Don’t Take Hamas’s Goals Out of the Equation

Sieff Michelle Sieff argues for considering ideology in political assessments of Hamas', in The Forward:

Why do the debates over the morality of Israel’s responses to Hamas never seem to produce a consensus? A debate broke out last year after Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, and another after the publication of the Goldstone Report. Recently we have found ourselves in the midst of yet another debate in the wake of Israel’s botched raid on the Free Gaza flotilla, this time about the justice of Israel’s blockade.

But these arguments never seem to arrive at a conclusion, and that’s because, at bottom, the disagreement touches on a philosophical divide over international human rights law, with an establishment view on one side and, on the other, an emerging insurgent view, with each side screaming past the other.

Earlier this year, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, presented the establishment view to a reporter from The New Republic. The reporter asked Roth why Human Rights Watch did not issue judgments on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s public threats against Israel’s existence. Roth responded: “Let’s assume it is a military threat. We don’t take on governments’ military threats just as we don’t take on aggression, per se. We look at how they behave. So, we wouldn’t condemn a military threat just as we wouldn’t condemn an invasion — we would look at how the government wages the war.”

It is indeed true that the laws of war judge the methods used in fighting the war but not the goals that motivate the combatants. The Goldstone Report, which used the laws of war to assess Israel’s actions in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, lambasted many of the tactics deployed against Hamas and accused Israel of committing possible “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.”

But the laws of war are only one portion of human rights law. And many perfectly reasonable people have soured on the notion that the laws of war should be the only measure by which Israel’s actions against Hamas are assessed, precisely because these laws do not allow us to take into account Hamas’s goals.