The moderate humanitarian argument against the war in Gaza goes like this: Israel has a right to protect itself, but what it is doing is out of proportion to what it suffered. It should therefore stop. The Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health claims 21,507 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since 7 October, including 8,000 dead Palestinian children. These are obviously Hamas’ figures, they may be inflated, they certainly include large numbers of terrorists, people killed by Palestinian rocket misfires, civilians shot by Hamas while trying to flee the area, people who died by natural causes and so on. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the figures are completely accurate and most of the dead are civilians.
Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis, most civilians, in two days (actually less than twenty-four hours) and took around 240 hostages. Imagine that, faced with these attacks, Israel somehow suddenly became a pacifist nation, as much of the world apparently thinks would be normal and just in such a situation. If Hamas had been left to continue its terrorist rampage without any military response, there would now be 52,200 dead Israelis, mostly civilians and 10,440 hostages, and rising all the time. It is inevitable that, with these numbers of people being slaughtered and the government refusing to do anything to defend its citizens for “moral” reasons, the State of Israel would collapse as its citizens just fled.
Actually, there would be fewer hostages, as Hamas would not need so many, and far more dead, as Hamas aimed to reach the Yehudah and Shomron (the West Bank) and incite Palestinians there to violence (Hamas has many members there and widespread popular support), plus Hezbollah in the north would fire far more missiles, perhaps enough to overwhelm the Iron Dome missile defence system (as Hamas worked out how to do in 2021). They would probably send troops too, when they realised Israel was no longer defending itself. Hezbollah is better trained and armed than Hamas, so the consequences of a fight on the ground on three fronts with both groups is nightmarish even in comparison to what actually happened.
There is an alternative, marginally more probable, scenario. This is one in which Israel defends itself against Hamas within the Green Line, but not beyond it, to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza. This is still nonsense strategically, both because it fails to take the fight to the enemy and because it sets Hamas up to try again months or even weeks down the line, creating a brutal war of attrition aimed at sapping Israel’s will to live (a more feasible war aim for Hamas than directly murdering Israel’s entire population of nearly ten million people). In that case, the 52,200-plus dead would just be made up piecemeal in irregular attacks over the coming months and years rather than in one go. At one 7 October-scale attack a month (remember, Israel is not allowed to retaliate beyond the Green Line, including bombing tunnels or control and supply centres), this would lead to 14,400 Israeli fatalities a year or 144,000 in a decade, compared with 1,100 murdered in the five years of the Second Intifada. Again, Palestinians beyond the Green Line in Yehudah and Shomron (the West Bank) would probably join in as would Hezbollah, increasing the number of fatalities. Either way, the collapse of the state is certain.
These are the figures we should compare the Gazan dead to, the figures for ongoing, unresisted Hamas attacks, not just those killed on 7 October. This is the true cost of not fighting.
Here in the real world, many Israeli troops in Gaza have spoke of weapons, tunnels and/or terrorists being in almost every house in Gaza as well as in every school without exception. Hamas has illegally used UNWRA resources and fired rockets from Israel’s designated safe humanitarian zones. We can’t tell if the owners of houses with Hamas materiel in them consciously chose to help Hamas or were forced to do so, but from a legal point of view, it makes very little difference. From a moral point of view, Israel has a duty to protect its citizens within the boundaries of international law. International law does not permit the use of civilians as human shields or civilian areas as military bases, but it does permit responses against enemies who do break international law and use human shields and civilian areas if measures are taken to minimise civilian casualties, not to avoid them altogether. Again, it is not 1,200 Israeli dead against 21,507 Palestinian dead that we should consider, but 21,507 Palestinian dead against 52,200 Israeli dead, and rising, and the likely dissolution of the State of Israel.
Obviously, if responses against actors using human shields like Hamas were forbidden, states with contempt for international law such as Russia, China and Iran would deploy human shields on all their military emplacements, even on the front line of the Ukraine War, and the international law-respecting West would be hamstrung by its own morality.
Released hostage Mia Schem has said that there are no innocents in Gaza. She was held as a hostage for a while in a family home in Gaza, where the women and even the children were involved with Hamas. She describes the physical and emotional torture she suffered there, along with denial of food and medical treatment and the fact that she believes she escaped being raped by the narrowest of chances. She says, “There are no innocent citizens there. They’re families controlled by Hamas. They’re children who from the moment they are born, they teach them that Israel is Palestine and just to hate Jews.”
I have no idea how many innocents there are in Gaza. I don’t know how one calculates it. Can someone raised in a society run by a Jew-hating death cult avoid supporting them, on some level? Does that make them guilty or is it an extenuating circumstance? Is there a natural law that should make people protest terrorism regardless of how they have been brought up, even to the point of dying rather than participate in the captivity or murder of others? These are questions for philosophers. It is not our job to judge guilt or innocence. That is best left for law courts (if it ever comes to that) or, more likely, God. A state has a duty (not a right, which can be waived, but a duty) to defend its citizens while obeying international law and so far no one has brought anything remotely like evidence that Israel is not doing this, just emotional, unverified and context-free statistics, which as Col. Richard Kemp, formerly of the British army has stated, are meaningless without knowing the operational objectives.