David Bernstein
Free speech proponent in the Jewish world

How “shameful” were the fatalities at the UN school in Gaza?

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon yesterday spoke out against the carnage at a UN school in Gaza that occurred the day before. “Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children,” he stated.

Whenever innocent people are killed, especially children, we should be horrified. Only someone totally lacking in human empathy—and there are more than a few such people—wouldn’t feel a sense of horror at the loss of life.

But there’s a difference between expressing horror and outrage, as in when the Secretary General called the attacks “shameful.” This implies either that the involved Israeli soldiers and presumably the government itself acted with intention or in a grossly negligent manner in shelling the school. Are these fair accusations? On what evidence are they based?

I don’t know precisely what happened at the UN school, but I do want to find out. It’s important that both the outside world and Israel itself do a factual and moral reckoning on what occurred in this and other situations involving loss of life.

In order to establish moral responsibility, we need to explore a progression of possible scenarios and do our best to figure out which one applies based on the evidence we have. Here are several alternative scenarios I came up with:

(1) The soldiers involved knew there was a school there and intentionally shot at children to kill them

(2) Hamas fired from near the school knowing that return fire might lead to children dying

(3) The soldiers involved knew there was a school nearby but decided to fire back anyway because they were protecting themselves from Hamas fire

(4) The soldiers involved were not aware there was a school nearby but failed to take adequate precautions before firing back

(5) The soldiers involved were not aware there was a school nearby, but did their best under the circumstances to assess the situation, and fired back to protect themselves

I can’t imagine that the Secretary General is accusing Israel of the first moral scenario of intentionally killing children. I hope not. There were reportedly hundreds of people taking refuge at that school, and if Israel was trying to target the school many more would have been killed. If the Secretary General has reason to believe the shelling was intentional, he should state the evidence.

I also doubt, unfortunately, that Ban Ki-moon is seriously considering the possibility of the second scenario—Hamas firing near civilians in the hopes of return fire killing some of them. He said nothing of the sort in his remarks. Such an act would make Hamas chiefly responsible for the deaths but wouldn’t necessarily get Israel totally off the hook for carelessness or callousness toward human life.

The Secretary General may well believe that Israel is guilty of the third possible scenario that soldiers took undue risks to civilian life in defending themselves against hostile fire. That may be shameful, but, in the fog of war, is there really “nothing more shameful”? Certainly the first two possible scenarios, incidents of the sort we witness all the time in wars around the world, awash with intentionality on the part of perpetrators, would be far more egregious than the negligence or callousness exhibited by these soldiers in returning Hamas fire.

As with the first scenario accusing Israel of intentionally targeting children, accusing Israeli soldiers of knowing they were firing near a school requires evidence. Does Ban Ki-moon have evidence that the involved soldiers—and not just government officials who may have been briefed about the location–were aware they were firing in the direction a school? I’d like to hear it if he does.

Based on past situations and what we know of the IDF’s modus operandi, the fourth or fifth scenarios are far more likely. But even if the involved soldiers acted with the best of intentions before firing off shells toward Hamas fighters, Israel has a duty to investigate and reflect in order to reduce the likelihood of such ghastly results in the future. Failure to look into the situation and incorporate the lessons learned would raise Israel’s level of moral responsibility.

From what I’ve seen in this war thus far, Israel has investigated each situation involving multiple deaths and has sought to reduce civilian casualties. I’m sure it’s far from perfect, but, it seems, well within what we would expect from a liberal democracy fighting in self-defense. Unfortunately, even when Israeli soldiers take the utmost precautions, fighting a terrorist group in an urban environment bent on killing Israelis and martyring its own people is going to cause loss of civilian life.

The horror we feel when people die in war must not arrest our moral reasoning. We can—we must—both feel and think. Did the Secretary General think, as well as feel, when he leveled those hard-hitting allegations against Israel?

About the Author
David Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and is a former CEO of Jewish advocacy organizations. He is author of the Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews ( Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein