A Philosopher's Blog

Rockets & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 21, 2012
English: A Qassam rocket fired from a civilian...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a repeat of events in 2008 (and earlier) Hamas stepped up its rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel. Israel, not surprisingly, responded with attacks of its own. In addition to the political and humanitarian concerns, this matter raises numerous ethical issues.

One issue of concern is that Hamas generally locates its launch sites close to or in civilian areas. As such, Israel runs the risk of killing civilians when it attempts to destroy the launchers. This raises the general issue of launching attacks from within a civilian population.

On the face of it, this tactic seems to be immoral. To use the obvious analogy, if I am involved in a gun fight and I grab a child to use as a human shield, I am acting wrongly. After all, I am intentionally endangering an innocent to protect myself. If the child is hurt or killed, I clearly bear some of the moral blame. While my opponent should not endanger the child, I would rather limit her options if I kept attacking her while hiding behind the child.  Naturally, if I was shooting at her innocent children while using a child as a shield, I would certainly be acting very wrongly indeed.

One possible counter is that the analogy is flawed. In the child example, the child is coerced into serving as a shield. If the civilians support Hamas and freely allow themselves to be used as human shields, then Hamas would not be acting wrongly. To use an analogy, if I am in a gun fight and people volunteer to take bullets for me by acting as human shields, I would seem to be acting in a way that would be morally acceptable. As such, as long as the civilians are not coerced or kept in ignorance (that is, employed as shields by force or fraud), then it would seem that Hamas could be acting in a morally acceptable way.

There is, of course, a rather obvious concern. To go back to the gunfight analogy, suppose my fellows volunteer to serve as human shields while I shoot randomly at my opponent’s friends and family. If my opponent returns fire and hits one of my shields while trying to stop me, it would seem that my opponent would not be acting wrongly. After all, she is not trying to kill my shields—she is trying to stop me from shooting randomly at her friends and family.

This, of course, leads to another point of moral concern: Hamas fires rockets into populated areas as opposed to aiming at military targets. That is, Hamas seems intent on hurting random Israelis. One main argument in defense of Hamas is that the rockets are being fired in retaliation for Israeli wrong doings. As such, the rockets are intended as retribution for wrongs. In general, punishing people for their misdeeds is morally acceptable and can be argued for in terms of deterrence and retribution. Of course, it must be shown that Israel has done wrong and that the retribution is proportional and justified.

However, the fact that Hamas is shooting rockets that randomly hurt people seems to remove the retribution justification from Hamas’ attack on Israel.  After all, punishment is something that should be directed at the guilty party and not randomly inflicted on whoever happens to be at the receiving end of a rocket. After all, to punish the innocent would simply be to commit a crime against them and would not be an act of justice.

One stock reply is that the people hurt by the rockets are (usually) Israelis and hence they are not innocent.  That is, they are fully accountable for whatever wrongs Israel has allegedly committed. However, being a member of a large group seems to be a rather weak basis for justifying such random retribution. To use an analogy, imagine that professor Sally is fired from her job at Big University so that the president of the university can give her boyfriend Sally’s job. Now suppose that, in revenge, Sally starts randomly slashing the tires of students’ cars and that she defends her actions by pointing out that the students are associated with Big University and hence just targets of her retribution.

On the face of it, Sally’s justification seems absurd: the students are hardly accountable for the doings of the president. Likewise, one might argue, random people are unlikely to be accountable for any alleged misdeeds attributed to Israel.

One obvious counter is that being a citizen comes with moral accountability that would not hold in the case of students. A citizen of a democratic state, it can be argued, is responsible for what is done by her nation. After all, a citizen of a democracy has the right to elect officials and make decisions regarding the actions of the country. So, the rocket attacks could be just retaliation provided that the actions of the Israeli state warranted such retribution.

The obvious reply is that while citizens of a democratic state do bear some responsibility for the actions of their nation, such random attacks fail to take into account important distinctions. To be specific, it seems clear that every citizen does not bear the guilt of every misdeed (or perceived misdeed) of a nation. For example, a random rocket attack could kill an Israeli who opposes violence or it could murder a child. Surely such people do not deserve death, whatever the alleged misdeeds of the country.

Obviously, it could be argued that collective guilt somehow overrides all other normally relevant aspects (such as past actions).  However, the burden of proof seems to be on those who would make this claim.

As such, these random rocket attacks fired from within civilian areas seem to be morally wrong.

Naturally, a similar sort of argument can be applied to any cases in which Israeli attacks kill random people in Gaza. Or random attacks kill anyone anywhere.

