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The Ethical Case for a Siege of Gaza
Individual morality does not transfer to geopolitical issues
I have strong ethical intuitions on most political and social issues, where I put a great deal of emphasis on individual rights and liberty. When it comes to geopolitics, my default moral framework breaks down, and I tend to feel much more conflicted.
I think this is why libertarians can be all over the place when it comes to foreign policy, from Rothbardian blanket anti-interventionism to the “kill them all and let God sort them out” view that the Ayn Rand Institute adopted in the aftermath of 9/11.
The classical liberal or libertarian emphasis on individual rights can only be transferred to the realm of international relations with great difficulty. One might be tempted to analogize states to individuals. Just as an individual can do whatever he wants until he intrudes on the rights or interests of others, countries should be left alone as long as they mind their own business. But states are often run by leaders who achieve and maintain power by violating the rights of others. Maybe there is a practical or utilitarian case for applying the principle of sovereign equality to a state like North Korea and declaring Kim Jung Un the ultimate representative of the people he imprisons and starves, but there certainly isn’t a straightforward deontological case for it.
In the area of geopolitics, then, I find myself falling back to utilitarianism, and dispensing with talk of rights all together. All states are inherently suspect as moral entities, with some being better or worse than others. And individuals generally have zero control over what policies their governments adopt, making the doctrine of collective responsibility just as pernicious here as it is in the frameworks of wokes and Marxists.
That brings us to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Some will talk of the “right” of Israel to defend itself, or the “right” of Palestinian self-determination. But Israel’s right to defend itself means killing a lot of innocent people. And the Palestinian right to self-determination is just a fancy way of saying men with guns telling other people what to do because of where they happen to live, which given the record of Arabs I’m sure they would screw up much more than most other states have.
With utilitarianism, we might at least hope to make some progress, unlike what tends to happen when we engage in endless debates about who has the right to do what.
All reasonable people agree that Hamas is a bad actor, and both sides would be better off if they no longer had power. The problem is that they hide among civilians, and there’s no way to eliminate them without causing a lot of pain to innocent third parties. There’s also the question of what comes afterwards, and who exactly ends up governing Gaza.
What seems certain is that there is no decent future for the people of the territory as long as the current leadership is in charge. Hamas will not only continually attack Israel, but keep its own citizens poor, repressed, and subject to reprisals. The question of what to do about this seems like a classic dilemma in which we have to ask ourselves whether we want to inflict short term pain for a greater long term good.
Israel controls the flow of food and electricity into Gaza. It should leverage that, along with air and bombing campaigns, in order to achieve a different kind of government. Kicking many of the Palestinians out and finding new homes for them would probably be the best of all worlds, as no matter how much trouble they might cause in Europe or Egypt, it won’t be as bad as them staying in Gaza. Israel making life so unlivable that they leave, while working with the US to pressure other countries to open up their borders, seems like sound policy. The population of Gaza is 2.5 million. Whatever the outflow is, it should be manageable if it is treated as a global problem. Turkey alone currently hosts 3.7 million refugees.
Anti-war types will make the argument that repression hasn’t worked up to this point. Yet given the power disparity between the two sides, Israel has been remarkably restrained. The 2008-2009 Gaza War, for example, led to 1,000-1,500 combatant and civilian deaths, a tiny fraction of the population. We can analogize this to the struggle against crime in El Salvador, which I’ve previously written about. People for a long time said you can’t just arrest your way out of the problem. Then Bukele came along, went much further than everyone else while ignoring the human rights crowd, and suddenly the murder rate plummeted.
It’s obvious that a real siege of Gaza, where food, medicine, and electricity are cut off indefinitely, would harm a lot of civilians. But it would hopefully build pressure to encourage other countries to let many Palestinians leave. Of those who stayed, the situation would eventually become so dire that something would have to change. Israel would be wise to extract at the very least a demand for recognition before it lifts the siege. Direct governance is probably impossible, but they could eventually perhaps hope for their own Kadyrov, which could in the best case scenario be the first step towards something better down the line once the death cult of Palestinian resistance is extinguished.
The recent attack has in any event shown that the status quo is untenable, by making it impossible to deny the ultimate ambitions of Hamas, while reminding us that their capabilities are likely to only increase over time. Israel has tried the path of seeking to ensure that Gazans suffer as little as possible for the actions of their government, based on the theory that they are not responsible for what Hamas does. This moral intuition is correct, but it does not give guidance regarding how to go forward.
On the question of fighting crime in El Salvador, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and came to the conclusion that even if you assume Bukele’s crackdown has swept up quite a few innocents, the benefits of reducing the murder rate by an order of magnitude suggest it is worth it. We can conduct a similar analysis here. If I had to live in Gaza, what chance of death would I accept to become a refugee somewhere else or eventually have a non-Hamas government? I’d say 20% is a low-end estimate.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Israel should accept casualties that high. But what is missing from current discussions is that getting rid of Hamas has potentially massive benefits down the line for future generations of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
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