Palestine – Moral Clarity and Moral Confusion

A woman in a black headscarf throws her head back in anguish

Like many people, I have been transfixed watching the events currently unfolding in the Middle East. It has been unsettling to witness the varying reactions of people to this appalling tragedy, to see how differently people are reacting when compared to the Ukraine/Russia war, and to see how the world is simply ignoring the tragic and bloody civil war in Sudan. In the Ukraine instance, for most of us morally there is a clear side to which one might align. However, in Palestine, the morally defensible answer has been anything but clear for many people. And in Sudan, the almost total absence of moral concern is a grievous indictment of the immorality of so much of our global geopolitics.

I write this not to take sides. If one does so, one loses sight of the bigger picture and the fact that, today, many lives are being ended prematurely—many of them the lives of children and infants. So many lives have been severely disrupted in both Israel and Palestine; many people in Gaza are scrambling to find a safe haven or enough bread to stop them from starving; and many people are living in immense fear, anger, desolation, and  hate.

A number of the people killed or taken hostage in the original Hamas actions on October 7th were Israeli activists who supported peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians. It made no sense that Hamas targeted them; but equally, the intensity and disproportionate force of Israel’s vicious retaliation makes no sense. How many  lives of innocent civilians must be crushed and destroyed as these two sides – Hamas and Israel – pursue a bloody equilibrium of vengeance?

From a moral perspective, what is at stake in Palestine?  

  • Everyday, many more lives (mostly Palestinian at this stage) are being harmed and destroyed;
  • The violent fighting is generating an exceptionally high level of undeserved suffering and desperation; and
  • The international community is largely standing by and letting this happen.

After the initial attack by Hamas, many Western leaders were very quick to come out in support of the prime minister of Israel, Mr. Netanyahu, when he declared a state of war and mobilized the ground invasion of Gaza. How different would it have been had these leaders spoken out against the ground invasion? How different would it have been had Israel responded in a non-violent way? We will never know what would have happened, because the geopolitical order is stuck with the mindset that violence is the only response to violence. However, what we do know is that that violence-for-violence view is shortsighted and detrimental to human and other forms of life. For millennia, history has taught us that violence begets only more violence, in a never ending round of suffering. We seem incapable of learning this moral lesson.

Allow me to make some very simple points over which there is much confusion:

  • You are not an antisemite simply because you criticize the Israeli government;
  • You do not necessarily support Hamas simply because you care about the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; and
  • You cannot condone the brutal surprise attack by Hamas simply because you  care about Palestinians.

What  has become clear in the present belligerent response to the Hamas attack shows that many people care about only some lives.  The lives of those in the refugee camps in Gaza are non-grievable: simply acceptable “collateral damage”. In those attacks, Israel claims to have killed Hamas leaders––but at the expense of hundreds of innocent lives. Even someone who holds that killing innocents can sometimes be morally justified must hold that the mass killing of innocent non-combatants we are now witnessing is out of all proportion.

What can moral clarity bring? It can help us understand that the current situation does not start with the recent  Hamas action. One must understand that this particular history goes back over 100 years, when in 1917 the British Goverment which controlled Palestine at the time, gave Jews the right to immigrate and take land traditionally held by Palestinians. One must understand that in the territories occupied in the Six Day War, Palestinians have been subjugated and oppressed in their own land. Many people there live below the poverty line; 50% of the population depends on foreign aid; access to potable water for people living in Gaza is scant, and power outages are frequent due to fuel shortages caused by an illegal blockade imposed by Israel. Life for many Palestinians has been life without human dignity.

For several months before the attack, Israel had been experiencing much unrest among its own people. Many were displeased with Netanyahu’s corruption and with the outsize influence of the small religious minority parties keeping him in power. Moreover, the U.S. government must take some responsibilty for the current situation. They have permitted and aided Israel’s illegal occupations, vetoed United Nations resolutions, and supplied armaments and military intelligence to Israel.  Without such backing, Israel would have had to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians a long time ago.

Moral clarity demands a discerning mind. It requires an understanding of the present situation, how it came about, and what perpetuates the turmoil. It does not demand knee-jerk violence. It’s time to envisage a different paradigm: one of non-violence. As John Donne said in his poem: No man is an island. What happens implicate us all, morally if in no other way. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Anna Malavisi, Ph.D.

Vice President

Center for Values in International Development

Photo credit: Juanmonino (iStock)

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