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  1. Rick Baker said, on November 21, 2012 at 8:13 am

    I think you are possibly looking at the symptoms of the underlying issue rather than the causes. An analogy that springs to mind is someone who mistreats a small dog. Eventually it retaliates and bites madly at anything it can reach in frustration hoping that the abuser will stop the mistreatment. In return the powerful human cruelly beats the dog for daring to snap at it so next time it tolerates even more mistreatment before it snaps again. It is a upward spiral of abuse that can only end if the dog dies or the human stops mistreating it.

    Hamas lashes out at Israel periodically for years of ongoing mistreatment …its rockets seldom hit anything because they are not trying to attack…they are just lashing out randomly. Israel overeacts and beats it into submission brutally with its superior military might….and tries to remove Hamas’ teeth so next time it snaps it can do even less.

    It seems to me that it is primitive abuse of power by Israel when what they should be doing is using their ‘superior’ intellect etc to stop mistreating weak non jews which will then stop them lashing out periodically.

    The ethics are ethics of abuse disguised as self defence! A simplistic argument no doubt ..but with some truth!

  2. urbannight said, on November 21, 2012 at 11:03 am

    While I agree with you more often than not, this leaves out that fact that Israel didn’t get Gaza as they felt they ought to have done. So they keep having ‘surges’ where they send in a whole bunch of ‘colonists’ as I’ve seen them called a number of articles. The theory would be that the Israelis rushing in to ‘settle’ Gaza, shares in the mindset that they should have Gaza and they are attempting to take it but simply overwhelming the local population by increasing their own numbers.

    This has lead to decades of violence in the area between Hamas and Israel. Israel itself it creating a civilian shield, so to speak. One can also argue that with mandatory military service, are any adults actually civilians even if they are no longer active military. The Israelis who are flocking to move into the area are the ones putting their children at risk while the Palistinian children born there are simply born into that risk. The parents of the second group could chose to move out of the Gaza strip but then they do exactly what the Israelis have been trying to get them to do for decades now.

    • magus71 said, on November 21, 2012 at 11:50 am

      Israel stopped buldling houses in Gaza years ago. Hamas is wrong. Israel is right. The UN made the boders of Israel. Hamas is labeled as a terrorist organization. Iran is using Hamas and Palestine to wage proxy-war against Israel. Is blowing up buses full of non-combatants, on purpose, justifiable? Hamas myst be destroyed.

      • biomass2 said, on November 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm

        Mike speaks of “shields”. .I’ve heard a lot about Israel’s “iron shield”. Does its existence affect the discussion at all?
        I’ve watched footage of the back and forth of rockets , and it would be interesting to know who has the most missles ,who has killed the most civilians over the last year or so, including this current conflict and
        which group brings the most power and the most money to the table. Does Israel risk pulling Iran into the conflict? Why hasn’t Iran, clearly a major supplier of Hamas , jumped into this with both feet? Are they sitting back, trying to goad Israel into a major conflict with several mid-Eastern countries— including ,likely, Iran itself?


        “Israel stopped buildling houses in Gaza years ago.”
        How many settlements still exist there? If the building was in dispute, and as a reslult Israel discontinued it, have serious moves been taken to decrease the number of preexisting settlers?

        “Israel dismantled 18 settlements in the Sinai Peninsula in 1982, and all 21 in the Gaza Strip and 4 in the West Bank in 2005,[3] but continues to both expand its settlements and settle new areas in the West Bank in spite of the Oslo Accords, which barred both Israel and the Palestinians from undertaking unilateral actions that would alter the status quo.[4][5][6][7]” Israeli Settement, Wikipedia
        “Israel disputes the position of the international community and the legal arguments that were used to declare the settlements illegal.[19] This statement is made as of 2007

        I certainly don’t understand all aspects of what’s going on over there, but
        ust reading one Wikipedia article seems to reveal a large gap between the views of the “world community” and that of Israel.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 21, 2012 at 6:07 pm

          Israel does have the Iron Dome system that is supposed to be decent at taking out rockets. This does give Israel a defensive edge on top of their clear offensive advantage.

          It could be argued that the Iron Dome is being countered by the “flesh dome” of civilians.

          • magus71 said, on November 23, 2012 at 12:57 pm

            Just because cops are wearing bullet proof vests does not mean they don’t shoot back at criminals.

      • WTP said, on November 21, 2012 at 8:22 pm

        Since when has ignorance been a reason to refrain from Israeli/Jew bashing.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on November 21, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    I still think it is highly questionable whether Israel will survive O’s second term. The only thing working to Israel’s advantage is the internecine warfare among Muslims.

