But “Evil” Is a Dangerous Word

The conflict in the Middle East can only be resolved with good and patient political craftsmanship. It will not end until everyone in the region has the same rights.

The Music Festival site where hundreds were killed and dozens taken by Hamas militants near the border with Gaza on October 12, 2023 in Kibbutz Re’im, Israel. Israeli soldiers and civilians have also been taken hostage by Hamas and moved into Gaza. This 12 October attack prompted a declaration of war by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photo: Leon Neal / Getty Images

“I understand the Jews’ need for security,” said the sheikh to Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders.

The sheikh is one of the most outspoken opponents of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. “Did you hear what he said?” I chaired the meeting and asked.

There was silence. It was a golden moment. And then the debate began about whether the Palestinians or the Jews should feel the least secure.

Military strength was no protection against foot soldiers when Hamas massacred children, teenagers, adults and elderly people. People were stabbed, shot and burned.

Some commentators have said that the Hamas terrorists had broken out of a prison. Gaza has been, and is, undoubtedly the world’s largest outdoor prison, but most of the people who were killed were not ‘prison guards’ or soldiers. If Hamas had limited its targets to soldiers and military equipment it could perhaps have been understood as an act of resistance. Some of Hamas’s supporters have said that all Israelis are soldiers. Civilians and youth attending a music festival are not combatants. Hamas’s terror attacks showed a total lack of respect for the value of Jewish, and generally, all lives.

President Biden and prime minister Netanyahu have called the terror attacks “evil”. Evil is a dangerous word. It can create a perception that people are in the grip of powers that are beyond their control and beyond the realms of reason, and which thus absolve them of responsibility for their actions. Hamas took responsibility.

Using the word may also create the impression that “evil” is something which can be eradicated. That is a not only a shallow understanding of the human condition, but also a world view which trivializes “evil” to something you can defeat by military force.

All human history demonstrates that all attempts at eradicating evil by force end with atrocities. Today more than eight thousand five hundred persons are killed either by the Israeli bombing of Gaza or by the effects of the bombing. This is way beyond anything which can be called acceptable “collateral damage”.

International law

International law was developed to establish what kind of conduct is permissible in warfare. The immediate background to its development was the brutality and terror of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). According to this, only defensive wars are just wars.  Secondly, warfare should be conducted between combatants. Civilian populations are not part of the fighting. If the civilian population is affected, this can only happen unintentionally. Thirdly, a war must have peace as its goal.

Palestinian resistance can be understood as defensive against an occupying force. But the moral compass of international law is lost by those who believe that this gives them the right to kill young people at a festival, set fire to homes and people, and kidnap children and elderly. And where is the moral compass of those who are not directly involved, but who nonetheless support and celebrate such atrocities? Hamas parted from the moral compass established by international law.

Israel is also betraying the moral compass established by international law by depriving Gaza’s civilian population, men and women, children and young people, and elderly of food, water, medicines and the energy which is needed for running hospitals, food and other necessary goods.

International law also states that civilian populations must have opportunities for leaving a war zone. It is not in keeping with this when Israel first says that more than a million people must move from northern to southern Gaza, and then continues to bomb the southern part of Gaza. In addition, there are sick, newly born, elderly, and health personnel who are not able leave the northern part of Gaza. They have the right to be protected from violence.

The moral compass of international law is also betrayed when Israel’s defense minister calls Hamas (or the whole population of Gaza?) “human animals”. Such words are plainly dehumanizing whether they are used against civilians or combatants. They prepare the ground for unrestricted violence.

This flawed morality was also revealed in prime minister Netanyahu’s recent speech to the UN, during which he showed a map where the West Bank was included in Israel. Previously he has said that “Judaea and Samaria are ours”. In Netanyahu’s map and words, the Palestinian people are rendered invisible. They are deprived of what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls “equal and inalienable rights”.

Israel also betrayed the moral compass established by international law when it first deprived Gaza’s civilian population of food, water, medicines and energy. Energy is needed for running hospitals, food and other necessary goods. Some of this is now allowed to be imported, but still in such small quantities that the lives of civilians are threatened.

International law states that civilian populations must have an opportunity to leave a war zone. When Israel first says that more than a million people must move from northern to southern Gaza, and then continues to bomb the southern part of Gaza, it is not in keeping with international law. And there are several sick, newborn, elderly, and health personnel who cannot leave the northern part of Gaza.

In today’s situation, the sheikh could be wholly justified in repeating that he understands that Jews in Israel, and all over the world, feel unsafe. In addition to the Holocaust, they must now process a new trauma.

A changed political landscape

The terrorist attacks and Israel’s isolation and bombing of Gaza are changing the political landscape in the Middle East. For the Palestinian population, the situation is the same as it has been for many decades. The West Bank and East Jerusalem are occupied. Israel will most likely ensure that Gaza continues in its prison-like state with destroyed homes, schools, places of worship and infrastructure.

The Arab world does not support Hamas terror attacks, but Arab populations support the Palestinians’ right to resist the occupation and are deeply angered over the Israeli bombing of Gaza. Peace agreements with Israel are put on hold. It will probably take a long time before they are revived.

Israel has not clarified the end goals of its military actions. If the end goal is peace with the Gaza population, it is difficult to understand that this may be reached by bombing people, homes, hospitals, religious buildings, and other civilian structures. They inflict damage which is far beyond what may be called collateral damage.

Traumas and military means

The conflict in Israel and Palestine will not be resolved by military means. The population of the occupied Palestinian territories will never give up their struggle for freedom and independence, but this will not be achieved by violent resistance. If that is attempted, the Israeli military machine is far too strong.

But people are not dogs who obey their stronger masters. The conflict will not end until everyone in the region has the same rights.

This conflict can only be resolved with good and patient political craftsmanship. This craftmanship must always take into account that traumas suffered by Israeli Jews will not be erased. No negotiator, politician or Middle East expert can avoid addressing this trauma despite all the country’s military might. It will also have to consider that there is a Palestinian trauma, related to 1948 and many years of occupation.

Both parties should take into account the wisdom reflected in the Book of Psalms in the Jewish and Christian Bible: “The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.”


The sheikh I quoted earlier has said very many things that do not promote peace, but dreams of peace can live alongside harsh words.

In a private conversation he said: “I dream that one day I will be able to walk on the beach in Jaffa with a Jewish rabbi. We will tell each other about our families, our children and grandchildren. Then I will invite him to Hebron, my home. There I will serve him everything good that Hebron has to offer.”

  • Trond Bakkevig is a priest and Dr Theol. He has been associated with PRIO since 2005 and was an Associate Senior Researcher at PRIO 2014-2022.
  • This text is an updated version of the Norwegian language op ed “Men ondskap er et farlig ord“, published in VG 14 October 2023.
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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