Collective Punishment in Gaza: A Question of Morality

This column also ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Form.

As I write this column, Israel’s military has called up reservists and has prepared tanks and artillery units for a possible land assault into Gaza. This follows a weekend in which the same military dropped hundreds of tons of bombs on Gaza, killing or wounding hundreds of Hamas militants; dozens of civilians also are among those killed or wounded.

In many ways, the Israeli attacks on Gaza are an explosively quick endgame to a policy of collective punishment of Palestinians living in Gaza that’s been going on for some time now. In retaliation for rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza, Israel has imposed a devastating blockade on Gaza. Because of the blockade, Palestinian children in Gaza suffer from chronic malnutrition. A lack of access to medicine and medical care has led to a rash of otherwise preventable deaths among Gaza’s most vulnerable populations. Now, in the waning days of 2008, Israeli bombs have accelerated what already was happening: the death of innocent Palestinians in an act of collective punishment for the sins of a few terrorists.

Outside of Washington D.C. (and—ahem!Oahu) most of the world’s leaders have been correct to point out that, while the Palestinians must put an end to the rocket and mortar attacks on Southern Israel, the Israeli response to these attacks has been grossly disproportionate. Reasonable voices have called on both sides to cease hostility.

Amen to that.

Unfortunately, unlike their counterparts around the world, most American politicians, journalists, and religious leaders have yet to denounce the attacks on Gaza. Most of our leaders would rather blame the Palestinians for provoking Israel’s fury than question Israel’s massive use of force.

There’s no question that Palestinian provocations are morally indefensible, but it’s worth asking if the sins of a few people are ever so heinous that it is moral for an entire population to suffer in punishment for those sins. For most Americans the answer is an hesitant: “it depends.” Before condemning the use of collective punishment we want to know who is doing the punishing and which populations are suffering collectively.

“It depends” is the wrong answer. Collective punishment is the currency of terrorism. In the twisted logic of terrorism, for example, my children are legitimate targets of violence because they are Americans, citizens of a nation whose government has—in the judgment of terrorists—committed any number of atrocities around the globe. Just about every rational and peaceable human being agrees that such logic is bankrupt of even the slightest trace of morality, and we condemn terrorism—just as we should—whenever and wherever it occurs.

But in defiance of common sense and unguided by any cogent moral vision I’m aware of, a significant number of otherwise rational Americans are unable to apply a similar moral analysis to the actions of Israel’s military. We will—with passionate eloquence—condemn Palestinian terrorists for the murder of civilians who are victims of rockets fired into southern Israel, but too many of us then retreat into approving silence when Israel first starves, and then drops bombs on, innocent Palestinians who are no more responsible for the actions of their leaders than are the Israeli citizens who suffer from Palestinian terrorism.

There are no easy answers or simple solutions to the crisis in Gaza, but there are lots of immoral answers and short-sighted solutions, among them is collective punishment. Coming up with alternatives to collective punishment of Gazan Palestinians will require the world’s most creative and compassionate minds. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza gives Americans—whose tax dollars underwrite the bombardment of innocents in Gaza—the opportunity to gather unto ourselves the moral vision and the courage to denounce the immorality of collective punishment. It is a chance our collective soul can ill-afford to waste.

Here’s an interesting opinion piece from Haaretz, written a year ago that parallels what I’ve written above. Check it out.

And don’t miss this powerful and insightful piece by Chris Hedges.

Here’s a moving piece on Gaza written by Sarah Roy for the Christian Science Monitor.

Here’s a statement on Gaza from Samuel Kobia, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

Here’s a must see video from the BBC, giving an eye-witness account of an Israeli attack on a UN school and calling for international accountability.

Here’s an excellent historical overview of the current conflict from a former member of Israel’s defense forces who now teaches at Oxford.

28 thoughts on “Collective Punishment in Gaza: A Question of Morality

  1. A very well thought out analysis. Our national leadership has a difficult time applying the standards we use to judge those with whom we disagree, to our actions or the actions of our allies.