    I find it quite ironic that Assad can kill 30,000 with barely a murmur of criticism from the same people who are ready to jump all over Israel for responding to rocket attacks against civilians.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 22, 2012 at 6:39 am

      Can you point to specific policy changes that will doom Israel?

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 22, 2012 at 10:08 am

        How about backing hard core Islamists like Morsi?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 22, 2012 at 12:54 pm

          Morsi seems to be driving in the moderate lane. If backing him dooms Israel, then Israel is dooming itself-they recognize his authority in Egypt and worked with him on the cease fire. Morsi seems to be a fairly rational modernist and seems to recognize Israel.

          You’ll need some more evidence of doom.

          • magus71 said, on November 23, 2012 at 12:59 pm

            Morsi is not a moderate. He is a product of the Muslim Brotherhood, which realizes the necessity of politically palatable speech. But he prays for the destruction of Israel….

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 23, 2012 at 8:16 pm

              He is, relative to the radicals. While I am sure he says one thing and thinks quite another, that makes him a politician. Actually, I suspect that he wants Israel to remain-Egypt has relatively good relations with Israel and Israel helps keep Egypt’s competition in check.

          • magus71 said, on November 23, 2012 at 1:03 pm


            Why has Obama not visited Israel, but he visited Egypt? Has Obama explicitly stated to Hamas: “Stop shooting rockets at Israel”? No. He said he supports Israel’s right to defend itself. Which statement is more direct?

            The rhetoric of American leadership is a powerful force in the world. This is where Reagan had it right and Obama has failed. Hamas began shelling two days after Obama’s election. Coincidence?

            • biomass2 said, on November 23, 2012 at 2:28 pm

              If Hamas is shooting rockets at Israel, it seems that Obama, by saying “he supports Israel’s right to defend itself”, is neatly avoiding getting involved in a situation that is , at this point at least , a Hamas/Israeli problem.
              Anyway,if Obama would declare “Stop shooting rockets at Israel”, he’s not making any promise to do something specific in response to Hamas’ rocket attacks. Is that what you want? Or do you want someting more explicit, like “Stop shooting rocets at Israel, or we will send American troops into the region, led by Doug Moore.”?

              Coincidence between shelling and election? Yes. No. Maybe. You do the proof. More or less a coincidence if it had taken place on the first day after his election? Or the third? Or the fifth? How many days after the election was it before Romney accused Obama of buying the election with gifts to his base? How many days was that statement made after the first shelling by Hamas? Coincidence? Or was Romney giving a coded signal?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 23, 2012 at 8:22 pm

              Take a look at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/obama-knocked-for-not-visiting-israel/2012/08/03/9420de6e-dce3-11e1-8e43-4a3c4375504a_blog.html

              Harry Truman: no visit
              Dwight Eisenhower: no visit
              John Kennedy: no visit
              Lyndon Johnson: no visit
              Richard Nixon: sixth year of presidency
              Gerald Ford: no visit
              Jimmy Carter: third year of presidency
              Ronald Reagan: no visit
              George H.W. Bush: no visit
              Bill Clinton: 4 visits—in the second, third, fourth and sixth years of his presidency
              George W. Bush: 2 visits—in the eighth year of his presidency

              So far, Obama is doing the same as other presidents.

              If your reasoning is:

              1. If a president does not visit Israel in his first term, then he does not support Israel.
              2. President X did not visit Israel in his first term.
              C: President X does not support Israel.

              Then plug in the various presidents (including Reagan) and see the result.

              Obama sent Clinton to address the matter and the result was an end to the rocket attacks. For now.

              US support for Israel is as strong as ever.

            • WTP said, on November 23, 2012 at 11:11 pm

              Magus, I thought you came close to stepping in it. Notice how Mike takes your point apart, philosophically. Notice also how he completely ignores the plain as day fact that you mentioned EGYPT & Israel. Mike only concerns himself with what supports HIS point of view. Sophistry, not philosophy.

            • WTP said, on November 24, 2012 at 10:16 am

              Forgot the point I was going to make. What might be a greater insult was going on The View to discuss the socioeconomic ramifications of the menstral cycle as it relates to playtex global hegemony rather than meet with Netanyahu when he was just on the other side of town.

