Posted by: captainfalcon | August 6, 2014

McMahon on Israel

This article is generally good but not waterproof.  Its basic argument is that Israel’s military offensive in Gaza is disproportionate and immoral even on the favorable-to-Israel assumptions that (1) Israel may kill an infinite number of culpable Palestinians in order to save Israeli life and (2) Israel may kill two non-culpable Palestinians (or Palestinians whose killing is otherwise excused) per one Israeli saved.

The claim that the article seeks to defend is that even assuming that 1,000 non-culpable Palestinians have been killed (the number, the article suggests, is likely higher), in order for Israel’s action to be justified 500 Israelis need to be saved.  Because well under 500 Israelis are likely to be saved, Israel’s action is unjustified.

The article defends two lemmas underlying this claim: the two-to-one proportionality rule and its conception of Palestinians whose deaths should count in the proportionality calculus.

A) Two-to-one proportionality rule

First, it defends the proposition that proportionality requires, at minimum, that a state forebear from killing any more than 2 innocent foreigners in order to prevent 1 of its innocent civilians from dying.  It seeks to do this by showing that, intuitively, this same principle applies in the case of individual self defense: maybe I can kill two innocent bystanders in order to save myself from a murderer, but surely I am not morally permitted to kill three. 

Even accepting that this proportionality rule applies to the case of individual self defense, more is required to show that it applies to the case of a state’s defense of its civilians.  As Richard Chappell has pointed out (unfortunately I can’t find the post where he does so), we accept that states may act in ways that individuals may not.  I may not deport someone who has entered the country unlawfully but the state may.  I may not imprison a criminal in my basement, even if I give him a state-of-the-art trial, but the state may imprison him.  The point is that conduct that is outrageous if undertaken by a person is not necessarily outrageous when undertaken by a state, so the proportionality rules that apply to individuals (because we’d think it outrageous if they did not) do not necessarily apply to states.  Thus, while it may well be that a 2:1 proportionality rule applies to states exercising their self defense (and while it may well be outrageous to think that such a rule does not apply to states), McMahon hasn’t shown this.    

B) Palestinians whose deaths should count in the proportionality calculus

Second, while it never defends 1,000 as the number of non-culpable Palestinians killed, the article defends its conception of non-culpable Palestinians / Palestinians who oughtn’t to be harmed.  It is particularly concerned to rebut the claims (1) that Palestinians are culpable because Hamas are their elected representatives; and (2) that Israel is excused from killing otherwise non-culpable Palestinians who do not “heed the pamphlets, the phone calls, the text messages, and the warning shots [from the Israeli army] telling you to evacuate a building.”

I.  Palestinians are not culpable simply because Hamas are their elected representatives

According to McMahon, Palestinians are not culpable merely because Hamas are their elected representatives for three reasons.  First most Palestinians in the Gaza Strip didn’t vote for Hamas and so cannot be held responsible for Hamas’s wrongdoing; it is not enough for them merely to be ruled by Hamas.  This seems obviously correct.

Second, even those who did vote for Hamas cannot be held responsible for its wrongdoing to the extent that they didn’t vote for it in order to enable it to kill Israeli civilians.  This is not as obvious.  It is not clear, for example, that people who voted for the Nazi party because they accepted its fiscal policy (but rejected its racial and military policies) are non-culpable.  To the contrary, it seems commonsense that they are morally blameworthy.  Whether their moral blameworthiness makes them culpable in the sense that their deaths do not count in a proportionality calculus related to self defense against aggression perpetrated by the representatives for which they voted is a question that needs to be answered — the answer to it may well be no — but McMahon doesn’t give an answer. 

He does suggest a companions in guilt argument: Osama bin Laden claimed that al Qaeda was justified in attacking American civilians because they were culpable for having voted for a government that implemented anti-Islamic policies; only if you accept bin Laden’s claim can you also accept the parallel claim that Israel is excused from killing Palestinian civilians because they voted for Hamas.  But this argument is susceptible to multiple possible responses.  The most sympathetic rendering of the pro-Israel claim is not that Israel is excused from killing any civilian who voted for Hamas no matter the circumstances of the killing, but that Israel is excused from killing civilians who voted for Hamas when the killing is in furtherance of Israel’s self-defense.  While it appears from bin Laden’s letter that 9/11 was intended in part as self defense (though also in part as retribution), a non-state actor such as al Qaeda arguably doesn’t have a right to self defense.  Additionally, 9/11 was not in furtherance of al Qaeda’s self defense or the self defense of the people it purports to serve: with the exception of the attack on the Pentagon, 9/11 did not dismantle any American military infrastructure or end American military support to Israel, etc.  Finally, it is arguable (though not indisputable) that al Qaeda is simply wrong that any American conduct has authorized military measures in defense of the people al Qaeda purports to represent (whereas Israel is not wrong that Hamas’s conduct has authorized military measures in Israel’s self defense).

Finally, McMahon posits that Palestinians who do not actively aid Hamas in its terrorist activities — by willingly helping to dig the tunnels or smuggle or store rockets — are non-culpable and their deaths should count in a proportionality calculus; thus culpability does not attach merely from voting for Hamas.  This seems reasonable to me but it is not argued for.

II.  Israel is not necessarily excused from killing Palestinians to whom it gives notice and an opportunity to escape

As for the claim that deaths of Palestinians who do not evacuate their homes in response to Israeli warnings do not count in the proportionality calculus, the article points out that at the very least Israel is not absolved from killing Palestinians who cannot — whether from physical inability or ignorance or threat of violence — evacuate their homes in response to Israeli warnings.  This seems obvious but, within the four corners of McMahon’s article, it is an open question how many Palestinians fall into this camp.

C) Necessity

Finally, McMahon argues that Israel’s campaign is not necessary in that there is an “equally effective [and] less harmful way of achieving the defensive aim.”  Specifically: “The war is necessary for defence only if Israel continues to quarantine the citizens of Gaza and to occupy and maintain settlements in the West Bank. If Israel were to abandon the aim of controlling territories to which it has no right, and to respect the right of Palestinians to a fully self-determining life in the lands allotted to them in the UN settlement of 1948, those who now fire rockets into Israel and conduct raids on Israeli forces would lose what sway they now have over the Palestinian people.”  Seems possible and has narrative appeal, but I’m not sure if that’s enough to assign a probability to this prediction.

Update: This is sound assuming, as (Chappell points out) we must if we reject nationalism and tribalism, that a nation is not morally permitted to give greater weight to saving its own citizens’ lives over the innocent lives of others.


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