It is well beyond the reach of this blog to assess the ethics of the October 2023 Israeli-Hamas war. This war has been alternating between hate and distrust on both sides since Israel became a recognized nation. My focus is always on the ethical issues raised when we write about current events. This blog is not about the war, just the ethical issues it raises. The Israeli-Hamas war is driven by four things: (1) Ethnicity, (2) Nationality, (3) Historical, (4) Religion. The last factor, religion, is arguably the core issue driving this longstanding animus between competing religions. I’ll only briefly explore the religious strand because it’s based on ethical and moral teachings.
The Washington Institute’s mission is to advance a balanced and realistic understanding of American interests in the Middle East and to promote the policies that secure them. “Begun in 2010 on the cusp of the Arab Spring, [the Institute began] an initiative designed to provide on-the-ground perspectives and insight on the most pressing current events facing the Middle East. . . They reported that the religious dimension of the conflict . . . [because] it impacts the identity of actors implicated in this conflict, the practical issues at stake, and the relevant policies and attitudes on both sides. It follows that religion must also be part of any real solution to this tragic and protracted conflict.”
Islam and Judaism dictate the role of religion as the main factor in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, notably including the sanctity of holy sites and the apocalyptic narratives of both religions, which harm any potential for lasting peace between the two sides. Extreme religious Zionists in Israel increasingly see themselves as guardians and definers of how the Jewish state should be and are stringent regarding any concessions to the Arabs. But Islamist groups in Palestine and elsewhere in the Islamic world advocate the necessity of liberating the “holy” territories and sites for religious reasons, and preach violence and hatred against Israel and the Jewish people.
Tragically, recent successes in decelerating hatred and distrust between historical adversaries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and negotiations for the normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel are now in jeopardy. But this “This fragile détente was abruptly shattered on the morning of October 7, 2023. Backed by a relentless barrage of rockets, Hamas militants launched an audacious assault from the blockaded Gaza Strip into Israeli towns nearby. This attack, carried out during a major Jewish holiday, resulted in the tragic loss of hundreds of Israeli civilian lives and the capture of more than 100 hostages, leaving Israel and the world in shock. Israel swiftly responded with airstrikes on Gaza that killed hundreds of Palestinians and seemed certain to kill many more.”
Hamas has named its operation the ‘Al-Aqsa Storm,’ alluding to a perceived Muslim fury against the right-wing Israeli government’s decision to allow Jewish fundamentalists to enter Islam’s third holiest site. They believe these fundamentalists want to dismantle the Al-Aqsa Mosque and rebuild a Jewish temple on the land that Muslims call the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, and that Jews call the Temple Mount. The fight over Al-Aqsa has ignited eschatological sensitivities among Muslims, encompassing both Sunnis like Hamas and the majority of Palestinians, as well as Shi’ites like Iranians who also hold apocalyptic beliefs in a final battle at the end of the world.
The ethics of religion and war are historical guesswork. While little is said about the ethics of war in religious terms, there are many references to the notion that there is a morality of war. Of those, some deny that morality applies at all once the guns strike up; for others, no plausible moral theory could license the exceptional horrors of war. The first group is sometimes called realists. The second group are pacifists. The task of just war theory is to seek a middle path between them: to justify at least some wars, but also to limit them. Although realism undoubtedly has its adherents, few philosophers find it compelling. The challenge to just war theory comes from pacifism. And we should remember, from the outset, that this challenge is real. The justified war might well be a chimera.” 
War has been studied, debated, fought over, ignored, and puzzled philosophers for centuries. The core question is what could be more intuitive or ethical than the belief that it is morally wrong to kill on a massive scale? Even so, there is a strong opposing argument; it’s called the Just War Theory. This thesis argues there are times when war is morally permissible and even obligatory. “Just War Theory goes back to St. Augustine in the 5th Century and St. Thomas in the 13th Century. Just War theory considers the reasons for going to war and the conduct of war. This distinction is important. A war might be ethical but the means unethical, for instance, using landmines, torture, chemicals, and current debate is concerned with drones. Just War theory sets out principles for a war to be ethical. The war must be: (1) Waged by a legitimate authority. (2) In a just cause. (3) Waged with right intention. (4) Have a strong probability of success. (5) Be a last resort. (6) Be proportional.”
Here is one answer to that core question of morality. “Hamas is a terrorist organization that deliberately murders civilians and says it wants to destroy Israel. On the other side, Israel has a right to defend itself, full stop. Israel was fighting to defend itself. A scholar recently authored a book on Just War Theory. [He] weighed the evidence and believes Hamas to be unjust, appallingly wrong, and morally abhorrent. . . Hamas is in the wrong no matter what you think of the Palestinians’ cause. If you sympathize with the Palestinians, you should hate Hamas. Hamas is the greatest enemy of the Palestinians. It hijacked the cause of Palestinian autonomy for its jihadist ideology and made it essentially impossible to support Gaza without being complicit with terrorism.”
There is no easy answer to the ethical and moral conflicts in this war. Perhaps the only real answer will come from the winning side. That’s the side that writes the war’s history and meets its own ethical and moral standards.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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