After the horrors of Hamas’s massacres of Israelis, the right of Israel to defend its people seems obvious. But, asks Alex Christoyannopoulos, does that entail a right to use violence? And, after decades of horrific, unresolved armed conflict, is there evidence that military violence is an effective form of defence for either side?

The killing of innocent people is always tragic. The kind of cold-blooded killing of civilians carried out by Hamas in Israel on 7 October 2023 is particularly horrifying.

When something like that happens, a widespread urge to respond and retaliate is understandable. Politicians are expected to grapple with the situation and show leadership. And in the face of such horrific attacks, many politicians around the world have been rushing to affirm Israel’s “right to defend itself”. But what are the limits to such a “right”, and anyway is military defence actually ever effective?

When is violence legitimate?

A country “defending itself” in such a situation is often assumed to mean the organising of some sort of military response. One could ask whether such a response is more retaliation than “defence”, although the advertised logic generally seems to be that military operations will eliminate the risk of future attacks. I will come back to this.

Much of the mainstream debate in such situations then tends to concentrate not on whether violence is ever effective, but on what violence is or is not legitimate. These debates usually refer (either explicitly or implicitly) to “just war theory”, which spells out a variety of conditions for both the decision to resort to violence and the way the violence is then conducted, all of which need to be fulfilled for the violence to be deemed “just”. A generous reading of today’s international laws of war (from the UN Charter to the Geneva and Hague Conventions) could be that they act as an institutionalised approximation of just war theory.

From the perspective either of these institutions or of just war theory, Israel could admittedly claim a “right to defend itself” – although one could query whether all nonviolent options really had been exhausted, which is one of the conditions for the resort to violence to be “just”. Moreover, for the war to remain “just”, its conduct still needs to fulfil criteria such as proportionality and discriminating between combatants and non-combatants, which is where plenty of criticisms of Israel’s actions have already emerged.

But quite apart from whether violent military operations are legitimate, a question that it is rarer to hear asked is whether they are ever effective. One does not have to be a pacifist to ask that question, but pacifists push the questioning further than many.

How effective is violence “in defence”?

Military violence certainly does cause a variety of measurable effects. For one, it usually succeeds in causing damage and casualties, often many intended, but also often including civilians (unintended or not). Military violence thus seems to work because it can succeed in wounding and killing its targets.

But the effect of organised violence on the will of an opponent to keep fighting is much harder to predict. Military violence can cause compliance, or resistance. Even when one party is much stronger, from Afghanistan (twice) to the broader “war on terrorism” or even to domestic authoritarian repression, in the longer run at least, military violence has a generally poor record of securing compliance instead of resistance. The assumption that military violence is an effective instrument of policy therefore ignores a mounting empirical record of frequent failures. Has it worked, after all, for Israel to date?

What violence does do, however, is brutalise not just the victims but also the perpetrators, for whom violence becomes increasingly normalised with more practice (even though its traumatic effects might follow these perpetrators for decades).

Moreover, actions set examples. One thing that using violence to try to impose your will demonstrates, for instance, is that using violence is one way to try to impose your own will. Is it surprising if some among the victim populations take note and seek to emulate such an example?

Besides, the idea that military violence can be used to wipe out an enemy assumes that this enemy comes in a finite quantity, and that whacking these finite targets hard enough will therefore incapacitate this enemy, as if the violence could not leave a trail of resentful friends and relatives or in turn generate support for the enemy’s cause. Will killing every Hamas operative wipe out the thinking that led so many to join it?

Pacifists also worry about what some of them call the “war system”. War generates its political economy, its vested interests and lobbies, and its self-reinforcing political and economic dynamics. If outgoing US President, and former General, Eisenhower was onto something when he expressed concern about the growing impact of a “military-industrial complex” in his country in 1961, he would presumably be no less concerned about the war system in Israel (as well as the United States, among others) in 2023.

As Maslow famously quipped, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail”. Israel, especially over the past couple of decades, has come to acquire many sophisticated hammers and to see most problems in the West Bank and Gaza as nails.

But a similar analysis could be made, to some degree, about the militarisation of Gaza. With so many weapons in circulation, inter-factional tensions, a traumatic history, a stifling ongoing blockade, and periodic escalations of violence, a “war system” has taken hold of Gaza too, even if it is less conventional than that in Israel. The two war systems and their security logics, along with their associated political cultures and political economies, have sunk deep and mutually reinforcing roots in both Gaza and Israel.

Should Israel not defend itself?

Israel cannot be expected not to respond to what happened on 7 October. But instead of identifying the problem as particular individuals whose extermination would magically eradicate the problem, a different approach could try to ask what might have led particular human beings to commit such horrific violence on other human beings. Plenty of actions other than military violence are at Israel’s disposal to avoid something like 7 October happening again.

Instead, it is widely assumed, just as after 9/11 or in so many war movies, that the only justified and effective response to acts of “evil” is to kill those who did the evil. Quite apart from any ongoing legitimacy for such a violent response hinging on its ongoing conduct, the assumption that it will be effective might be a disastrous miscalculation.

That is not to say that organised violence cannot be effective for some particular people or some political and economic interests. Violent military operations serve the interests of those invested in the war system whether in Israel, Gaza or among the belligerents’ allies. They also serve harder line political agendas.

So, of course Israel should “defend itself” in the sense of doing its utmost for what happened on 7 October never to happen again. Who would deny anyone’s right to prevent something like that from happening to them? The crucial question is how. And in answering that question, who really are the more “tragic idealists”: the pacifists deploring and denouncing the dynamics and impacts of organised violence, or those beating the drums of war and trusting that organised violence, this time, will be effective?

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Wikipedia. Boy stands amid rubble in Gaza, after the 2008-2009 ‘Operation Cast Lead’.

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