  2. Dear Ben,

    I agree with everything you said. I disagree with what you did not say. First, Hamas is the legally elected representative of the Palestinian people. The USA and Israel do not like the election results and thus are not recognizing the fact. Second, the Palestinians have been victims of Israel since 1948; every year, every month, every day and every hour. Israel has been killing Hamas leaders every month since the people elected Hamas as their official government; Israel is the aggessor. Third, Israel continues to confiscate Palestinian land every day for their settlement expansion and is obviously intent on ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Fourth, Hamas and all of the Arab world hate Americans for backing the continious Israel occupation and daily increased occupation of Palestinian land. In short, you are approving Israel’s global action of continued occupation while only condemming their killing of over 300 Palestinian and maiming almost a thousand Palestinians as being a little excessive. The real facts of life are that only one Israel citizen was killed by the primitive home made rockets in the past six months while at the same time Israel assasination of Palestinians has been ongoing. You also forgot to say that Hamas declared a truce 2 years ago but Israel has never so declared a truce; in fact Israel’s assassinations have continued without pause.
    The American support of Israel’s crimes against humanity is one of the biggest tragedies in American history.

    Sincerely, Don

    Sincerely, Don

  3. Don,

    Here’s the problem. While there are no hard and fast rules about how long a blog entry should be, when I read blogs I like posts that are about as long as a newspaper opinion piece–500 to 800 words. It is a medium that only works when the author sticks to one idea. The idea of collective punishment was the idea that gained traction in my mind as I mulled over what was happening in Gaza.

    The situation in Gaza is complicated enough that whole books can be written on the subject and important aspects of the mess will be missed. Not mentioning some aspect of Israeli atrocity doesn’t necessarily mean an author supports the unmentioned activity.

    You, for example, did not mention Israel’s ongoing policy of limiting power and water supplies to those living in Gaza. I doubt that means you support Israel’s policy.

    That being said, I cannot condone the rocket attacks coming out of Gaza because they target civilians and I believe it is always wrong to target civilians. It is a part of the Christian tradition of just war theory that I cannot see myself rejecting with anything like moral integrity.

    One final word on your post: be careful not to stifle conversation through reflexive and reactionary rhetoric. A big part of the problem with American compliance in and support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is the silence of the American people. Those who are educated on the issues don’t speak out. Those who are ignorant have noting to say. We need all the conversation we can get. Without conversation the truth cannot come out.

    All the Best,


  4. Ben,
    You have posed important questions to work through and a powerful challenge to whatever collective morality exists in our nation.

    But neither the questions nor the challenge are new or limited to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. Reinhold Niebuhr confronted them all a half century ago in “Moral Man, Immoral Society.” His conclusion then remains sobering, i.e., that by the grace of God individuals are able to make moral decisions, but the very nature of organized groups of people makes it impossible for them to act morally in the world with any consistency. In other words, ALL outwardly directed collective action carries the germ if not the actuality of amorality. Innocents suffer not only when a nation unleashes its miltary, but also when a labor union goes on strike, and whenever any organized group directs collective actions outside the group. Even a group decision to not retaliate against offense or injustice is a decision which opens a door to the suffering of innocents.

    I do not intend or wish to defend Israel for what I agree is a disproportionate response to the violence of Hamas. I merely point out that you are asking for a kind of collective morality which, as far as I know, has never existed — and the absence of which has long troubled and frustrated some very great, very moral, minds.

  5. John,

    Thanks for the post. Yours is a point well taken, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it since I read your post last night.

    I’m reminded of a line in the movie Shadolands, where C. S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, is asked why he prays for his dying wife when God already knows the future. Lewis’ response was something like “I don’t pray because God needs me to pray, I pray because I need to pray.”

    I don’t expect that what I have written will have affect Israeli or US policy, but it is what I needed to say while sitting in a cafe in Escondido, CA (we’re visiting Anne’s parents) and reflecting on the pro-Israel bias of the San Diego media market.

    And, of course, I continue to pray for peace because I need to pray for peace.

    All the Best,


  6. America’s unwavering support of the modern State of Israel is one of our worst Foreign Affairs blunders of the past century, right up there with our invasion of Iraq, silence during the Ruwandan massacre and secret Central American Wars of the 1980’s.

