Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.
As a new war breaks out in the Middle East, and the US dispatches forces and ammunition to the region, some are beginning to ask whether the West can support both Ukraine and Israel at the same time. Though Western economic resources are more than sufficient for both, the war between Hamas and Israel makes the case that Ukraine’s allies have to make considerably more complicated.
As Russian forces invaded a sovereign state, Russian soldiers went house to house raping women, girls and boys, Russian missiles slammed into apartment blocks and Russian artillery razed towns and cities to the ground, it wasn’t difficult for Ukraine’s allies to make the case for supporting Kyiv. The legal, moral, political and what might be called the narrative case for Ukraine, for the underdog against its powerful enemy, all aligned. This has been the least morally ambiguous war since World War II, and the simplest argument on Ukraine’s side is a story of resistance.
The war in the Middle East exposes Hamas as barbarians who differ little in brutality from the Russian military. But the Palestinian resistance narrative opens weaknesses in our information operations that Russia will gleefully exploit.
The questions to vex allies of Israel and Ukraine are not hard to imagine: aren’t the Israelis bombing whole cities just like the Russians? Why are you allowing Israel to besiege Gaza? You want Russian war crimes to be prosecuted, what about Israeli ones?
It is tempting to react to the new war by lamenting it, and pointing out that two wrongs don’t make a right. Yet, tempting as this might be, that is an evasion, and inadequate as a guide to Western policy. The balance to be struck is different: for war is not a boxing match, fought as an end in itself: the parties fight for a cause. On the other hand, the law of armed conflict arises from an ethical tradition that was very deliberately developed to apply to all belligerents regardless of the ends for which they fight. It is, fortunately, a balance that comes with a powerful narrative of its own.
This tradition goes back to St Augustine’s doctrine of the Just War, but has Islamic equivalents (Hamas ignore them in favour of deeming every Israeli a legitimate target). What distinguished a soldier from a bandit, argued Augustine, was that he (Augustine was writing in the 4th century AD) did not take up arms trivially, fought to protect the innocent, and sought absolution from the Church for even the permitted violence he committed while fighting.
These thoughts have since been codified by theologians and philosophers as the theory of the “Just War”, and inform the military ethics of modern armies, as well as the international law of armed conflict. This is a warrior ethic, and is behind some of the more perplexing parts of the law of war, such as that civilians who take up arms must identify themselves. Ukrainian civilians receiving AK47s to defend Kiev were issued identifying blue or yellow tape, marking them as warriors, and thus legitimate targets for the enemy. It is also why disarmed soldiers should be taken prisoner, not killed. Its ideal is warriors who engage the enemy threat, not the enemy population.
It contrasts with the romance of anti-colonial revolutionary violence, where justice demands the expulsion of every last member of the oppressor society, regardless of the individual threat they may have posed or the cynical lament that. since “War is hell”, there’s little point worrying about its ethics.
But this way of thinking also contrasts with the naive counting of the civilian dead. In this tradition, war can be a necessary evil, but this judgement requires attention to its practical consequences. If a polity is justified in fighting to protect its people, it needs to protect them by providing bomb shelters and civil defence, as Ukraine does. The obligation to minimise civilian casualties on your own side doesn’t just apply to your enemy.
Augustine thus gives Western leaders a new story to tell: they are not supporting Ukraine only because it has been invaded, but also to secure Ukraine in the European family of democratic nations. They support Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, and take measures needed to try and root them out, but this is compatible with ensuring Israel does so with “proportionate” force (proportionate is a technical term – it means assessing whether the harm to civilians is worth the military objective obtained by an operation in which their killing is an indirect effect).
The fight is to secure a world in which Ukrainians and Israelis, and eventually Palestinians and even Russians, can live in peace and security. It will not be easy, because success needs difficult changes in Palestinian and Russian attitudes to violence, over which the West has little influence, as well as in Ukraine, lucky to be led by a leader committed to democracy and security, and Israel, cursed with one who does not.
This argument will not be universally successful, particularly in the “global south”. The underdog story is a simple one with strong emotional appeal. Palestinians have the sympathy of much of the Muslim world, and there is unlikely to be an alternative less violent Palestinian movement where those sympathies can find a home, until the ailing Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas dies, and unless he is is succeeded by a new generation who can offer one. Israeli extremists, overrepresented in the current Israeli government, will keep calling for blood.
Russian propagandists, no strangers to fomenting anti-semitism, will fan the flames, and exploit Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish heritage. They will incite people like Ione Belarra, leader of Spain’s Unidas Podemos party, which will likely join Spain’s next government, to condemn what they will term Western hypocrisy (Belarra disgracefully and inaccurately accused Israel of “genocide,” last week), and suggest a peace agreement based on “compromise” whereby Russia gets to keep territories it has conquered and despoiled. Surely, the Russian mouthpieces will begin to say, the Russian occupation and the Israeli occupation should both be resolved by territorial compromise.
A resistance narrative makes it difficult to sustain a distinction between the two conflicts. A shift to Augustine’s just warrior narrative where necessary self-defence is required to secure peace, democracy, and security from bandits who would destroy it, is needed to keep the Western information fight on track.