An Email Exchange About Israel, Palestine, and Hamas

Oct 18, 2023, 2:12 PM

Hello Jonah,

This morning I read your opinion piece in the Williams record. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the community.

One piece of criticism I had which I thought might be useful to share is in response to your statement “When one side is maniacally devoted to the protection of its own citizens (Israel) and the other is maniacally devoted to the murder of Israelis at any cost (Hamas), of course there are asymmetric casualty numbers. Under this misguided framework, if Israel simply let more of its civilians die, its moral standing in the conflict would somehow improve.”

I certainly don’t think that most of those who condemn Israel’s actions would argue that more Israelis should die. Rather, they argue that Israel’s actions are unnecessarily harsh, and cause unnecessary suffering and death of civilians. Israel’s moral argument would be much stronger if they could show that their actions were truly necessary for the well-being of their nation. However, in my opinion, Israel’s brutality and disregard for human rights over the past decades has made this argument of necessity impossible to make compellingly.


Satya Benson ‘26

Oct 18, 2023, 2:56 PM


I appreciate the response. I think it’s fairly misguided so here’s my response.

  1. I do not mean to say that all anti-Israel advocates want more Israeli civilians die (though obviously many do). My point is that, under a framework where civilian casualties determines moral rightness, if Israel were to let more of its citizens die, that’d improve their moral standing.

It’s a reductio ad absurdam. If Israel had lost 10 thousand citizens to Palestinians terrorism, under this framework, Israel’s moral standing would improve. That doesn’t make any sense. Hence casualty number based ethical frameworks are bad.

  1. On the question of whether Israel is unnecessarily harsh: I would ask you to do the following.

First, contextualise Palestinian civilian deaths. Over the past 23 years, something like 4 thousand Palestinians have died as a result of the conflict.

Literally millions of civilians have died in conflicts worldwide over the same period. American air strikes have killed more than 5 times as many civilians over that same period. Wars are awful, and yet for some reason western liberals go batshit over Israeli-caused civilian deaths.

Second, contextualize Israeli civilian deaths. The country has been attacked unprovoked multiple times by their Arab neighbors, leading to massive casualties (of young Israeli men drafted through no fault of their own). The second intifada a brutal 5 years of suicide bombings targeting women and children. Hamas has made it their mission for decades to kill Israel women and children. Looking to recent Israeli casualties as a measure of “proportionality” misses the fact that Israel’s history is riddled with civilian murders and war (something most American liberals don’t understand).

America lost 3 thousand people on 9/11 and launched a multi-country invasion. Israel has lost many multiples of that (per capital wise) and has acted with vastly more restraint.

I would say that if every person in the US had lost loved ones to terrorism and wars they did not start, we would respond to barbaric terrorism with even less than 1/100th the restraint Israel uses.

Finally, I ask you who is to blame for Palestinian deaths. If Hamas stopped attacked Israeli civilians, there would be no blockade, no air strikes, nothing.

I place Palestinian deaths solely at the feet of Hamas. If you attack my family and hide behind your child, I am not responsible if I fight back and accidentally kill him.



Oct 18, 2023, 4:00 PM

Hey Jonah,

First, of course ethical frameworks which look at casualty numbers alone are bad. I don't think anyone actually considers casualties exclusively, although they are useful to consider.

It's funny that after that saying focusing on casualty numbers is not useful you proceed to do exactly that in your argument that Israel does not use unnecessary force. I condemn the vast majority of American air strikes as well, so I feel like I don't treat Israel with any inconsistencies in this regard. I actually think that most American air strikes throughout history were carried out in the absence of a direct threat to American civilian lives, which perhaps makes them even less justified.

But you cannot use what-about-ism to justify Israel's actions. "Two wrongs don't make a right" is a pretty basic ethical principle; if you want to defend Israel with an ethical argument you shouldn't say "Hamas does worse things" or "America does bad things too". Instead, you should explain why, if Israel had not treated Palestinian citizens the way that it has, Israelis would have suffered equal or greater harm than the Palestinians have suffered.

If you or someone else could make this argument compellingly, my view would be changed. Of course, it's a difficult one, as you can't really prove or disprove hypotheticals. But it's hard to imagine that Israel cannot defend itself without brutalizing Palestinians and denying them access to basic necessities.



Oct 18, 2023, 5:18 PM

Again, your response misses my main points.

I actually think any focus on casualty numbers as part of one’s ethical framework for evaluating a conflict is just plain dumb. Casualty numbers are a function of many things, most of which have little to do with “moral rightness.” They are a function of 1) Where the conflict is literally fought (there were basically no American civilians killed in WW2), 2) how much each side values their own citizen and the extent to which they take precautions against civilian deaths, 3) to what extent positive PR is important to one side, 4) do one side’s citizens celebrate martyrdom, etc etc etc.

My points about American air strikes and other civilian deaths are not whataboutism. The points there (fairly straightforward though it seemed to go over your head) are that:

  1. War is brutal and the number of Palestinian deaths literally pales in comparison to basically every other war in the past 20 years. Thus, it is not excessive relatively speaking for sure. This fact becomes even more true if we extend back to wars of the past 50 years.

  2. America responding so strong to US civilian attacks is meant to create a comparison for Israeli proportionality. If America responds that way with American civilian support, Israel seems obviously more restrained.

Again, you can say every country that’s engaged in war over the past few decades has acted disproportionately harshly. But that seems dumb and untrue.

To reiterate, the point is not whataboutism. It is placing Israeli actions in greater context and showing their military responses, while grim, are all things considered mild compared to basically every other nation and how they would act in similar circumstances.

To your point about what would’ve happened had Israel not militarily responded or responded less harshly (or not used a blockade):

I am genuinely confused what people of your “understanding” of the conflict want Israel to do.

Israel’s blockade on Gaza is about restricting movement into Israel proper (a border) and restrictions guns and bombs. If it’s not clear to you by now why they do that, it probably will never be clear to you.

Now, if you think the reason why Hamas attacks Israel is BECAUSE of the blockade, your understanding of Hamas and the conflict is just poor. Hamas isn’t committed to ended the conflict but to ending Israel proper.

Ask yourself why Israel wastes its time, people, and resources on the blockade. Do you think Israel somehow benefits from it?

Ask yourself why so many Palestinian die during conflicts with Israel. Perhaps it’s because Hamas orders Palestinians to remain in their homes despite Israeli air strike warnings. It’s a literally insane practice people like you give zero moral weight.

Ask yourself what you genuinely think would happen if Israel ended the blockade tomorrow.

Fundamentally, I think your framing of the question is wrong. You seem to want Israel to do a cost benefit calculation with Palestinian and Israeli lives.

As in, “well Israel could end the blockade and stop air strikes and then a bunch of Israeli citizens would die, but perhaps a lot fewer of Palestinians would die, so on net fewer people would die…”

This is insane utilitarian logic. Why should Israelis, who have no desire to kill Palestinians, sacrifice their own citizens for the sake of saving Palestinian civilians who democratically elected a terrorist organization devoted to killing Israelis and who orders their own citizens to ignore Israeli air strike warnings to boost casualty numbers?”

The onus of civilian casualties should be on the side electing terrorists and celebrating killing Israeli civilians. Israel has no moral obligation to engage in the twisted utilitarian logic you propose.

Israel just wants to live in peace and AT WORST uses excessive force. People of your view seem to get routinely more worked up about Israeli “excess force” than the fact that one side literally supports a terrorist organization.

It’s an insane, twisted worldview. I hope you’ll reconsider it.