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David Lehrer

Israeli Self-defense vs. Palestinians not being collateral damage

Israelis have the right to self-defense. Palestinians have the right to not become collateral damage. Both statements are true. It is a sad fact, however, that during war innocent people are killed. According to the United States Institute of Peace, over 46,000 Afghan civilians died during the US Afghan War (a likely underestimation) which began when Al Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States on 9/11/2001.

When Israelis were ruthlessly and barbarically attacked by Hamas terrorists on October 7th and 240 Israelis were kidnapped, it was my expectation that Israel would exercise its right to defend its citizens and retrieve the hostages, by attacking Hamas terrorists in Gaza. It was also my understanding that Palestinian civilians would inevitably become collateral damage, that innocent civilians, even children, would be unintentionally killed by the Israeli Airforce and possibly by Israeli ground troops.

I have previously stated in this blog that according to Jewish teachings every life is an entire world. Each innocent person killed, whether Israeli or Palestinian, had a mother, a father, and loved ones who morn their loss, whose world has collapsed. Wars, however, are fought by statistics, how many of ours did they kill, how many of theirs did we kill? How many were innocent civilians, how many were armed fighters? Collateral damage, the loss of life of innocent civilians is expected in any war but is expected to be proportional to the size of the threat to innocent civilians on the other side. The massacre of 1,100 civilians and over 300 Israeli soldiers, and the kidnapping of 240 Israelis by Hamas terrorists was a clear threat to the citizens of the State of Israel, required the State to respond militarily, and has resulted in the loss of innocent lives. To be frank, the question is not if innocents will die, but how many? When this war started, I knew, in my heart, that there is a number of innocent Palestinian civilians lives lost that I could swallow with a great deal of difficulty. I dare not say this number out loud or even think it quietly in my head for fear of losing my sanity. There is, however, a number of innocent Palestinian civilian lives lost, on which I will begin to choke. I am starting to choke. The only source of information on civilian deaths in Gaza is the Palestinian Health Ministry which is controlled by Hamas. I of course, do not trust the number of civilian deaths being reported by the barbaric terrorists who committed a pogrom on Israeli civilians on October 7th. But it is very clear from the massive destruction we are seeing in Gaza on TV and individual reports from non-Hamas Palestinians in Gaza that the number of civilian deaths is staggering.

The Israeli Government declared that the two main aims of the war are to remove Hamas as a military and governing force in Gaza and to return the hostages home. It intends to do so with minimum losses to our soldiers. The IDF defines itself as a moral army that does everything it can to prevent the loss of life of innocent civilians. I believe that is true. I have served in the IDF, my wife and daughters have served in the IDF, I have many friends whose children are now serving in the IDF. I believe that Israel is doing everything it can to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza. As an Israeli citizen, I want to know how.

Every night IDF Spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Daniel Hagari comes on Israeli TV and explains to us what is happening in the war, with as much information and detail as he can reveal without endangering the success of the operation or our troops. He has also mentioned the announcements being made in Arabic to the Palestinians in North Gaza that they should go south to avoid getting killed. He has mentioned the increase of humanitarian aid being allowed into Gaza, and the brief pause in fighting to open a humanitarian corridor for people to safely travel from the north to the south. I hope that we are doing a lot more than that to protect innocent Palestinian lives. I hope that when we target terrorists, we are making sure that no innocent civilians are in danger, and if they are, I hope we are doing what is necessary to protect those lives, even if it means our war efforts are slowed. I hope that we are doing more to encourage Palestinians to move south to safety then simply telling them to get out of the way or they will die. While many Palestinians are being held hostage by Hamas in North Gaza as human shields, most Palestinians I spoke to over the past few weeks hesitated to move south because Israel continued to bomb the south and did not allow enough food, water, and medicine to enter Gaza to address the needs of the massive refugee population gathering there. Under US pressure, Israel has begun to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. I understand that 30 trucks of humanitarian aid entered Gaza today. Prior to October 7th, the number of aid trucks going into Gaza daily was 500. Clearly what is going into Gaza now is a small percentage of what is needed to protect civilian lives.

During an interview on MSNBC on November 3rd, former IDF Spokesperson Lt. Col. (Res.) Peter Lerner responded to the question of whether Israel would consider a humanitarian pause to allow humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza, he said “…[whether] there [will] be a cease fire, or a humanitarian pause, or humanitarian wait is not something the IDF is concerned with at this time.” Lt. Col. Lerner did go on to say that more humanitarian aid is coming into Gaza and the IDF continues to urge civilians to move south. I am not suggesting that this is a time for a ceasefire or pause but Lerner missed an opportunity to express real concern for the civilian population, and to talk about what Israel is doing to alleviate innocent Palestinian suffering other than telling them to get out of the way of our bombs and bullets.

There has been a recent debate about allowing fuel into Gaza to provide desperately needed electricity to hospitals and refugee camps. The legitimate concern is that fuel meant for hospitals and refugee camps will be confiscated by Hamas and used to power their ongoing war efforts. The debate seems to have taken on political dimensions within the Israeli cabinet, with those on the far right shouting the loudest not to allow fuel into Gaza. Instead of declaring that we will never allow fuel into Gaza, shouldn’t we declare that we are committed to finding safe ways to provide power to hospitals and refugee camps in Gaza? For example, a 2 MW solar field in south Gaza in the Khan Younis governate could be hooked up to a local hospital to provide electricity.

Focusing Israeli concern on the wellbeing of the innocent civilian population inside Gaza cannot take precedent over the release of the hostages, the removal of Hamas as a threat to Israeli citizens, and the safety of our troops. Focusing concern of the Israeli Government for the Palestinian civilian population, both in word and in deed, however, can preserve the international support we need to get our hostages back, end Hamas’s rule in Gaza, and get our troops home safely.

About the Author
Dr. Lehrer holds a PhD from the Geography and Environmental Development Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a joint Masters Degree in Management Science from Boston University and Ben-Gurion University. Dr. Lehrer was the Executive Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies from 2001 until August 2021 and has now become Director of the Center for Applied Environmental Diplomacy. Dr. Lehrer has been a member of Kibbutz Ketura since 1981.
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