Michael Walzer: “Justice demands the defeat of Hamas, not revenge against the Palestinians.”

In the wake of Hamas’s bloody attack on Israel and the Hebrew state’s armed response against the Gaza Strip, American philosopher Michael Walzer, author of “Just and Unjust Wars” (1977), offers his analysis of the political and legal motives behind this unprecedented conflict.

This interview by Martin Legros was published on the site of Philosophie Magazine to whom we are most grateful for their permission for republication in K. It is a retranslation from French of an interview originally conducted in English.


Michael Walzer, 2002, Wikipedia Commons


How would you describe the Hamas attack on Israel? Is it an act of war, terrorism, or both?

Michael Walzer—I believe it was an old-style pogrom of significant scale, highly organized, executed like a military operation, but still a pogrom. Its primary objective was to kill and kidnap as many civilians as possible—men, women, children, the elderly, all defenseless. The kidnapping and killing were entirely indiscriminate, which is a sufficient criterion to consider that it was not a military operation, as the distinction between civilians and soldiers is fundamental to both war and the laws of war.

But wasn’t this also meant to provoke Israel to respond militarily?

Like others, I suspect that the primary political objective of this attack was to prevent the negotiated normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as envisaged in the Abraham Accords. I also think that the Hamas leaders wanted to create a general conflagration, hoping that Hezbollah would enter the conflict from Lebanon to the north, that a new intifada would be launched in the West Bank… In short, they were certainly trying to generate a new war in the full and multiplied sense. And I hope that the Israelis aren’t going to help them achieve that by giving them what they seemed to want to achieve by attacking.

How do you explain the fact that Hamas was able to enter Israeli territory so easily?

I believe this was partly due to the fact that a significant number of soldiers, entire regiments, were withdrawn from the Gaza border—now supposedly secured by a wall of concrete, iron and electronics—to be sent to the West Bank to provide security for the settlers. This left defenseless civilians vulnerable to attack by Hamas. The government focused on its annexation ambitions in the West Bank and neglected the defense of ordinary citizens on the country’s internal border… I do not doubt that when the fighting stops, Israelis will demand accountability for the government’s responsibility in this matter.

Some have questioned whether the internal divisions over the Justice reform project diverted attention from Israel’s true enemies.

They represent a fundamental divide within the country, between supporters of a government that includes ultranationalists and religious messianists, and a large number of liberal, secular Israelis who opposed this government. Could this have appeared as a sign of weakness and an opportunity for the enemies of Israel to attack? Perhaps it played a role in the timing of the Hamas attack. However, in reality, an attack of this magnitude must have been planned for many months. The date was chosen to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. So, I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on Israel’s internal divisions to explain the reasons behind this attack. The political divisions in Israel raise a fundamental question for Israeli democracy, and it is crucial that opponents of this reform do not abandon their fight. But the Hamas attack has different underlying causes.

What do you think of the international community’s reaction?

I have been very moved by the reactions of Western governments, including my own [the United States]. And I think that at this time, given the evidence of these mass crimes, the expression of public sympathy for Israel is important. But I fear that it will not stand the test of time as the number of victims of Israel’s operation in Gaza continues to grow.

You are the theorist of “just” war. What would be the right response for Israel, according to the law? Is it fair to attack Gaza on the principle that the attack came from there?

This is one of the most difficult questions in the law of war—how do you fight an asymmetric war? We’ve known for a long time that Hamas fires its rockets from schoolyards or hospital rooftops, deliberately exposing its own civilians to military reprisals from Israel, which cannot allow itself to be bombed without responding. I think the armed forces can target only military targets. But given the way Hamas is waging war, any response is bound to affect the population of Gaza. Under these circumstances, it is important to recognize that even though deaths are caused by Israeli bombardment, the deliberate exposure of civilians is a fact and even a goal of Hamas. But this important distinction may not count for much when Israel’s goal is not justice but revenge. And I was horrified to hear Benyamin Netanyahu and Israeli army spokesmen speak of revenge. Revenge belongs to God, not to man, as many religious texts say. And in the laws of war, revenge is never justified. Israel is justified in seeking justice. And justice requires the defeat of Hamas. No more, no less. Israel has no need for revenge against the people of Gaza. That is why I am very concerned about the decision to impose a total siege on Gaza and perhaps to conquer this territory. Closing all the borders, stopping the supply of food and electricity, water… I understand the feeling of anger of the Israeli population. This terrible feeling makes the political leaders think that they are justified in acting in this way. But we must never give free rein to revenge in war. We need a much more precise and tailored response. It’s important to defeat Hamas, and we must do it at the lowest possible cost. Those costs will be high anyway, but you have to do everything and show that you are doing everything to minimize them. Jus ad bellum (the right to wage war) and jus in bello (the way to wage it) must be articulated. Otherwise, the way you conduct a just struggle compromises the justness of that struggle.

