Moral Responsibility for ‘the Siege of Gaza’

Throughout the 1860s and into the 1870s, the legendary minister-president of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, slowly but surely, consolidated his personal power and, in turn, worked to unify Germany (under his and Prussia’s control, naturally).  In 1866, he founded the Confederation of Northern Germany and then, four years later, schemed to draw the southern German states in as well.

Part of Bismarck’s plan was to provoke an attack on his Confederation by France, thereby compelling the southern German states to seek an alliance with their bigger, notably stronger Prussian cousin. On July 16, 1870, the French parliament dutifully obliged and declared war on Prussia, invading German territory just over two weeks later.

The Franco-Prussian War was a rout. It was over, militarily, almost exactly a month after it started. The Prussians roundly defeated the French at the Battle of Sedan, capturing 100,000 French troops as well as French Emperor Napoleon III. On September 4, France established a provisional government—the Government of National Defense—that decided to ignore reality and refused to surrender. Emil Ludwig, Bismarck’s Polish-Swiss-American biographer, described the ensuing events as follows:

Bismarck sieged [Paris]. Three months later its citizens were starving. The new French government sent an emissary to negotiate a peace with Bismarck. Bismarck refused both to recog­nize the legitimacy of the new government and to lift the siege. The emissary asked, “Are you not afraid of making our resistance even fiercer.” Bismarck’s response was classic.

Your resistance! You have no right—please listen to me carefully—you have no right, before man and God, for the sake of so pitiable a thing as military renown, to give over to famine a town with a population of more than two millions? Don’t talk of resistance. In this case it is a crime.

The French, being the French—but also still being at least somewhat God-fearing—surrendered.

And why wouldn’t they have surrendered?  Bismarck was not a monster. The French leaders had nothing to gain and everything to lose by continuing their “resistance.”  So they quit—because to do otherwise would be to sacrifice innocent lives for the sake of their own vanity, which, as Bismarck rightly noted, would be a “crime.”

As the war in Gaza drags on, more and more observers feel comfortable declaring their belief that what is taking place there constitutes a heinous and merciless crime against humanity. And here’s the thing: they are absolutely and inarguably correct about this. The Palestinian people are, indeed, suffering and dying needlessly and lawlessly. The catch, of course, is that the moral responsibility for this suffering simply does not fall where most of these observers believe. They have identified the wrong culprit in these crimes. It is Hamas, not Israel, that is to blame.

Any discussion of just war theory and legitimate moral responsibilities tends to fall apart immediately when discussing the plight of the Palestinians. This is due to the fact that such discussions must be premised on the presumption of shared values and notions about right and wrong, good and evil. It is clear that Hamas does not share the values of its Israeli enemies (or, one might presume, the Palestinian people in general).

For example, the foundational requirement of jus in bello (right conduct in war) theory is that non-combatants have immunity from intentional attack. For this to be the case, however, both sides must clearly and insistently agree on the matter: civilians are off-limits.

In Gaza, Hamas willfully and wickedly makes no distinction between combatants and non-combatants. It uses civilians as shields. It does not denote non-combatants in any way. It plants operatives among civilian communities, intending specifically to take advantage of Israel’s stated intention to maintain a just campaign. It stores munitions near and even in civilian residences. It turns hospitals into military headquarters. It even recruits and utilizes theoretically neutral, globally sponsored, non-governmental actors to act explicitly on its behalf. And note: all of this Hamas does to its own people, to Palestinian non-combatants. Its treatment of Israeli non-combatants is horrifically and markedly worse.

Under these conditions, Israel is helpless to preserve civilian immunity. It is helpless to fight what appears to outsiders to be a just war. And this is exactly what Hamas wants. It knows that the mere appearance of Israeli cruelty and inhumanity is enough for most observers. It knows that most of them aren’t going to think or reason beyond the surface facts that Palestinians are dying and Israelis are killing them. It knows that most people aren’t going to realize or, even if they do, aren’t going to care that Hamas provoked this war, in part knowing that its disregard for the principle of non-combatant immunity would immediately undermine Israel’s ability to respond appropriately. Those who note the crimes taking place in Gaza but don’t identify the ultimate causes and perpetrators of those crimes have—predictably—been played for fools by Hamas.

One can (and often should) quibble with the moral authority of someone like Otto von Bismarck. And certainly, regarding the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he had a serious jus ad bellum issue. But in the case of the siege of Paris, he had a point. “Leaders” who willingly sacrifice their civilian populations in pursuit of their own glory—be it in this world or the next—are not leaders at all. They are war criminals.

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About Stephen Soukup

Stephen R. Soukup is the Director of The Political Forum Institute and the author of The Dictatorship of Woke Capital (Encounter, 2021, 2023)

Photo: Palestinians are inspecting the damage at a home in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on March 8, 2024, which has been hit during an Israeli airstrike amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)