Moral Equivalency in the Middle East

Jonathan Chait is outraged by the idea that there is any equivalence between the actions of Israel and their terrorist enemies:

At Tapped, Matt Yglesias writes that Hezbollah’s rocket strikes, as compared with Israel’s bombing of Lebanon, are “equally indefensible.” Equally? Hezbollah began the crisis with an act of war that included a cross-border incursion and a kidnapping. Israel retaliated by attacking the parts of Lebanon’s infrastructure that could be used to spirit the kidnapped soldiers out of the country, and followed it up by trying to destroy Hezbollah’s artillery. In so doing they made every effort to minimize civilian casualties, including dropping leaflets warning residents to leave the targetted areas. Hezbollah has been lobbing rockets in the general direction of Israeli cities with no intent other than to kill civilians.


Hezbollah is a terrorist group (and much more) while Israel is a state. But Hezbollah’s kidnapping of Israeli soldiers–otherwise known as “combatants” in the language of warfare–certainly doesn’t merit full scale war against state actors. While Israel has indeed chosen targets of military value for its bombing, it’s ridiculous to say that destroying the infrastructure that the civilian populations of Gaza and Lebanon rely on for survival is inconsequential. As Yglesias observes,

Whatever the intent of all this is, the actual effect is going to be to kill a lot of people, make many more into refugees (some of whom will, consequently, die), wreck Lebanon’s economy, and possibly cause that country’s already rickety state to collapse.

That this devastation will almost certainly not even have the desired strategic effect makes it even worse.

Whether the actions of Israel and Hezbollah in this narrow instance* are “equally indefensible” is largely irrelevant. Israel is a civilized state, not a criminal organization. As such, it is expected to comport itself according to the norms of international law. If there’s even a debate as to whether its actions are on the same moral plane as a group of mass murderers, there’s a problem.


*There’s no doubt in my mind that Hezbollah and its ilk are on a far lower moral plane generally. While Israel is more Machiavellian and heavyhanded than I’d prefer, they are at least motivated by the security of its people. Intent matters in the larger scheme.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    I have indicated elsewhere, James, Israel’s heavy handedness is born of necessity and 50 years of experience.

    Of those seeking moral equivalency between the two are in reality seeking Israel’s defeat.

  2. Allan says:

    Intent and morals aside, James, what would you have Israel do?

    Embolden Hamas and Hezbollah by not responding to the provocative kidnappings?

    Not attempt to counter the rocket threat?

    I’m not a big fan of the Beirut bombings or the attacks against Lebanese military (unless those units have been helping Hezbollah), but Israel’s options seem rather limited at this point.

  3. madmatt says:

    How about all those cross border excursions and kidnappings that israel makes…they are always kidnapping and imprisoning people from gaza, lebanon, and the west bank…why do they get a free pass?

  4. Cernig says:


    PHOTO: Caption – Israeli girls write messages on a shell at a heavy artillery position near Kiryat Shmona in Northern Israel, nest to the Lebanese border, July 17th, 2006 (AP photo).

    TEXT: Quote from Haaretz.
    “It is not legitimate to cut off 750,000 people from electricity. It is not legitimate to call on 20,000 people to run from their homes and turn their towns into ghost towns. It is not legitimate to kidnap half the Cabinet and a quarter of a Parliament. A state that takes such steps is no longer distinguishable from a terror organisation.

    The legitimate basis for the IDF’s operation was stripped away the moment it began. It’s no accident that nobody mentions the day before the attack on the Kerem Shalom fort, when the IDF kidnapped two civilians, a doctor and his brother, from their home in Gaza. The difference between us and them? We kidnapped civilians and they captured a soldier, we are a state and they are a terror organization. How ridiculously pathetic Amos Gilad sounds when he says that the capture of Shalit was “illegitimate and illegal,” unlike when the IDF grabs civilians from their homes. How can a senior official in the defense ministry claim that “the head of the snake” is in Damascus, when the IDF uses the exact same methods? ”

    ‘Nuff said.

    Regards, Cernig

  5. Cernig says:

    Moral Equivalence Part II:

    Ankara on Monday urged Washington and Baghdad to act against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose militants have enjoyed safe haven in the mountains of northern Iraq, signalling that it is ready to take cross-border action if they fail to do so.

    Ankara says the PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European union, uses bases in northern Iraq as a springboard to launch attacks in adjoining southeast Turkey.

    It has made clear that its patience is running out after rebel attacks claimed the lives of 15 security force members over the past week.

    “The PKK is not a just a northern Iraq problem — it’s a problem in Europe and it’s a problem in Turkey,” [US Ambassador] Wilson said.