The problem appears to be inextricable—how to protect civilians in a battle against an enemy that does not intend to maintain this distinction? The adherence to the principle seems doomed from the outset.

The Israeli army’s code of conduct requires making every possible effort to minimize the cost to civilians. As long as this resolute effort to minimize the number of Palestinian civilian casualties persists, Israel cannot be held responsible for the deaths of Palestinian civilians.

In addition to Hamas, do you think the involvement of Hezbollah from Lebanon and Iran is conceivable? Would Israel be justified in attacking Iran, for example, if it were proven that Teheran supported or even directly contributed to the organization of the attack?

The war that is beginning is a war with an Iranian protege. There is no doubt in my mind that Iran is complicit in this attack. Whether the regime was actively involved in organizing it or not. And in this respect, we shouldn’t be too quick to think that the Palestinians are incapable of carrying out such an operation on their own. Nevertheless, Iran certainly influenced and helped, even if it didn’t exactly coordinate. But it’s in everybody’s interest, including Israel’s, to have a limited war. And therefore, if Hamas is Iran’s protege, to defeat that protege. We have to make sure that this war does not spread. We can use economic and political sanctions against Iran. These already exist and could be strengthened. But I don’t think it would be wise or fair for Israel to start a war against Iran. Even if the Iranian regime’s responsibility for the attack on Israel is established.

Netanyahu stated that Israel is going to “change the Middle East.” Isn’t this a sign that the response will not be limited to the Gaza Strip?

Netanyahu is in a very precarious position. He knows that his government will be held accountable not for the attack itself, but for the state of surprise and demobilization at the Gaza border. He is aware of this. And that’s why he is using the language of a powerful avenger rather than that of a statesman. It’s frightening because Israel needs to win a war contained within local limits. An expanded war would undoubtedly produce horrors for its own population as well as for others. An adult government, if Israel had one, would do everything it could to keep this war within the narrowest possible boundaries.

How can the allies of Israel, mainly the Europeans and the Americans, help the country to contain itself in a limited war? The Americans have sent their largest aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean. What signal does this send?

Sending the U.S.S. Ford, the largest aircraft carrier in the world, to the region is not only a sign of the American people’s and state’s support for Israel. It is also a signal to Israel’s other enemies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran, not to get further involved in the ongoing conflict. I believe that Israel’s allies need to do all they can to prevent Israel from being attacked from the North through Lebanon. European nations with influence in Lebanon should do all they can to prevent Hezbollah from intervening and spreading the war. In addition, the moral support of American and European civil society is essential. The various demonstrations of support that have taken place are of great importance.

In an influential article published in Dissent (and later in 2004 in the journal Esprit) titled “The Four Israeli-Palestinian Wars,” you argued that there were not just two adversaries but four—one in each camp seeking the destruction of the opponent, and another on both sides recognizing the right to exist for the adversary. Are we not witnessing the merging of these wars with adversaries who now only seek to mutually destroy each other?

No, on the contrary, I believe that the four wars still exist. On both sides, there are still those who advocate the total destruction of the other, or, let’s say, his complete and definitive subordination. But there is also a powerful camp that recognizes the existence of the other. My friends in Israel, along with all their fellow citizens, are now focused on defeating Hamas. But they know that when this war is over, another battle awaits them, which is to defeat the ultra-nationalists and messianists within Israel. And that battle is just as fundamental.

Interview by Martin Legros

Thanks to Philosophie Magazine for permission to republish this interview. Daily analyses of the current conflict-as well as other interviews with Michael Walzer published over the years-can be found on their website.

Contact the author

    Support us!

    You can help us

    With the support of:

    Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.