It was the wisest of men who said there comes “a time for war, and a time for peace.” The doctrine of a just war was later formulated by Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine and finally incorporated in Article 51 of the UN Charter, which states that “nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense.”
Much has been said about the current military operation Israel is conducting against Hamas and doubt has been raised over its moral and legal legitimacy. So, is the war on Hamas immoral? Is any war indeed just?
To answer these questions, one needs to examine the general principles of just war theory, including the criteria for justice preceding the war, justice in war, and post-war justice.
Jus ad bellum (justice preceding war)
A nation must satisfy the requirements of jus ad bellum to have a moral and legal right to fight a war. This commences with the principle of just cause, being a wrong received through aggression. Ever since Israel handed control of Gaza to the Palestinians, more than 7,200 rockets have been fired into Israeli territory in breach of UN Special Resolution 1850. The risk to life to the nearly one million civilians within firing range is clearly just cause. As Nimr Hammad, adviser to Palestinian President Abu Mazen, stated:
The one responsible for the massacres is Hamas, and not the Zionist entity, which in its own view reacted to the firing of Palestinian missiles. Hamas needs to stop treating the blood of Palestinians lightly.
(Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), December 28, 2008)
Another requirement is that the war be fought for the sake of the just cause (right intention). Israel articulated its aim as preventing the rocket fire into Israel. It has set out to ensure that Hamas has neither the will nor the capability to repeat its crimes against humanity. Israel has no territorial ambitions and as such clearly has the right intention. Israeli president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres made it clear that Israel does not “intend to occupy Gaza or crush Hamas but crush terror. Hamas needs a real and serious lesson. They are now getting it.” (Haaretz, January 4, 2009)
The requirement for legitimacy is clearly met by Israel but not by Hamas. Only legitimate states have the right to wage war. Illegitimate states have no right to govern or go to war. Israel, a democratic state with full UN membership, has the right to wage war, provided it is just. Hamas, on the other hand, does not. Hamas meets the definition of an illegitimate state as it is not recognized as legitimate by its people or the world, since it regularly violates the rights of other sovereign states, and since it violates the human rights of its own citizens. Ever since Hamas seized control of Gaza by force in June 2007, the world has rightly treated it as a pariah state. It has lost internal support as well, with a recent poll (An-Najah National University, September 2008) suggesting only 14% of Palestinians support Hamas. The regime is oppressive to its citizens and routinely uses women and children as human shields. It recently passed legislation which ushered in whipping, dismembering, and execution as standard punitive measures.
The current military action comes at the end of a six-month truce which was broken by Hamas.
Israel has exhausted all other avenues meeting the criterion of last resort: Hamas for its part signaled it has no interest in peace talks. Indeed, its charter states (Article 13) that “there is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad. Initiatives, proposals, and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavor.” With no partner to engage with diplomatically and with no truce in place, Israel had no choice but to protect its citizens by force. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and his center-left government approved the current operation, stating:
On this morning I can look each and every one of you in the eye and say that the government did everything possible before it decided on the ground operation. It was unavoidable.
(Jerusalem Post, January 4, 2009)
The defending state must foresee a probability of success in its military operation. Israel therefore has a legal and moral duty to use whatever legal means available to it to ensure its operation achieves the aim it set out to achieve, namely the weakening of Hamas’ capability and willingness to launch another attack against Israel. This justifies the use of air force, armor, infantry, and any other legal means used by the Israeli military.