    “Going to deal with the PKK in northern Iraq will not solve the problem,” he said. “It will not lead to what we or Iraq or Turkey want to see, which is the termination of these terrorist activities and the termination of the death and suffering that the people of Turkey have faced.”

    Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly hit back, highlighting Washington’s support for Israeli military offensives against militants in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

    “Terrorism is terrorism everywhere,” Erdogan said in Istanbul. “It is not possible to agree with a mentality that tolerates country A and displays a different attitude when it comes to country B.”

    Pakistan, anyone?

    Regards, Cernig

  6. Israel is using precise weapons, targeting specific militarily-significant targets: bridges, airports, and seaports for logistics, TV and power stations for communications and logistics, and launch and storage sites for materiel to cut off the enemy’s supplies.

    The fact that civilians are being hurt is, in fact, a war crime. Hizbullah is the criminal, because using civilians as “shields” is a war crime. Under the Third Common Article, they should be making every attempt to protect civilians and non-combatants.

    Hisbullah is also doing these thigns from civilian areas with no distinguishing uniform or sign. A second war crime.

    Hisbullah is also firing unguided weapons into civilian areas with no apparent attempt to target military targets. That’s a third war crime.

  7. Jeff Medcalf says:

    Hold on. You are basically saying, if I read you correctly, that Israel is a state and Hizb’allah is not, so therefore Israel must behave as a responsible state and Hizb’allah can act with impunity?

    If that is indeed what you are saying, I’d love to see your thoughts on how Hizb’allah’s participation in the Lebanese government does not implicate Lebanon in the attacks by Hizb’allah; or how Lebanon’s inability to control its own southern territory means that Lebanon is in charge (so that Hizb’allah is off the hook) but not responsibile (so that Lebanon is off the hook); or what the implications are when groups are given the power to make unrestricted attacks on a state without being subject to counterattack.

    It seems to me that the position that Israel shouldn’t respond to terrorist groups (essentially, pirates and, in the case of Hizb’allah, essentially a pirate state) when those groups commit atrocities against Israel is dangerous: the principle that underlies such a statement is that unrestricted violence is just fine as long as you are not a state.

  8. Bithead says:

    Hold on. You are basically saying, if I read you correctly, that Israel is a state and Hizbâ??allah is not, so therefore Israel must behave as a responsible state and Hizbâ??allah can act with impunity?

    Regardless of his answer, I will tell you, you read him correctly.

    And no, the implication is unrestricted violence is just fine as long as you are not a JEWISH state.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Like everything else in the Middle East I think it’s terribly, terribly complicated.

    Is Hezbollah a state? It performs many of the functions of a state including wielding force against its enemies.

    What’s its relationship with the Lebanese government?

    If Arizona were to invade Mexico, would the Mexicans be justified in counter-attacking against Texas? I think so.

    BTW, Cernig, Iran’s cross-border incursions (and shelling) into Iraq in pursuit of the PKK has a little resemblance to the reactions of the Israelis, too. Is the Iraqi government (and, by extension, we) doing the same thing WRT the PKK as Lebanon is WRT Hezbollah?

    I’m not claiming to have answers to these questions. I just think that the answers aren’t crystal clear.

  10. Cernig says:

    Damn, Dave, you gave the Militant Right a moral equivalence to swallow that they didn’t want to – that of Iran’s justification for cross-border incursions into Iraq in fairly identical circumstances to Israel in Lebanon (a terror group carrying out indescriminate attacks and kidnappings, with ties and representation in govt. and backed by a larger power).

    Now look what you did. The comments thread came to a screaming halt.

    The common thread is Islamic extremism and the country or group affiliation is largely irrelevant. – Greg Tinti

    But…if it doesn’t suit the narrative look the other way. Exactly the same as happens over Pakistan’s backing for terror in Afghanistan and India (yet another moral equivalence).

    Or otherwise just admit that its somehow different when our allies do it. (Even to others of our allies.) Anyone want to try that? We can call it The War On SOME Terror, the Long(ish) (sorta)War or even WW2 And A Fourth.

    Regards, Cernig

  11. LJD says:

    Moral Equivalency: Touchy-feely liberal B.S. The first step in losing the war.

  12. Cernig says:

    Moral equivalence – “all men are created equal”, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. That’s touchy-feely liberal BS it seems. Thanks for the clarification of the Militant Right’s anti-Constitutional and unChristian position, LJD.


  13. McGehee says:

    Moral equivalence – �all men are created equal�, �do unto others as you would have them do unto you�. That�s touchy-feely liberal BS it seems.

