In defence of Israel
“In war, truth is the first casualty.” —Aeschylus (c. 525–456 BC)
I have been trying to discern truth concerning the Israel-Gaza conflict. I have examined various perspectives and I have weighed arguments pro-and-con. Below are a few of my thoughts thus far, set out in an objection-reply format. (Many of my thoughts are gotten from others whom I gratefully acknowledge in the text and end notes.)
I recently heard these wise words (roughly as follows): For goodness to prevail, one must rise up according to one’s station and engage the opposition.1 I am a retired philosopher, so I see it as my “station” to think carefully and do my best to discern and speak truth.
My thesis/conclusion: On October 7, 2023, Gaza (via Hamas, its elected leadership) committed an outrageously barbaric and murderous evil against Israel, an evil that is not morally justifiable, and so Israel has a right to act in self-defence. (I will add my concerns about the extent of that self-defence near the end of this article, but here I will simply say that my concerns do not impinge on Israel’s right to self-defence against Gaza.)
Before I attempt to defend my thesis via my objection-reply format, I would like to set out—and publicly agree with—this quote from Messianic Jew Michael Brown: "The shedding of innocent Palestinian blood is just as grievous as the shedding of innocent Israeli blood, and as followers of Jesus, we should mourn with those who mourn. Right now, that includes the Palestinian people too."2
Amen. Brown is writing for a predominantly Christian readership, so, here, in my article, I would amend his words to include all people, not just followers of Jesus. Whether we are followers of Jesus or not (I am a follower of Jesus), we should mourn for the innocents killed in Israel and for the innocents killed in Palestine. Also, we should pray for all who suffer and grieve. We should pray, too, that evil-doers, whether Palestinian or Israeli or Iranian—or whatever—will be stopped and that goodness will prevail.
Objections and replies
Below I set out eight popular objections that I have observed in recent discussion about the Israel-Gaza conflict and I offer what I believe are reasonable replies, replies that will provide a cumulative case argument in defence of Israel. (Often I quote at length from writers who have more expertise than I do in the topics at hand.)
Objection 1: Israel is a colonial state, so Israel is engaging in colonial retaliation, which means Israel’s actions are unjust.
The following is from political analyst Rich Lowry:
According to an anti-Israel statement signed by dozens of student groups at Harvard, Israel is undertaking “colonial retaliation.” An academic cottage industry is devoted to deeming Israel a decades-long exercise in “settler colonialism,” and Hamas itself is partial to the term.
The use of the word “colonial” in all its forms isn’t meant to accurately describe realty or clarify anything; rather, it is a term of abuse wielded to delegitimize Israel and justify every means of resisting its very existence. The “colonial” smear can’t survive contact with the slightest critical scrutiny.
First of all, the original Jewish settlers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries weren’t sent by any mother country to set up enclaves for the honor and profit of the homeland. To the contrary, they were escaping countries that, in many cases, didn’t want them. It would have been perverse for Jews to have sought, say, to establish an outpost of Russia in the Levant, given the atrocities routinely carried out against them on Russian soil.
They thought of their venture as a return to a place that Jews had inhabited for thousands of years.
Indeed, the colonialism charge raises the question of how an indigenous people can be colonizers. The Jewish people have had a connection to Israel since Abraham. The people became fundamentally identified with the land; indeed, they were synonymous. The land was a locus of the Jewish faith — the site of its holy city, Jerusalem; the place where many religious commandments, the mitzvot, were supposed to be performed; the object of yearning after the dispossession of Ancient Israel (“Next year in Jerusalem”).
There is a reason that Zionists had no interest in settling in Uganda, as was proposed in the early 20th century.
On top of this, Israel has been willing at key junctures, notably right at the beginning in 1948, to accept a two-state solution.3
Israel, then, is a state but not a colonial state, and so Israel is not engaging in colonial retaliation. The fact remains that Israel was attacked brutally and barbarically on October 7, 2023, an attack in which 1400+ Israelis were murdered and many more injured. Israel’s response is not colonial retaliation—it is self-defence. Self-defence is morally permissible, according to just war theory.
