The moral question

In the wake of Goldstone Report, what are we to make of Israel’s proposed change to international law?

The fallout from Israel’s Operation Cast Lead still lingers, much to the annoyance of its new/old Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel’s “war” - if the corruption of language is such that a massacre now counts as war - waged upon Palestine was supposed to be seen as a legitimate counter-terrorism operation. It was supposed to be couched in terms of quelling Hamas’ rocket attacks upon Israel’s sovereign territory, a glorious disarmament of the West Bank’s murderous leadership, both staged and wrapped-up conveniently enough right before Israel’s most recent election.

As the apologists of Israel’s “right” to do as it pleases are quick to point out, whenever some pro-Palestinian dupe questions why the Israeli military is able to commit what amounts to war crimes with impunity, Israel can do so because it is the only democracy in a sea of tyranny. Israel has the utmost right to defend its territory, to protect its people, to counter its ever imminent destruction at the hands of the Arab barbarians at the gates.

Which are more or less true. It is very much a fact that Israel is a beacon of that light we call democracy. Israel has every right to protect its citizens, to exist and to consider threats to Israelis as being the concern of foreign allies.

What Israel most certainly does not have the right to do, nor any other country for that matter - beacon of democracy or not - is to commit war crimes. And it has been found within the report submitted to the United Nations by Justice Richard Goldstone that Israel committed such crimes in its latest attacks on Palestinians. Accusations of Goldstone’s “anti-Semitism” notwithstanding - curious, as he is Jewish - the report has been criticized more so for what the United Nations have chosen to do with it, rather than for the truth of its findings.

The only major outcry of the report itself came from the likes of the Israeli government. For them to take full responsibility for their accused crimes would have been a shock, not their denial of them.

What Israel most certainly does not have the right to do, nor any other country for that matter - beacon of democracy or not - is to commit war crimes.

Yet, it seems as though the report, sinister as it is, has begun to change the way in which Israel’s government wishes to be perceived in light of Operation Cast Lead.

Unfortunately, as is often the case when those with more power are accused of wrongdoing, Netanyahu has stated in recent weeks that the international checks upon the powerful should be re-thought, rather than the actions of the powerful be tailored to operate within legal limits.

Specifically, Israel wants the laws changed to give its military the “freedom of action,” which means that for Israel, the legal norms of war are too stringent because they do not account for the ability to murder civilians in the process of countering terrorism. And, as we have seen in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan, countering terrorism the way in which virtuous democracies wish to do so involves the wholesale murder of many civilians.

Apparently, those holding the balance of military power should not be held accountable, but rather international law should be flexible enough to allow “good” states to do as they wish and still call it legal.

Understanding the moral distinction between killing 1,000 Palestinians and killing 13 Israelis is a skill which Goldstone has employed in his report. He rightly condemns Hamas, but he condemns Israel more because it was Israel’s military that was accused of committing the majority of such crimes. It is just as immoral to murder Israelis with rockets as it is to murder Palestinians with white phosphorous bombs. The question then becomes, who killed more? That the burden of guilt lies upon Israel, not because it is an evil state but because its military contributed to the majority of civilian casualties, is a distinction that is easy to make.

However, to dispute the protection of civilians, which is what Israel’s proposal to change international law amounts to, is to uphold the rights of some people to exist over others. In doing so, the ability to distinguish between war crimes and legitimate government action would be lost.

Andrew Tod is a University of Winnipeg politics student.

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