Daniel G. Saunders
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How many civilian deaths are acceptable?

To those clamoring for an immediate ceasefire: How do we stop future use of human shields, since they've proven so effective?
An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip, in a position near the Israel-Gaza border on December 10, 2023. (AP/ Leo Correa)
An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip, in a position near the Israel-Gaza border on December 10, 2023. (AP/ Leo Correa)

Some questions for people demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, because “too many civilians have died.” Please try to answer honestly.

  1. If “too many civilians have died,” how many civilian deaths would have been an acceptable number?
  2. How should the IDF calculate the permitted death toll in advance of beginning fighting?
  3. Given that Hamas’s casualty figures have been shown to be nonsense, how should the IDF calculate actual civilian deaths so far?
  4. Should Israeli civilian deaths affect this calculation? Can we trade off Israeli deaths for Palestinian ones?
  5. Do possible or likely future deaths of Israeli citizens as a result of future terrorism if Hamas survive count towards the permitted death toll? If so, how should they be calculated and by whom?
  6. Should Hamas’s use of civilians as human shields be taken into account in the permitted deaths calculation? What about their blurring the lines between civilians and combatants other ways, such as the use of children in operations?
  7. If Hamas’s use of human shields (etc.) does not affect the total number of permitted civilian casualties, what is to stop increased use of human shields in conflicts worldwide when they are seen to halt operations?
  8. If Hamas refuses ceasefires (as they have been doing) and Israel declares a unilateral ceasefire, what should Israel do if Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israel, risking the deaths of Israeli civilians?

Some History

As many as three million German civilians died during World War II. This figure includes German civilians murdered by the Nazis, but also significant numbers of people killed by the Allies, including over 400,000 killed by Allied bombing.

9. How many German civilian deaths would have been acceptable in World War II?

10. If the number of acceptable German deaths is larger than the number of acceptable Gazan deaths, why? Is it simply because the German population was larger? Does fighting a more populous country automatically allow an army to kill more civilians? Or was Nazi Germany quantifiably morally worse than Hamas?

NB: Hamas won more than 44% of the vote in the only free elections held in Gaza. By contrast, the Nazis never won more than 34% of the vote in Weimar Germany and their share of the vote was declining when Hitler seized power.

11. How should these deaths have been allocated on different fronts? Who should have decided this? If the USSR had killed more than their share, should the USA and the UK have held back?

12. What should the Allies have done if they caused all the “acceptable” civilian fatalities and yet the Axis was not defeated?

13. Does a more moral cause of war (taking World War II as the “gold standard” just war, which is how it is seen even if the reality was much murkier) permit more or fewer civilian deaths?

* * *

The reality is that NO civilian deaths are ever “acceptable.” The reality is that pacifism, either immediate or after a certain “death threshold,” also leads to the deaths of civilians, as aggressors realize they can murder civilians with impunity. Likewise, if the use of human shields ends military operations completely, the outcome will be an increase of aggression using human shields and therefore more civilian deaths on the other side, not a decrease in civilian deaths.

In other words, pacifism is as bloody as war. Hamas has put Israel in a no-win situation, morally (possibly strategically too, but that’s another topic). There is no way out of this in which more innocent civilians do not die, perhaps in shocking numbers. There is no way out of this in which Israel is not responsible for civilian deaths. The Jewish state can only choose whether to try to limit those through careful attacks with warnings and other precautions or simply sit back and wait for the deaths of its own citizens when attacked by an enemy that shows no mercy.

The laws of war talk about proportionality in relation to the military objective (in this case, destroying Hamas and preventing another massive massacre of Israeli civilians), not in relation to deaths. This is wiser than talking about “too many people” dying.

If you want me to take you seriously when you argue for an immediate ceasefire, it would help if you at least show some awareness of these issues, even if your conclusions are different from mine.

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management.
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