Reprisals Are Not Policy

Image by Levi Meir Clancy.

What do the actions of the Shia against the Sunnis, the Russians against the Ukrainians, the Iranians against the Americans, the Americans against the Yemenis, the British against the Iranians, the Palestinians against the Israelis and vice versa and this, ad infinitum, in several areas of the world? The answer is simple. They all have a strong element of retaliation.

Retaliation is related to retribution, a concept that appears in law codes from the ancient Near East culture, as reflected in codes of law including the Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2050 BCE,) the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 2000 BCE,) and the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (c. 1750 BCE.) Retribution is based in the principle of lex talionis –the law of retaliation. At its core is the principle of equal retribution, nowadays mostly discredited, expressed in Exodus 21:24 as “an eye for an eye.”

At the national level, as former President Donald Trump is on his way to winning the Republican nomination for president, we should be aware of the dangers to the Republic should he achieve his objective. Last December, when asked by TV host Sean Hannity if he would promise voters that he would never abuse power as retribution, Trump responded, “Except for day one,” and he made no secret that he would exact “retribution” on his political enemies. Given Trump’s penchant for wrongly interpreting the law, his statement is cause for concern.

Retaliation usually goes far beyond the principle of equal retribution, often becoming a disproportionate reaction to a crime. In Gaza, as a reaction for the horrendous crimes perpetrated by Hamas, almost two million people have been subject to punishment by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that is not sparing women, children and innocent civilians. In this case, because the reaction is vastly disproportionate, the IDF’s actions are called reprisal and are illegitimate under international law.

As of February 21, 2024, the IDF has killed more than 29,313 Palestinians, 12,300 of them children, and displaced most of its 2.3 million population, according to statistics from Palestinian health authorities. As vast city areas are razed, and scores of women, children and innocent civilians killed, burned to death and starved, “humanitarian aid” is sparsely allowed to enter the area.

Retaliation can affect regional dynamics, leading to a widening of the conflict, that in this particular case can have devastating consequences and may soon reach a point of no return. There are now many players in this drama; this only enhances the possibility of engulfing the whole region into a maelstrom of violence.

Blind retaliation can also lead to the reputation of the country being tarnished. The recent decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) demanding that Israel ensure it is not committing genocide, that it should take appropriate steps to punish acts of genocide, and that it should provide assistance to the Palestinian people, is a stain on that country’s reputation as a lawful nation.

Although President Joe Biden has warned Israeli leaders not to make the same mistakes as the U.S. in overreacting to the 9/11 brutal attacks, they have not heeded his advice. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu realizes that his political survival depends on crushing Hamas, and he is willing to go to any extent to do so, no matter the cost in human lives.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said he is not willing to allow Palestinians to have their own state, which goes against U.S. policy and the opinion of most countries worldwide, who consider that the Palestinians have been punished enough. On February 16 Netanyahu said, “Israel categorically rejects international dictates regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians.” Will reason and humanitarian feelings prevail, and a compromise be reached to stop the suffering of generations of Palestinians so that they can have their own country, for which they have struggled for decades and lost thousands of lives? Not if one believes Netanyahu’s pronouncements on this issue.

The IDF’s reprisals have hindered a two-state solution, and even a single state is compromised after two peoples have reached an unbearable state of antagonism. Peace will be reached when we accept that most people don’t want to live in a permanent state of war and want to have control of their own destiny. Reprisals have failed. The time is overdue for a different, more creative proposal that respects the basic needs of all people to live and prosper in peace.

The futility of reprisals is reflected in the following poem by the American poet Thomas Lux:

The People of the Other Village

hate the people of this village

and would nail our hats

to our heads by refusing in their presence to remove them

or staple our hands to our foreheads

for refusing to salute them

if we did not hurt them first: mail them packages of rats,

mix their flour at night with broken glass.

We do this, they do that.

They peel the larynx from one of our brothers’ throats.

We devein one of their sisters.

The quicksand pits they built were good.

Our amputation teams were better.

We trained some birds to steal their wheat.

They sent to us exploding ambassadors of peace.

They do this, we do that.

We canceled our sheep imports.

They no longer bought our blankets.

We mocked their greatest poet

and when that had no effect

we parodied the way they dance

which did cause pain, so they, in turn, said our God

was leprous, hairless.

We do this, they do that.

Ten thousand (10,000) years, ten thousand

(10,000) brutal, beautiful years.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”