Alan Silverstein

Another fallacious accusation against the IDF: “collective punishment”

Among the false accusations leveled against the IDF is that of imposing “collective punishment,” which is a violation of international law governing humanitarian treatment of civilian populations.

Collective punishment means penalizing an entire group for deeds carried out by someone else. Israel detractors are drawn to this canard because it equates the Jewish state with Nazi-like behavior.

With regard to the IDF, this is almost always untrue.

Oved Lobel, an Australian commentator, points out that the “collective punishment” clause in international humanitarian law “applies only to populations under the control of the warring state — such as prisoners of war or conquered civilian towns.” This is not the case in Israel’s war against Hamas; it’s been nearly 20 years since Israel occupied Gaza.

Nevertheless, anti-Israel spokespersons treat the Israeli army’s war of self-defense in Gaza, triggered by the October 7 attacks, in this intentionally damaging manner. As noted by Shany Mor of Reichman University: “The impulse here is that the armed action against Israel [on October 7, by Hamas’s brigade of 3,000 trained terrorists] is a form of criminal activity, not military activity…. Israel must therefore react with some kind of criminal justice — locating the perpetrator, arresting him, putting him on trial,” and not with a military response.

But this type of response against an invading force of thousands “is not how an army prosecutes a war,” she said. “No army targets only [those] enemy soldiers who were directly implicated in [the] hostilities. And no army avoids targeting regime and infrastructure targets that degrade enemy capacities to continue the fight [simply] because this might adversely affect the enemy [population]…as a whole.”

“On the contrary…. As long as the [military] operation adheres to the principles of proportionality” — not being excessive in proportion to the posed military threat — “and discrimination” — distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants as targets — “doing so is considered a normal act of war.”

Yet Israel seems to be widely subjected to unfair analysis. Standard conduct in warfare by other nations is rarely if ever labeled “collective punishment.” However, that accusation is automatically invoked whenever IDF activity is involved!

As university lecturer Shany Mor laments: “Actions by many armies [currently] in conflict… — some justified, others criticized, others…entirely ignored — aren’t labeled as collective punishment…. [The] exception is when they are carried out by the Jewish state.”

As one example among many accusers, former UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, like other Western diplomats, frequently castigates the IDF, accusing the army of “collective punishment.”

Alan Baker, former Israeli ambassador to Canada, has responded by pointing out misguided legal assumptions by Clegg and others: “Israel’s actions…are not intended to punish the population [in general].” Their goal is specific and justified, in military terms, “to halt the indiscriminate rocket fire” from Gaza into Israel as well as “the use of infiltration tunnels [and power gliders] to carry out acts of terror against Israel’s civilian population.”

Baker continues, “Israel’s combat actions against Hamas [do not] constitute collective punishment [i.e.,] the imposition of penalties on individuals or groups on the basis of another’s guilt.”

In short, the IDF maneuvers do not “violate the rules of distinction and/or proportionality.”

Law authority Daniel Taub adds a timing factor: “Collective punishment as defined in international law is backward-looking. [As punishment] it relates to past events.”

“Israel’s actions, however, are forward-looking…. The IDF seeks to prevent the October 7 massacre from ever happening again.”

Pre-October 7 examples of this false accusation abound. For instance, Mitchell Bard in his 2011 book “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” addresses the “myth” that Israel’s blockade of Gaza, to prevent the importing of weapons, is collective punishment.

The “fact” is, he points out, that “the suspension of trade relations or embargoes [against war-related materials] is a frequent tool of international diplomacy. It has never been regarded as ‘collective punishment.’”

Already in 2011, the UN Palmer Committee concluded that Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip — again, to prevent the importing of weaponry — is consistent with customary international law. It is a legitimate action due to the security threat posed by Hamas and does not constitute collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza.

If Israel believes Hamas will intercept these (military) goods and the enemy will benefit, Israel need not provide — nor permit — these supplies.

Similarly, Alan Dershowitz adds a clarification as to whether the destruction of homes of suicide bombers is a violation of international law, under the rubric of “collective punishment.”

Dershowitz notes that “because of the impossibility of deterring the [now deceased] terrorist…it is important to direct deterrence at those who send them, those who facilitate their actions, and those who have some influence [over future recruits].”

Dershowitz points out that the collective punishment prohibition set by international law was never intended to apply to 100 percent of wartime circumstances. Part of warfare is the implementation of a deterrent. “No system of international deterrence can be effective without some reliance on collective punishment [under certain conditions]. Every time one nation retaliates against another, [to some degree] it collectively punishes citizens of that country….”

Likewise, whenever the UN or the EU or the U.S. imposes sanctions upon a rogue nation’s economy, the impact is collective. Yet Dershowitz clarifies that the imposing of this type of collective punishment is “a matter of degree, with the Nazi concept of…the murder of kin or townfolk — at one end of the continuum — and economic consequences of aggression at the other.”

Collective punishment of the overall population is unavoidable as well when the misdeeds by evil leaders experience failure. As Dershowitz observes: “This is part of what it means to be a nation or a people. Those who start wars and lose them often bring suffering to their people…. It is a deterrent to unjust wars.”

How does this relate to the challenge of combatting terrorism in general? Prevention does not permit the intentional targeting of uninvolved civilians on the enemy side. However, like other strategists, Dershowitz concurs that “economic sanctions imposed upon supporters of terrorism are fair and may be effective.” He adds that “even if some people who do not support terrorism feel some economic impact, it seems a small moral price to pay for saving many innocent lives.”

Moreover, Dershowitz points to the hypocrisy of supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement who boycott Israeli artists and scholars irrespective of their political views and then complain about alleged “collective punishment” of Palestinians.

Anti-Israel accusers of Israeli “collective punishment” have never protested Arab League boycotts of Israeli products and personnel, nor UN-endorsed sanctions against non-Israeli offending nation-states.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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