    We arm Israel with modern weapons including an airforce, and leave the Palestinians with homemade rockets. We send nearly $4 Billion dollars of aid to Israel yearly, and a pittance to the Palestinian government.

    We say we believe in Democracy, but when a government is elected that we do not like, we choose to not recognize them.

    The body count on Israel deaths compared with Palestinian deaths over the past sixty years tells us one thing. When you arm one country in a war, the country that lacks arms has the largest death rate.

    The USA continues to remain silent while Israel pushes in the direction of genocide.

    One would think that after passing through the holocaust of WWII that the Israeli population and government would be sensitive to what is happening to the Palestinians.

    I keep writing my elected representatives, but the Israeli Lobby and the Evangelical Millenialists continue to rule the day.

  7. Ben- thanks for the post; I was wondering what your thoughts might be on this tragic development. I certainly find myself praying, in the face of this suffering, for a sliver of peace.

  8. Hi Ben,

    You write a thought provoking much needed essay on a topic that I don’t think gets enough conversation in this country. My response may be over simplified, but very sincere nonetheless…

    What is happening in Gaza right now is wrong. And the United State’s inaction is a stinging silence. We claim to want democracy* for all nations. Thing is, we add the * , often times to suit our own needs or interests.

  9. Ronn, Sarah, and Jody,

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Jody, I like your use of the *. It says much.

    Ronn, I am inspired by your comment about the holocaust to post the following link:

    I find that some of the most eloquent voices speaking out against Israel’s policies of occupation are Jewish voices, like that of Sarah Roy. It is important that we listen to these voices.

    Sarah, let’s keep praying for peace!


  10. Your mention of the christian “just war theory” is in my mind is the seed of our acceptance of War and all that goes with it, to include collateral damage. Christians should reject the violence of war and those who pursue it. I don’t recall Christ supporting the call to arms because of Roman oppression.

  11. Harry,

    I should probably clarify what I mean by “Just War.” Historically, Christian theologians and Philosophers have identified lists of criteria for “Just War” (admittedly this is a contradiction of terms, but bear with me). Not all lists are the same, but most include the following.

    War must have a just cause.
    War must have just motivation.
    War must be waged by a recognized authority.
    War must not be waged against civilian populations.
    War must be waged proportionally
    War must only be waged when there is a probability of success.

    The astute reader will notice that traditional Christian just war theory pretty much excludes all modern warfare, including Israel’s attacks on Gaza (for having questionable cause and motivation, for targeting civilians, and for lack of proportionality), or Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel (for targeting civilians and for having no chance of success).

    So be it.

    Praying, as always, for peace,


  12. I understand the definition of a “just war”: however, I believe too many good christians hear that war can be justified and go on from there.
    All war must be stopped!

  13. Oops! I forgot to ask…where is the christian condemnation of what is not a just war…not a peep from those who devised the definition of a “just war”.

  14. No argument here. Christians really should be speaking out more, and those who say they subscribe to the just war theory really should apply the theory before supporting the various wars our nation or any other nation wages or supports.


  15. Ben, if a casual reader here were to assert that you are an anti-Semite, I would find it very difficult to defend you; your analysis really is that far removed from reality.

    Look: Since Israel ended its occupation of Gaza, Hamas — an organization whose publicly avowed policy is the outright destruction of Israel and the death of every Israeli — has fired at least 8,000 rockets into southern Israel, and has deliberately and indiscriminately targeted civilians. This, even though the Hamas leadership knows precisely where Israeli military targets are. “Morally indefensible,” indeed! And note that even though the indiscriminate targeting of civilians is a war crime under international law, the savages firing at Sderot and other villages and towns inside Israel are so proud of their work that they sign the rockets for the fawning TV cameras prior to firing them.

    Worse, Hamas not only tries to kill Israeli civilians, it deliberately hides among its own civilians, knowing that the innocent then likely will be killed or injured — and Hamas can then, with requisite outrage, parade the bodies before the cameras yet again. Hamas, of course, knows that such tactics only work against moral democracies that care about civilian deaths. The likes of Putin, Chavez, Mugabe, the entire Iranian leadership, Hamas, Hezbollah, Assad and others of that ilk have no such qualms.

