Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Moral Equivalence

Larry Thomas and Bret Mendenhall in Uwe Boll's 2008 Postal, via The New York Times.

On the prospect of the International Criminal Court issuing arrest warrants on Yahya Sinwar (the head of Hamas in Gaza), Ismail Haniyeh (head of the Hamas Political Bureau), Mohammed Deif (commander-in-chief of the Qassam Brigades), and the Israeli prime minister and defense minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant, there's been a lot of angry talk about the ICC prosecutor practicing "moral equivalence", including from President Biden

The ICC prosecutor’s application for arrest warrants against Israeli leaders is outrageous. And let me be clear: whatever this prosecutor might imply, there is no equivalence — none — between Israel and Hamas.  We will always stand with Israel against threats to its security.  

A truly weird error in this connection from NBC News, which ran an interview with Netanyahu yesterday in which the prime minister complained that he was being given a "bum rap" (Trump's language choices are a bad influence, now Bibi too sounds like a 1950s gangster):

Echoing Biden's comments, Netanyahu said Khan's decision to seek arrest warrants for both Israel's and Hamas' leaders reflected a "false symmetry" that he said was comparable to the arrest warrants that were issued for both President George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Remember when ICC put out a warrant on Bush? I was so startled I looked it up, but of course it didn't happen (the court did open a preliminary investigation of war crimes in Afghanistan after the country ratified the Rome statute in 2003, but after 11 years of that, from 2006 to 2017, it took until 2020 for them to decide to move on to a full investigation, upon which Trump put sanctions on them, which Biden has reversed). And Netanyahu didn't say it did. You can get a more accurate report of what he said on NBC from The Times of Israel:

Netanyahu slammed [prosecutor Karim] Khan, accusing him of being “out to demonize Israel” and adding: “He’s doing a hit job. He’s creating a false symmetry between the democratically elected leaders of Israel and the terrorist chieftains” of Palestinian terror group Hamas, who are also the targets of potential ICC arrest warrants. “That’s like saying after 9/11, well, I’m issuing arrest warrants for George Bush, but also for [Osama] bin Laden.”

It's one of those "imagine the scandal if" analogies, along with the ever-popular "by these standards they should have arrested FDR for fire bombing Dresden," where I always have to note that that wasn't a war crime when it happened, because the Geneva Conventions weren't updated to cover air warfare yet, and the reason they are now is that some of the things done from the air in World War II by Axis and Allied forces alike were so horrible that people decided they must never happen again—including the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fire bombing of Dresden. Speaking of which

The Financial Times [in late December 2023] did a statistical analysis that compared Gaza to the Allied bombing campaign over Germany during the Second World War.

Three cities in Germany were effectively destroyed from the air during that war: Cologne, Hamburg and Dresden. In Hamburg and Dresden, a mix of high explosives and incendiary bombs created the notorious "firestorm" conditions that caused streets to melt.

Data analyzed by [war damage–mapping experts] shows that by Dec. 5, the percentage of Gaza's buildings that had been damaged or destroyed already had surpassed the destruction in Cologne and Dresden, and was approaching the level of Hamburg.

They also found that the bombing destruction in Gaza was worse than what the Russians had done to Mariupol and Bakhmut, and that

Israeli forces have killed approximately twice as many women and children in two months in Gaza as Russian forces have killed in Ukraine in nearly two years.

The Bush–bin Laden bit is a handy window on how Netanyahu sees himself and his situation: naturally, he still thinks W responded correctly to the 9/11 attacks and everybody will understand immediately what an outrage it would be to put him under arrest. 

He sees the analogy of 9/11 to 10/7 and models his own response to terrorism on Bush's, as I warned him not to do on October 10 and Biden did a couple of weeks later (not that I expect him to read me, but he ought to pay attention to Biden)

When I was in Israel yesterday, I said that when America experienced the hell of 9/11, we felt enraged as well, and while we sought and got justice, we made mistakes. So I caution the government of Israel not to be blinded by rage.

