Mike Sager

How in God’s name do you protect civilians?

‘Since we are enjoined to imitate the moral qualities of God, we too should not rejoice over the destruction of the enemies of Israel’.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917-1994), a paratrooper and IDF chief chaplain.

I read in Deutoronomy that if an offer of peace is rejected by your enemy then you can kill all the males, take women and children captive, and plunder the city. So the Tanach (Old Testament) is not much help for a modern liberal thinker when discussing how to conduct a war. It would not look good on CNN if the IDF conducted its wars with Gaza this way.

However, we are Talmudic Jews nowadays, which allows for large amounts of Rabbinical rewriting of the plain meaning of the Tanach. The rabbis say in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a)  ‘it is clear as day to you that he does not come in peace, kill him but otherwise not.’ So Judaism is not a pacific religion. But the distinction between combatants and civilians (non-combatants) is important to Judaism

In the Napoleonic War armies marched against each other wearing bright colours, insignia of rank, and waving flags. Their uniforms had two messages. ‘I am trying to kill you. And I understand you are trying to kill me.’ And civilians could be distinguished and protected because they did not wear uniforms.

In the twentieth century the ability to kill at a distance became technologically easier and more attractive to combatant nations. Civilians suffered as a result. There was a significant worsening from World War 1 to World War 2. In WW1, direct military action caused about 10 million combatant and 2.5 million civilian deaths. (1: 0.25) In WW2, there were about 30 million in each category. (1:1) In both wars, the number of civilian deaths was increased by about 50%  for indirect reasons, like disease and starvation.

The 21st Century extended this trend. In the Iraq war (2004 to 2009), there were,  from direct violence, approximately twice as many civilians deaths as combatant deaths. (1:2) And the indirect civilians death figures got much worse: possibly four times the direct number. (About 110,000 compared to 460,00, although these numbers are hard to estimate –  and very political)

The Gazan conflicts, of course, are on a much smaller scale and even more political. Both the IDF and Hamas agree that about 700 combatants (almost all Hamas fighters) were killed in Operation Cast Lead. (NGOs put this number a lot lower.) The number of non-combatants killed directly (almost all of them Gazans) was between 400 and 750, (1:0.6 or 1:1, depending on whose figures you take.) I have not seen any figures for indirect deaths, such as deaths from worse medical care caused by infrastructure degradation.

Of course, all deaths are a tragedy. But given that Hamas deliberately put its non-combatants in harm’s way, this suggests that the IDF did better than in similar 21st century conflicts.

This is because the IDF has explicitly adopted the ‘proportionality’ rule regarding protecting non-combatants. Partly because this is international law. Partly because it is consistent with Jewish law about conducting war.

Hamas of course has gone to the opposite extreme. It seeks Jewish civilian deaths (in their eyes an Islamic virtue, and great PR in the Muslim world). And also it seeks Gazan civilian deaths (martyrdom, again in their eyes an Islamic virtue, and also great PR in the Western world).

This proportionality rule for protecting civilians in war is not what many in the West think it is. It does not mean the side with higher civilian death figures is in the right. (Else the Nazis would be considered more moral than the British). It does not mean that the country using most fire power is in the wrong. (Else Japan in WW2 would be considered more moral than the USA.)

The International Criminal Court (ICC) explains that killing civilians is not illegal as such in war. But it is illegal if:

‘an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.’ Article 8(2)(b)(iv)

The IDF has extended this rule beyond what the ICC requires. It often warns the enemy ahead of an attack so civilians can leave the target zone. This means that Hamas can put a human shield around its military assets, thus requiring the IDF to refrain in order to observe the rule of proportionality. Or it enables Hamas to move their rockets to safety.

When Israel applies this stricter version of proportionality, Hamas can keep military capability. As a result the IDF is consciously putting Israeli citizens at more risk to save Gazan civilian lives.

So, please, can someone explain why Israel is uniquely accused of war crimes in a world that contains the likes of Assad, Hezbullah, ISIS – and especially Hamas?



About the Author
Born in UK. Migrated to Australia. Now retired and living in Jerusalem.
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