Objection 2: Compared to Gaza, Israel is the more powerful state, so, clearly, Israel is the oppressor.
Reply: Israel is the more powerful state, yes, but not the oppressor. Israel’s actions are responses to Gaza’s actions. Gaza’s goal, according to its charter, is to exterminate Jews via violence. So Israel is defending against Gaza. Defending against someone who is trying to kill you is not an act of oppression. Rather, it is an act of self-preservation, an act of resistance against an oppressive force. It is an act of self-defence.
In other words, the oppressor-oppressed ideology (a presently popular view that strong nations are ipso facto oppressors and weak nations are ipso facto oppressed) does not adequately capture the goings-on in the Israel-Gaza conflict. The ideologies on the ground need to be taken into account, and given primacy.
The following is from American historian Jeffrey Herf:
The terrorist invasion of Israel by Hamas on October 7th, 2023, is the worst instance of mass murder of Jewish civilians since the Holocaust. Its barbarity may be shocking to many observers, but it will not have surprised those familiar with the ideology of the perpetrators. This latest outburst of violence is the logical outcome of the Jew-hatred that Hamas has openly expressed since 1988, and it rests on a strand of Islamic antisemitism that emerged in the early 20th century and fueled the Arab war of rejection in 1948. The ideology that inflames the Hamas leadership was the product of the fateful fusion of Nazism and Islamism in the 1930s and 1940s, and it has always rejected the legitimacy of a Jewish state (or indeed any polity that isn’t explicitly Islamist) anywhere in what, before 1948, had been British Mandate Palestine….
The mass murder of October 7th was the most recent chapter in the Islamists’ long war against the Jews, Israel, and the values and institutions of Western democracy. It is important that intellectuals, analysts, journalists, politicians, policy experts, and government officials speak the truth about the connection between Hamas’s antisemitic ideology and its practice of indiscriminate bloodshed. Only by squarely facing what the leaders, clerics, and cadres of Hamas have said for years, can we begin to understand why its operatives perpetrated this most recent and most murderous of its assaults on Israel and its citizens.4
Whereas Israel operates in accordance with a worldview in which all people, whether powerful or weak, have intrinsic worth (because made in the image of God), Gaza operates according to a worldview in which some people—Jews—do not have intrinsic worth and should be destroyed.5
Objection 3: But Gaza’s October 7th attack on Israel is better understood in context of Israel’s occupation of Gaza.
Reply: No. South African philosopher David Benatar explains:
Even when the horrors of mutilation, rape, and hostage-taking are acknowledged, we are told that these events must be understood in their proper “historical context.”
The problem with this argument is that the proposed historical context is selectively chosen. The Hamas attack claimed the lives of at least 1,300 Israelis, but its “root cause” was almost immediately attributed to “the occupation,” rather than to the doctrines of its participants. According to this narrative, Hamas is only reacting to life in the pressure-cooker of a besieged Gaza Strip. But placing the pogrom in the historical context of “the occupation” explains nothing unless “the occupation” is also explained in its historical context. Nor is the Israeli response to the pogrom properly contextualised in this explanation. No thought is given to the likely consequences of Israel not striking (or striking inadequately) at Hamas in response to the massacre….
