Surely the Prime Minister was only stating the obvious. Surely he was just speaking the truth. When Justin Trudeau demanded, at a news conference on Tuesday, that Israel use “maximum restraint” in its war with Hamas – well, who is against restraint? When he demanded a stop to “the killing of women and children, of babies” – are babies in Gaza not being killed? And is Israel not, in fact, killing them?
How, then, to explain the stiff reply he received from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? (“It is not Israel that is deliberately targeting civilians but Hamas. … While Israel is doing everything to keep civilians out of harm’s way, Hamas is doing everything to keep them in harm’s way.” Etc.) Wasn’t Mr. Trudeau merely saying what other world leaders, such as U.S. President Joe Biden, have said? And shouldn’t criticism from a discredited authoritarian like Mr. Netanyahu be worn as a badge of honour?
That, at any rate, is the line taken by Mr. Trudeau’s defenders. If the implication is that Mr. Trudeau is too harsh on Israel, they ask, how is it that he is also taking such flak from pro-Palestinian activists, such as the protesters who hounded him out of a Vancouver restaurant the other night? Hasn’t he made a point of refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire? And didn’t he also demand, in that same news conference, that Hamas release the hostages it is holding?
But just because you come down somewhere between the Hamas-friendly left and the Bibi-curious right does not mean you have staked out the moderate middle ground. It wasn’t only Mr. Netanyahu, after all, who found Mr. Trudeau’s intervention unhelpful. So did Yair Lapid, the Israeli opposition leader, not known for toeing the Netanyahu line. So, too, did many Canadian Jews: traumatized by the massacre of Oct. 7, unnerved by the surge in antisemitism this ignited, and sensing the Prime Minister does not, when it comes down to it, have their backs.
In principle, of course, it is possible to support Israel’s “right to defend itself,” and still be critical of the way it goes about it: The Israeli government is not above criticism, and to find fault with its conduct of the war is not necessarily to give aid and comfort to Hamas. But it can be. Certainly it is easy to leave that impression. The meaning of politicians’ words, after all, is to be found not just in what they say, but what they do not say; not only in the words, but the emphasis. And, dare I say, the context.
We’ve heard that word a lot lately. Very well. There is a context, to begin with, to Mr. Trudeau’s decision to speak at all – versus, say, Mr. Biden’s. As leader of the world’s only superpower, Mr. Biden has responsibilities Mr. Trudeau does not: At any rate, given the centrality of American arms to Israel’s military effort, Israelis are inclined to listen to him when he speaks.
Whereas nothing compels Mr. Trudeau to offer his own running commentary on the war. Canada plays no role in the Middle East, nor is anybody outside Canada clamouring to hear what he has to say. When he speaks, then, many Israelis no doubt hear, not a statesman and ally, but a politician playing the angles, positioning himself before a domestic audience, guided by the ruthless arithmetic of diaspora politics.
His latest remarks might further be contextualized in the light of previous statements, by him and his ministers. Whether it was his unthinking haste to blame Israel for the “bombing” of the Al Ahli Arab hospital – there was no such deliberate attack – or his foreign minister’s musings about “moving to a ceasefire” en route to a “détente” with Hamas, the Trudeau government’s default position seems to be to believe the worst about Israel, even as it gives Hamas every benefit of the doubt.
Consider, then, how those seemingly anodyne remarks about the civilian death toll might appear. No one could fail to be horrified by the suffering of the Palestinians. But the inescapable subtext of the Prime Minister’s comments is that, once again, Israel is to blame. When the Prime Minister says “the killing has to stop,” he is speaking about, and to, Israel, not Hamas. The same insidious logic underlies the relentless, round-the-clock media coverage of the conflict. If civilians are dying in Gaza, it is Israel’s responsibility, as it is Israel’s responsibility to end it.
That is the plain sense, certainly, of the “ceasefire” demand. Is it proposed that Israel’s agreement to a ceasefire be in exchange for anything – the release of the hostages, say? No, it is not. Would Hamas even have to reciprocate? Again, no – indeed, Hamas has been explicit that it intends to go on attacking Israel and Israelis, no matter what Israel does. So the ceasefire is to be not just unconditional, but unilateral. Israel does the ceasing, and Hamas does the firing.
But in fact there are many other ways to spare civilian lives in Gaza that do not amount to Israel laying down its arms. Not only did Hamas start this war, it is entirely within its power to end it.
It could always surrender, of course. Or it could leave Gaza. It could stop sheltering among civilians, or it could allow civilians to shelter in its extensive network of tunnels or otherwise escape the war, rather than use them as human shields. Above all, it could end its campaign of annihilation against Israel, and stop murdering Israeli civilians. As a down payment, it could release the hostages.
If it did any one of these things, no Gazans would be dying. Why, then, is this never suggested? Hamas’s actions are taken as a given. Only Israel is presumed to have moral obligations, or moral agency.
That doesn’t absolve Israel of all responsibility. Even those who agree on the objective of destroying Hamas might debate the strategic wisdom of the Gaza campaign. And even a just war must be fought justly. But it is not sufficient to prove that Israel is fighting unjustly that some, or even many, civilians have died.
This is the argument implicit, if not in the Prime Minister’s words, then in much of the commentary: not just that Israel is to blame for any civilian deaths, but that it must not cause any; not just that any loss of civilian life resulting from an attack must be in proportion to the military value of the target, as the laws of war require, but that no civilian lives are to be lost.
Every civilian death is a tragedy. But there never was a war that did not involve some civilians being killed. Even if we accept Hamas’s figures, the number of civilian dead to date in this war, at roughly 11,000, is a tiny fraction of the toll in most modern wars. More than 200,000 civilians were killed in the Syrian civil war, for example, yet with nothing like the same protests or media scrutiny.
If Israel were trying to kill civilians, or if it were indifferent to their fate, can there be any doubt the death toll in Gaza would be as horrific as in these previous wars? That the number of civilian deaths is nowhere near as high, even in the face of Hamas’s flagrant use of human shields, is evidence that it takes unusual care to minimize them. Military and legal experts are agreed that Israel’s prosecution of the campaign to date has been in accord with the laws of war – and that its record generally stands comparison with any other military.
The criticism Israel receives for civilian deaths, then, is in inverse proportion to the lengths it goes to avoid them. It is attacked, not in spite of the care it takes to minimize civilian deaths but because of it – because it is sensitive to the criticism. Were it as murderous as its opponents – or as some of its critics – nobody would bother. It wouldn’t have the same payoff.
This is the peculiar nature of the war Israel must fight. Not only does it face a uniquely unscrupulous enemy, one that launches attacks on its civilians from amongst its own civilians, but its attempts to combat it are held to a uniquely high standard, its every move publicly second-guessed, not just by its adversaries, but its friends.
Israel has a right to defend itself, in other words, so long as it does not use its army. This is what Orwell meant when he said that “pacifism is objectively pro-fascist.” If it is impermissible to wage a war unless no one gets killed, then it is impermissible to wage war, period.
That might be a good rule to apply with regard to wars of adventure or plunder. It is nonsensical in the kind of war Israel finds itself in: a war that was imposed upon it, not the other way around; a war for its very existence. Everyone understood that on Oct. 7. The evidence of Hamas’s genocidal ambitions, so often declared but so studiously ignored, was now incontrovertible.
So, too, it was widely understood that Israel had no choice but to fight – to fight, not to avenge the past, but to preserve its future. Only if Hamas were destroyed could Israel hope to live. And everyone had to have understood that, in that battle, a lot of innocent people would die.
That is the inescapable implication of war. A government’s first responsibility is to protect its own people. It is obliged to avoid war if it can, and to make war, if it must, within the laws of war. But it is no less obliged, where war is inescapable, to wage war, and to go on doing so until the threat has been extinguished.
As for its putative friends, the least they could do is not pile on.