If truth is the first casualty of war, then ethics, its twin sister, dies in the same explosion. Karl Barth, perhaps the 20th century's most famous theologian, lived through two European wars and described the ensuing darkness as a complete "collapse of ethics." He was right. The ability to reason morally may be an accidental victim of war, or it may be targeted as carefully as if a sniper had taken aim. There are those who practice evil, and there are those who promote it without conscience. In war, Barth saw both. And we are seeing the same.
In today's asymmetrical warfare, battles are no longer enjoined on the field. They appear within cities, where populations become the immediate victims of weaponry that previous generations never imagined. And civilian causalities are inevitable.
But as Shlomo Ben-Ami has shown, when a major military power is fighting a lesser (though lethal) opponent, it runs the risk of winning the war and losing all credibility in the world community. Hence Israel's risk in Gaza. There is no doubt that Israel will succeed in its present campaign, as it did in 2009. It has monumental military superiority. But it is precisely at the moment when the trophy is presented that Israel may well find itself viewed as one of the world's pariah states. No country wants a UN webpage like this describing its conduct. It's a dilemma: You win, and then you immediately lose.
So what is a nation to do?
The current strategy has been to use the "human shield" argument. This is common in Ukraine, where both Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian separatists blame civilian causalities on the other side "because they used human shields." It has also been used by the Assad regime in Syria. The U.S. used it in the battle for Fallujah in 2004. Now the same is being used in Gaza, and the Israelis have repeated this argument in the American media ad nauseam.
Hamas, Israel argues, fires rockets from population centers so that they can be protected from attack. So far so good. But then the discussion takes a peculiar turn in moral logic, with Israel asserting that these casualties therefore should be blamed on Hamas, not on Israel, which gives Israel license to continue its bombing. On NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, in a statement surely crafted by media specialists, Benjamin Netanyahu said it succinctly: ""We use missiles to protect our people. They use people to protect their missiles." It's a stroke of media genius, conjuring in the popular imagination images of Arab terrorists hunkered down behind unarmed women and children as cover.
But it may be more complicated.
In densely populated Gaza City, it is impossible to prosecute a conventional battle when you're sending artillery rounds into one of the most densely populated regions on Earth. Of course, Israel claims Gazans are given warnings to get out of their neighborhoods. But there is no place to run. No bomb shelters. No safe zones. Not even the beach, where last week even children far from the intended targets were shelled by Israeli missiles. Therefore many Gazans stay at home to guard their possessions and hold on to what little hope they have, which explains the shocking number of children killed by Israel. H. A. Goodman recently summarized the Israeli claim that Hamas is using civilian facilities such as schools and mosques to store and fire their weapons. And he makes a compelling case (although other local agencies in Gaza dispute the extent of it). But then he takes the next courageous step, saying it is immoral for Hamas to use human shields, and it is immoral for Israel to bomb human shields.
It is at this moment that I like to imagine myself leading a seminar in theological ethics. And using my best Socratic pedagogy, I'd present the class with a few scenarios: If a genuine terrorist were in the street, armed and lethal, and hiding behind two innocent civilians, would you consider shooting all three of them in order to save 25 bystanders? Would it be morally justified? I can imagine a long silence while the class anticipates a trap. Some would argue against the triple deaths; others would argue that it is expedient and necessary. I can hear it now: What if the man killed 25 people while you didn't do anything? This is the ticking-time-bomb argument. You are justified in doing anything if it saves the greater number of people.
But then I'd like to press on: What if our terrorist were holding 15 people hostage and threatening to kill 25 bystanders? Do we kill all of them to save the 25? And on we go. I'm pressing the parameters of proportionality (a vital component in any just-war theory). But there is more: What if the terrorist were sleeping in bed with his wife, dreaming about whom he might kill tomorrow, and his 10 children were in his apartment with him? And what if there were 50 innocent neighbors on adjacent floors in his building? This is precisely the scenario that occurred in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza on Tuesday evening. "We are targeting Hamas militants," Israel argued. But wait. Is it morally acceptable to also kill his 10 family members who do not participate in his work? Are we justified if we demolish his entire building? Two buildings? Six? May we kill 1,200 people in Gaza to protect 50 Israelis? Why not kill 5,000? Why not all of them?
The argument "But they use human shields!" has now become a hollow justification for innocent casualties and atrocities in warfare (instead of an explanation), and while many of us suspect that Hamas may be guilty of this, Israel's massive bombardments have now crossed some ethical line. Many of us know this. Few are willing to say it. But yesterday, July 30, Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner-general of UNRWA, the UN agency in Gaza, said it clearly. When yet another UN school, this time in Jebaliya refugee camp, was bombed and 19 were killed, well, Krähenbühl said things had "reached a breaking point."
The deeper tragedy is that Hamas may know that this ethical line is out there, and it is baiting Israel to cross it and thus engender the opprobrium of the world. In this scenario the terrorist hopes that the hostages will get killed because this will guarantee the ideological victory of his cause. But it is at this moment when cool heads understand what Shlomo Ben-Ami said so well: This is where Israeli loses. For the sake of the innocents in Gaza, and for the sake of Israel's future among nations, the current immoral justifications for this Gaza campaign deserve a thorough denunciation. Israel cannot tolerate its cities being rocketed despite their excellent Iron Dome system. But neither can an otherwise morally prudent nation like Israel condone the killing of 1,000 people, because if Israel can condone 1,000, why not 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 in order to save itself from Gaza? At some point the moral logic of "But they use human shields!" shatters, and we will see the full collapse of ethics.
Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., is a professor of theology at Wheaton College in Chicago. He writes extensively on the Middle East and has traveled frequently to countries from Iraq to Libya. He is also the author of numerous books and articles on theology as well as the Middle East. His recent publications on Israel/Palestine include Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to Holy Land Theology (2010) and Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians (2013). For more, visit garyburge.org.