            • biomass2 said, on November 24, 2012 at 12:08 pm

              First, allow me to join the great guessing corps. The decision to meet ^no^ world leaders during his 24 hr. stopover in NYC was a political decision. Meet with one leader: Wrong move. BS by the ton drops from opponents as they speculate on why that single leader was chosen. Meet with all? Which leader got the most face time? 30 seconds more for X, a minute less for Y. Mon dieu! There’s a conspiracy there somewhere! And the BS blares. Meet with a handful? This strains all belief. And the political news cycle gets more BS to dry and burn in its fires in a politically heated election year environment.

              Second, this is for those who have the answers to the questions: Do you believe Netanyahu’s decision to respond to Hammas’ rocket attacks


              would have been different if he had met with Obama? Israel’s a big boy. It’s well armed. It has the Iron Dome. What would Bibi have stood to gain from being on stage with Obama? And vice versa?

              What role, exactly, should the US have played in ^these^ conflicts in the Middle East. Should we be/or have been/ ‘all in’ in Syria, Libya, Iran, Egypt? Troops? Drones? Where exactly does diplomacy fit in? Or is that currently a dirty word for one segment of our political society? If it’s not, if it’s acceptable, what form should it take? How would a libertarian deal with this?

            • magus71 said, on November 24, 2012 at 2:46 pm


              Your response is a philosophic argument against my assumed stance. But it does not answer my question. Why Egypt, but not Israel?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 24, 2012 at 4:35 pm

              I’m not sure-I don’t have any more special access to the inner circles than you. I could speculate and looking at the history of presidential visits to Israel and Egypt might provide some insight into US foreign policy. So far Obama is following the playbook regarding Israel. Let me know if you see any unusual deviations.

            • WTP said, on November 24, 2012 at 5:00 pm

              You’ll note the Leftist responses to such questions delve into the mysterious and unseen/unknowable. Otherwise they are all-knowable about things they know nearly nothing about. More sophistry and intellectual dishonesty.

            • biomass2 said, on November 24, 2012 at 6:45 pm

              I’ve looked back over Mike’s responses here. And his article. The article raises some issues relevant to the Israel/Hammas conflict. His responses include words like “seems” and “it could be argued”.

              “. . .they are all-knowable about things they know nearly nothing about”. And being in the position of knowing it all, WTP, you ^know^ what “leftists” “know nearly nothing about.” Right? :B
              It must be comforting to believe you have such a firm grasp on what’s knowable. Just curious: Does the world look strange to you with no shades of grey, or does it just feel more comfy? Is it an easier world to defend, because, after all, once you find a few like minds to support your stance, all you need to do from that point on is say the other side is wrong, and your work is done? Seems like a question you ‘could’ answer along with other questions I’ve raised in my replies.

  4. biomass2 said, on November 21, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    My suspicion is that no single one of the crises in the Middle East can be boiled down to a simple case of us against them.
    It’s ^us^ —us and whoever our allies are (the ideological ones or the ones we have bought, or the ones we strategically need in any given situation on any given day during any given month)— versus ^them^ (the jihadists, the sunnis, the Muslim brotherhood, the communist Chinese, the North Koreans, sudden alliances between any one or more of the above. And I haven’t covered them all.
    And if it’s not simply us vs. them, a smple solution aimed at a simple ^them^ isn’t going to work.

  5. magus71 said, on November 24, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    • biomass2 said, on November 24, 2012 at 4:26 pm

      So, this indicates they “have not gotten on”. They have a “frosty relationship”. Nothing of substance is revealed about Carney’s assessment of the US’ and Obama’s actual “support of Israel”. Nothing here to prove that this statement by Obama (“America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshaken.”) is not true. In the “open mike gaffe” which is, apparently only a matter of hearsay (unless the actual recording exists) Obama commiserates with Sarkozy, but says only “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.” Some Israelis, believe it or not, are not that crazy about Bibi.

      Here, in this little bit of vid, I see clearly the essence of why Obama might have chosen to see no leaders during that 24 hour period (UN, NYC, 24 hrs. WTP’s 10;16) It wasn’t so much a rebuff of any particular leader as a clear indication of Obama’s understanding of politics. The understanding that won him the 2012 election. . . Have one of these private meetings, and surely someone will come away with something they “heard” that they’ll “quote” to the press, and certain parts of the “media” will run it into the ground. Now a good old-fashioned vid, clear, undeniable, in its entirety, that’s another thing. Give me a good ol’ “47%” video. No squirm room. No “according to a report” or “according to reliable sources he said”.

      I think Mike answered your initial question “Why has Obama not visited Israel, but he visited Egypt?” very effectively. Obama’s record on visiting ISRAEL is similar to that of those presidents who preceded him. Simple enough. I believe my answers to WTP’s 10:16 have raised plenty of. points and questions that no one has been willing to answer.

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