The inevitable happened again again last week: Hamas began launching missiles into southern Israel; and the Israelis unleashed a furious response that produced hundreds of Palestinian casualties for that of each Israeli. Images of dead children, wounded non-combatants, and physical carnage filled the world’s newspapers, as the great powers called for a ceasefire and the proxy fighters dug in for more. One reason the almost-seven-decade war in the Middle East seems so insoluble, at least to me, is that the combatants are in so many respects mirror images of each other. Israelis and Palestinians are fighting for their survival and for what each insists is its homeland. Each carries deep wounds from their histories of unspeakable mistreatment, including genocide and forced Diasporas. Each has a collective story, forged over time, that insists on a right of return. Yet that story insists that the legitimacy of one negates the legitimacy of the other.
Each insists it is fighting a just war, which vindicates the use of horrendous practices in its pursuit. The Palestinians fire rockets indiscriminately into Israel. The Israelis respond with a disproportionate ferocity that, despite their sophisticated weaponry, kills hundreds of non-combatants. They call their tactic of periodically decapitating the Hamas infrastructure “cutting the grass.”
This is a war of missiles and bullets, blood and death. But it is also a war of the language of justification, which goes back at least to St. Augustine and which has rendered creative thinking impossible. Tomorrow I want to ask if it is logically possible for both sides to be fighting a “just war?”