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  • Hossein Dabbagh

Beyond Immediate Gains: The Ethics of Ceasefire between Israel and Hamas

The recent escalation in the Israeli-Hamas conflict, notably the attack on October 7, 2023, has revived critical discussions around the multifaceted and enduring conflict between Israel and Hamas. This resurgence of violence calls for a nuanced exploration of the moral dimensions, anchoring the debate in a profound moral imperative for a ceasefire. This need for cessation of hostilities transcends the immediacy of political gains, urging us to consider the long-term consequences of the ongoing conflict.

Over the years, the sporadic conflicts between Israel and Hamas - in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021 - have had devastating effects, with the civilian population in Gaza bearing the brunt. Each conflict, while leading to temporary ceasefire agreements, has fallen short of addressing the root causes, merely serving as interludes in a protracted narrative of unrest. The attack in 2023 marked a significant departure, evidencing a dangerous underestimation of Hamas's capabilities by Israeli defence strategists. This oversight has not only heightened tensions but, more crucially, has led to a surge in civilian casualties - an outcome that stands in severe moral contradiction to the principles of human dignity and international humanitarian law.

The global response to the 2023 attack has been polarised. While some nations have labelled it an act of terrorism, others have pointed fingers at the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as the underlying cause. This binary viewpoint has exacerbated global tensions, giving rise to antisemitism and Islamophobia, whilst also amplifying anti-Israeli and anti-Palestinian sentiments. This polarisation not only reflects the intricate nature of the conflict but also highlights the profound moral quandary it represents. It invites a critical examination of the ethical principles at play and the urgent need for a resolution that transcends political rhetoric and addresses the humanitarian crisis at its core.

Israel's aim to dismantle Hamas faces not just practical obstacles but also historical challenges. The enduring nature of resistance movements, as illustrated throughout history, indicates that efforts to suppress such groups often inadvertently lead to their revitalisation, sometimes in more complex guises. This recurring theme in global conflicts suggests that strategies primarily aimed at eradication might be counterproductive, potentially fuelling a continuous cycle of hostility. This phenomenon echoes the tenacity and adaptability of historical resistance movements, such as the French Resistance during the Second World War, demonstrating the resilience and transformational capacity of such groups in the face of opposition.

The philosophy of longtermism, as delineated by philosophers like Derek Parfit, holds particular relevance in this scenario, enriched further by the moral theory of rule-consequentialism. This philosophy posits that the long-range consequences of our actions, guided by rules that yield the best overall outcomes, are of immense significance. Longtermism urges a careful consideration of the short-term benefits in relation to the enduring costs, both in terms of human life and ethical implications. It calls for a thoughtful analysis of how present-day decisions might sculpt the trajectory of history and influence the lives of future generations. It is, therefore, imperative to meticulously balance the immediate outcomes against the long-lasting consequences, thereby ensuring actions taken today are responsible, with an awareness of their potential impact on humanity's future. Rule-consequentialism complements longtermism by emphasising that the ethical evaluation of an action should consider the consequences of following general rules that lead to the greatest good in the long term.

In the case of a ceasefire, which might appear beneficial to Hamas in the short-term, adopting a broader, long-term perspective, informed by rule-consequentialism, provides moral justification for supporting it. This ethical approach calls for evaluating how adhering to certain rules or principles in decision-making can result in the best outcomes for future generations. The ongoing conflict results not only in the immediate tragedy of lost lives but also erodes the very pillars of international humanitarian law. Such erosion carries the potential for far-reaching global implications. If people lose faith in the rhetoric of human rights, our societies risk regressing. Thus, it is essential to weigh the short-term gains against the long-term costs, both in human and ethical terms, and consider how actions taken today might shape history and affect future generations.

