HKS Affiliated Authors

Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy

Additional Authors:

  • Maggie Gates


[The following represents solely our own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the institution]

We would like to articulate some more thoughts on the unfolding situation in Israel/Gaza, and on what has been happening on the Harvard campus and elsewhere.

Unspeakable atrocities were committed on Israeli civilians, and now decisions about the future need to be made that will likely lead to the imminent death of many more civilians and set us up for the spiral of violence to extend ever further into the future. After September 11, 2001, much decision making was entirely driven by pain and a sense that such a massive atrocity requires an even more massive response. The world has not become safer because of this: the spiral has continued.  

Much commentary this week was on what moral clarity and moral courage require under the circumstances. In our view, moral clarity and moral courage in this moment require an acknowledgment of the moral complexity of the situation. Acknowledging this complexity, in turn, does not mean one statement qualifies the other, but that a number of things need to be recognized side by side and all considered when decisions are made about next steps. 

There is no justification for the horrifying brutality of the Hamas attacks on many hundreds of innocent civilians in Israel, and the political and historical background of the situation does not deliver one. Anybody who shoots unharmed civilians point-blank, commits rape, or slaughters young children or old people and then posts videos about their deeds at that moment makes a choice – a wrong choice that is not reducible to anything that happened before. 

There is no justification for large-scale attacks on the whole Gaza area as if the whole population of that very densely populated area were equally accountable for the atrocities in Israel. Gaza has been ruled by Hamas with an iron fist for many years. Hundreds of Palestinians have already died in retaliatory attacks that seemed to treat the death of just about anyone in the Gaza area as an acceptable collateral in the pursuit of the terrorists. About half of the more than 2 million people in the Gaza area are children who have lived all their lives under a blockade. Treating these human beings as expendable in such ways also is a choice that is not reducible to what came before. It is unacceptable to treat Palestinian lives this way.  Asking a million people to leave their homes who have no safe place to go cannot later excuse atrocities that are likely to occur when thousands of heavily-armed soldiers invade who have just been told that they are hunting “human animals.” Making these points takes nothing at all away from the point just made, or the other way round. Moral atrocities and large-scale violations of international law do not cancel each other out.  

The Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the largest-scale and longest-lasting human-rights disasters in our world. For many people this conflict has been the lived reality of their families for generations. There is a lot of accumulated pain and trauma, and for many the current events are a continuation of this pain and trauma. Others take a more remote interest in these matters, more out of a spirit of solidarity or as a political and spiritual matter. Yet others are now concerned with what impact the reactions to these events will have on their communities, and many university leaders have spoken to the events in this spirit. We should acknowledge that both people’s personal experiences and their institutional roles motivate them to say very different things, and we should create the space for them to say them. 

We deplore an earlier statement by many Harvard student groups that puts the “entire” responsibility for what happened last weekend on the Israeli government.  We feel it is important to acknowledge, however, that they were right to draw attention to the fact that there is an underlying conflict that must be solved if there is ever going to be a time when people can live in peace with each other in this region. Since then, the names of students associated with the signatory organizations have been leaked, and many have been “doxxed.” The list of leaked names includes students who already graduated and others who are only very loosely affiliated with these organizations. Some have received death threats. A truck with an LED screen featuring faces and names of these students (including a number of Muslim women with headscarves) circled around Harvard Square, describing them as “Harvard’s leading Anti-Semites.” This apparently occurred in response to calls from within the business community to make sure these students get blacklisted. This is unacceptable and must stop immediately. Transgressions of this sort only fan the flames of dissent among groups. We unequivocally condemn these actions against our students and will do what we can to ensure that all members of our community feel safe and protected here.  

The circle of violence in Israel/Palestine must be broken, and helping with that task is the primary responsibility of the international community. The following recommendations were made by UN experts in a declaration issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights yesterday

1. An immediate end to violations of international humanitarian law and human rights, in particular the right to life. To this effect, support the investigation launched by the Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel, into all violations reported since 7 October, including unlawful deaths and enforced disappearances, and the investigation by the International Criminal Court; 

2. The agreement of a ceasefire, to be monitored by an independent, international body;

3. The release of hostages taken by Hamas and Palestinians arbitrarily detained by Israel, particularly women, children, older persons, persons with disabilities and those who are gravely ill;

4. The establishment of an international protective presence in the occupied Palestinian territory;

5. The provision of all necessary financial and humanitarian aid and the creation of humanitarian corridors that allow people to leave Gaza and return as soon as the hostilities cease; and

6. The dignity of the dead from the latest violence be respected and that they are swiftly handed over to mourning relatives.

The concluding statement of the UN document is as follows: “Armed attacks and military responses have already proven incapable of leading to security and respect for human rights of all. Restoring international legality, accountability and respect for humanity and dignity of all must prevail, including an end to Israel’s 56 years of military occupation.” (Note: considering the kind of control Israel holds over Gaza, the UN regards the Gaza area as still under Israeli occupation.) We agree. The circle of violence must be broken. 

Mathias Risse 

Maggie Gates 
Executive Director 

Friday, October 13, 2023 
10:00 AM (EDT)