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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The justice of Israel’s war in Gaza will depend on how it ends

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators during a protest to demand a permanent cease-fire in Gaza in New York on Saturday, March 2, 2024. (Andres Kudacki/The New York Times)

By Ross Douthat

When the United States and its Middle Eastern allies went to war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, there was nothing clean or surgical about the campaign.

Retaking Mosul from the militant group’s fighters, a struggle that ran from the fall of 2016 through the following summer, left between 9,000 and 11,000 inhabitants of the city dead, according to an Associated Press report, with about a third killed by the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi air bombardments. Many of those victims were simply described as “crushed” in the subsequent medical reports.

In 2021, my colleagues at this newspaper reported on a U.S. strike cell that “launched tens of thousands of bombs and missiles against the Islamic State in Syria,” but also “sidestepped safeguards and repeatedly killed civilians,” at a rate 10 times that of similar air warfare in Afghanistan.

When Western journalists reached Raqqa in Syria, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, in the fall of 2018, they found a “wasteland of war-warped buildings and shattered concrete” (to quote an NPR report), in which as many as 80% of the city’s structures were destroyed or uninhabitable.

These features of the war were widely reported, and the military strategies involved were subsequently criticized. But there was no mass movement against an American-led “genocide” in the region, no equivalent of the current rage against the Israeli campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, no self-immolations in front of the White House on behalf of the innocents dead in Raqqa or Mosul.

This difference informs one understandable response from Israelis and friends of Israel to any sweeping criticism of the Jewish state’s military campaign in Gaza. It’s not just that, from their perspective, the world and the Western media generally ignore all manner of crises, aggressions and actual campaigns of ethnic cleansing in order to make Israel a special enemy and scapegoat. It’s that the world is fine with a clear equivalent of its current campaign — with American arms supporting a grinding war against a fanatical Islamist movement, leaving cities leveled and thousands dead — so long as the fanatical movement killed Christians, Yazidis and Muslims.

But if an Islamist organization slaughters and rapes and kidnaps Jews, as Hamas did on Oct. 7, then (they argue) a new standard drops: The rules of engagement are suddenly much stricter, you can’t demand unconditional surrender, you need a cease-fire now.

This complaint captures an essential feature of the current situation: Israel sits at an intersection point for various ideologies: not just overt antisemitism but also the wider anti-whiteness and anti-colonial discourse on the left that treat it as presumptively guilty, no matter what its enemies might do.

But in the analogy to the campaign against the Islamic State you can also see the moral problem for the Israeli effort, which has not yet been resolved by five months of war. In the former conflict, the United States wasn’t just trying to remove a terrorist organization from power; it was cooperating with allies and regional powers — Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian — that had legitimate claims to the territory that the Islamic State had seized and conquered.

This was more true in Iraq than in Syria, and this being the Middle East, there was nothing especially clean about the various claims and claimants. But it was always fairly clear that if you could crush the Islamic State, there were plausible political settlements waiting on the other side, rather than a choice between pure chaos and rerunning the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

So far we don’t know if Israel can similarly crush Hamas, and we definitely don’t know what will happen if it does. In recent days The Wall Street Journal published a long reported piece highlighting Hamas’ losses but also its resilience, its continued hope “to emerge from the rubble of Gaza after the war, declare a historic victory by outlasting Israel’s firepower, and claim the leadership of the Palestinian national cause.” Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government just released a one-page sheet of principles for the war’s aftermath that, to put it charitably, suggests that Israel isn’t anywhere close to figuring out how Gaza would be sustainably governed should Hamas be fully dismantled and defeated.

The justice or injustice of wars can be argued in advance, but it’s often only apparent in their endgames. That’s when you find out if righteous intentions are matched by the means to bring them to fruition, if the inevitable suffering was worth the objective gained.

War can be more or less hellish, but there is an unrefinable aspect to any attempt to dismantle a dug-in terrorist regime governing densely populated cities. In that sense, much of Israel’s war — the strategy, if not always the specific tactics — is what a justifiable campaign against such an enemy inevitably looks like.

But its friends should recognize that without a path to victory and peace, a war can be justifiable and still end up not being just.

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