    Further: As Harvard law professor and internationally recognized legal expert Alan Dershowitz has pointed out, “proportionality” is not measured by the number of civilians killed, but by the risk posed. An example would be the Beersheba kindergarten that was recently targeted. Fortunately, no one was there when the Hamas rockets exploded.

    Hamas, on the other hand, seems to place no value on the lives of its own civilians. If it did, it wouldn’t hide among them.

    As to the hand-wringing about what really is a self-inflicted humanitarian crisis in Gaza, one must wonder which is morally the more reprehensible: An Israeli blockade, or a Hamas thugocracy that will, should the blockade end, place its priority on the acquisition of more rockets and other ordnance of all kinds, to the real detriment of expenditures on other needs; food and drugs will come last.

    The real bottom line here for everyone but the committed Jew-haters, Israeli baiters and enemies of the US and any/all of its policies — which pretty much covers most of the political left in the US and abroad, and a lot of people who frankly ought to know better — is that Israel has the absolute right to defend itself. I, for one, applaud its efforts to do so, and by no stretch of the imagination can such efforts be called collective punishment. If Hamas wants to save civilian lives, to prevent any so-called humanitarian crises, and even to generate more foreign aid, it need only declare a cease-fire and stop firing rockets, taking hostages, and more than just occasionally, beheading them.

    But based on service time in the mideast and considerable study of the region and its players for more than 40 years, I don’t think that’s likely to happen anytime soon.

  16. Bill,

    It is the hasty retreat of small-minded ideology that equates a critique of Israeli military policy with anti-Semitism. Some of the most cogent and eloquent critics of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians come form Jews living in Israel and around the world. After the text of my piece I gave a link to one such critique, that of Sara Roy, who, like Alan Dershowitz, is a Professor from Harvard. Like Alan Dershowitz Roy also is Jewish. Unlike Dershowitz, Roy is actually a political scientist. Here’s the link again:

  17. Why is it that you cannot critisize Isreal without being called an anti semite?
    Why is it that Isreal can get away with the indescriminate killing of children and women?
    Ask yourself, Why are Hamas firing rockets into Isreal when they know what the Isreali response will be? They are effectively killing the very people who elected them but why? Is it the fact that Isreal block humanitarian aid to Gaza?

    The US was quick to condemn Russia in South Ossetia, so why not Isreal?
    Do we have some sort of collective guilt about the holocaust that means Isreal can do what it wants?

  18. Craig,

    I think part of the problem is that Americans have dehumanized Muslims and Arabs. Media images of Arabs and Muslims are nearly always negative. Our leaders and opinion makers simply don’t care if Israel kills Arabs. We care if Arabs kill Jews in Israel (as well we should!) but when Israel first starves and then bombs Gaza we nod approvingly and then place all of the blame on Palestinians. It is a moral sickness.


  19. Ben, it seems to me there is absolute moral clarity here. When Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza, the Palestinians had, for the first time ever, sovereign territory. No occupation, no military control, no settlers, no closed border. Indeed, thriving greenhouses were left for the Palestinians to take over and use.

    The Palestinian response, through its “elected” government, Hamas, was to destroy the greenhouses and start indiscriminately firing rockets. The grievance? The very existence of Israel.

    That is the reality, and it has nothing to do with any actual grievances, nor has it anything to do with the way muslims may or may not be portrayed in the US media.

    If you find my replies frustrating, try to consider how those who seriously follow events in the mideast must feel when we read commentaries such as yours that we know for a fact are wrong and wrong-headed.


  20. Bill,

    I think things are a lot more complex than you present here. I say that both sides are at fault, but that Israel’s response is lopsided and immorally disproportionate. You place all of the blame on Hamas (who I also have called immoral for firing rockets at civilians). You’re welcome to your opinion, but I’ll bet you anything that history will prove me right because conflicts are almost never as one-sided as you suggest is the current conflict in Gaza.

