On Michael Walzer, Gaza, and the Lebanon War

On Michael Walzer, Gaza, and the Lebanon War

An attack on Michael Walzer’s position on the Lebanon War.

For the last thirty years Michael Walzer has been acknowledged as the most eminent and authoritative political philosopher dealing with questions of war and morality. In his most important work in this vein, Just and Unjust Wars (1977), Walzer argues that we must make two separate evaluations of the morality of war: the justice of the cause or purpose for which war is fought and the morality or justice of the methods of warfare. After developing his just war theory with great sophistication and persuasiveness, Walzer then applies his analysis to many specific cases of warfare, from the ancient world until the present. No informed and serious discussion of morality and warfare can take place today without reference to Just and Unjust Wars and the debate it has engendered.

Walzer has also been a prominent supporter of Israeli policy over the years. Although he is certainly not an uncritical one, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile his moral theories with his positions on Israeli wars and other uses of deadly armed force. In the latest such apparent disjuncture, Walzer has lent partially qualified support to the Israeli war in Lebanon, as well as to Israeli policies in Gaza since the removal of the settlements in 2005. His arguments are developed in a widely quoted article, “War Fair,” in the July 31 issue of the New Republic and supplemented in an August 9, 2006, statement “Moral Considerations in the Lebanon War” to members of Americans for Peace Now.

Walzer’s argument is that because Israel ended its occupation of Gaza and Lebanon, it had not merely a just but also a necessary cause to go to war against both Hamas and Hezbollah: both attacked Israel across internationally recognized boundaries, especially by rocket attacks aimed at the Israeli civilian population. No state can ignore such attacks, he says, asking us to imagine what the U.S. response would be if Buffalo or Detroit were attacked by missiles launched from “some Canadian no-man’s land.”

To be sure, Walzer is considerably less certain about the methods Israel has used in Gaza and Lebanon. Certain kinds of attacks, he agrees, would be morally wrong: direct attacks aimed at civilians, of course, but also attacks on economic infrastructures, including communications and transportation networks, electric power grids, and water pumping stations and purification plants. This constraint, he acknowledges, “clearly applies to the Israeli attacks on power stations in Gaza and Lebanon.”

Nonetheless, the main emphasis of Walzer’s argument—especially in “Moral Considerations in the Lebanon War”—is to defend Israel against the increasingly widespread charges that its methods in both Gaza and Lebanon are not only “unjust,” but constitute serious war crimes. His main focus is on the use by Hamas and Hezbollah of civilians as “human shields” against Israeli attack; he argues that the Lebanese civilian casualties (est...

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