    It is when one side likes to send people onto buses and into pizza parlors with bomb vests and the other … doesn’t.

    I fail to see how it’s unChristian to make a moral distinction between indiscriminate murder of the innocent, and trying to stop indiscriminate murder of the innocent, on the other.

    Those who have no souls should not throw around words like “unChristian.”

  14. floyd says:

    CERNIG;you only made one accurate statement in your militant left diatribe;….. ” ’nuff said “

  15. floyd says:

    cernig; quoting thomas jefferson and Jesus Christ in the same sentence [as if equivalent] you sound almost right wing![lol] watch it there buster! tee hee.

  16. floyd says:

    dave; what about mexico’s obvious and intentional invasion of the U.S.

  17. Dave Schuler says:

    floyd, I believe that the U. S. has the right to protect its borders and limit immigration in any way the citizenry sees fit as provided by law.

    BTW, IMO the Lebanese should be securing their southern border�from both directions and so should the Kurds in Iraq. I don’t give much of a damn about their internal problems in doing so.

  18. reliapundit says:

    inciting incidents have not always merited war in and of themselves; those who think they have or should are ignroant idiots or willfully distorting the facts.

    besides, if israel is only using the force it thinks is necessary to achive their limited golas, then war is not the right term.

    israel has defined their goals as very limited: secure the release of their soldioers, and get lebanon to enforce unscr#1559.

    these can happen anytime hizb’Allah agrees.

    israel is using limited, focused force to achive this.

    this is quite powellesque: they have an exit strategy and are using overwhlming force to achive it.

    nit unlike ourr massive war against saddam in 1991. we kicked him out and left.

    israelo will kick out hizb’Allah and leave.

    the fact that israel demanded these two points BEFORE beginning their campaign puts them in the right.

    because the entire international community recognizes that israel has left bioth lebanon and gaza, hamas and hizb’Allah are entirely in the wrong.

    if wrong and right matter to you, then this measn that israel is BLAMELESS in the current conflict.

    that’s all.

    retract or consgn yourself to irrelevance.

  19. reliapundit says:

    this is really just a police action by israel: they want their soldiers back and they want unscr#1559 enforced.

    they do not want regime change or territory.

    people who equate provocations with police actions are jerks.

    israel can no more be blamed for their actions now against hizb’Allah than can police be blamed when they seek to arrest kkk members for lynching blacks – and kill them when they attempt to resist arrest with deadly force.

  20. Anderson says:

    It’s really sad how little “war” means to so many commenters.

    War is horrible. It kills innocent people. It’s a last resort.

    At the Amel Hospital, Dr. Ali Mroue took stock of what he had seen in recent days: decapitated bodies, severe burns, disfigured faces. The hospital has lost 25 patients, he said, but saved 100.

    But most of all, he lamented the death of a 2-year-old girl, whom he tried desperately to save. She had severe burns on half her body, internal bleeding and her eyes were perforated, but she fought to live, he said.

    â??She was a mere child,â?? he said, as his voice cracked. â??She had nothing to do with this. Maybe you can accept the death of an adult, but she had so much ahead of her.â??â??

    The deaths of Israeli children do not justify Israel’s killing this little girl or anyone else not a party to the conflict.

    Israel chose war rather than seeking international intervention in Lebanon or anything else which might have reined in Hezbollah. Instead, Israel is killing Lebanese civilians with no discernible effect on Hezbollah.

    Anybody got a 2-year-old at home? Care to shrug off his or her being bombed and killed as a retort to American military action elsewhere?

    Stuff like this is inescapable in war. War is a last resort. Israel wasn’t pushed back to its last resort, by a long shot.

  21. floyd says:

    well said dave

  22. LJD says:

    Andersen, thanks for exemplifying the touchy-feely part.

    Contrary to liberal opinion, we (and the Israelis) do not just go to war on a whim. It IS a last resort. But just ignoring a grave threat is plain stupid.

    I don’t care what your philosophy or perspective on ‘moral equivalency’ is. You can’t compare apples and oranges, and tell me they’re bananas. i.e. A soldier killing to stop a terrorist is not the same as a terrorist randomly slaughtering people with a bomb or missle. A SF team ‘abducting’ a known terrorist, is not the same as terrorists kidnapping people (and beheading them).

    Why should it surprise you that terrorists have children, and use them as shields and tools of propaganda? These cowards were given every chance for peace, they chose war. They were given every chance to leave, they chose to stay and fight (and to keep their families with them).

    Like the U.S. the Israelis are using every bit intelligence and technology to minimize collateral damage. Can the same be said for Hezbollah? How’s that for moral equivalency. Spare me the baby pcitures.