Just War vs. Decolonization

A lot can happen in a week. My last column criticized the neoconservatives’ bloodthirsty cheerleading for killing Russians. It was written and submitted before Hamas’s attack on Israel. There is, however, a relationship between the principles I espoused in that piece and current events.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been dormant for some time. When it was a more prominent story, I tried but eventually gave up untangling all of the claims and counterclaims by each side. Thus, the subject has hardly appeared in my writings. It tends to suck up all of the oxygen in the room when it rears its head, and recent events are no different.

The Second Intifada and America’s Ill-Fated Iraq Campaign

Immediately before the 9/11 attacks, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heated up. In those days, Americans were paying close attention to the Middle East, and many considered Israel’s national security concerns identical to our own. But while both situations involved terrorists, our conflict with al Qaeda was not quite identical to Israel’s with the Palestinians, whose chief resistance movement was secular and nationalist.

Even though our retaliatory campaign in Afghanistan was incomplete, in 2002 Benjamin Netanyahu began lobbying the United States also to attack Iraq. He promised this would eliminate a significant source of terrorism, and it would impress Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Iran, who might otherwise seek conflict with Israel and the United States.

The Iraq war turned out to be a grand mistake. It fueled Islamic terrorism for two decades, and America’s involvement in Iraq obscured our distinct advantages in this region. Unlike Israel, we can solve almost all of our terror problems by securing our border, because we do not have to live among the violent fanatics of the region, and they cannot project power absent our suicidal immigration policies.

Even at that time, the claim that Israel was our “Greatest Ally” struck me as ridiculous. Israel did almost nothing to help us during our 20 years of war in the Middle East. They deployed none of their troops to Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else, even when small allies like Georgia and Latvia did.

This wasn’t solely a result of stinginess. Our Arab allies generally were so hostile to Israel, that Israel could not lend us formal assistance without jeopardizing those relationships. When Israel could lend a hand, their actions were peculiar, including supporting jihadis in Syria such as al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate, in order to fight the Assad regime.

I concluded that our country should remain aloof from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I believed this even though I admired Israel’s ability to carve out a productive and civilized state, along with a first-class military, and even though I lost most of my remaining sympathies for the Palestinians in 2006, when they elected Hamas, an evil Islamist organization.

Since the height of the War in Iraq, I have occasionally taken a glance when things flared up, such as the 2006 Lebanon invasion. But it is almost impossible to keep track of the irreconcilable allegations from each side. Israel and Palestine need to figure this out on their own. 

Just Ends, Just Means, and Identity

To state the obvious, terrorism is wrong. But terrorism is just a tactic. There are terrorists supporting almost every political viewpoint, good and bad. The competing goals of Israelis and Palestinians are not as easily adjudicated as the morality of terrorist tactics. One can believe that Palestinians have suffered a great deal and deserve their own homeland, while also recognizing that terrorism is not justified by either side in the pursuit of its goals.

The two sides of this conflict will always have very divergent accounts of the land, its peoples, and the conflict. As I wrote recently regarding Ukraine, “In every war, both sides believe they are right, have divergent views of recent and ancient history, focus on harm done to their group and downplay the harm they do to others, and otherwise lose all empathy and perspective.”

Hamas is an organization of Islamic extremists, and they routinely employ terrorism. While I do not necessarily believe every atrocity story, they have a track record of cruelty. I haven’t forgotten the string of suicide bombings in pizzerias and shopping malls during the early 2000s. Some concluded from these actions (and recent ones) that the Palestinian people forfeited noncombatant status, and that Israel would be justified in unleashing equal or greater barbarity in reverse.

The latter position, while understandable as an emotional expression of anger and frustration, contains a deep internal contradiction. Either everyone must follow the law of war or not. If it is wrong to deliberately kill civilians, it is wrong whether done on the offensive or the defensive. This means Israel can’t turn Gaza—and its one million children—into a parking lot and expect to avoid becoming a pariah nation.

There are atrocities in every war. But if being on the receiving end of atrocities justified counter-atrocities, we might as well say that Hamas’ actions are completely justified, since they have a catalog of complaints about Israel. Under the law of war, which arose from the Christian concept of just war, an enemy’s violations of the rules of war do not justify retaliatory violations against innocent civilians. The whole point of these rules is to mitigate the harms of war towards the innocent.

