Never before in history has a party adopted a war strategy to maximize civilian deaths on its own side.
On October 13, Israeli military commanders told Palestinians living in Gaza to evacuate to the south. The northern half of the strip is full of Hamas assets — from rockets to rifles, communications gear to personnel — that Israel plans to destroy in the coming days of the war. But Hamas leaders demanded that the people stay in place. Why?
While some of Hamas’s most brutal tactics, like systematic rape and beheading captives, are long-practiced atrocities for which the armies of Stalin, Hitler, and Genghis Khan are infamous, it is unprecedented for a party to adopt a war strategy to maximize civilian deaths on its own side. This is so strange and evil that it should appall any decent person. Contrary to conventional commentary, this is not a human shield strategy. It’s a human sacrifice strategy.
Since its birth in 1987, Hamas has declared its aim to destroy Israel. Its strategy is asymmetric — that is, because Hamas is smaller and weaker than the Israeli Army, it relies on a strategy designed to undermine Israel politically. In hopes (presumably) that it can induce Saudi leaders to drop their plans to normalize relations with Israel, Hamas launched this war with two goals. First, to provoke uprisings among Arabs and Muslims, both within and outside Israel. Second, to cause the rest of the world to view Israel with disgust and hatred.
To achieve these aims, Hamas is ensuring that its war will harm and kill large numbers of Palestinians in Gaza. To bring this about, it has strategized and laid groundwork for years. Its aim is to propagandize a gullible world — to put the blood of Palestinian victims on Israel’s hands.
Defense officials in numerous countries, for operational reasons and to comply with international laws of war, take pains to locate their military assets away from their civilians and to maximize protection for the latter. Hamas officials do the opposite. As United Nations officials and others have disapprovingly noted, Hamas stores ammunition in schools, puts missile launchers adjacent to mosques, sets up command centers in hospitals, and generally bases its operations in densely populated civilian neighborhoods.
This is not simply a human-shield strategy, where the aim is to deter an attack by using innocent lives as a barrier. Hamas is doing something far more insidious: it’s ensuring the mass death of Palestinians. Here is Hamas official Ali Baraka summing up the difference between the two worldviews: “The Israelis are known to love life. We, on the other hand, sacrifice ourselves. We consider our dead to be martyrs.”
When Hamas fires rockets at Israel and kills, captures, and rapes civilians there, they know Israel will retaliate. Hamas leaders put their assets in civilian buildings not in hopes that Israel will hold fire, but in a cold calculation that the retaliation will do terrible harm to Palestinian civilians — despite the extraordinary efforts Israel’s army makes to avoid it. Hamas is working to maximize, not minimize, that harm. This is to generate international pressure on Israel to end its retaliation — and to strengthen Israel’s enemies in their depiction of the Jewish state as a villain.
Israel has moral and practical reasons for avoiding harm to Palestinian civilians. Israelis pride themselves on acting humanely, even in war. Their military officers — like those in the US military — distinguish between civilian and military sites and never purposefully target the former. Even when attacking senior terrorist leaders, Israel tries to avoid harming their family members, let alone unrelated civilians. To avert collateral damage, Israel routinely provides warnings of attacks, even though they increase risk to Israelis and decrease an attack’s chances of success. In the current war, Israel has notified Gazans in various neighborhoods that there would soon be attacks there and they should hasten to designated safe areas.
Hamas’s strategy is innovative in the worst way. For everyone who aspires to strengthen moral constraints on warfare, it is a huge step backward. It is savage, cynical, and unnatural — but what’s worse, it’s effective. That is why it’s being used.
Innocent Palestinians deserve sympathy. But when Americans, Europeans, and others misdirect their outrage at Israel, failing to grasp Hamas’s responsibility, they are encouraging the very cruelty they intend to condemn.
Blame for the purposeful sacrificing of innocent Palestinians goes first and foremost to Hamas, to be sure, but also to those of us in the outside world duped by this strategy.
Schools, hospitals, and mosques will be bombed in the coming days. This is what Hamas wants, what it has made sure will happen. Those, however well-intentioned, who blame Israel are complicit in Hamas’s war crimes.
It’s time to place the blame rightly and stop incentivizing Hamas’s crimes against the Palestinians (let alone against the Israelis). For the sake of both Palestinians and Israelis, and to honor basic decency and law, it is the least we can do.
This essay is adapted from an October 17, 2023 article published originally in The FreePress.