The conflict challenges the core tenets of international humanitarian law, especially the principles of distinction and proportionality. The alarming reports of substantial civilian casualties resulting from Israeli offensives cast a shadow over the commitment to these crucial legal tenets. Such a scenario resonates with historical conflicts where the blurring of lines between combatants and civilians led to catastrophic outcomes, a scenario vividly portrayed during the hostilities of the Second World War. These historical parallels underscore the imperative to steadfastly maintain these legal standards. They remind us of the devastating consequences of their neglect and the moral obligation to protect the innocent in times of armed conflict, thus preserving the integrity of international law and human dignity.

The role of the international community, notably key players such as the United States and the European Union, is pivotal in fostering dialogue and endorsing a ceasefire in this context. The efficacy of diplomatic endeavours in historical disputes, exemplified by the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict, demonstrates the considerable potential of international involvement in addressing entrenched conflicts. This precedent underscores the importance of proactive and constructive global engagement, where diplomatic wisdom and international solidarity can offer pathways to reconciliation and peace. It suggests that in the Israeli-Hamas conflict, too, international diplomacy could play a decisive role, not only in bringing about a cessation of hostilities but also in laying the groundwork for a more sustainable and equitable resolution.

The ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law (violating the Fourth Geneva Convention), and the armed responses from Hamas exemplify a deeply ingrained cycle of injustice and retaliation. This cycle, reminiscent of past resistance movements, highlights the intricate nature of resolving fundamental issues in asymmetrical conflicts. Such scenarios present a challenge where historical grievances intertwine with current hostilities, complicating efforts to achieve peace. It is a situation where the actions of both parties perpetuate a narrative of victimhood and aggression, making the path to a resolution not merely a matter of negotiation but also one of addressing deep-seated injustices and fostering mutual understanding and reconciliation.

Adopting a longtermist approach necessitates measures that cultivate enduring peace and stability. This requires a multifaceted strategy that not only involves ceasing the expansion of Israeli settlements but also motivates a strategic shift in Hamas’s modus operandi, from militaristic manoeuvres to political dialogue. The creation of an environment conducive to negotiations, underpinned by robust international backing, is indispensable for the fruition of a comprehensive peace settlement. Such an approach demands a departure from short-term tactical gains, focusing instead on building a foundation for lasting harmony and mutual respect. Through such persistent and inclusive efforts, the seeds of a sustainable resolution to this prolonged conflict may be planted, addressing the aspirations and grievances of all parties involved.

Nevertheless, Israeli advocates argue that security is paramount, with Hamas, labelled a terrorist organisation by some, posing a direct threat to Israeli citizens. The indiscriminate attacks from Gaza necessitate strong military responses for protection, they claim, underscoring Israel's right to self-defence under international law. Critics of a ceasefire see it as a tactical pause for Hamas to rebuild, doubting its commitment to peace given its stance towards Israel. They also argue that Israel faces an unfair standard in international discourse, with its defensive actions scrutinised more heavily than Hamas's provocations and terrorist activities.

In addressing Israel's security concerns, it is essential that their response must align with international humanitarian law, balancing security with minimising civilian harm. Lasting peace requires more than military action; it needs dialogue and peace processes, as history teaches us that violence begets violence. Although imperfect, ceasefires offer a foundation for trust and longer-term talks. Engaging with moderate elements within Palestinian society could open doors for dialogue. Addressing core issues like the occupation, settlements, and Gaza's socio-economic challenges is crucial for sustainable peace. The international community's role is to facilitate a fair resolution, encouraging concessions from both sides without subjecting either side to an unfair standard.

The call for a ceasefire is not merely a request for a temporary halt in hostilities; it represents a critical opportunity for a paradigm shift. This shift, moving away from a cycle of violence towards a path of dialogue and reconciliation, grounded in humanitarian principles and strategic long-term thinking, is imperative for breaking the cycle of violence and paving the way for a future where Israelis and Palestinians can coexist in peace and security. Embracing this ceasefire as a stepping stone, both parties can work towards realising the two-state solution, a framework that envisions the coexistence of Israel and a sovereign Palestinian state, each respecting the other's right to exist and prosper.

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