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David I. Roytenberg

A Just War

Combat resumes amid a flood of misinformation about Israel and the Laws of War

As we enter the 9th week of the Shmini Atzeret war in Israel, we have gotten used to weekly demonstrations in Ottawa and around the world in which Israel is accused of genocide and all sorts of war crimes. These accusations are false, but they are repeated so often that many people think that Israel’s guilt is an established fact. When those who call themselves pro-Palestinian are interviewed they use the available air time to repeat over and over that Israel is at war with the Palestinian People and not with Hamas. In addition they repeat unfounded allegations that crimes committed by Hamas, were really committed by Israel, claims for which there is no evidence.

The flood of anti-Israel propaganda is aimed at drowning out truthful accounts in the sheer volume of false ones. In this article, I will focus on the issues related to the laws of war and international humanitarian law. I will stipulate that I am not a lawyer and that I recognize that matters of law are complex and subtle and best left to experts to explain. But when it comes to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians there are many non-lawyers who don’t feel any reluctance to hold forth on matters of international law.

* * *

Last night, I was fortunate to hear a talk by a speaker who teaches Law and is an expert in the laws of war and international humanitarian law. His name is Brian L. Cox and he is currently visiting scholar at the University of Ottawa School of Law. He spoke at a Shabbat Dinner held at our synagogue in Ottawa, Kehillat Beth Israel Congregation.

Visiting Scholar Brian Cox explained a number of complex ideas. One was the notion of proportionality. He explained that in the laws of war, a proportionate response has two aspects. One has to do with the decision to go to war and the objectives that are set by the state that makes the decision to go to war. This comes from a body of law called Jus ad Bellum. In this context, the law requires that the objectives of the war must be proportionate to the threat. In the current war, Israel determined, in response to the act of genocide committed by Hamas beginning on October 7, that it must eliminate Hamas from Gaza. The second war aim is the liberation of the Israelis taken captive by Hamas. Given the gravity of the threat demonstrated by Hamas’ actions on October 7, these objectives are clearly proportionate to the threat, according to our speaker. Thus Israel’s response meets the first test of proportionality.

The second aspect of proportionality applies to the way the war is conducted and has to do with the means that are used to destroy enemy military targets. This body of law is called Jus in Bello. For the definition of a military objective here is a quote from the article Legitimate Military Target in Wikipedia:

Article 52 states, “In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited
to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.”

Our speaker explained that the concept of proportionality with respect to military targets requires that proportionate force be used in destroying such a target. In the case of a Hamas tunnel, the laws of war require that the force used to destroy that tunnel not be more than necessary. Since Hamas tunnels are buried deep, the use of bombs which can reach them is necessary and justified.

Proportionality does not have anything to do with comparing outcomes on the two sides. The fact that the winner in a war may do much more damage than the loser does not constitute a disproportionate use of force. The fact that one side has suffered more casualties than the other does not mean that the side that has lost fewer people has used disproportionate force. Critics of Israel will often point out that more Palestinians than Israelis have died in a given battle, or over the course of the conflict, and complain about disproportionate use of force. This reflects a misunderstanding of the idea of proportionality. This misunderstanding is, unfortunately widely disseminated in the media and even by supposed scholars of the laws of war.

Another concept explained by our speaker was the notion of discrimination in armed conflict. Critics of Israel frequently complain that Israel is engaged in indiscriminate attacks on Gaza. But discrimination has a clear meaning in international law and the repetition of a false statement doesn’t make it true.

When dropping a bomb or shooting a missile or using any weapon, there is a legal requirement that the attacker must have a specific military target in mind and that the weapon must be capable of being directed at that target. Brian Cox said that the legal advisers in the IDF would not sanction bombing or missile attacks that do not meet these requirements. The soldiers flying the war planes or launching the projectiles are subject to these rules.

When Israel drops a bomb in Gaza aimed at a Hamas tunnel or other installation, and directed to the best of the fighter’s ability at that target, that bomb is by definition dropped discriminately. The law concerning discriminate attacks is based on the intent of the attacker. When members of the press go to a site and report that they don’t see evidence of a military target after the fact, and therefore the attack was indiscriminate, they are showing that they don’t understand the law, as such analysis ignores any inquiry into intent.

Brian Cox said that when you think about indiscriminate bombing, you should think about Hamas. Hamas rockets are not directed at Israeli military targets and they can’t be steered. They are the definition of indiscriminate bombing. It’s particularly egregious to see people who defend Hamas accusing Israel of indiscriminate attacks, which is untrue, when the side they support is in fact engaged in the very crime they falsely accuse Israel of committing.

Credit: Smiling Soldiers Project
Image: Spirit of the IDF — Image from the IDF web page linked above.

Our second speaker last night was our rabbi in residence, Rav Baruch Frydman-Kohl. Rav Baruch talked to us about Ruach Hatzahal (Spirit of the IDF), which is the code of ethics issued to every soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.

This code of ethics is intended to impress on every soldier that they are responsible for acting within the law. It is also intended to reinforce the sense that Israel’s fighters are a moral army fighting for a just cause. It has four core values:

  • Defense of the State and its Residents
    • The purpose of the IDF is to protect Israel and its independence and ensure the security of its residents.
  • Love of the Homeland and Loyalty to the Country
    • patriotism and commitment and devotion to the State of Israel and its people are at the very core of service in the IDF.
  • Human Dignity
    • The IDF and our soldiers are obligated to protect human dignity. Every individual is of inherent value, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender or status.
  • Statehood
    • The IDF is the people’s army, the State of Israel’s military, subject to the law and government of the State of Israel. IDF soldiers will operate with their mission, the IDF’s values and the security of Israel as their priority. They will operate with integrity, practicality and presentably.

The full text can be found by following the link above or here.

What all of us took away from last night’s discussion is a greater insight into the fact that Israel is fighting a Just War. The fact that many people around the world are convinced otherwise is disappointing, but that shouldn’t undermine our confidence that Israel is in the right and that whatever measures Israel is taking in Gaza are justified and necessary.

So the message I’d like to leave with you is the same message that Joshua gave to the people of Israel when they were about to enter the land of Israel to conquer it as commanded by God. Joshua said to them Chazak v’Ematz. Be strong and courageous. The same strength and courage is required of all of us who know that Israel’s cause is just. Be strong when you see distorted coverage of the war in the Canadian news. Be courageous when discussing the war with people you know and don’t be afraid to speak up for Israel.

Above all, be proud of the Israel Defense Forces, and all the residents of the State of Israel who are doing what they have to do to defeat the enemy and defend the land and people of Israel. And be proud of the Jewish people throughout the world who stand with Israel in spite of the rise in hatred and violence directed against Jewish community institutions and and at individual Jews just for being who they are.

This blog is reprinted from an article I published on Canadian Zionist Forum.

About the Author
David Roytenberg is a Canadian living in Ottawa, Canada, with a lifelong interest in Israel and Zionism. He spent 9 months in Israel in 1974-75 on Kibbutz Kfar Glickson and is a frequent visitor to friends and family in Israel. He is married and the father of two sons. David is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and the chair of Adult Education for Kehillat Beth Israel in Ottawa. He wrote monthly about Israel and Zionism for the Canadian Jewish News from 2017 to 2020.
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