So what about “the occupation” in 2023? The Gaza Strip is not occupied, and hasn’t been since Israel unilaterally withdrew from the territory in 2005. It is true that Israel—along with Egypt—controls Gaza’s borders, but that is not the same as occupation. It is also true that the partial blockade (converted to a full siege following the October 7th massacre) has brought hardship to Gazans, but it is not a gratuitous infliction. The blockade was imposed in an attempt to control the flow of arms into Gaza, which Israelis knew Hamas would then use to attack Israel.6
Objection 4: What about this objection from Hungarian-Canadian physician and author Gabor Maté? “The disproportion of power and responsibility and oppression is so markedly on one side, think of the worst thing you can say about Hamas and multiply by 1000 times, it still will not meet the Israeli repression and killing and dispossession of Palestinians.”7
Reply: One bad thing I can say with certainty about Hamas is that on October 7, 2023, they murdered 1400 innocent Israelis, often with despicable brutality. If my math is correct, then 1400 x 1000 = 1,400,000. I know Israel is not perfect and has no doubt done some terrible things to Gaza—and I do not in any way wish to minimize the pain suffered by people in Gaza at the hand of Israel—but I am confident that Israel has not brutally murdered 1,400,000 Gazans. Not even close.
Objection 5: Also from Gabor Maté: If after 2000 years Jews can look for liberation and freedom, why can’t the Palestinians in Gaza?8
Reply: It depends on what Palestinians wish to do with their liberation and freedom. It turns out that for Gaza, led by Hamas, their liberation and freedom requires—as explicitly expressed in their charter—the destruction of all Jews. The violent expression of such liberation and freedom simply cannot be allowed by Israelis. Why not? Because for Israel to allow it would be tantamount to committing mass suicide.
Also, it should be noted that Palestinians in Gaza have been given liberation and freedom to rule themselves as a sovereign state, but they have abused their liberation and freedom by engaging in ongoing attacks against Israel. The fact is that Gaza, under the leadership of Hamas, is dedicated to destroying Israel.9
Objection 6: What about the Israeli bomb that destroyed the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza on October 17, 2023, killing 500 civilians?
Reply: This is a false report. Canada’s Department of National Defence sets the record straight as follows:
Analysis conducted independently by the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command indicates with a high degree of confidence that Israel did not strike the al-Ahli hospital on 17 October 2023. Based on analysis of open source and classified reporting, the Department of National Defence [DND] and the Canadian Armed Forces [CAF] assess that the strike was more likely caused by an errant rocket fired from Gaza. This assessment is informed by an analysis of the blast damage to the hospital complex, including adjacent buildings and the area surrounding the hospital, as well as the flight pattern of the incoming munition. Reporting from Canada’s allies corroborates DND/CAF’s findings.10
Significantly, the false report was given to Western reporters by Hamas and uncritically promulgated by many Western news outlets and thus served as anti-Israeli propaganda. In my view, those reporters should publicly retract their stories—over and over again, to ensure the anti-Semitic lie is stopped—and the United Nations should charge those journalists and news agencies with incitement of hatred against Jews.
Objection 7: But don’t Israel’s subsequent air strikes on Gaza make Israel just as bad as or worse than Gaza and its October 7 attack?
Reply: The short answer is No.
Long answer: In moral assessment, intent matters. The intent of Gaza’s October 7th attack was to target children, old people, and other innocent civilians (instead of military personnel) for murder, rape, torture, and mutilation. The intent of Israel’s retaliatory air strikes is to target Hamas (a terrorist group that is Gaza’s leadership) and its military (which often uses Gaza’s civilians and hospitals as shields) in order to defend against and stop Gaza in its brutal aggression against Israel.
Also, Rod Dreher correctly observes: “By placing their arms caches in or near civilian buildings, Hamas has deliberately made it impossible for Israel to respond militarily without killing innocent Gaza civilians.”11
We must think carefully here. The intent of Gaza—led by Hamas—is to take out innocent Israeli civilians whereas the intent of Israel is to take out Gazan militants who are targeting innocent Israelis while they (Gaza’s military) hide behind innocent Gazans. The result is that Gaza’s leadership—Hamas—has put Israel in the foreseen-to-Hamas situation in which Israel, to protect its citizens (which it is obliged to do, given its moral and political responsibility for the well-being of Israelis), must attack Gaza who—knowingly—puts its (Gaza’s) civilians in harm’s way. This means that Gaza’s leadership—Hamas—and those Gazans who support Hamas are on a deliberate mission complete with malicious aforethought to destroy not only Israel but also innocent Gazans. Clearly, then, Gaza’s intentions and actions are murderous, barbaric, and evil. But Israel’s intentions and actions—which tragically involve the unintended killing innocent civilians—are not murderous, barbaric, and evil, insofar as no other options for Israeli safety are available and insofar as Gaza has ensured these options are not available. In other words, Gaza has pushed Israel into the situation in which innocent Gazans must be killed, and so Gaza is guilty of those moral wrongs.