But Netanyahu chose to be, or at least to appear, blinded by rage, I suppose essentially to match the public mood (except for the part about their being in a rage with him, for his part in the incompetence that allowed the horror to take place and his refusal to accept any responsibility for it) and to make every mistake Bush made in Afghanistan, going to war with a slogan instead of a strategy so that Israel would never be able to say whether it had achieved its war aims or not and practicing terrorism himself, not only in the shock-and-awe assault on Gaza City but also in rampages in the territory under his control in the West Bank, where the inhabitants of the illegal Jewish settlements have been permitted and encouraged to run murderously wild among the Arab population (worse than the way American cops oppressed the Muslim American community after 9/11), launching a multi-front war that could easily go on for another 20 years.

I'm disappointed in Biden at the moment, for one thing for the way he joined the chorus over the ICC news, making what I think is a big moral error.

Prosecutor Khan doesn't suggest, as far as I can see, that there's any "equivalence" between the Hamas organization and the Israeli government, other than their equal obligation to obey international humanitarian law. He makes it entirely clear that Hamas had no right to commit any of the acts of October 7 or to hold and mistreat the hostages afterwards, while he doesn't criticize Israel's declared war aims of attempting to "eliminate Hamas" or liberating the hostages, acknowledging the right of self-defense:

Israel, like all States, has a right to take action to defend its population. That right, however, does not absolve Israel or any State of its obligation to comply with international humanitarian law. Notwithstanding any military goals they may have, the means Israel chose to achieve them in Gaza – namely, intentionally causing death, starvation, great suffering, and serious injury to body or health of the civilian population – are criminal.

What I really want to say here is that the whole discussion of "moral equivalence" is on the wrong track, philosophically. Was Churchill as bad as Hitler? Who cares? He did plenty of bad things in his life, and we can judge him for them without any reference to Hitler. And conversely. It really doesn't matter.

But there is a moral equivalence that matters, and that's among the victims of war crimes, especially the civilians, on both sides of any conflict, who are equally deserving of life and happiness. Khan shows some real tenderness for these, especially personal with the ones he had the chance to meet:

During my own visit to Kibbutz Be’eri and Kibbutz Kfar Aza, as well as to the site of Supernova Music Festival in Re’im, I saw the devastating scenes of these attacks and the profound impact of the unconscionable crimes charged in the applications filed today. Speaking with survivors, I heard how the love within a family, the deepest bonds between a parent and a child, were contorted to inflict unfathomable pain through calculated cruelty and extreme callousness. These acts demand accountability....

The effects of the use of starvation as a method of warfare, together with other attacks and collective punishment against the civilian population of Gaza are acute, visible and widely known, and have been confirmed by multiple witnesses interviewed by my Office, including local and international medical doctors. They include malnutrition, dehydration, profound suffering and an increasing number of deaths among the Palestinian population, including babies, other children, and women.

Biden is supposed to understand this, it's a big reason why we voted for him, and I've thought he was showing he did with his emphasis on working with Blinken and Austin and Sullivan to make the Israelis pull back from the indiscriminate bombing and the blocking of aid trucks to Gaza. Even though it doesn't seem to have been very effective, at least he was trying.

But this threat from the ICC is such a moment when he would have been entitled to say, "I told you so." They're getting charged for doing the things he kept telling them not to do, which are definitely crimes! It's not "outrageous" to ask that the law apply equally to everybody, it's what we always claim is the American way!

It's not the time for shouting incoherently about "equivalence" and "outrage". It's the time for adding pressure (there's no question but that the judges would let the prosecution go if Israel were to sign a long-term ceasefire and start letting the food and water and medicine into the Strip instead of keeping crossings closed and allowing thug settlers to stop trucks coming from Jordan).

The same goes for today's news of three EU countries, Ireland, Spain, and Norway, planning to recognize the Palestinian state. This is a big deal, especially with Norway, the home of the Oslo agreement, and another opportunity for increasing the pressure, but all the White House seems able to do is come back with clichés: 

National Security Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said President Joe Biden is a “strong supporter of a two-state solution,” but argued a Palestinian state should not be recognized “through unilateral recognition,” and instead should be “realized through direct negotiations between the parties.”

I'm sorry, the direct negotiations between the parties have had 75 years to work, and it hasn't happened! The Norwegians really know about this! You have to try something different.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog and the Substack.

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