The Marxist Logic of Decolonization

Events in Israel overshadowed this year’s Columbus Day, but hostility to his legacy has become a central part of the left’s campaign to delegitimize the West. They tell us Columbus was a bad man because he initiated western colonization of the Americas, which supposedly unleashed genocide and many other evils. This incomplete account of events ignores the many evils present in the New World when Columbus arrived, not least the practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism.

The first American settlers had intermittent conflict with various Indian tribes for nearly 300 years and faced countless examples of their savagery. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson criticized King George III, in part, because, “[h]e has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

The American Indian tribes’ tactics against white settlers mirrored what Hamas is doing today: rape, kidnapping of women and children, and the murder of captives.

In spite of this track record, many Americans had and still have a mixed view of our history with the Indians. Few would dispute that Indian warfare tactics were beyond the pale, or that their continued exclusive use of large swaths of North America was entirely untenable. But many Americans also felt a certain admiration for their warrior virtues, perseverance in the face of impending defeat, and recognized some degree of injustice—or at least tragedy—in how they were cut off from their ancestral ways of life.  We still name sports teams after Indians for a reason.

The left, on the other hand, sympathizes with Palestine as part of a broader commitment to the principle of decolonialization. For them, moral authority does not arise from just ends pursued through just means, but resides entirely in tribal identity. Describing a conflict as a form of “decolonization” is a blank check in the left’s moral universe.

So when a native resistance group is opposing a colonial power, all is permitted. When the defender is a white colonist, he can never be justified, even in self-defense. Under this warped logic, all “settlers”—even women and children—are the enemy and fair game for resistance.

This is why the left made countless excuses for the murderous ANC in South Africa, the Algerian FLN, Robert Mugabe in Rhodesia, and the Viet Cong. “If you will the ends, you will the means,” the cynics would say.

Israel Is Being Treated Like Other European Colonial Powers

While many say that Israel’s left-wing critics are motivated by anti-Semitism, it seems more accurate to say that Israel is being criticized because it is being classified as the colonialist “whites.” This criticism mirrors the ways France and Great Britain were criticized for defending their colonial possessions in the 20th Century, and the way our country is still criticized for its treatment of the Indians in the creation of its inland empire.

If popular critiques of the former colonial powers are correct, then isn’t Hamas justified in doing anything that furthers its goal of “decolonizing” Palestine? Alternately, if what Hamas is doing is wrong, which much of it obviously is, then perhaps pervasive criticism of western colonialism is overstated and morally obtuse.

This is all to say that both means and ends matter. We can evaluate them separately, and both must be just for an action to be classified as just. We are not obliged to suspend judgment on the basis of identity. I can maintain sympathies with all of the innocent people who may be harmed in this conflict.

Israel may justly retaliate against Hamas terrorism, but that does not authorize a complete abandonment of the law of war. Many Israelis themselves would balk at recent calls for indiscriminate retaliation, as would the IDF under its principle of “purity of arms.”

Similarly, Palestinians may have a just cause in seeking to carve out some portion of their ancestral lands to become a Palestinian nation-state, but this does not justify terrorism or the abandonment of their humanity. There is no such thing as rape “for a good cause.”

Israel will retaliate, and I believe that is their right as a sovereign nation. Under the circumstances, we should have very little to say about it. But we should reject demands that individuals and nations have to take sides in the broader conflict. Neutrality contributes to peace and prevents regional conflicts from metastasizing into world wars.

We should all be wary of getting our country embroiled in the Middle East again. The place is chaotic and full of intrigue. And our involvement there rarely seems to improve things, further the cause of justice, or serve our national interests.

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: KHAN YOUNIS, GAZA - OCTOBER 16: Palestinian citizens inspect their home destroyed during Israeli raids in the southern Gaza Strip on October 16, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Gazans are evacuating to the south following warnings to do so from the Israeli government, ahead of an expected Israeli ground offensive. Israel has sealed off Gaza and launched sustained retaliatory air strikes, which have killed at least 2,500 people with more than 400,000 displaced, after a large-scale attack by Hamas. On October 7, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel from Gaza by land, sea, and air, killing over 1,300 people and wounding around 2,800. Israeli soldiers and civilians have also been taken hostage by Hamas and moved into Gaza. The attack prompted a declaration of war by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the announcement of an emergency wartime government. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)