War and Ethics: Troubling News from Israel and Two Paths Forward

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 15, 2019 / 17 Cheshvan 5780

Mitzvah Opportunity for next year: A retired navy man is working toward his conversion to Judaism. He thought it would be particularly meaningful if some Jewish veterans could be present at his Beit Din (religious court) next September 23 or 24th, 2020. In connection to this, he would be interested in forming a relationship with some Jewish servicemen or retired veterans.

If this is something you’d like to participate in, please contact Rabbi Brian Mayer at rabbibrian@rotb.org.

Summary: Rabbi Kosak mulls over the recent flare up impacting Israel and the Gaza Strip.

This has been a difficult week in Israel and in the Gaza Strip. Over the past number of years, hundreds of missiles have been lunched from Gaza into Israel. During the last year in particular, these missile attacks threatened the rather tenuous cease-fire between Hamas (the titular leaders of Gaza) and Israel.

One of the chief architects of this instability and mayhem was a Palestinian Islamist Jihad (PIJ) leader, Baha Abu Al-Ata. For those unfamiliar, PIJ’s charter calls for the utter destruction of Israel, and they are financed by Iran. Over the years, Abu Al-Ata has become something of a renegade, and both Hamas and PIJ lost the ability to control him. He has attacked Israel indiscriminately, even forcing Bibi Netanyahu to flee for cover in a rare, pre-announced appearance.

As such Abu Al-Ata has been on Israel’s list for some time. Over the years, numerous plans to assassinate him were drawn up, but all of those would have resulted in too many civilian casualties. Until this week. Israeli security agency, Shin Bet, identified a way to kill Abu Al-Ata with minimum harm to bystanders. A pin-point missile strike was carried out, hitting not only one house, but precisely the one floor of that house in which Abu Al-Ata and his wife were located.

From a military perspective, this sort of highly localized attack is remarkable, elegant even. It would have been impossible to execute even in recent years. It is one of the fruits of advanced information technologies and guidance systems. From an ethical and legal perspective, we are on more difficult ground, and elegance is probably not a quality we want as part of our ethical decision-making.

So what are some of the ethical issues? Is counterterrorism a law enforcement operation or is it a part of war? In war, there is no expectation of due-process. In a law enforcement arena there is. There are no settled answers to such questions. As it turns out, we are only 17 years into such targeted killing and new technologies often bring with them excruciating moral conundrums.

November of 2002 is considered the first occasion of this new form of non-war targeted assassination of a known terrorist. In Yemen, an unmanned US drone fired on terrorist Al-Harethi, who was suspected of the USS Cole bombing. Since then (and since 9/11), the United States has carried out numerous such drone attacks, particularly under President Obama’s administration.

Israel has a stated policy that only members of a terrorist organization actively involved in an ongoing and direct manner in planning, or executing terrorist attacks are lawful targets. Moreover, targeted killing operations can only be carried is there is no reasonable possibility of capturing the terrorist alive.

That said, the legitimacy and utility of targeted killings has been fiercely debated within Israel. The most notable case involved the targeted killing of Salah Shehadeh. Shehadeh was the head of the military wing of Hamas. Israeli intelligence held him directly responsible for killing scores of Israeli civilians and soldiers as well as injuring hundreds of others in tens of attacks.
Despite that clear evidence, when Israel dropped a bomb on his house, three of his chldren, and eleven other civilians, including more children, were casualties. The sight of those children had repercussions in the court of international appeal and within Israeli society. Eleven civilians killed in a war-time operation would be considered proportionate by most dispassionate scholars of the rules of engagement. But was this war? And how many more lives were saved because Shehadeh was killed? And who feels competent to make such terrifying moral decisions?

Because we are only 17 years into this phenomenon, there is no clear consensus on what the moral standing of such actions is. We might need decades of such incidents in numerous countries (to avoid the limitations on our thinking caused by passion and partisanship) before there is a predominant legal sense whether such attacks are legitimate.

What we do know is that when we step out of the moral and legal arenas, and into areas of long-simmering tension, such operations always risk escalation. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis want to start the clock on such actions in the manner that best justifies their own actions and places them on the moral high-ground. Was Israel responding to Abu Al-Ata’s past actions and current plans, or is PIJ now responding to Israel’s assassination? Both sides will list their grievances, pushing culpability to the point in time which rationalizes their behavior in a noble light. In the meantime, innocent civilians will die.

I suppose it has always been this way. That doesn’t make it any less disturbing though. Although I am an optimist and believe that we are improving as a species, becoming less violent over time, one would also need to be blind to ignore how our weapons grow exponentially more lethal or to forget that we are still talking about human lives. Violence is always a gruesome stain on the human species, whether we call it a war or a law-enforcement operation or an act of terror. It’s our fate to live in the messy and too-often violent present. We don’t live in messianic times.

Two Ways Forward

That said, we still have an obligation to work toward the messianic, to use what levers we have to tilt the world in the proper direction. Which brings me to the upcoming World Zionist Congress (WZC). The congress will gather in October 2020 in Jerusalem. It is the international “parliament of the Jewish people” and has ties to the global gatherings which were first convened by Theodor Herzl, beginning in Basel in 1897.

Between January 21 and March 11, 2020, we American Jews are granted the opportunity to vote online for the Jewish future in Israel and around the world. Real dollars and power are at stake. For those of us who would like to see an Israel that better represents us religiously, I encourage you to take part.

To learn please visit www.ZionistVote.org. If you have questions, you can contact them directly at elections@azm.org.

A Painful Hope

Next Saturday, Israel360 is presenting a powerful and engaging talk entitled A Painful Hope. Please join Israel360 for an evening with Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Shadi Abu Awwad of Shorashim/ Judur/ Roots, A Local Palestinian Israeli Initiative for Understanding, Nonviolence, and Transformation. We can’t always change our governments. But we can endeavor to change our own hearts. More information here.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What are some ethical quandaries you struggled with where any choice you might take had negative repercussions?
  2. How did you decide what to do? How did you come to terms with the fact that there would be damage no matter how you chose?

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