolaid’ of Israeli state (as distinct from Judaism) propaganda … as I did for many years. This with their domination of the Media ‘narrative’ of being under attack . Is it any wonder they destroyed an entire building with Media organisations in it, who were reporting facts the Israeli state did not like! The pretext … Hamas was in the building also ! If you want to destroy Hamas “terrorists” in the building, why destroy the entire building ? And if you destroy the entire building you conveniently don’t need to provide any evidence because it has all been destroyed! Very neat indeed!

      • And by notifying the occupants of the imminent destruction of the building, giving them 60 minutes to get out of the building…you also allow the “terrorists” time to escape – give me a break !! Try another lark !!

  • The writer should take note of the pithy expression : Your terrorism is bad, but my terrorism is good ! This a variation on an expression I borrowed – hence not original . Some of the cynical comments about how bad things are under the ANC government (for which I have not voted) … obviously comes from people who have like Suhaib there or myself here, have never been detained by the SA security branch in the ‘good old apartheid days’ ! Maybe they secretly long for Trump’s ‘stolen’ American dream of white supremacy, which they should note is accompanied by white fragility also ? Jane … in the US the Boycott Divestment Movement which we applied in SA in those days, has been declared a prohibited movement ! So much for the ‘greatest’ democracy in the world !

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