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Objection 8: Many people, including children, are suffering in Gaza due to Israel’s military response to Gaza’s October 7 attack—this is wrong.
Reply: Yes, the people of Gaza are suffering and the suffering of the Gazan people, especially children, is terrible—a horror—to be sure, and it is wrong. Nothing that I have written above is intended to minimize or diminish these truths. My hope and prayer is that humanitarian aid will get through to Gazans and will not be re-routed by Hamas to fuel its war effort against Israel. And my hope and prayer is that Israel will show wisdom and restraint in its retaliation. Nevertheless (as I argued in my reply to objection 7), the suffering in Gaza is Gaza’s fault.
We should never forget that the October 7 attack on Israel was the responsibility of Gaza (led by Hamas). In Gaza’s attack on Israel, 1400+ innocent Israelis—young and old, individuals and families—were tortured, raped, burned, beheaded, slaughtered. This brutal and murderous invasion of Israel by Gaza was the spark for Israel’s retaliation—a retaliation Gaza foreknew Israel was duty-bound to carry out to protect its own innocents (as I argued in my reply to objection 7). Nor should we forget that Israel has for years attempted to let Gaza be an independent neighbouring and peaceful state, yet Gaza continually attempts to destroy Israel.12
It seems to me, then, that Israel does not lack moral warrant in its desire to protect itself from Gaza. And I think Israel is just in responding to Gaza with force. Israel’s military response is (as I have previously pointed out over and over again) a matter of self-defence.13
But, I quickly add, if Israel somehow ends up in its just defence doing more evil and/or worse evil than Gaza has done to Israel, then Israel may lose its moral high ground. In its just anger and just defence, Israel should resist committing sin. In other words, Israel needs wisdom to maintain the righteousness of its cause.
I am glad that Israel targets Hamas instead of innocent Gazan civilians, and I am glad that Israel warns Gazan civilians (via leaflets, phone calls, and “knocking”) prior to Israeli military strikes. British Forces Colonel Richard Kemp goes so far as to describe Israel as having “the world’s most moral army.”14 How much better can Israel do morally while maintaining its protection of its own citizens? I do not know. But I do know that Israel is not intending the destruction of innocent Gazans, and I do know that Gaza has forced Israel to be caught morally between a rock and a hard place. It was evil for Gaza to do this to Israel.
Again: Gaza, especially Hamas, is the moral culprit here. This means that if any state should repent at the present moment, it’s Gaza. How? By laying down its arms; by releasing hostages; by actually caring for its people (instead of using them as shields and rerouting UN aid to Hamas’s war effort); and by respecting the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. And this repentance needs to happen quickly.
Perhaps countries other than Israel could encourage Gaza to repent? If not, Gaza risks being destroyed as past aggressors (such as Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan) have been destroyed.
This is a Facebook post from a wise lawyer friend of mine, which was posted only a few hours ago and seems most appropriate to add here:
Dear World Leaders: Hamas has had 21 days to secure safety of civilians by helping them make the 4 hour journey to the safe zone; Hamas has had 21 days to negotiate a humanitarian corridor with Egypt; Hamas has instead chosen to use civilians in Gaza as human shields.15
Clearly, Gaza—especially Hamas—needs to repent. World leaders should step up and help it do so.