    Speaking of history: you say that the Greenhouse industry in Gaza was destroyed by Palestinians. The historical record shows us that it was more complex. Palestinians looted some of the Greenhouses and there are reports suggesting that settlers sabotaged some of them, but the greenhouse industry failed because Israel wouldn’t supply the needed water and because Israel imposed security measures that made it impossible for the produce to leave Gaza before rotting. Here’s a quote from a Boston Globe article written on October 31, 2005, while the Greenhouses were still a going concern:

    The greenhouses offered a rare example of cooperation among Israelis and Palestinians during the pullout in August. James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president who is serving as a Middle East envoy, hammered out the deal to buy the greenhouses. He even gave half a million dollars of his own money to the donor group that spent $14 million for them.

    But Israel still controls Gaza’s borders, and it has yet to approve an agreement that would open up a reliable channel to ship goods out of the strip, despite continuing negotiations mediated by Wolfensohn’s team. Two weeks ago, Wolfensohn criticized Israel in a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, saying it was ”almost acting as though there has been no withdrawal” with its policy of continuing to seal off Gaza and delaying talks. Wolfensohn is a special envoy for the quartet of Middle East mediators — the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia.

    Without a guaranteed path to send Gaza’s high-end vegetables and flowers onto the world market, Palestinian officials and international specialists said, the greenhouse project will wither on the vine. They warn that the enterprise, projected to generate $30 million to $100 million in annual revenues for the Palestinian Authority, will dwindle as perishable cargo rots inside Gaza’s sealed borders.

    The key to Gaza’s economic success is the flow of goods across the border, said William Taylor, the top US adviser to Wolfensohn. Currently there is only one shipping point, at Karni Crossing between Israel and Gaza. On average, 35 trucks a day pass through the crossing, but the Israelis often close the border without notice because of security concerns or technical difficulties.

    The whole article can be read here. It’s further evidence that the conflict in Gaza is more complex than you suggest. If you have historical evidence (or, better yet a contemporary account) that contradicts the Boston Globe article, send the link.


  21. It’s easy to get off in tangential arguments, and the greenhouses really are just that. What you never really address is this reality: Hamas wants the total destruction of Israel; everything it has ever done, before and after the September, 2005 withdrawal, has had one aim — to destroy Israel.

    The other thing you have never discussed is the reality that the Palestinians, regardless of incarnation — PLO, Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hezbollah, whatever — could have had a sovereign state long ago, through employment of non-violent resistance, which would have turned the conscience of the world on Israel. Tom Friedman, among others, has discussed this possibility at length.

    But as I write this, Hamas appears dedicated to inflicting as much civilian pain and suffering as possible on both sides. I know to an absolute moral and intellectual certainty exactly who is morally responsible for the deaths of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

  22. Well, Bill I don’t think the Greenhouse issue is such a tangent, and I thank you for bringing it up because it is a good example of how Israel has worked to undermine the success of a Palestinian state. Israel, like the Palestinians, could have (and still can) to a lot more to work for peace. They are hardly innocent.


  23. Wow. It is hard for me to understand such bullishness, but I appreciate your comments, ben. As a younger person who didn’t start reading the news regularly until a few years ago, I found the article you posted on the greenhouses interesting. I had no idea. It really is difficult to turn to the news every day and see what new and terrible thing has happened between israel and gaza in this increasingly troublesome war.

    But I’m still praying….

  24. the Palestinians had, for the first time ever, sovereign territory.

    Simply factually incorrect. Gaza is not sovereign territory. It is not a recognised state by Israel or anyone else – nor is it part of any other sovereign state.

    The territory, in limbo, has for decades been controlled by Israel. It is still controlled by Israel (controlling its borders, sea, air), much of its economy, currency, part of its tax system, and it reserves the right to invade at any time of its choosing. That is no way anything like sovereignty.

    When disengaging, Gaza was not place within the context of a wider settlement. The disengagement was about “parking” the peace process, a trade off for the West Bank; in other words a deal so Israel could continue to break international law.

    “The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians” Dov Weisglass, key adviser to Sharon at the time of disengagement.

  25. Thanks, Benjamin. (Nice name, by the way). You’ve pointed out another way in which a faulty narrative becomes doctrine in the American mind.


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