O Lord, I pray that evil be restrained and that truth, goodness, peace, and forgiveness prevail—on all sides. Amen.
(1) I got this idea from Victor Davis Hanson, military historian and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, in his interview with John Anderson: Israel & Palestine: The Politics of War, October 20, 2023.
(2) Michael Brown, A reprehensible statement from Palestinian Christians, Christian Post, October 24, 2023.
(3) Rich Lowry, Israel is not a colonial state, National Review, October 10, 2023. For additional thought from Alan Dowty, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and a Visiting Scholar at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, see: Is Israel a settler colonial state? Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, University of Washington, November 10th, 2022.
(4) Jeffrey Herf, The Ideology of Mass Murder: Hamas and the origins of the October 7th attacks, Quillette, October 10, 2023. Herf is author of Israel's Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945–1949 (Cambridge University Press, 2022).
It should be noted and emphasized that the Arab Higher Committee (founded in 1936) was chaired by a fellow named Amin al-Husseini, a.k.a. the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who was also leader of the Palestinian people. Why should this be noted and emphasized? Because the Grand Mufti was pro-Nazi. In fact, he visited with Hitler, became friends with Adolf Eichmann, and attempted to organize a Muslim SS. The Grand Mufti characterized his friendship with Eichmann as their being united in wanting to get rid of the Jews. This sheds important light onto the situation in which the Israeli state was born: Palestinian leaders were as anti-Semitic as Nazis. It seems to me that an argument could be made for thinking that pro-Nazi peoples morally forfeited their right to rule after World War II, or at least should not have a huge say in the United Nations as to whether or not the formation of a Jewish state is legitimate.
(5) Like ISIS, Hamas takes Islam very seriously. For a look at Islam’s view of Jews, see Mark A. Gabriel, Islam and the Jews: The Unfinished Battle (Lake Mary, Florida: Charisma House, 2003). Gabriel has a PhD in Islamic history from (and was a professor of Islamic history at) Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt. Also see R. C. Sproul and Abdul Saleeb, The Dark Side of Islam (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2003).
Please note that my drawing attention to Islam’s negative view of Jews (and women and non-Muslims) and encouraging careful thinking about Islam (especially its founder whom radical Islamists take very seriously) are not instances of Islamophobia. Rather, these are reasonable, evidence-based concerns. For more on this topic see my blog articles Questioning Islamophobia and Islam and Christianity and Jesus or Muhammad?
(6) David Benatar, It’s Not the Occupation, Quillette, October 21, 2023.
(7) Gabor Maté, “Dr. Gabor Maté speaks out on Israel and Palestine,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXrFzqu4QHk. This video was circulated widely on social media shortly after October 7, 2023, but is no longer available. I viewed the video on or around October 14. The above quote is from my notes.
(8) See note #9.
(9) See David Brog, Why Isn’t There a Palestinian State? PragerU, March 27, 2017 (5 minute video).
(10) Statement from the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces on the recent strike at al-Ahli hospital in Gaza, Government of Canada, Department of National Defence, October 21, 2023.
(11) Rod Dreher, The Mortal Danger Of ‘Yes-Buttery’, Rod Dreher's Diary, October 24, 2023.
(12) Again, see Brog, Why Isn’t There a Palestinian State?
(13) I am neither a pacifist nor a warmonger. But if we are to engage in war, I favour just war. For my thoughts on just war, see my 2014 blog articles War or Peace? and War and Bible and Just war and justly pro-life.
(14) See Richard Kemp, Israel: The World's Most Moral Army, PragerU, December 7, 2015 (5 minute video).
(15) Don Hutchinson, Facebook, October 28, 2023.
Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired philosophy professor who lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada. Hendrik is author of the 2023 book APOLOGIA: The Columns: A Defence of Mere Christianity.
Image credits: Israeli Defense Force / bombing of the Deputy Head of Hamas’ Intelligence Directorate
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